In March 2001, Fortune Magazine named Cathy Bonner as one of 25 “smart, gutsy and innovative” American women entrepreneurs making it big in small business — and as interested in making a difference as in creating wealth.
Throughout her wide-ranging career in Texas, Bonner has been leveraging her money-making genius for the benefit of causes and people important to her.
At 1 p.m. today in the Women’s Club house, as part of the Chautauqua Professional Women’s Network series, she will share her 10 commandments of reinvention.
“The three Ds — death, divorce, disaster — lead to change,” Bonner said. “And when we change, we have a tendency to hold our breath.”
In such situations, she sees the instructions of flight attendants as a metaphor. Hence the title of her talk, “Put On Your Oxygen Mask First: How to Breathe Through Your Own Re-Invention.”
“There won’t be just one reinvention,” Bonner said. “Nobody goes to work for the same company and stays 40 years and gets a gold watch anymore.”
Bonner, who wrote a book at Chautauqua in 2005 — What I Want Next: 30 Minutes to Reveal Your Future — has altered her course numerous times. A serial entrepreneur, her professional endeavors have mainly involved marketing, advertising and communications. Bonner’s philanthropic initiatives have focused primarily on women and on cancer.
Originally from Dallas and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Bonner has worked mainly in the private sector creating, expanding and selling businesses, which includes Bonner & Associates and Bonner Inc. From 1991 to 1994, however, she served as executive director of the Department of Commerce under Texas Governor Ann Richards.
In 1996, during her first visit to Chautauqua, Bonner began having a recurring dream she could not shake.
“That was a pretty big year for me,” she said. “Everyone was talking about what they should do for the millennium.”
Bonner dreamed of a national women’s history museum.
“Of the 7,000 museums in the United States, half of which were history museums, not one was a women’s museum,” she said. “The first time I used my entrepreneurial life to fund my philanthropic life was when I raised over $32 million to establish this museum.”
Within four years she had become the founder, president and owner of The Women’s Museum, which opened in 2000 in a historic structure in Dallas. It is affiliated with The Smithsonian Institution.
“Creating wealth gave me the independence to start non-profit organizations,” Bonner said. “Those who have the entrepreneurial drive have the obligation to create jobs for others. We have to realize we’ve been lucky enough to have the rewards, and pay it forward. The idea of the philanthropic entrepreneur is the kind of reinvention that I wanted to go to.”
Bonner said Chautauqua has played a major role in her reinventions over the past 18 years.
“It is a place for learning and growing, and it can also inspire inner change,” she said. “They say that change is the hardest work we do and that most people would rather do anything else. But Chautauqua can be a hotbed of reinvention.”
Bonner’s latest reinvention has been as the president, then CEO, then the chair of the board of a unique company launched by her brother-in-law. Service King Collision Repair Centers has established relationships with several charitable organizations. In July, the global investment and advisery group Blackstone became its majority shareowner.
“Each new reinvention requires learning something new,” she said. “I want young women to build wealth. I knew nothing about collisions, but I knew about mergers and acquisitions.”
In the end, Bonner said, “it’s really about talent,” and having the right people in the company while managing them the way they need to be managed.
“And unless you inherit a business, the only way to create wealth is to grow a business and sell it,” she said. “The time to think about selling your business is when you open it. And when you do sell it, you can use that money for change.”