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Successful business women share their stories

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

After a successful career as a field hockey player in India in the 1970s, and as a research scientist in Georgia, Lata Chinnan, decided to do something different.

She decided to become a business woman.

She opened a liquor store in Riverdale. She said she did it because she wanted a business that would allow her to work, and care for her newborn daughter at the same time.

Today, Chinnan is owner and president of New South Package Store, a business that, she said, is performing in the top ten percentile of package stores in Georgia. On Thursday, Chinnan and other local women, who have blazed their own paths, shared their stories with other women at the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce's Women in Business Council Spotlight Luncheon.

A group of 115 business women gathered at Eagles Landing Country Club to glean wisdom from a panel of women who have successfully planted their businesses in the Southern Crescent. The panelists included: Karen Sullivan, president of Paragon Systems, Inc.; Linda Summerlin, executive director of Arts Clayton, and Mystique VanO'Linda, president of VanO'Linda Companies & Subsidiaries.

Among the topics discussed were: how to thrive in male-dominated fields; how to balance success with family life; and establishing respect in the business community.

Chinnan said when she started her business, many of her customers were in disbelief that she was the manager.

"They wanted to see a male manager," Chinnan said. "It bothered me at first, but eventually, I told them that if they want to speak to the manager, they should come back tomorrow.

"The next day, I would say, 'Would you like to talk to me now,'" Chinnan added.

Other business women detailed the paths they had to follow.

Karen Sullivan, who started out as a speech therapist, opened a small security-alarm company with her husband in 1970. He was an electrician. When her husband died in 1990, she took over, and since then, the business has been rated as one of the top security and monitoring companies in metro Atlanta.

"I had no business background," said Sullivan. "I taught people how to say 'rabbit,' instead of 'wabbit.' Sometimes, a career will choose you, and you have to be willing to step out of the box.

"The big thing about any business is that you have to look at what's ahead ,and be willing to adapt," she said.

Linda Summerlin, who was born in Coweta County and spent most of her childhood growing up on a farm in Clayton County, had several careers before serving as an ambassador of the arts for the Southern Crescent.

Before becoming executive director of Arts Clayton, Summerlin had a 22-year career as a legal secretary, ran a private cleaning business, and served as membership services director of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce.

She said consistency and community involvement are keys to running a successful business.

"The greatest way you can grow your business is being involved in the community," she said. "You have to learn early on to take advantage of the opportunities."

Mystique VanO'Linda, who launched a successful accounting, tax and financial services business in Jonesboro, spoke about overcoming the negative perceptions of other people.

"When you want to go into a business, people will have something to say about everything you do," said VanO'Linda. "Everybody does not always have your best interest at heart. Don't allow the negative attitudes and comments of other people to dictate your career path."

Denise Garrett-Davis, vice president of the North Clayton Retail Branch of SunTrust Bank, said she felt "empowered" by the luncheon. "It's always refreshing to see successful women," she said. "We'll take what we have learned from here and spread it throughout the county. Good things are going to come out of this meeting."

Crystal Black, chairperson of the Women in Business Council of the chamber, said the luncheon fulfilled a need in the community, by giving young, female entrepreneurs models to emulate.

"[The panelists] are doing business in the same county they are doing business," said Black. "People can identify with that and say, wow, I want to do that.

"Even with a cloudy, overcast day, 115 busy women were able to come and see what we are doing," said Black. "It shows that this is making a difference in the community."