Published March 28, 2021
Dorothy McElwain found a new use for the skills she’d honed working for others.
Lois Runzo responded to the challenge of transforming a financially troubled company.
Faerie Grace reinvented the way she communicates with clients while staying true to her strengths.
All three women found fulfillment heading their own businesses and are among female entrepreneurs in Westmoreland County being recognized by the nonprofit SCORE during March, Women’s History Month.
Each obtained guidance from experienced business leaders who served as their mentors through the Westmoreland chapter of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), based at Saint Vincent College.
McElwain turned to SCORE when she formed McElwain Mechanical Solutions in Jeannette in January 2013.
“I presented my case to SCORE, and they gave me insight into what we needed to do,” she said.
That included meeting business tax and insurance requirements and providing vehicles for three employees who handle commercial and residential plumbing projects for the company.
Since Oct. 1, SCORE Westmoreland has received more than 120 inquiries from budding entrepreneurs seeking consultations — 58% of them from women, according to Don Rohac, a volunteer mentor with the organization and chairman of its marketing and community outreach efforts.
“After consultation, some decided they were not meant to be entrepreneurs, while others took the risk and decided to pursue their dreams,” he said.
McElwain of Penn Township was among the latter group. After she retired from a career in accounting, marketing and administration, and an executive secretary position with Westinghouse, she found volunteering wasn’t enough to fill her days. “I’m not someone who can just sit around,” she said.
Tapping into the experience of her husband, Jeff, and some fellow union plumbers from the Pittsburgh area, she had the idea for starting her own business, with her husband serving as director of operations.
Becoming certified as a woman-owned business with the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council gave McElwain an advantage when bidding on jobs that involved government funding and a requirement to seek diversity among contractors and subcontractors.
But, she noted, her company still has to deliver quality work. A union shop, it has worked on renovations at Pittsburgh International Airport.
“The plumbers that came with me came with some of their own customers they had developed through the years,” McElwain said. “That helped us get started, get the name out there and get a reputation going.
“Contractors call us now; we don’t have to call them,” she said.
When projects dwindled during the covid-19 pandemic, McElwain used a federal Payroll Protection Program loan to keep her workers employed with chores at her office in the former Pentecostal Tabernacle Church.
In the realm of business ownership, Runzo has proven, as she says, “It’s not a man’s world. A woman can do whatever she wants to do.”
From an office in her Hempfield home, Runzo serves as president of Landmark Leasing. She oversees a fleet of 80 trucks she provides in a lease-to-own arrangement with owner-operators who haul merchandise for national retailers.
She invested in her current business after building up and selling another, beginning in the 1990s.
SCORE mentors helped her devise a business plan to turn around the fortunes of a company that sold and serviced material handling equipment used in warehouses, after she split it off from enterprises with her ex-husband.
“It went from $350,000 in the hole to where we were in the black,” Runzo said. “It took us three years to do it, but we did it. SCORE helped me make sure I had good budgets.”
Researching the competition, investing in top mechanics and limiting inventory were among keys to her success, as she grew the company to 32 employees. She became a dealer for Crown forklifts, which eventually purchased her company in what she says was a win-win.
Along the way, Runzo encountered skepticism about her ability to do well in a male-dominated industry.
She was taken aback when a female loan officer denied her attempt to borrow money from a government program, while moving her company from the New Alexandria area to New Stanton. “She said, ‘We can’t loan money to a woman in the forklift business,’” Runzo recalled.
That didn’t hold back Runzo, who had little trouble convincing a local bank she was a good loan risk.
Runzo managed to balance running a business with parenting two middle school girls. “I always made sure I got home for supper, even if I took my work home with me,” she said.
Grace started an entertainment business about eight years ago, offering uplifting presentations highlighted by her skill twisting balloons into elaborate sculptures. More recently, she’s been working with SCORE on rebranding as she shifts her business model to that of an inspirational speaker, with her balloon art now a bonus instead of a central attraction.
Speaking engagements provide Grace greater financial rewards and cause less wear and tear on her hands while affording more time for her to spend with her husband and three sons at their farm in Salem.
“I can work on a speaking event and have the income of a whole week,” she said. “I want to hone in on motivation and inspiration now that my time is limited.”
Grace said her business still relies on connecting with others. She has tailored messages for audiences ranging from graduating students to fellow businesswomen. Her aim, she said, is to “breathe life into people. I can see their passion, pull that out of them and help them dust it off. I’m a hopeless optimist.”
Grace prefers speaking in person and has been able to book some socially distanced engagements, but others have been Zoom gatherings.
She also self-published a children’s book, “Wacky Jacky,” about a free-spirited girl who learns to embrace the things that make her different. “I gave it to one of my SCORE co-mentors, and he loved it,” she said. “He has a granddaughter who is the Wacky Jacky in his life.”
Now a veteran of the area business community, Runzo has been paying it forward by mentoring novice entrepreneurs through SCORE, including many other women. Given pandemic restrictions on in-person settings, she’s noted an increased interest in launching online retail sites.
While she can offer advice, Runzo said, “You’ve got to know the ins and outs of your small business if you want to open one. Nobody can do that work for you.”