CEO and DelVal alumnus shares 10 lessons for success

Nov 17, 2011

By Annmarie Ely

Laura Owen, DelVal’s 11th Thomas W. Watson Executive in Residence, encouraged students to think about their futures as full of possibility and shared 10 key lessons from her own life that they should keep in mind.

Owen, a CEO and a 1979 graduate of DelVal, spoke to a full auditorium at the Student Center on Nov. 17.

Watson, a 1957 DelVal alumnus, started the Executive-in-Residence program to bring business leaders to the college to share their firsthand experiences with students. He is co-founder and vice chairman emeritus of New York-based Omnicom Group, Inc. and dean of Omnicom University.

The speakers give students an honest look at what it takes to build a successful career.

“We’ve had some really great speakers who don’t mind telling you about their mistakes as well as their successes,” said Larry Stelmach, a member of the business faculty who introduced Owen.

The speaker, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business from DelVal, told the students her ties to the college are close, in part because her mother was a DelVal professor.

Owen is CEO of PontSalus, a firm that shares U.S. healthcare resources with the world. At PontSalus she identifies healthcare needs of other countries, finds the right U.S. partner and builds relationships.

Before PontSalus, Owen was a founder and President/COO of ICOP Digital, Inc. (Nasdaq: ICOP), a company that engineered and marketed mobile video products for first responders.

She was also the first woman appointed as Kansas Secretary of Commerce, where she led international trade, business development, and travel and tourism for the state of Kansas.

Her favorite professor, President Emeritus Dr. George West, was in the audience to hear her speech.

She said West always believed she had a bright future.

“The most important lesson I learned at DelVal, was that I was a possibility,” said Owen. “Dr. West believed in me at a time when I didn’t believe in myself. That gave me confidence that I carried with me.”

She wanted to pass that confidence on to current students.

“Today, I want to make you think about your possibilities,” said Owen.

She shared the 10 most important lessons she’s learned from her successes and failures. Owen told students learning these lessons would help open up possibilities for their futures.

Lesson 10: Know what you’re passionate about
Owen said, “We tend to excel at things we’re passionate about.” When she was little she told her dad very seriously that she’d own a cosmetics company one day. He laughed at the certainty in her voice, but encouraged her. When she gave real thought to what she wanted to do, she realized that running a business is what she’s always been passionate about.

Lesson 9: Forgive and move forward
“We have little power over the challenges life brings us in those first 20 years,” said Owen. “We have imperfect parents, imperfect siblings and an imperfect world…What we can control are the next 80 years.”

She said that many people never look past pain, such as abuse, or other bad experiences from their first 20 years. Owen said that to be successful, a person must forgive and move on.

Lesson 8: Know what you stand for

Owen said that, “If you don’t know where you draw the line, you’re going to cross it.”

In her early twenties she worked for a company that was illegally dumping waste at night. She knew it was wrong, but did nothing.

“I still feel guilt about that,” said Owen. “Hold yourself to a high standard…Write down your core values and live by them.”

Lesson 7: Stand out in a tough economy

Students today don’t need to be reminded that they face a challenging job market. Owen said that there will be greater demands as they look for their first jobs, but that there are ways to stand out.

“Read, be informed, know people, networking works…email blasts don’t work,” said Owen. “You don’t want to be one of the thousands of resumes that end up in the round file (trash can).”

She told students not to hesitate to ask people for recommendations or introductions and to always send a handwritten thank you.

She suggested students get creative by for example, making personal videos and attaching them to their resumes. Owen also encouraged students to work or study abroad because companies are becoming multicultural and multinational.

Lesson 6: People are the best resource in any company

Owen told the students “when you’re going to hire people, hire people you can learn from.” She said that she tries to constantly learn from the people around her such as her sons, who teach her about new technology.

She said a mentor is a great resource. She recommended indentifying mentors in the industries they’d like to pursue to find out what they can do as students to prepare for the positions they’d like to have when they graduate.

Lesson 5: 9/10 of success is just showing up (and asking for what you want)

Owen told students to take chances and ask even if they don’t think the answer will be “yes.”

When she was Kansas Secretary of Commerce she met the owner of Harrods, a famous department store in London. She wanted to feature Kansas companies in Harrods, but wasn’t sure how she’d do it and was feeling intimidated. She took a chance and asked anyway.

Harrods created a “Wizard of Oz” themed display featuring Kansas companies and some of those companies gained international opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Lesson 4: Pay it forward

“You must stand for something bigger than yourself in life,” said Owen. “…There’s nothing wrong with doing well by doing good.”

She said the businesses that support causes and are active in their communities are often more successful because of that involvement.

Lesson 3: Life is not a dress rehearsal

Owen encouraged students not to wait too long before going for a dream.

“No one has all the answers, so many things we just had to wing it as we went,” said Owen.

She encouraged students to reach outside of their comfort zones, telling them the longer they continue without taking risks, the smaller the boxes they live in become.

“If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you take on?” she asked the students.

Lesson 2: Be intentional

“Have a plan,” said Owen. “You wouldn’t drive to California without a map or navigation device.”

She told students that their plans may change many times in their lives, but that they’ll always need to have one to move forward.

Lesson 1: Carry an umbrella

Owen said that in every life there will be storms or times where a person struggles.
Closing her company, ICOP, was one of those times for her.

“I felt like a failure. I didn’t know how I’d face my family and friends,” said Owen. “…One of the great lessons I learned was no one pays as much attention to our failures as we do, they are just a blip on the radar to them.”

After closing her company, she took a chance. She wanted to share U.S. health care with the world. She contacted the Vice Chairman of GE Healthcare.

He was interested in her idea and that’s how she got PontSalus going.

Her work takes her to place like Saudi Arabia and gives her a “unique opportunity to build bridges.”

“What started as a real stretch turned out to be the real deal,” said Owen. “Think big, embrace opportunities that you’re passionate about. Perhaps 30 years from now, you’ll be able to come back and address the students, have your loved ones there and see your favorite professor in the audience.”

The students were happy to hear someone give them useful advice for thriving in a challenging environment.

“I thought she was a very inspirational person because she took a lot of chances in her career,” said senior Ashley Ferguson.