Michelle Madl is sitting in her office on Nicolet College’s wooded campus, looking out at the verdant forest just outside her window. “I can’t believe there was a time when I was driving in rush hour traffic through the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee and this is what I look at today,” she muses. “It’s like two different lives.”
Indeed, it is as though she has led two different lives. She’s an accomplished woman, one to whom many entrepreneurs turn for her expertise. As the business development outreach specialist at Nicolet Area Technical College, she’s part of a valuable network of resources available to local business owners. She serves as president of the Northwoods Entrepreneurs Club, is founder and president of Northwoods Women in Business, conducts workshops for prospective entrepreneurs, sits on the state advisory board of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center, the Northwoods United Way board of directors, Forest County Chamber of Commerce board of directors, is an ex-officio board member for the Forest County Economic Development Partnership and is a former business owner. Such impressive credentials might lead one to believe that this is someone who carefully planned her career path long ago, methodically checking off a list of steps as she worked her way toward her ultimate goals.
But the road to her office on Nicolet’s wooded campus wasn’t straight and direct; instead, it was long and full of surprising turns. “It took 27 jobs, and getting fired from one, to get where I am,” Madl says.
Her bad attitude years ago, she explains, prompted one employer to show her the door. The admission of a bad attitude is surprising. This is, after all, someone who once requested that she be laid off from her management position at a Sheboygan company, rather than one of her colleagues who had a family to support.
While she did just fine after being laid off from the human resources job in Sheboygan, that firing years earlier had been a totally different matter. Being let go because of her poor attitude was very traumatic, Madl recalls, and it forced her to take a hard look at herself. She set about changing what she saw and in the process, created a rewarding career for herself. Time, hard work and strong faith have helped Madl forge a vastly different attitude, one that is positive and focuses in large part on gratitude. And one thing for which she’s very grateful is the chance to share her experiences and knowledge with others.
Her experience and knowledge are abundant. After starting college, she decided to go into human resource management. “I worked in human resources in a manufacturing environment and really enjoyed it,” she recalls. Working in union shops, she became involved in labor relations and contract negotiations. “I enjoyed the dynamics of that-it was a challenging field.” She later began pursuing a master’s in management and organizational behavior with an emphasis on adult education. During the course of her studies, an instructor suggested she consider teaching.
Madl soon found an opportunity to do just that. She landed a job with the Oneida Nation in Green Bay. There, she worked with curriculum development and training, and found that she enjoyed training people immensely. She took adjunct teaching positions with North Central Technical College and Fox Valley Technical College. And, she recalls, the question arose in her mind: “If I can teach and train for other businesses, why can’t I do this on my own?”
That marked her entry into entrepreneurship. She knew she needed to learn more about entering the business world, so she enrolled in a 16-week entrepreneurship course in Green Bay. “I learned so much from that program,” Madl recalls.
Afterward, she took a leap of faith: She quit her job with the tribe and launched her own training and development business. She knew she would need to be able to teach classes in order to pay her bills, and as luck-or fate-would have it, three technical colleges, among them Nicolet, all contacted her in one day to offer teaching positions.
“I decided to leave Green Bay and come back to the ‘woods,'” Madl recalls. “So I moved back up here four years ago. And a number of my friends thought I was absolutely crazy.”
But as it turned out, her decision to move back to this area led to events that would impact many individuals and businesses here.
Having benefited from the entrepreneurship course in Green Bay, Madl knew such a resource for prospective entrepreneurs was needed in this area. She approached Sandy Bishop, director of workforce and economic development at Nicolet College, and pitched the idea of implementing such a program here. “It took me about two years to get it up here,” Madl recalls. The E-Seed™ entrepreneurship program has proven to be popular. Nicolet was the first technical college to partner with Fox Valley Technical College on offering it; now, says Madl, five other technical schools also want to pick it up, and she will be working with FVTC to promote it.
Many of Madl’s achievements are outside of her job at Nicolet. In 2010, she founded Northwoods Women in Business because the Northwoods Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club, as it was known at the time, was “very male-dominated,” Madl says; there were only a few women in the group. She had been aware of some women’s business groups in Green Bay and she knew such an organization would benefit female entrepreneurs here. “I saw a need and addressed it, and it started to take off,” she says.
She has found that although female entrepreneurs head a wide variety of businesses, some of them not thought of as “traditional” for females, many of these women face the same challenge.
“It’s the balance between family life and running a business,” Madl says. “The women are running the business, and then they’re running the home and making the meals and making sure the kids are bathed and ready for school.” She cites the example of a friend who deals with helping aging parents, has adult kids who have moved back home and is a full-time business owner. “Is that the norm?” Madl asks. “Probably not. But it’s an example of the things women face that men don’t. It seems like there are a lot more challenges on a woman’s plate.”
As if that weren’t enough, some female entrepreneurs are finding that even in the 21st century, outdated attitudes are alive and well. Not being taken seriously as business owners is something many women still endure. Women in what are traditionally thought of as “ladies’ jobs,” such as those who own clothing stores, coffee shops or restaurants, for example, might not encounter such attitudes as often. But those in what are considered to be traditionally male-dominated businesses do have a harder time being taken seriously. And, she adds, “The women who have the home-based businesses, they sometimes aren’t being taken seriously, and the hard part is when they’re not being taken seriously in their own home.” All entrepreneurs, female and male, she adds, need a strong support network.
In the rush of taking care of business and family, it’s all too easy to neglect one’s own well-being. That, says Madl, is a major mistake. “Don’t forget that you are your most important asset.” As someone who once owned a business herself, she knows what she’s talking about. “I try to practice what I preach,” she says. “I used to be the person who took her work home with her all the time.”
Carving out time for one’s self-whether it’s reading or some other enjoyable activity-is as essential to the health of a business as maintaining the books and keeping track of inventory, she says. “Make it part of your job requirement to take that piece of time to recoup and regroup.”
Madl’s next piece of advice? “Have a business plan.” That goes for anyone who is starting a business or who has an existing one. “Your business plan serves as a road map. Plans can be changed,” she points out, “but to have goals, plans to achieve, marketing strategies and financial strategies are key to the success of your business. Your business plan should be a living, breathing document that changes as your business changes.” Statistics show, she adds, that businesses that follow a plan are more successful than those that don’t. “A business without a business plan is really a business that doesn’t plan to succeed.”
Although she’s no longer a business owner herself-giving up her consulting business was a condition of full-time employment at Nicolet-Madl’s schedule is still breathtakingly full. “I’m a day by day person,” she says. “How am I going to tackle this day? Where do I need to be? When do I need to be there? Because of everything I do and everything I’m involved in, I literally have to live by my calendar.”
Somehow, among all her obligations, she manages to squeeze in some time for herself. She makes a point of regularly visiting her mother in Green Bay. She also enjoys bow hunting and “Every Thursday night, I shoot archery,” she says. “I would love to get out on a lake; I haven’t been fishing in four years.”
She may miss fishing, but one won’t hear any complaints from Michelle Madl. “This has been quite a journey for me,” she says. “I don’t go to ‘work’ anymore. I don’t have a ‘job.’ I’m so blessed to be able to spend my day helping other people. I’m so blessed Nicolet took a chance on me.
“I’m so thankful for every challenge that I’ve had in my life,” she continues. “If I can, in any way, shape or form, use my experiences to help someone be all they can be, I’ve done my job. There’s nothing more rewarding than to have someone come to me and say, ‘You believed in me when nobody else would.'”