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Tammy Trenta Takes On the World

by Susan Johnston

Tammy Trenta
University: Arizona State University
Majors: Broadcast Journalism, MBA
Grad Year: 1994

Company: Theresa Kathryn
Title: Founder and CEO
Industry: Fashion/Retail
Year founded: Incorporated in January 2006, but Tammy had been working on handbag line since April 2005
Type of company: Business Accessories for Women
Location: Los Angeles, California
Number of employees: 4
Website: www.theresakathryn.com


Growing up in New Jersey, Tammy Trenta thought she'd be a lawyer. "I always pictured myself with a business suit and a briefcase," she says. She majored in communication at Arizona State University to help hone her public speaking skills, but nowadays instead of lugging around legal briefs, Tammy carries her laptop in one of the handbags she created for her women's business line, Theresa Kathryn. She recently put her polished presentation skills to use as a candidate on The Apprentice: Season Five.

Early Days

After paying her way through college, Tammy moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in finance and travelled on business frequently. "I had to carry a laptop case and a purse through the airport, so I thought, why do I have to carry [both]?" she explains. "I looked in the marketplace and didn't see anything that fit my needs." So Tammy decided to create something that would serve dual purposes and still look fashionable and feminine.

She surveyed all of the professional women she knew to determine what made the perfect bag. According to Tammy, "the hardest part was taking the feedback and translating it into a product." Starting in April, 2005, she met with luggage makers, who focused on functionality, and handbag designers, who focused on style. Tammy says it was difficult to find someone who had the resources to do both, but she forged on and her company incorporated in January of 2006.

Inspiration

Inspired by the memory of her grandmother, Tammy named the company after her: Theresa Kathryn. "My grandmother left school at fifteen to help her family financially," Tammy says. "She owned a fuel business with her husband, and she ran everything: communicated with people, did the books, worked every single day. But she was always perfect, putting three meals on the table and never forgetting an anniversary. So many women juggle work and family, but she was able to do it."

Tammy points out that her grandmother was one of only a few female entrepreneurs in the 1940s, so to her, the name connotes style and sophistication in life and business. "I've always looked up to her as an inspiration," she continues. "I feel like I inherited some of her qualities."

Tammy also set up a portion of sales to go towards women's charities through the Theresa Kathryn Foundation. "As a financial planner, I helped people plan their estates," she explains. "I looked at clients who were giving money to charity [after they had died], and I thought someday I'd like to have a nonprofit where I can support women? It's not easy to run a business and run a foundation, but I wanted to see differences that I could make while I was still alive."

Growing the Business

Until recently, Tammy had been working simultaneously as a Vice President at wealth management firm A.G. Edwards and as Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Theresa Kathryn. "When you're launching a company, there's a lot of capital required," she explains. "I'm very involved with it, but I started to feel the business growing to a place where I knew I need to be more involved."

"If [you're picking a business] partner, the idea person should have more control."

Tammy handles the big picture, including sales and marketing, while her business partner and sister, Suzanne Rispoli, handles the accounting side. "She brings certain strengths, and I think we're a good complement," Tammy adds. "If [you're picking a business] partner, the idea person should have more control. Otherwise, you could be stuck in a stalemate. So many things are needed to run a business, but you [and your partners] have to same common goals and commitment level."

Learning Curve

Tammy also advises would-be business owners to seek out a mentor. "I didn't have that," she says. "I wish that I did? Going from the financial world to the fashion world, you're not dealing with people of the same level of integrity, so you're constantly relying on other people."

"Now with any vender, I check their references and with the Better Business Bureau."

Tammy relates a mishap early on in her business when a handbag maker ripped her off. "He was very difficult to work with, but I heard he was the best," she says. "Those types of decisions can ruin a business. That was a huge mistake that I had made. Now with any vender, I check their references and with the Better Business Bureau. Nowadays there's so many resources but you don't know who you're dealing with [until you do your research]."

The Apprentice

Still, Tammy's business savvy got her to the final five on The Apprentice: Season Five (which aired in the spring of 2006), an experience that she calls the "hardest, most business-intense twelve weeks I've ever had." Tammy attributes her longevity on the show to hard work and not getting "caught up in the drama."

Since The Apprentice draws candidates with varying backgrounds and big personalities, Tammy says she quickly learned how to manage different personalities and turn things around quickly. "If you get caught up in an issue, you'll lose the opportunity," she cautions. "You have to be able to make decisions." In her case, Trump didn't care for the way she and her team put together a Wal-Mart display for the Xbox360.

But, as she pointed out in the boardroom, "at least I stepped up [as Project Manager]."

"You have to be able to make decisions."

During the season five finale, when Donald Trump hired British businessman Sean Yazbeck as the next apprentice, Tammy took the opportunity to give one of her handbags to Trump's wife, Melania. Trump remembered Tammy and complemented the bag, which was appropriately called the Melania bag. "I figured it didn't hurt to name it after his wife," she jokes. All of the bags in the Theresa Kathryn collection are named for stylish women, including Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie.

Reaching Back

Eager to help other women and entrepreneurs navigate the business world, Tammy set up a forum on her website (http://tammytrenta.com/forum/) so that people can ask questions and exchange information.

Her advice to budding businesspeople?

"[Have] a business plan," she stresses. "Some people just wing it, but you don't want to get yourself into the process without a clear direction."

"[Have] a business plan," she stresses. "Some people just wing it, but you don't want to get yourself into the process without a clear direction? Ask yourself why it will or won't work? What can I do to prevent these reasons? The biggest reason why people go out of business is because they run out of money. You should have two years of operating expenses to cover your costs."
Tammy Trenta
Theresa Kathryn
 
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