2010-02-25 / Business

Life starts at 70 for Westlake businesswoman

By Sophia Fischer sfischer@theacorn.com

Myrna Alpern Myrna Alpern At 70, when many people her age might be enjoying retirement, one Westlake Village woman is running a business that she rebuilt after recovering from a life-threatening illness.

Myrna Alpern sells the Book Buddy, a specially designed pillow that can hold a book or a laptop computer. She created the hands-free product for her elderly mother.

“My mom had arthritis, suffered a stroke and was having a hard time holding books open and holding books up,” Alpern said. “I sketched this idea, made up one, had a friend sew the pieces together and gave it to my mom. One of her friends wanted one, another person wanted one, so I thought, hmmm, maybe I have something here.”

The pillow, which comes in a variety of fabrics and patterns, has two ribbons running from top to bottom that hold the book covers open. Two other ribbons, attached diagonally across the bottom corners of the pillow, hold the book’s pages open. A clear acrylic, removable desktop can be attached through a tab on each side. Laptops can be held in place using the diagonal ribbons. The acrylic keeps the computer cool, Alpern said.

She first established the business in 1994 and within a few years had sales revenues of $1 million. But in 1997 she discovered she had breast and uterine cancer. Alpern underwent a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy. Her husband took time off from his electronics business to care for her. Sales diminished for both of their companies, forcing them to shut down.

In 2000 the couple moved from Los Feliz in the Los Angeles area to a Westlake Village home they had purchased years earlier for Alpern’s parents, who had since passed away.

“We love it out here; it’s a wonderful community,” Alpern said.

When Alpern reestablished her business she had help from the nonprofit organization Women’s Economic Venture, which offers a self-employment training program, advanced training, business consulting, coaching and networking opportunities to help women and men to start, expand and sustain a business.

Needing a business plan to take to Venture leaders, Alpern asked a California Lutheran University business professor for assistance. His students agreed to take on the project as a class assignment.

“I couldn’t afford to do a business plan and obtain all of the information necessary. It’s very time-consuming and expensive,” Alpern said. “For the kind of plan I needed you have to really go through a very involved evaluation of the product, research who it sells to, why it sells, cost of goods, project what it’s going to be doing, what it’s going to be making.”

After Alpern presented the completed plan, Venture leaders loaned her $45,000 to reestablish her business. The loan terms called for repayment in five years, but Alpern’s business did so well she returned the funding in two years. She has now taken out a larger loan from a Ventura economic development group for the creation of a website, advertising and new products she is developing.

Her products are sold in bookstores and through retailers in 23 states and Canada, and on her website.

“Myrna not only followed her dream but took the time to put together a strong plan and utilize that as her guide, so she’s been able to adapt and grow her business,” Venture client services director Angel Cottrell said.

Since Women’s Economic Venture was established in Santa Barbara County in 1991 and in Ventura County in 2002, more than 1,000 small businesses have been helped.

Venture officials have seen an increase in unemployed people seeking assistance.

“Now they’re thinking, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose, now to flesh out an idea, to seriously consider self-employment as an option,’” Cottrell said. “Self-employment has increased over 24 percent since 2005.”

Small businesses are the economic engine for the state, creating jobs and generating tax revenues for the local economy, Cottrell said.

“But it’s important for people to have access, help and support as well as finance resources because there are hurdles that will keep showing up,” Cottrell said.

The Venture raises more than $1 million annually through corporate gifts, foundations, private individuals and local government and federal funding.

The Venture’s business plan program begins Feb. 27. For information, visit www.wevonline.org or call (805) 667-8004.

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