Reinvent Yourself on a Shoestring

How three women took big career leaps with small budgets.

By Marci Alboher
Photograph: Photo by: iStockphoto

By June 2006, her clientele was growing, but Moorad felt so stretched, she was ready to give up. Then she got a crucial assist from Make Mine a Million $ Business (, a group that helps women-owned businesses reach $1 million in sales. She won a $10,000 line of credit from American Express and got a major boost in confidence. She paid off debt, applied for more credit from the Small Business Administration and hired a much-needed assistant. By late 2007, Imago’s revenues topped $1 million, the company was in the black, and her credit rating was restored.

Moorad still doesn’t sleep soundly every night, and she is working off a last few pounds. But she says she has a powerful new mind-set: "I realized that not only was there no prince on the white horse but that I was on the horse myself — and had been there for a long time." When her daughter goes off to college in four years, Moorad says, she has even bigger plans for Imago Associates.

No-Net Takeaway

  1. Ask for help from everyone, even your mother.
  2. Debt can be a good investment.
  3. So can therapy.

Level-Headed Leaper

Denise Polacek, 56, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

Job then: On staff at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, helping scientists and doctors license their inventions. Salary: $100,000-plus.

Job now: Founder of a start-up firm that plans to market a device to relieve hot flashes. Income: Less than a third of previous salary.

Scariest moment: Realizing she had to tap into home equity.

Denise Polacek, who has a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Chicago and a certificate in business administration from Wharton, spent years counseling scientists who wanted to turn their discoveries into commercial ventures. As her expertise deepened, she often thought, I could do this. But it wasn’t until she suffered her first attack of hot flashes, in 2005, that she took her own advice.

Polacek was prescribed hormone therapy to fight the heat, but soon learned of the Women’s Health Initiative studies revealing increased risks from MHT. She threw out her pills — and saw a market niche: non-hormone relief for hot flashes. After brainstorming with engineer friends, Polacek came up with a prototype for a small, wearable device, similar in size and function to a heart-rate monitor, that tracks skin temperature and provides cooling. (She declines to disclose the details on how it works.)

Coincidentally, she and her life partner, Ronni Scheier, a manager at the Vanguard Group, had just reviewed their finances, set a target date of 2013 to retire and put aside a $20,000 emergency fund to make sure they would never need to touch their retirement savings or home equity. One year later, they sat down to discuss Polacek’s business idea and decided that developing the device qualified as an "emergency.’‘ That gave Polacek $20,000 in start-up funds. And she had an advantage that hadn’t existed before: Vanguard had begun offering benefits for domestic partners, so Polacek could be covered by Scheier’s health insurance. "Invaluable," she says. In the spring of 2006, Polacek quit her job.

Sure enough, she found that her experience with patents, product development, and marketing was invaluable. But securing funding proved more complicated. Polacek got help by spreading the word about her project. After she told a friend about it at the health club locker room one day, the friend connected her to a lawyer — also suffering with hot flashes — who agreed to do some urgent legal work and bill Polacek later.

Polacek also looked hard for local funding — the kind that often gets less press than programs that are run by national groups. Ben Franklin Technology Partners (, a statewide economic development organization, gave her a $15,000 matching grant.

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