Debbie Phillips is the inspiring founder of Women on Fire® and a pioneer in the field of executive and life coaching. She is known for her work in transforming women’s lives. Her gift is her ability to see and nurture the strengths, gifts and talents of the women she works with. She is also an author, speaker and producer.
Prior to becoming a coach, she was a reporter for the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal; a deputy press secretary to former U.S. Senator John Glenn during his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination; press secretary to former Ohio Governor Richard F. Celeste; and the executive television producer for the U.S. Health Productions Company, which featured the internationally syndicated television health and lifestyle show “Life Choices with Erie Chapman.”
Debbie has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
How did you start Women on Fire? What motivated you to start it?
I think for almost anybody who starts a business, a lot of times, it originates from a pain.
For me, the motivation to work started when I was a child. My mother had five children in 7 years, and I was the oldest of five kids. So I grew up helping my mother be in charge of the household. My mother didn’t get her education, and every day she lamented with me saying, “I didn’t get to do what I want to do,” and I grew up feeling so terrible that my mother didn’t have her dream. On the other side, my father was working. And I was much more interested in my father, and I loved that he was going to work. So I knew that I would grow up and work.
In the first part of my career, I was a journalist, and then I did the flip side of that, and I worked in politics and government. I was very fortunate to work with the former U.S. Senator John Glenn when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president. I had these fantastic jobs, but always in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “I want to do something for women.”
So eventually, when I was 48, everything came together. There is this concept “stomping your perimeter,” allowing one experience, hardship, and success to build upon another. I was a journalist, I was in politics and government, I was in business, and then you put it all together at some point and do the thing that you are meant to do in the world.
Did you attend any entrepreneurial training?
Well, my father was an entrepreneur, so I learned a lot from him. I learned from my father that it is tough to be an entrepreneur because he tried all these different businesses, and he failed. What was amazing is that in his 50s, he started a business and became successful. Up until that point, I just saw failure, and so I made a vow not to become an entrepreneur, which is hilarious because what did I do but become one!
As I said, most of my learning came from watching my father. But, I have always been a learner even to this day, I am 64 now, I still have a budget for my education. Everything I need to learn, I go and learn it. For example, I took Gestalt therapy training. I am not a therapist, but as a coach and as somebody running a company, I have a background in therapy. It has probably helped me more than anything in really understanding the human condition.
What does success mean to you?
Success to me is that I can help other people and change their lives for the better and freedom for me. The freer I am, the more successful I feel.
Honestly, entrepreneurship is challenging a lot of times in the early stages and even now. Of course, I am now so used to it, and it is okay. But the fact that I have the freedom to make the choices I want to make feels really nice. I can make a choice based on what is best for me or best for the company. It makes a lot of difference.
What was your biggest struggle so far in your entrepreneurial journey?
My biggest fear was criticism. I was so afraid to be criticized, and now I couldn’t care less. My steel rods inside of me were not strong enough at the beginning. I was not secure enough, and felt comfortable enough to put myself out there.
I had to learn to do that. And once I did, I felt better and got better at it. I had to keep studying and practicing so that I felt confident. And that gave me my steel rods. I think early on, that was a challenge for me because everything felt hard even though I kept the bigger vision of serving women in my mind.
Women on fire was created for busy women who seek for inspiration and support. My dream has always been that its everywhere in the world. That is a huge vision, and 17 years later, I am still working towards that. My dream is hundreds of thousands of women being involved in Women on Fire. And one of the other challenges is attracting people who want this information.
In your opinion, what is the most challenging thing about being a woman entrepreneur?
You know I had a whole career before Women on Fire. It was fine when I was in journalism and politics and government. When I got to business, which I spent five years running a television production company, that’s where I started to notice a disparity in pay. Partly I became an entrepreneur so I could be in control of my destiny.
Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?
I think about this question a lot. The only reason I look back is to reflect on “how am I going to move forward.” So there isn’t anything that I would change as long as I am building on the past. My vision is to help women express their gifts, strengths, and talents in the world. I am always forward-thinking, so I question “Am I achieving that” and “Am I helping women express themselves” rather than I would do this or that. It is about constant learning and growing.
What habits helped you succeed so far?
First of all, I think it is important to come at things with a positive attitude. I was just blessed that I am looking at the positive, and I attribute this to my dad. When I was a really irritable teenager, my dad used to march me in front of the mirror, and he would put his hands on my shoulder, and he would say, “okay, repeat after me ‘I will greet each day with love in my heart.’” That really launched me into being really clear about how I start my days.
I start my day with morning practices such as morning meditation and nonlinear dance and some other feminine practices that I learn from my own personal coach, David Deida. He has shown me a number of practices to get my energy going and be really in my body. I also have night time practices before I go to bed. I start and stop my day in a very positive way, regardless it was a bad or good day, I make sure I stay centered and steady.
Is there a woman who inspires you?
I feel very fortunate because I had an opportunity to meet Gloria Steinem, who is considered one of the leaders of the women’s movement.
I met her when I was really young. I had an experience where I was speaking with her, and someone else who was famous just came between us and started talking to her. She said to this famous person, “Oh, you must know Debbie Phillips,” and this famous person, of course, didn’t. But it was the greatest lesson in the world. Gloria Steinem showed me how to behave in this type of situation as a powerful woman. I was in my late 20s, and it was a life-changing moment for me. Cause I wanted to be like her; gracious, loving, and treating everybody the same. My great fortune is that I had a lot of experiences with Gloria since then, and I feel very grateful.
Can you recommend a resource, book/podcast/movie, for our readers?
“20 Feet from Stardom” is a great documentary film. I also highly recommend “The Art of Possibility” by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander.
Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?
Dream big and keep your support system close.