When Dawn Stokes was laid off from her corporate sales job in 2003, her first reaction was to get mad. Then she got in gear -- literally. Within weeks of packing up her desk as national accounts manager for a company that made medical exam gloves, Stokes had hatched an idea for a teen driving school and, after working for somebody else her entire life, found herself an entrepreneur.
Today, Stokes, 47, presides over Texas Driving Experience, a $1.4 million Fort Worth company that provides teen driver education as well as thrilling adults with high-speed laps around the Texas Motor Speedway in blaze-yellow Chevrolet Corvettes. It's quite a shift from peddling latex, Stokes says, and while some of the skills she learned in corporate life have served her well, she's also learned a great deal about starting and growing a company.
One of her main advantages, she believes, is that she chose to go into a business she knew. Not only did she grow up around cars and car enthusiasts, but during her corporate career she liked to attend high-speed driving schools for stress relief. "When you're behind the wheel of a high-performance car at a race track," she explains, "there's absolutely no other thing you can be thinking about -- unless you want devastating results." She'd also been to many team-building exercises involving ropes courses and other events, and felt high-speed driving could fit into corporate training programs.
Her passion is another advantage. Stokes feels strongly that teaching teens to be better drivers serves society's needs as well as fuels her entrepreneurial engine. "We're losing 6,000 teenagers a year to car accidents," she notes. Meanwhile, many school systems have stopped offering driver's education. She was also surprised to find that only four states required new drivers to take an education course, and Texas wasn't one of them.
For Stokes, strong concern about teen safety plus a knowledge of fast cars and corporate training added up. "When I was faced with the decision about where I wanted to go, it kind of melded," she says. "What if we put together a program that could feed my passion for high-performance driving, teach young kids how to drive better, do cool teambuilding for corporations and do it at the coolest place on earth, which is the Texas Motor Speedway?"
Her business background also weighed in. Drawing up budgets for her first interest, a teen driving start-up, she realized that she couldn't charge enough and do enough volume to sustain the company. That caused her to start thinking about corporate events.
Next, her sales training encouraged her to try the still somewhat half-baked idea out on some potential clients. "Everything comes down to sales," she reasons. "If you don't sell something, you're not going to need accounting, human resources or operations."
She parlayed contacts with big-company sales training departments into quick fortune. "I had three events sold before I ever bought cars," she says. That almost turned into disaster when it took an unexpected two and a half months to get delivery of nine yellow Z06 Corvettes. But the cars arrived a week before the first event and, a quick four months later, Stokes was turning a profit.
Since then, she's learned additional lessons about growing a company. She tapped an invaluable resource by hiring as teachers former racecar drivers and retired corporate executives who, like her, had dabbled in the sport. Not only do they bring automotive expertise few driving schools can match, but the ex-executives' ability to talk business with team-building clients sets her apart as well.
Finding big partners has also helped her grow. Since Chevrolet is the chief sponsor at Texas Motor Speedway, Stokes overlooked her long allegiance to European-made cars to go with Corvettes. Similarly, she's signed up with Toyota's Scion mark -- a brand aimed at young drivers -- to sponsor a new teen education program.
For the future, Stokes plans something more scalable than driver's education and teambuilding: an advanced driver safety course companies will use to boost the skills of employees in fleet cars and trucks, as well as salespeople driving rentals in strange cities. "We love the corporate training, but each of those is kind of like a big Barnum and Bailey circus," she says. "This would be standardized. That's a huge jump for us and something that's going to be really good for us."
Some things Stokes might do differently. For instance, she financed the start-up by cashing in her 401(k). Next time, she says, she might borrow against retirement funds to avoid paying the 10-percent penalty. Then again, maybe it's better this way. "Sometimes," she says, "you have to just shove all your chips up on the table and go for it."
Mark Henricks is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.