'It's a learning experience, whether you make it or not'

Growing numbers of enterprising women are realizing the American dream of starting and running a business. Below are three examples of women who have used their skills and imagination to carve a niche in the business world.

Row upon row of fudgy brownies studded with toffee, nuts, and chocolate chips wait in sweet anticipation for the lunchtime crowd at Quincy Market, Boston's bustling marketplace near the waterfront.

Laura Katleman, the vivacious young owner of ''Boston Brownies,'' takes time during the midmorning lull at the food hall to talk about her 31/2-year-old business.

''I was never a person who puttered around the kitchen,'' she says. ''The reason I started the business is I thought the product would sell. The chocolate-chip-cookie market was starting to peak. I thought I could do the same for the brownie - another traditional American food.''

Fresh out of Pomona College, in California, in 1980, she packed her bags, moved to Boston (''I wanted to see what it was like living on the East Coast''), and set to work on her idea. Although she graduated with an economics major, she had little practical business experience. So she picked up some accounting and marketing books and took advantage of free resources, such as advice from the Small Business Administration and the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

First came the research. To test public response to her concoctions, she stood in a convenience store with a pan of brownies, trading the chocolaty treats for answers to her assorted questions about brownie preferences.

''Almost unanimously people liked the fudgy brownies over caky brownies,'' she says.

With the questionnaire findings in hand, she started experimenting with various recipes and eventually came up with 13 variations. ''I not only wanted to make the best brownies, I wanted to have unusual flavors,'' she explains.

For the next month and a half she posted fliers on telephone poles in her neighborhood, listing the kinds of brownies and offering home delivery. ''I lost 10 pounds,'' she says, recalling that first hectic summer. ''I didn't make much money, but the (profit) margin was phenomenal. I had to stop when the volume became too great.''

Boston Brownies was officially launched in July of 1980 in Quincy Market, a prime location for small businesses, when a space unexpectedly opened up. Since Quincy Market was eager to fill the space and Boston Brownies consented to move right in, the business was billed for rent later. For the first few months Ms. Katleman also had the use of baking equipment left in place by the previous occupant. With deferred rent and a minimal outlay needed for equipment, she was able to start the business with only $500 up front.

Since that first summer she has added about 20 people to her staff and has opened wholesale accounts with department stores and small gourmet shops around the country. The brownies are sold individually wrapped and packaged in gold boxes.

''I feel very lucky to be doing what I'm doing,'' she says. ''When I started, I was intimidated by experts. At some point you just have to go with your instincts. People will certainly discourage you when you want to start your own business. But if you have a good product and do your homework, it's not impossible to succeed. I can't imagine working for someone else now.'' SURROUNDED by chintzes and calicos in her cheerful workroom in West Concord, Mass., Anne Hilliard heads a flourishing cottage industry based in this quiet town west of Boston. This softspoken entrepreneur, who designs and markets a wide variety of fabric accessories, is truly in her element.

''It's just a heyday for me,'' she says, eyeing the bolts of fabric with obvious pleasure. ''My weakness has been buying fabrics, and (the business) justifies my avarice.''

For many years, Mrs. Hilliard sewed useful creations for her four children, such as colorful sleeping-bag covers. ''I've always loved working with fabrics. When the children grew up there was no one to sew for,'' she says. ''I can do it now in a big way.''

Her business began five years ago when friends showed an interest in a grosgrain ribbon pen holder worn around the neck that Mrs. Hilliard designed to keep track of her pen while she was working as a sales representative. She began to sell the ''dePENdables'' locally and through gift shows. Gradually she added other accessories to the line, such as Bermuda bags and reversible belts.

The business mushroomed. By the end of the first year she had orders in all 50 states and began to hire sales representatives. Today Anne Hilliard Inc. has about 2,500 accounts in the United States and also sells her products in Bermuda , England, Japan, and Puerto Rico. To fill the orders, she employs 25 to 30 local sewers, who work from their homes on a piecework basis. The company also includes a small staff at the Fitzhugh Shop (the combined workroom and small retail outlet in West Concord), a bookkeeper, and an accountant.

As the business gained momentum, Mrs. Hilliard, who quickly exhausted the creative possibilities of Bermuda bags and hairbands, moved on to more challenging lines.

''The preppie look was financially successful, but it was boring,'' she admits. Although the company still makes many of the original products, Mrs. Hilliard now sells quilted over-the-shoulder bags, cosmetic bags, and various other totes in classic and new shapes, including a line of fabric luggage. All the accessories are made from American fabrics and borders.

''I think American fabrics are equally beautiful and interesting as French and British fabrics,'' she says. ''Maybe someday we will design our own (in the company), but right now there is so much to choose from we don't need to.''

Mrs. Hilliard particularly enjoys working with her sewing staff. ''They take great pride in their work,'' she says. ''If there's a deadline, they do it.''

Even with her fleet of expert stitchers, she can hardly keep pace with her new ideas. She is currently working on clothing and home-decorating lines.

''Once you get into it,'' she says, ''there's no stopping what you can do.'' ELAINE Re sums up the greatest personal reward from her international management consulting business in one word: ''Confidence.''

She started her business working from her apartment with a student serving as a part-time secretary. Today, six years later, Dr. Re has a Park Avenue office in New York City and 11 staff members.

''I'm thrilled,'' she says. ''It's been very exciting to see the business grow.''

After working as a high school and college educator for 13 years, Dr. Re entered a doctoral program in ''communication environments'' at New York University which focused on ways to determine the internal climate, or ''feel,'' of an organization (formal or informal, for example) and to help people tailor their negotiating style and other business dealings accordingly.

Her first job in the field was conducting seminars for the American Management Association. She soon began to add other companies to her client list.

''It combined my love of teaching with what I know about business,''she says in her warm, straightforward manner.

During the past few years, Elaine Re & Associates has evolved into a multi-service organization offering legal services, tax counsel, negotiating skills, organizational strategies, and practical advice on business etiquette in the United States and abroad.

''We have seen repeatedly a growing demand for international negotiating skills, and no one (else) seems to be preparing business people who go abroad,'' she says. ''We have a substantial number of international clients, which is fun.'' They have dealt with companies from Britain, France, Switzerland, Germany , and Japan.

As a woman working mostly with male clients, Dr. Re attributes part of her success to her ability to listen and her desire to teach and help people - qualities she believes many women share. ''I think in many ways being a woman (in this field) has been an advantage. Sometimes it has been a disadvantage, but you fight through those stereotypes and win acceptance,'' she says.

In more general terms, Dr. Re recommends the experience of running your own business. ''It's absolutely a challenge and very rewarding,'' she says. ''It's a learning experience, whether you make it or not.''

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