Mary Kay Brennan grew up on the south side of Chicago. She attended Mundelein College and planned to become a teacher. Then she met Norb Slowikowski, married at age 21 and settled into family life.
But big changes were in the air, leading Mary Kay Slowikowski down a very different path to establish a very different family business – Slowikowski & Associates.
Upon her engagement, Mary left school and secured a job teaching fifthgrade at St. Felicitas, her home parish in Chicago. A year later, her 50 students attended her wedding Mass, and one year later, she was pregnant.
“At that time, if you were pregnant, you didn’t teach,” Mary noted. “You were out.”
Mary's husband Norb had grown up in the same neighborhood where they bought their first home. He worked during the day and studied for his master’s degree at night. When McDonalds hired him for a corporate position, life changed dramatically for the young family.
“McDonalds started moving us around the country,” Mary said. “They wanted him to come up through the stores. They moved us to Wisconsin, St. Louis, and back to Illinois. Three moves in three years.”
Corporate moves like theirs were common. But moving with three young children brought on panic attacks for Mary. With help, she overcame them. But it started her thinking about her life.
"I didn’t want to go back to the classroom," Mary said. "Those were the days where, if your husband was the corporate guy, you didn’t strike out. But I have a great husband who had a lot of empathy. He said, ‘You have a lot of skills, Mary. Maybe you should take some classes.’”
When the Slowikowski family moved to St. Louis, Norb suggested that Mary get all the wives together.
“All these women were coming into St. Louis – new McDonald’s couples,” Mary said. “We had parties and book clubs. None of them had ever moved before, and I got them involved because I had gone through a mess when I moved.”
The corporate office heard about Mary’s efforts, so when they moved Norb back to Oak Brook, they hired Mary part-time to help set up a relocation department.
“In those days, they gave you the Yellow Pages in a hotel room and said, ‘Go to it,’ ” she explained. “There was no help with schools. You were lucky if someone was there ahead of you that could direct you. I wanted to do all the things that weren’t done for me.”
McDonalds was happy with Mary's efforts and asked her to do the same in other districts. She enjoyed the work, but since Norb was already traveling around the country on business, Mary declined the offer so she could care for her family.
At the time, Bob Picha, a consultant who was working with Norb, told Mary that she’d do really well in her own business. He invited her to attend a three-day workshop he was leading, “Adventures in Attitudes.” Mary took the class and eventually became certified to teach it.
“That changed my whole life,” she said. “That was my purpose. I fell in love with it.”
In 1975, Mary started a business at her kitchen table. She knew she could lead the workshop but needed clients, so she started cold-calling businesses.
“There weren’t a lot of women (in business) 35 years ago,” she said. “When I’d go out to sell, I’d be the only woman in the lobby waiting to go into the (company) president’s office.”
In one of her first workshops, Mary spoke to a roomful of women, the wives of police chiefs. She read her speech and received polite applause. Picha suggested that she talk about her panic attacks as a way to connect with the people in the audience. She didn’t think anyone would be interested.
“The next time, I tried it, and there was a line waiting after the talk,” she remembered. “I thought, ‘Wow, it touches people’s hearts. That’s what I should be talking about.’”
Mary's confidence grew with each workshop. But Norb was getting more and more dissatisfied with his career, and the stress was taking a physical toll on him. He wanted to join Mary in business, but she worried about their expenses.
Norb finally convinced Mary to move, and for 12 years, the family lived in a home half the size of their previous one.
And it changed their lives – for the better.
When Maribel Morgan was on the cover of Time magazine promoting her book “The Total Woman,” Slowikowski was incensed. “I was a woman out there, just beginning," Mary said. "I thought, ‘She’s going to put us 50 years back!’”
Mary showed Norb the cover, and he challenged her to do something about it. So she created a workshop dubbed “The Future Woman,” based on the Adventures in Attitudes seminar, but geared specifically toward women who were finding their place in the world. One Saturday a month for one year, Mary ran the workshop, recruiting women from the business community – mostly secretaries – at that time.
“I went into companies, and the men would stick (the flyers) in the garbage,” Mary said. “The women would go through the garbage, take it out and show up because it was only $25 and (was on) a Saturday.”
Then Norb and Picha suggested that Mary add a business day on Sunday.
“They would first take the seminar (on Saturday),” Mary explained. “Then these women would be trained to teach the seminar. They would be certified, we’d give them a manual, and they’d go back and be able to teach it. They’d buy the materials from us.”
Mary put an ad in "Working Woman" magazine and "Success Unlimited." Women poured in from all walks of life across the U.S. and Canada. The seminar produced 50,000 graduates and 5,000 certified coordinators.
Now it was Mary's turn to travel the country while Norb took care of business at home.
“I was in Calgary, Canada, and I still remember an older woman with white hair and all these rings on,” Mary related. “At the end of the two days, she took this ring off her hand and gave it to me, saying, ‘You just touched my life. You changed my life. I want to give this to you.’”
But while men-only business associations existed, there were very few for women. So Mary started one.
“We had ‘Women in Management’ in 1979 up on the North Shore,” she said. “I brought a new group down to Oak Brook. Three hundred women were members, and 400 women would come to lunch once a month in Oak Brook. They did not necessarily have management titles, but they were managing. We (also) ended up with 22 National Association of Future Women (groups) around the country.”
As women were integrated into the workforce, the need for targeted workshops diminished as workshops on leadership and managing multiple roles included both men and women.
At the same time, Mary’s life took an unexpected turn. At age 39, she learned she was pregnant again. Her travels came to a halt.
“I again had to reinvent myself,” Mary said. “I went to Harper College and taught management. I taught at IBM. I taught presentation skills, team-building, communication. Dupont now brings me out every year to teach team-building to 24-year-olds, new engineers.”
Mary's reinvention led to an Emmy nomination.
“I gave a talk at a hospital,” she related. “One of the volunteers came up to me and said, ‘My husband’s the president of World Book. You’re going to be at the Chicago Theater at the convention (as) one of the speakers.’”
Mary did speak at that convention, along with Leo Buscaglia and Ann Landers. The 5,000 salespeople from World Book gave her a standing ovation.
But she wasn’t quite finished.
“I was watching PBS one day and saw all the men,” she said. “I called WTTW and said, ‘I know there are a lot of women. When are you ever going to have them on?’ The representative replied, ‘There’s a producer downtown right now. Do you have a tape? Send it down.’”
Mary did two 60-minute specials for WTTW – “Live Your Life’s Music” and “Change Your Life, The Choice is Yours.”
Slowikowski & Associates has become a true family business. Husband Norb continues to teach productivity and leadership, focusing on the construction business. For the past 15 years, son Eddie has run a leadership camp for high-schoolers and is now working with adults as well. Daughter Anne and son Tim provide management and business support.
In addition to her business engagements, Mary is on the board of Mayslake Ministries and is the chairperson of the Encore program at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago. She also conducts a speaker’s series at the Carmelite Spiritual Center and a Women’s Spirituality Group at the Carmelite Carefree Village.
“We teach skills that will help them become better leaders,” Mary said. “We teach productivity that will help them become a better company. We can motivate employees. There’s a lot of substance to Slowikowski & Associates; it’s not fluff.”
For more information, contact Slowikowski & Associates at 630-910-8920 or go to www.making-it-happen.net.