Deb DeGraaf, owner of DeGraaf Interiors, won the 2019 Top Women Owned Business Award for the over $3 million category. Courtesy 616 Media
West Michigan’s premier businesswomen have some powerful experiences to share with the rest of the professional world.
The Grand Rapids Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business event took place last week at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, and the 2019 Top Women Owned Business awards were given after a morning of panel discussions and networking.
The Top Women Owned Business awards were given by category according to annual revenue: under $500,000; $500,000-$1.499 million; $1.5 million-$3 million; and over $3 million.
Autumn Fuchs, owner of Fuchsia Design, received the award in the under $500,000 category. In receiving her award, she reflected on the advice she would give for women who own or want to own a business.
“Be confident and look at yourself as an equal,” Fuchs said. “Even in a room full of men or a male-dominated industry, if you think of yourself as an equal, then they will, too.”
In Fuchs’ industry, it’s not uncommon for her to be the only female on the job site, but her expertise clearly sets her apart from her male peers. Besides owning her own interior design firm, she also has a background in construction management, developing electrical plans, plumbing diagrams and every minute detail that goes into a luxury home.
Fuchs added she faced an uphill battle to build her career since before she graduated high school. She had been advised by her teachers and even family members not to pursue a career in interior design because it wasn’t “prestigious” enough.
“Naturally, I ignored all that advice,” she said.
Fuchs went to Central Michigan University to major in interior design and minor in construction management. Like when she chose interior design, her move toward a male-dominated industry was met with a lot of feelings, she said.
“‘Construction management?’ But you’re a woman,’” she recalled. “And they were right. I was a woman, and I was a woman that had decided to change the stereotype of what it looks like to be an interior designer.”
“Over the years, I received a lot of advice on what I can’t and shouldn’t do,” Fuchs added, “but failure has never been an option for me. Success stems from believing in yourself no matter what others say.”
Fuchs also holds a National Council for Interior Design Qualification certification. While not a requirement to practice interior design, it is the highest level of qualification in the industry. The exam requires a combined eight years of education and experience, and Fuchs passed on her first try when 70 percent of applicants fail.
Dr. Elizabeth Christopherson won the award for the $500,000-$1.499 million category. The owner of Christopherson Orthodontics takes pride in having an entirely women-run business.
Christopherson and her eight employees do all they can to give back to the community. They have volunteered at Kids’ Food Basket, run the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, housed the Salvation Army’s Angel Trees each holiday season and sent hundreds of pounds of Halloween candy from its candy buyback program to active military personnel.
“If you visit my office, I think you’ll see we enjoy what we do,” Christopherson said. “We enjoy doing something that we believe in, and we’re making a difference, and that’s a pretty special thing,” Christopherson said.
She added she has three simple principles at the core of her practice. In reviewing her nomination for Top Women Owned Business, Christopherson remembered the three phrases she sends her children to school with.
“Be kind. Try your best. Have fun. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not an elaborate business plan. It is a simple place to start, but I think it lays the foundation for infinite growth,” she said.
Christopherson purchased her practice from Charles Caldwell when he retired and renamed it to Christopherson Orthodontics.
“People come to me and ask for help with their smile or with the function of their mouth; the part of your body that’s crucial for eating, talking, breathing, smiling, and I get to help them,” Christopherson said. “Being able to work with someone to provide an increase in their quality of life or an increase in their confidence because they have a smile they can be proud of is incredibly rewarding.”
Christopherson also is president of the Mary Free Bed Hospital Junior Guild, member of the West Michigan Dental Society Ethics and Peer Review and a volunteer for Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes.
Raquel Salas Guzman, winner of the $1.5 million-$3 million category and managing member of Avanti Law Group, had a unique story of personal triumph.
“People always ask me, ‘Do you want to be 20 again?’” she said. “I say no. I was broke and undocumented. In a time when there’s so much being said about people like me, it’s an honor to be here and represent them.”
Salas Guzman founded Avanti Law Group PLLC in 2010, the largest woman- and minority-owned law firm in the state of Michigan.
Prior to her success, however, she said she faced serious criticism in law school because of her immigrant status.
“When I was in law school, I was told I shouldn’t be in law school,” she said. “I didn’t speak good English. I had an accent. I was too Latina … so all the ‘nos’ that you could think of, I’ve been told. And to be here today, in so many ways, it’s an honor, a pleasure and a huge satisfaction for me, my family, my friends and my team.”
Salas Guzman has 25 full-time employees and attorneys who assist over 500 individuals each year with legal needs.
“These are the unsung heroes who get up every day, not just to do legal work — anyone can do that — they’re ready to care, to fight the battle no one wants to fight, to give voice to the voiceless, to make a difference in the lives of the people of our community,” Salas Guzman said.
Deb DeGraaf, second-generation owner of DeGraaf Interiors, claimed the award in the over $3 million category.
DeGraaf originally went to school to be an occupational therapist, around the time her father started DeGraaf Interiors 25 years ago.
“My dad said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come in and help me out?’” she recalled. “I said ‘Absolutely not. There is nothing more boring than carpet.’”
Eventually, her father wore her down, but what started as a sales position within the company turned into management and, later, ownership.
Last year, DeGraaf Interiors expanded its East Paris location for the second time, and the company’s overall sales had grown from $8 million to just over $20 million.
Even though DeGraaf said carpet still is not very exciting content, she works to make it as exciting as possible.
“The days when a customer will call and say how happy they are, and you changed their home, and they feel exhilarated when they walk in their new space, those are the days that you go, ‘OK, I like this job. I love what I do, and I’m blessed to do it,” DeGraaf said.