Deciding ‘I’m All In’
By Rowena Crosbie as told to Christine Riccelli
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Rowena Crosbie is president of Clive-based Tero International, a corporate training company she founded in 1993, and is the co-author, with Deborah Rinner, of “Your Invisible Toolbox: The Technological Ups and Interpersonal Downs of the Millennial Generation.” The 55-year-old Crosbie was married to Ted Crosbie, a Monsanto seed executive and Iowa’s chief technology officer, for 23 years until he died after a sudden illness in 2016. She has one stepson, Jonathan Crosbie, a physician at Des Moines University. In an interview condensed for publication, she reflects on everything from the joy of learning to the pain of loss.
Realize It’s Not Always About You
I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in a pretty traditional family. My parents are deceased now, and I have two kid brothers who both live in Canada.
After high school, I went to business college. A modeling school was on the same street as the college. I’d always been fascinated with the field, so I trained to be a model. Then I was asked to help teach the skills to new students, and I discovered that I enjoyed teaching and training much more than modeling.
One of the things we taught models that’s relevant to my work today is that modeling wasn’t about them. We told them, “You’ll be in fashion shows, but it’s the retailers who are the clients. And your job is to present their clothing effectively.” At Tero, when we teach people how to make presentations, we tell them the same thing: This is not about you but about the audience, the message, the course of action you’re trying to persuade the audience to take.
We’ve found it’s actually a relief for people to hear this and realize, “You know, maybe I do need to get over myself as a leader and recognize that this isn’t about my insecurities or ego; it’s about having an impact as a team.”
Be Willing to Take Risks
When I went to business school, I knew I loved business but I didn’t know what type of business I wanted to pursue. I started as a receptionist and then moved into office management. But in the workplace, I discovered the glass ceiling and realized that I needed to further my education. I went back to the University of Manitoba and studied management and accounting at night while I was working full time.
Later, I started a small computer business with a former high school classmate. In 1990, I was planning to quit my job at a seed company to devote full time to our business, but then I was asked to transfer to Iowa. I decided to sell my interest to my partner, take a chance and move to the United States for a while. I was supposed to be here for three years. That was 28 years ago.
The company I worked for in Canada had been acquired by ICI, which had purchased Garst Seed a few years earlier. The merged companies would become ICI Seeds. The job opportunity here was to help start a training department; in the early 1990s, human resources and corporate training functions were early in their development.
I was always a very good student in school—I have a learning style that’s well suited for traditional education—but I didn’t like it much. And it always bothered me how so many kids struggled with that traditional way of learning. But when I was invited to help start the corporate training department, I discovered that there was an education platform that could facilitate learning in a way that would be customized for individuals and focused on skills and knowledge that they could use practically in the real world. It was an exciting time to be part of something new, and I fell in love with corporate education.
Then in 1992 I married an American. Ted and I both worked at the same company. He was the director of research and then became CEO. And when you marry that person, you probably want to rethink your career at the company. I still had the entrepreneurial bug from the business I’d started in Canada, and so I said, “Why don’t I start a corporate training company? I’ll do it as a consulting business.” I launched Tero out of my home with $200, which was what you needed to start a business account back then.
Focus On Common Interests
Ted’s 12-year-old son, Jonathan, moved in with us shortly after we were married so I immediately jumped into the deep end of parenting. I was as nervous as any stepparent would be; when taking an active role in raising someone else’s child, you have to figure out where the boundaries are and if those boundaries are appropriate.
But I learned that if everyone stays focused on their common interests, it’s possible for people from relationships that have dissolved to still parent well together. I think Jonathan was the beneficiary of that; he had three parents—his dad, his mom and me. I was very fortunate in that we were truly a team.
One of the things I learned being a stepparent is that I love late childhood and adolescence. Over the years, I’ve noticed parents seem to favor some stages of development more than others, and it turns out that for me, adolescence is that sweet spot.
I think that’s because I can see how that stage relates a bit to the work we do at Tero. I love the process of self-discovery and figuring out how we relate with other people along with the world around us. The research on children is that, at about age 12, they start to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around them and they begin trying to figure out who they are. You also can start to have some meaningful conversations with kids that age. I got lucky with my stepson. Jonathan’s been an absolute treasure in my life.
Help Others Succeed
When Jonathan graduated from Earlham High in 1997, I asked myself, “Do I keep Tero as a private consulting business or do I grow it?” And there were a lot of indicators that the training industry had potential to grow. So I started looking for opportunities to welcome other members to the team, and in 1998 we moved into a West Des Moines executive suite. By 2000, the company had grown enough that I signed a lease on a 1,500-square-foot office on Westown Parkway.
I’ve found that women business owners have some challenges that I don’t think are as common for our male peers. I have strong financial skills, probably owing to the accounting and finance work I’d done previously. So as I was expanding the business, I re-invested back into it. I never borrowed money, I never had any debt—and I still don’t. In 2005 when we moved to our location in Clive, we were the first tenant and had enough retained earnings to build out our learning facility. Still, I was worried about cash flow because I was going to deplete our retained earnings for the renovation.
I wanted a line of credit to feel confident that if the accounts receivable didn’t come in on time, I could still meet payroll. It was that simple.
I talked to five banks to see if I could get a $40,000 line of credit—not a loan. For each meeting, I took a folder with me that contained Tero’s financials from the previous three years. We were doing well; we were expanding and I had enough money to pay for the renovation.
All five of them said, “We won’t need to see your company financials.” And I said, “Why not?” And they said, “We need to see your household income.” That was code for “How much does your husband make?” I said, “Help me understand why you need household income.” I knew if I were to disclose my husband’s income, the banks would have given me any amount of money I asked for. But I didn’t run and grow the business based on his earning potential. None of those five banks even opened up the folder with my financials in it. So at all five banks, I said, “I don’t need your money,” turned around on my heels and walked out.
The line of credit I was seeking was just a precaution—I didn’t actually need it—but it was still a little stressful not to have the lifeline it would have provided.
I knew my female peers might be having similar experiences, so I’ve made it an interest of mine to help female business owners. There are wonderful networks that can help you realize you’re not alone, and there’s some comfort in knowing you’re part of a community. A lot of us are facing the same challenges, and we can lean on each other for support.
In 2016, Ted and I were at our home at the Lake of the Ozarks for a long Fourth of July weekend. He was having a little trouble breathing, and I said, “Why don’t we run to the clinic to have it checked out?”
The doctors saw something on his lungs and assumed it was pneumonia. They started antibiotic treatment but he didn’t respond, and by the third day, he was transferred to the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, where he was in intensive care. We had every reason to think he was going to get better, but every time it seemed like he would improve, everything that could go wrong did, and he passed three weeks later. I insisted on an autopsy as I knew the scientist in him would hate not knowing what happened.
He was treated by a team of highly skilled specialists—I’ve got no complaints about any of them—but we still don’t know what caused the initial bleeding in his lungs. I’ve had to learn to live with that uncertainty. That’s all you can do. I don’t think you get over it or through it—you just learn to live with it.
Accept Support From Others
Ted was my soul mate. He always had my back and I always had his. I’ve had to get used to the idea of having a life that I hadn’t planned for. Part of that was figuring out how to allow myself the time and the space to grieve. Especially in that first year, I had to give myself the gift of maybe taking a day on the weekend to lie in bed and watch reruns all day if that’s what I felt like doing—and not beat myself up about it. I had to learn how to allow sadness.
The people who love you will be with you no matter what, but after a while, it’s hard to be around a sad person. So I felt an obligation to, at some point, show some semblance of recovery because I’m not the only one who suffered. A lot of people loved Ted, and they were suffering too.
I’m grateful for the help of friends and family. My support networks have been amazing. I’ve leaned heavily on my colleagues who, back when Ted was in the hospital, kept the business running without missing a beat. My team is amazing in every way, and I remain grateful. And Jonathan and his wife
and their two kids live in Des Moines, which has been an enormous blessing in my life.
Before he passed, Ted had retired and I had started to think about how I might eventually exit the business. After he passed, I had to ask myself, “What does the rest of my life look like?” I realized that a lot of my identity was attached to being Ted Crosbie’s wife, and I loved that part of my life. But to figure out your identity completely on your own—what is that?
And my decision was, “I’m all in.” At Tero, our team is focused on full-scale growth and expansion, and we’re doing some very exciting things. Our expansion will take us to nearly 11,000 square feet; additions include more training rooms and a video production facility, where we produce a weekly YouTube show and other programs.
After Ted passed, people asked me if I intended to move back to Canada. I still travel to Canada to visit family, but this is my home. I’m not going anywhere. This is where I belong.