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Passion And Preparedness -- Secret Ingredients To Pursing A Dream

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From the first tentative baby steps of "I think I might" to the giant leap spanning "I will...and I am," a lot of territory is covered. At midlife, if we take our dreams seriously (and if not now, then when?), it is sobering to think of all it will take to achieve them.

Or, as my friend Amy Hilliard says, passion is great, but passion without preparedness and hard work will leave you flat.

Twelve years ago, then at the age of 48, Amy (who looks two decades younger than her chronological age), left the corporate fast track and a senior vice president position at L'Oreal to pursue her dream of making poundcake -- the southern-style confection she had perfected over the years to the delight of family and friends who always told her, "You should sell this!" In 2001, she established The ComfortCake® Company, with the tagline (coined by her daughter, Angelica) "Poundcake so good it feels like a hug."

Today she sells her classic and liqueur cakes through her website, as well as slices, frozen batter, and mixes. Her sugar-free poundcake slices, made with her proprietary "Sugarless Sweetness," are featured at the Potbelly Sandwich Shop at Midway Airport. Her "Luscious Lemon" poundcake mix is being sold in 500 Walmart stores nationwide, and her new line of "Sweet Benefits™" no-sugar-added caramel and red velvet cake squares are being tested in 14 Walmart locations.

Doing business with Walmart, the world's largest food retailer, is indeed sweet success -- but it did not come easy. Amy's story reminds us that when it comes to pursuit of passion, there's no skimping on commitment. For Amy, that has meant being "all in," and in a way that would be daunting to most of us.

After the stock market bubble burst in early 2001, scaring away investors, Amy saw no other option than to sell her dream home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago to finance her dream -- an agonizing decision. Although Amy had the faith that "God told me to take his hand and do ComfortCake," she would soon be tested (as risk-taskers and dream-pursuers always are) and many times.

In the first year of operation, an order for 550,000 slices of poundcake from United Airlines really helped launch ComfortCake. Then the 9/11 tragedy hit the airlines. United honored its contract, but the commercial bakery that Amy was using lost its other airline business and had to file for bankruptcy. At the 11th hour, as creditors moved to seize the bakery's assets, Amy scrambled to get back her proprietary recipe and $40,000 in baking pans and utensils that belonged to her, and find another bakery to remain in business.

"Once that happened and it didn't stop me, I knew nothing would," Amy recalls.

This is not bravado from an entrepreneur who found a shortcut to easy street. There have been plenty of other challenges, which ultimately became valuable lessons. In 2009, a very large potential customer was ready to sign, but then determined that the timing wasn't right. "I was devastated," Amy admits. "But it allowed me to step back and realize I had better diversify my revenue stream." And so she did -- with Walmart and Potbelly, among others.

As Amy, soft-spoken and quick to laugh, shares this story, "gratitude" is the word she uses most -- such as when Walmart sponsored her to attend a week-long executive entrepreneurship program at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Amy, a graduate of Howard University, where she now serves on the board of trustees, earned a Harvard MBA 35 years ago, but "so much has changed in business."

Amy's gratitude is not passive. This media-savvy (she's been featured on The Food Network and the Home Shopping Channel, among other outlets) entrepreneur does all she can to "take it to the next level," continuously reinvesting in the business.

Even for those of us whose dreams may be of the decidedly more casual variety (one that doesn't require giving up the day job and the house) Amy's lessons in perseverance still apply. Moving from talk to action is monumental. At the first sign of a challenge, there's no running away because it's suddenly a lot harder than first imagined.

No wonder Amy is sought out as an exemplary entrepreneur -- not only by her friends, but by esteemed organizations such as the Clinton Foundation (she spoke at its annual retreat with former President Bill Clinton in attendance, and now blogs for the foundation).

Her message is positive, but realistic, about the depth of commitment needed to manifest a dream. But the bigger risk is never trying. Given the challenges she's faced and how far she's come, Amy is unlikely to harbor any regrets for roads not taken. The path hasn't been easy and the pitfalls have been numerous. Nonetheless, it's a sweet journey.

To read Amy's "Slices of Success," click on the slideshow:
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