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Oklahoma businesswoman shares success with women in Afghanistan, Rwanda

Terry Neese rose from rural Oklahoma to become a successful businesswoman and nonprofit leader.
by Ken Raymond Published: April 24, 2012
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There are humble beginnings, and then there is Cookietown.

Small communities aren't uncommon, here in Oklahoma or elsewhere. But few are as tiny as Cookietown, a community south of Lawton, which boasts a population of five.

“I'd say at its height, when I was growing up, there were probably 10 people there,” said Terry Neese, now 64. “There was a church, two small gas and grocery filling stations, and that was it.”

Her youth was spent playing basketball, driving tractors, harvesting wheat, picking cotton, raising chickens and gathering eggs.

Now her life is much different. A successful Oklahoma City businesswoman, she testifies before Congress, networks with lawmakers and collects honors and awards the way others collect paychecks. She published a book for female entrepreneurs and was President George W. Bush's pick to oversee the U.S. Mint.

She also heads the only nonprofit that teaches business practices to women in Afghanistan and Rwanda. The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women was born in 2006 and took its first steps a year later. It has grown ever since.

“This is what I've been working toward all my life: helping women in war-torn countries to run businesses,” she said. “I believe when you educate a woman you educate a nation.”

Starting out

Neese largely was self-taught.

She had four classmates at Union Valley Elementary before a few schools in the area consolidated. Even at that, her graduating class included only about 30 people.

She enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1960s.

“Women then were majoring in secretarial science,” Neese said. “That was my major. I thought that I would be a secretary and administrative assistant probably for the rest of my life.”

She got married after her freshman year and had a daughter, Kim Neese, who is now 45. The marriage didn't last, but the skills Neese learned working for a Norman personnel service took hold.

She enjoyed matching workers to employers while encouraging women to strive for jobs outside the secretarial pool.

After college, she remarried, moved to Oklahoma City and worked for two more personnel service companies. Both went under, taking her commissions with them.

She opened her own employment service company in 1975. She didn't have money, backers or a business plan, but she convinced a building owner to give her a month of free rent so she could get started.

“At the end of 30 days,” she said, “I was in the black.”

Her success continued despite setbacks. She purchased an office on Route 66 just four months before the road was torn up to make room for Interstate 44, rendering her building inaccessible. It didn't matter; her revenues quadrupled. Several months after the interstate opened, the building burned down, destroying all of her records. She rebounded, quadrupling her revenue again.

FBI investigation

Her life changed in 1986, when she became a part of the National Association of Women Business Owners, or NAWBO.

Neese was elected to be a NAWBO delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business. On Aug. 16, 1986, she made her first trip to Washington, D.C.

“I saw doors open that I never knew were closed,” she said. “I watched other small business owners from around the country debate some of the same issues we're debating today: insurance, taxes, paperwork.

“I learned so much about how important our voices are in the political process and came home determined to stay active, to be more involved.”

Two years later, NAWBO asked her to be a vice president on its national board. In 1990, she became the group's president. She traveled to talk to chapters in 45 states and mentored countless women, building a huge network of business contacts.

Her national profile continued to grow, but then something strange happened. The FBI started nosing around, questioning Neese's friends, neighbors and colleagues. The IRS delved into her personal and business financial records. “What's going on?” those around her asked. “Are you in trouble?”

She couldn't answer.

About six months after the questioning began, President George W. Bush cleared the air. Federal investigators had been doing background checks on Neese, making sure she had no skeletons in her closet that would emerge during federal confirmation hearings.

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by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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