By Burt Dragin
If running a business is like running a race, you couldn’t ask for a better coach than Darlene Crane. Now in her fourth year as Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Development in Oakland, Crane waxes eloquent on how to “push” the small- to moderate-business owner past the magic mark of $1,000,000 in annual sales.
“First, they have to have the guts to ask for help,” Crane says from her office at 300 Frank Ogawa Plaza. “Before the recession, there was enough money and business activity in the Bay Area that small businesses didn’t have to market or even understand marketing to succeed.” But times have changed. Consumers have a limited amount of discretionary cash. Businesses can’t succeed on the strength of the owner’s passion alone.
Just ask Grisela Ceja, proprietor of Grisela Salon on International Blvd. in East Oakland. “Business has been up and down,” she says of her 16 years of enhancing women’s looks and self-confidence.
But Grisela caught a break when she met Darlene at a meeting of the Fruitvale Improvement District, part of Oakland’s nonprofit Unity Council. Grisela was accepted into the Alliance’s 9-month program. She has attended two meetings so far.
“I really enjoy her class,” Grisela says, “and the team she works with.”
Darlene and “the team” represent business experts who counsel classes of roughly 15 business owners. Women and people of color are sought out.
“We teach them marketing and sales—how to grow their business,” says Darlene, her sentences punctuated with unbridled enthusiasm. “The program is designed to change how business owners operate and practice.” Darlene pauses and unleashes her mantra: “You’ve got to know business!”
Darlene’s own career résumé is voluminous. What’s more, if someone had placed a GPS device on Darlene several decades ago, they would marvel at this peripatetic wonder.
She was launched from Hawaii (a “Hapa” girl, or mixed race); from there it was upscale Atherton in Southern California; Guam for junior high school; East Asia, South Asia and Europe in her teens. “My father worked for Pan American Airlines,” Crane notes.
A scholarship brought her to Pitzer College, then a new college for women in Claremont, Calif. “I picked Pitzer because the school focused on social sciences and communities.” Crane spent her junior year in Japan, pursuing her interest in Asian Studies.
From there Crane embarked on a Candide-like romp through academia and the business world, picking up two masters degrees from the University of Michigan, a stint in the Business School Library, a job with a major corporation wherein she was asked to “turn around” a $2.2-billion capital lease operation, which led her to operations research and product development.
In the mid-1990s she taught in the Master’s Business program at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill. Crane created a highly interactive and visual course that was recognized as unique by the students. “I was delighted that the women in the class developed their own ideas into viable business cases.”
Although Crane had several opportunities to climb the corporate ladder, she demurred. “That independent streak to study and do what I wanted that worked for customers took over.”
She was drawn to community and economic development. Crane started her own consulting company, the goal of which was “growing women-owned and minority-owned businesses at the same rates as the mainstream population.” Years of teaching and consulting resulted in a book titled Executive Accountability: Creating the Environment for Business Value from Technology.
It’s an understatement to say that Darlene Crane holds strong views: “There are standard business practices for sustaining yourself and growing your business but for whatever reason these concepts never make it into graduate school.”
Crane’s pitch and blood pressure seem to rise for her take on the media. “The media want a good story, but they don’t truly represent women and entrepreneurship. They do stupid surveys to justify their notion that women want to be at home,” Crane observes. “But the pattern that I see for independent women who are really successful is that they knew at a very early age, even under ten, that they were independent, often encouraged by their parents to take charge of their own lives.”
Crane has nothing but praise for women standing up for themselves in the male-dominated world of business. “Women are very resilient,” she says. They’re great fighters.”
Crane’s philosophy comes through clearly in her job with the alliance, which focuses on the East Bay but welcomes business owners from all Bay Area counties. “Although it’s not an objective world, I would say our program is for real people in the sense that this is what you need to know about the fundamentals of business to create a livelihood. If you have a great idea, here’s the strategy to grow it. You have the legal right to do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”
Now there’s a coach bound to produce winners.
(For details, go to www.allianceforcommunitydevelopment.com)
Photo note: Bilen Mesfin, owner of Change Consulting LLC, is the PROPEL Small business Growth
Program graduate standing beside Darlene Crane in this photo.