Hedy Ratner on life, love and the pursuit of equal-opportunity business
BY TAMMY MATTHEWS For Sun-Times Media
In her office at the WBDC, Ratner's fake wedding veil, which was also made by her personal stylist, is stored under her desk. She puts it on, and her contagious smile radiates. Imagining how happy she must have looked in her Salvation Army dress is easy. | GIL LEORA ~ For Sun-Times Media
The 26th Annual Entrepreneurial Woman's Conference will be held on Thursday, Sept. 20, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at McCormick Place-West, 2301 S. Indiana, in Chicago.
"This is our 26th Annual Entrepreneurial Women's Conference," Ratner said. "It gets bigger and better every year. We get bigger and better featured speakers. We are sold out of booths. We're getting great registration, in part because of social media. And also in part because of the credibility we have established over all these years."
Social media has become so paramount that the WBDC created a new position.
"We hired a brilliant social media person," Ratner said, on bringing on Bethany Hartley, marketing assistant. "When Bethany came on board, it made an enormous difference. She turned out to be the most perfect human being on earth at this job. Not only is she the perfect person, she has created our whole social media strategies and implementation in a way we've never ever ever done. And she's cool as hell."
When your boss calls you "cool as hell," you know you've got a good one. This might also be because Hartley delivers. She set up an application on the WBDC Facebook page (www.facebook.com/wbdc.chicago) so participants can register and enter a contest to win tickets. All the award winner bios are on there as well. On Twitter, she has been connecting with media partners and organizations by tagging them in her 140-character messages.
"It's just been blowing up, especially as we're getting closer to the conference," she said, and continued to say that the WBDC blogs as well. "We're doing profiles on award winners and speakers. People seem to be really taking it in."
In addition, Hartley made a video, featuring WBDC staffers inviting the public to the conference. The video was emailed out to the WBDC's clients, and it's available on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/wbdc1/videos?flow=grid&view=0.
"It went over really well," Hartley said. "We're really happy about that. We're going to try to do more videos moving forward."
Specifically, at the Women's Forum Breakfast: "We are featuring some spectacular women. One who is from one of the largest women-owned businesses in the country from St. Louis. A technology business," Ratner said.
The woman Ratner is referring to is Sue Bhatia, CEO of Rose International Inc., which has emerged as a force in the IT and business services arena. It is also a leader in providing innovative technology services to both commercial organizations and government agencies from branch offices and development centers in 21 U.S. cities and India. With 6,000-plus associates and steady revenue growth, Rose International Inc. is recognized as one of the country's fastest-growing and most successful companies.
"Another is a lesbian woman who is an owner of the Cubs (she and her brothers): Laura Ricketts," Ratner said. "She is head of a lesbian PAC to get the right people elected into office that support gay rights."
Ricketts is a director and part owner of the Chicago Cubs as well as chairman of the board for Chicago Cubs Charities. She is currently serving as the co-chair of the Democratic National Committee's LGBT Leadership Council and on the National Leadership Council for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national nonprofit legal organization that works on behalf of LGBT civil rights.
The breakfast also will feature former the CEO of Playboy Enterprises.
"Christie Hefner is very much a feminist and very progressive," Ratner said. "She is working with the Center for American Progress. The Center for American Progress is a very very very liberal think tank, and she's very involved with it."
Hefner, former CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., is currently the executive chairman at Canyon Ranch Enterprises, a new company leveraging the brand and knowledge of Canyon Ranch via media and business partnerships. From 1988-2008, when she served as CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., she was the longest serving female CEO of a public company, and she was named one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World by Forbes magazine for three consecutive years.
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Mort Kaplan is the luckiest man in the world; let me just say that right now.
Even with a successful career in media, marketing and education, his greatest accomplishment is this: he snagged the most incredible woman that I have ever met. Rather, she snagged him.
If you ever have a chance to meet Hedy Ratner, don't pass it up. At the very least, she will inspire you. At the most, she'll change your life.
Ratner, 71, is co-founder and president of the Women's Business Development Center, which is the largest and most comprehensive women's business assistance center in the United States. Its programs are designed to help individuals in every phase of the business development and growth process.
She has one overriding priority: to take care of those who inspire her. Her greatest inspiration is her partner, Kaplan, 81, who has been battling a variety of illnesses for the past seven months. In June, their 40-year love affair was made legal.
This was her more surprising act, as Ratner has never much been a fan of marriage.
The decision to marry, Ratner believes, should be based on practicality.
"If you have kids, I understand," Ratner said. "But if that's not an issue, then why get married? Why should anybody care about getting married?"
In the past, Ratner had problems making appointments and accessing Kaplan when he was in medical care because the law didn't recognize them as a couple. She eventually came to terms with the fact that, in order to provide better care to Kaplan, it was best to legalize their relationship.
"I realized the important of marriage has to do with circumstances of your life," she said.
The proposal occurred after Kaplan had been recovering from a stroke.
"He was very happy. He was recovering so well. And I realized: so you know what I'm going to do? So we were sitting there at dinner one night and - I have bad knees - so I put two tablecloths down on the ground, and got down on my hands and knees, and proposed to him," she said. "I said, ‘Will you marry me?' And he said, ‘You've got to be kidding.' And I said, ‘I'm not. I think it's time. I love you. You love me. I think it's time.' When he said, ‘Yes,' I said, ‘Okay, now I want an engagement ring."
What's more unusual about the proposal was it came a year after the highly publicized "fake," as Ratner calls it, wedding, in which Ratner and Mort planned a surprise ceremony and then said, "I don't." Rather, Hedy said she would only marry him when the Cubs won the World Series.
"Our friends still hated us from last year. I mean, they really were angry," she said. "They came in from all over the country, thought they were coming to a wedding. And there was no wedding."
Kaplan, unlike the rest of the world, accepted the idea of the second, real wedding instantly.
"He didn't say, ‘Why did you change your mind?' He understood immediately. He knew what I was going through. And he said, ‘Are you serious?' And I said, ‘Yes.' So we did it," she said.
"I was going to wear the same wedding dress, and my friends said no," Ratner said. "So I found a dress in my closet; I shopped in my closet. It was a 25-year-old dress. I probably maybe only wore it three times in my life. And it was like the perfect wedding dress."
Not like Ratner's closet is a rough place to shop. The woman has had her own clothing designer, Paul Sisti, for seven years. Sisti, who has designed almost all of Ratner's clothes, creates the distinct Ratner-style with hand-painted silk.
"They are all gorgeous," she said.
"You have a designer that designs for you in the colors you love in the styles you love, in the things that make you look good," she said. "Everyone can do that, but they don't realize it."
"The dress I wore to the fake wedding was from the Salvation Army. It was gorgeous. It was a real wedding gown," she said. "It was beautiful silk satin. It had embroidery beading. I looked like Cinderella. That's what everybody said."
I can't think of anyone else who deserves to look like a princess more than she did.
Even with the usual chaos of planning a wedding, Kaplan's health was the biggest obstacle.
That initial stroke was the beginning of Kaplan's deteriorating health.
"But he recovered, and he recovered so well that the doctors were amazed; the therapists were amazing," Ratner said. "He's like the poster child of what is possible."
Then, the doctors found a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot, heading into his lungs.
"Two weekends before the wedding, he was back in the hospital again. Then, the next weekend, he was in the hospital again. And then the weekend of the wedding, he was in the hospital again for the third time." Ratner said. "Four doctors said cancel the wedding. I told a lot of my out-of-town friends not to come."
Then, they spoke to a fifth doctor, who said if he could put in a filter to catch blood clots in Kaplan's lungs, he might be able to be healthy enough to get married.
"On late Friday afternoon, they inserted a filter into the area between his lungs and his heart to check the blood clot so it wouldn't go into his lungs." Ratner said.
On Saturday, they monitored his progress.
On Sunday, they wed.
"I bought him a silver suit," she said, and joked, as only Ratner can: "He looked like a drug dealer! We looked at who was the designer. Sure enough, it was Sean Diddy Combs. It was literally a silver, silk suit."
She continued: "At the wedding, he came out with this fancy car," she said. "I was a fairy princess. We danced up the aisle, not down the aisle. He sang to me during the ceremony. We married and then we danced. And everybody cried."
As their relationship was now legal, Ratner had a much easier time navigating the hospital system with a marriage certificate.
"The truth is, now, after all that we've gone through in the past seven months, the one month that we've been married has been easier," she said. "It changes everything. It absolutely changes everything, which is horrendous, but that's the reality. That's the world that we live in. So the issue of gay marriage is a big one. But it shouldn't be. It should be: do whatever you want to do. You shouldn't have to have a legal piece of paper, but you do."
Once the wedding ended, the honeymoon was also over.
"Four days after the wedding, he was back in the hospital. We had this miracle window of three days to get married and share it with all of our friends," she said.
Fortunately, and happily, hope is on the horizon.
"We now have a new hematologist who thinks he can help reverse some of the blood clotting," she said.
Ratner's and Kaplan's healthy, long lives can be attributed to their spirits and their inability to slow down.
"He's the youngest 81 in the world," she said.
Ratner can be seen biking through the zoo early in the morning after visiting the local Green City Market.
"I love my bicycle. Mort gave it to me about four or five years ago. I love my bicycle. First time I've ever had a fancy bicycle. One day, I was leaving the hospital. I had a feeling I should have taken my bike home. I didn't. Sure enough, it was stolen right outside the door of security," she said. "The next day, Mort wouldn't let me visit him in the hospital until he got me a new bike. And it was insured. And they already paid for it. So I have a brand new, specialized gorgeous bicycle in purple, and a silver and purple helmet."
When she said this, she sounded nothing less than giddy.
ON THE WBDC INITIATIVES
In her office at the WBDC, Ratner's fake wedding veil, which was also made by her personal stylist, is stored under her desk. She puts it on, and her contagious smile radiates. Imagining how happy she must have looked in her Salvation Army dress is easy.
While Kaplan holds the majority of Ratner's heart, the rest belongs to her work.
"Major changes at the WBDC," she said. "First of all, we're restructuring. I have a new chief operating officer. I have a new chief development officer. And both have fabulous ideas."
"We've been in existence for 26 years. The climate has changed. The environment has changed. The nature of women business owners has changed and evolved," she said. "Now what we want to be is more cutting edge and also be responsive to the challenges and issues that the women business owners face."
One of the major WBDC initiatives is access to capital.
"We're looking at ways that we can help finance early-stage businesses, emerging businesses and help established businesses that are hurting that need a little help," she said.
"The issues around access to capital are even more difficult for small businesses and much more difficult for women-owned businesses in part because of the nature of their businesses, which is essentially service businesses," she said, and explained that, as services businesses don't technically have assets, access to money is especially difficult for them.
"It's almost impossible for our small businesses to even see the banks," Ratner continued. "They get kicked out of banks because they have loans, and they're looking for additional financing and they can't get it. Even the smaller banks are not really being responsive. The big banks are definitely not responsive."
To combat this the WBDC is working to become a loaning office.
"What we've been trying to do is look at ways that we can provide direct loans through the Women's Business Development Center," she said. "I've done it from the very beginning, but I didn't do it as well and I didn't do it as much."
The WBDC is looking to be licensed as a CDFI, which is a community development financial institution. If this happens, the WBDC will be able to offer direct loans. The staff has also been trained on how to do micro-enterprise loans.
"We are now, essentially, a bank for women-owned businesses," she said. "We've hired accordingly. We've brought in people who are more sophisticated, more experienced and more adept at lending well."
The WBDC is also finding appropriate mentors to help the more established small businesses grow. Ratner said she wants to, "get the right people with the right protégées and with the right resources."
"At the same time we're trying the mentor/protégée program, the mayor is starting a mentor program for city contracts," she said. "So, it's a good thing."
Ratner said the WBDC is also coordinating a teaming program to help women business owners be more successful at doing business with corporations.
"Teaming is like a strategic alliance between companies that do have some synergy, so there will be an economy of scale when they are large enough that they can be competitive in the marketplace," she said.
Ratner used the example of a small design business. On its own, it doesn't have a chance to work with a corporation. However, if it teams up with printing and web design companies, the chance that the team can be successful at competing for bids with major corporations is greater.
The challenges women business owners face in the boardroom are mirrored by the specific lifestyle issues - motherhood, non-native speaker, sexual orientation or military service - that should not, but indeed does, affect a woman's ability to do business with certain companies. The WBDC addresses these issues as well. Ratner said it is continuing and expanding its programs in Spanish, including collaborating with several Latina nonprofits, and its child-care programs.
"Another program that we are just starting -we need money for it and I'll think we'll get it - is for women veterans," she said. "What's horrible and horrifying is 37 percent of the women in the service that will return are unemployed. Thirty-seven percent."
"There are many, many veterans' programs, but very few that target women," Ratner said. "Finding a job is hard for them. They have skills. They have experience. They have education. They have all the qualities that make them successful in the military."
Therefore, the WBDC is trying to help women veterans become self-employed while ensuring they have access to the city, state, county and federal social service programs that they are eligible for and to which they are entitled.
"So they have a supportive system and an affinity group among other women veterans," Ratner said. "So they have the social services necessary to be supported emotionally. And then we would provide them with the entrepreneurship, education and training. And financing."
The good news is Ratner does feel the business environment has gotten better.
"I think the economy has improved," she said. "We've seen more starting businesses. We've seeing more of our established businesses surviving, where they weren't surviving before. They're still struggling."
"I'm still concerned that corporations are using the excuse of the economy to do less with minority and women business owners," she continued. "That's why we're getting into the teaming, that's why we're getting into access to capital. Because, rather than fight them, I think we have to both fight them as advocates as well as play their game."
This, it seems, is what Ratner has been doing her entire career. She acts as an advocate to corporations and politicians for those that need and deserve a voice.
"We're finding younger women going into business much more than we did before. We're finding them right out of college going into business. The issue of venture capital and equity investment is still almost impossible for them," she said. "However, I have two of my clients that have done very well with venture capital."
"Some businesses are doing well with outside investments, but it's few and far between. They are the sexier kind of businesses: biotech, technology, apps," she continued. "There aren't enough women in technology, which is where most of the investment is."
"Illinois is not on the top quartile for the environment for small business, but I think because of the leadership we have at the state, the county and the city - and at the federal level, which is a very progressive leadership - it is a good environment for women and minority-owned businesses," she said. "There is a major commitment on the part of the governor, the mayor, the county board president and the president to look at ways of enhancing and strengthening minority-owned businesses. So I think it's positive, not negative."
Hedy Ratner doesn't fit into any single category. Rather, she fits in them all. Diva. Feminist. Powerfully independent. Dedicated lover. She doesn't just march to the beat of her own drum. She's the conductor of her own band that she fills with the most passionate, outrageous or political people. She sees the possibility and potential in everyone - especially women - before they even see it in themselves.
The lasting effect Ratner has had on the women business environment is beyond substantial. She's an advocate for all women: all races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses and, in particular, this writer.
Thanks, Hedy, for granting me the opportunity to soak up your wisdom. For showing me that no matter how much life hurts, you can always survive it. For showing me that I can be a professional, be myself and be silly forever. The women of the WBDC and of the world are at your debt.