Emilia DiMenco Defying the Odds

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The newly appointed president/CEO of the Women’s Business Development Center has never owned a business, but she’s spent her career helping them grow – all while facing life’s greatest challenges. 

A native of Italy, Emilia DiMenco immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in a working-class neighborhood. “It might sound cliché, but my family wanted the ‘American Dream,’” she explains. “Italy didn’t recover economically from World War II until the early ‘60s, so in the ‘50s there weren’t a lot of jobs and it was difficult to raise a family. My dad wanted to provide for us and build a better life.” Growing up in Blue Island with extended family close-by in Mount Greenwood, Ms. DiMenco was surrounded by familiar faces and raised in a household typical for the time: two parents, one income.

“My father had two jobs and my mother stayed at home; her financial dependence on my father continued throughout his life, making me realize that this was something I didn’t want,” she says. Determined to be financially independent, Ms. DiMenco graduated from DePaul University with an MBA and was the first in her family to not only get an MBA, but a college degree for that matter.

One of Ms. DiMenco’s hardest obstacles was going through a difficult divorce with an 8-year-old son. “It was very hard on the family,” she recalls. “My divorce lasted 13 years. It’s very difficult to raise a child as a single parent, but it can be done.” And Ms. DiMenco found success as executive vice president at BMO Harris Bank, N.A., leading the financial institution in developing initiatives to support and empower women-owned businesses. As a single mom, she raised a son, now 22 and soon to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University.

But perhaps her greatest challenge occurred during her first week at the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), when she became a ‘loaned’ executive from BMO to the non-profit sector as COO of the WBDC on July 1, 2010. Two days later, she went for a routine mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It resulted in chemotherapy, radiation and surgery,” she says. “The only hard part was that I’m my mom’s primary caretaker. She was 83 at the time and my son was only 19. I was really worried about them. The rest was tolerable.”

Shortly after she began medical treatment, her sister was diagnosed with cancer and died due to complications. But despite her own health issue and the seriousness of her sister’s illness, Ms. DiMenco stepped into her role as COO of the WBDC with characteristic grace, dignity and perseverance.

Joining a non-profit at the height of recession could have been another obstacle, but Ms. DiMenco turned it into an advantage for both the WBDC’s clients and the organization itself. In a relatively short period, she succeeded in influencing the organization’s culture by making it more productive, collaborative, creative, accountable and service-oriented to meet the needs of business owners in a rapidly changing economy.

One of the first initiatives was to address the lack of capital through a grant by the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which allowed the WBDC to expand its direct lending program. Additionally, a grant from the Deluxe Corporation Foundation, which funds human service programs, enabled the WBDC to launch an online/on-demand business education program in English and Spanish for new and emerging entrepreneurs, with more courses coming in late 2013 for established businesses. And earlier this year, the WBDC launched the Women’s Vetrepreneurship Program – in partnership with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs – to provide women veterans with entrepreneurial training, business counseling and direct lending.

Today, Ms. DiMenco is cancer-free and, this past August, she was promoted to president/CEO of the 27-year-old organization. Under her leadership, the WBDC will accelerate the development of programs and services. Her primary objectives are to help clients gain access to capital, make more contacts, win more contracts and acquire the capacity-building tools they need to grow. “Today most women still start a business to earn an income,” she states. “They make a tremendous investment of their time and money in their business, so they should be able to leverage that asset and monetize it to create personal wealth.”

The concept of financial independence is critical to Ms. DiMenco. “Working at the WBDC fulfills my on-going desire to make a difference,” she affirms. “The work is a labor of love. I hope everyone, at some point, reaches this stage in life – where they work not because they have to but because they want to, or they start a business just because they can.”

By Chris Ruys & Carrie Williams

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About Chris Ruys

Chris Ruys is founder and president of Chris Ruys Communications, Inc., a marketing/public relations firm that specializes in high visibility campaigns using both traditional and social media strategies. Her blog, originally called "Getting Social," was launched in October 2010 as a way to share her progress as a "student" of social media. While she's still learning, Ms. Ruys has broadened the scope to include other aspects of marketing communications and PR, including blogging, email, traditional media and advertising in the blog she now calls "Proactive PR."