Co-founded by several extremely busy female entrepreneurs, SWAN National Women’s Network helps Peoria area women balance their lives in today’s hectic world.
Felisa Durr, co-founder of SWAN (Successful, Wise And Natural) National Women’s Network, was born in Madison, Alabama and earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology from Alabama A&M University. She began her career at Caterpillar, Inc. in Peoria immediately upon graduation and has been with the company for 17 years.
In addition to her career at Caterpillar, Durr is a business owner and entrepreneur. From 1993 to 1996, she owned Second to Mom Childcare Center, where she managed HR, accounting and licensing for the company and operated two shifts with 13 employees. From 1998 to 2000, she owned Spiritual Motivations, which sold Christian gift items at kiosks in Northwoods and Eastland Malls in Peoria and Bloomington. As she continued to work at Caterpillar throughout this time, Durr then decided she needed a break to focus solely on her engineering career.
In 2001, Durr began working toward getting her MBA from the University of Phoenix Online, graduating from the program in 2003. That December, she started Durr Marketing Management, which, she explained, “allowed me to use the education and experience I gained from my MBA and businesses to help other people start their businesses. I offer assistance in business plans, marketing plans, market research, human resources and business services.”
From 2003 to 2006, Durr taught undergraduate business classes part-time at Midstate College, which she described as “one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my life.” While her degree was in engineering, Durr always took an interest in business management, and upon receiving her MBA, changed careers within Caterpillar. In 2004, she became a buyer in Global Purchasing, where she coincidentally met her friend, co-worker and co-founder of SWAN National Women’s Network, Jennifer Lindsay, when they were both applying for the same position.
A SWAN Hatches
While on a business trip to Iowa, Durr and Lindsay found that they shared “a common interest in determining a way to help other women manage and balance the challenges in their lives” based on their own experiences. “[Lindsay’s] motivation was to offer assistance to women in need of financial assistance and employment, especially for single parents. I also wanted to offer solutions for how to juggle all the unexpected challenges that occur in a typical day as a woman tries to accommodate the needs of the kids and spouse and also manage her own career,” Durr noted. Many lunch hours were spent proposing ideas for a new business which would address all of these concerns, and in March 2005, they invited several women to a brainstorming session.
“In the meeting, we asked the women to tell us about everything they wished they had had assistance with in their pasts. The women really opened up, and we were surprised to learn that these women who were professionals in the community had gone through some very challenging times. They had been victims of abuse, gone through divorces, took care of children with serious medical conditions, had dealt with the death of a child, had been unwed teenage mothers, been homeless and many other issues,” Durr explained. “As we looked around the room, we realized that there was no way we could have guessed these women had gone through so much. But the wonderful part was that they had survived, become empowered and had become successful.” After this uplifting event, Durr and Lindsay decided to personally fund the start-up and organizing of SWAN National Women’s Network.
On March 14, 2005, SWAN National Women’s Network was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation headquartered in Peoria. Currently, the organization has five women on its board of directors, including Caterpillar, Inc. and Midstate College employees, as well as graduates of Midstate, Bradley University and the University of Phoenix.
As a membership organization offering individual and business memberships, SWAN makes its services available to more than 58,000 women in the Peoria area. “Our membership and clients are made up of a diverse group of women from various backgrounds consisting of single, married, widowed or divorced women, with or without children, with varied household income who are at various levels of financial, educational, and economical independence and stability. These women are responsible for coordinating household, spouse, children, work, business and social responsibilities.”
SWAN provides referral services, educational seminars and planned events which further the educational, informational and recreational interests of women, Durr explained. “We offer 10 programs to assist women in achieving their personal goals.” These programs include: Educational Access, Employment Access, Financial Stability, Small Business Startup, Computer Access and Training, College Scholarships, Health and Wellness, Fun and Recreation, Youth Mentoring and Children’s Learning Center. With these programs, SWAN’s teachers and counselors helps clients meet their individual short- and long-term goals.
Durr said that members are eligible to participate in any seminars and training programs they like, progressing up the ladders for each program. SWAN issues certificates to individuals at each stage of achievement, and upon the completion of an entire program, members are eligible to receive a prize from one of the organization’s corporate sponsors.
Serving the Entire Community
SWAN National Women’s Network was founded to address the concerns of women, and Durr said they strive to address all issues women face, including those involving their spouses and children, and have come to offer services to the community at large.
One of these services is the Children’s Learning Center, which was started after the board realized that many of SWAN’s members were unable to attend seminars because there were no accommodations for their children. The Center originally provided activities for children of SWAN’s clients only on the nights of seminars and classes. “However,” Durr noted, “as the community learned about our services, we found that there was a market for a more formal program.” Thus, SWAN KIDS was started in the fall of 2007 to offer “safe, challenging, structured activities on evenings and weekends that include arts and crafts, science, technology, drama, music and educational games for children three- to 12-years old.”
Successes and Challenges
The women of SWAN believe they were successful in their endeavors when the first person showed up to their first seminar. At that time, with just a small office in a rental house in Northwest Peoria, the organization used public locations for its activities. Since then, SWAN has opened its formal offices on Pioneer Parkway and has offered many successful seminars, as well as providing scholarships to college students across the country. Members have managed to see several movies, plays and comedy shows, and many new friends have been made through the SWAN Network, according to Durr. The organization has participated in several commercial and charitable events as well, including the Women’s Expo, Women’s Lifestyle Show, Kids Day at Grand Prairie and Ribfest.
When starting a business, it’s expected that there will be some challenges along the way, and SWAN was no different. Board members found it difficult to balance their own family lives with the needs of SWAN, which has replaced all of their other social activities. Because the board is comprised of such great women, said Durr, it’s turned out alright.
Another challenge SWAN has faced is raising the funds necessary to run the organization. “Being new,” Durr noted, “most potential donors have never heard of us and, therefore, we have to work harder to market our organization and its services.” By taking advantage of public service announcements, mass email, events and direct mail, SWAN has been able to inform the community of the services they offer.
A third challenge of starting the women’s network has been figuring out how to run a non-profit organization. Durr said “my background has always been in the for-profit business arena. Jennifer and I have read a lot of books and met with a lot of people to ensure that we are managing the non-profit correctly.”
Balancing work, family and a business such as SWAN is no easy task, and Durr didn’t credit herself at all for the organization’s success. “I think it is by the grace of God that I have been able to be the best mother, best wife and best employee that I could be while using all of my strengths in a business that I love.” She said that because her board members are willing to share the load of running SWAN, Durr is able to put her family first. She noted that her husband and sons are her greatest supporters and are willing to make SWAN fit into their family’s life by either taking classes or just hanging out!
While challenges are certainly draining, Durr doesn’t regret any of her work in getting SWAN off the ground. She said the greatest rewards come in the form of letters and emails of thanks from her clients and seminar attendees who say the programs in which they participated far exceeded their expectations. Durr and her board members are proud to be able to offer solutions to issues faced by so many women in the Peoria community.
The Future of SWAN
When asked where she expects SWAN to be in the next five years, Durr said, “We founded SWAN as a national non-profit corporation with the expectation that we would open satellite offices in all 50 states.” They are currently working on expanding into other states, and in five years, plan to be open in all 50, while offering more extensive services than they do today. TPW