Emily Muhlbach works in the communications division for the City of Cedar Rapids. She holds a masters in communication and leadership from Gonzaga University. In her free time she enjoys family, friends, and good literature.
Brooke Fitzgerald smiles across the counter, greeting each customer by name and chatting as she takes down orders and makes change. The little coffee shop is quickly filling with the sounds of a busy morning, and Brooke deftly manages the line of regulars with a personal touch. Behind the counter, her son enjoys his breakfast – a young observer of the commitment and satisfaction of running a business.
For Brooke, the freedom and flexibility of pursuing her dream job – managing The Early Bird Café, a popular coffee shop nestled in downtown Cedar Rapids – was the result of months of preparation, planning, thinking…and a little outside inspiration.
Her professional career during and after college enabled her to amass a background rich with small business banking as well as food and beverage management, skillsets that were just waiting to be used to their full potential. In 2010, she was working as a mortgage and real estate lender, and while she appreciated the steadiness and predictability of the position, Brooke recognized that her dreams and skillsets were larger than her career was allowing.
“I was feeling a little of that ‘glass ceiling,’” she admits. “I was asked to do things that my male counterparts weren’t. I remember at one point a friend of mine asked me what I would do if I could do anything, and I told her I’d open up a coffee shop/boutique. She just looked at me and said, ‘But you could do that right now, that’s not even unrealistic.’ So I started planning.”
With a clear goal, Brooke began putting ideas down on paper and working with her husband to create a business plan that would fit their family. “It was a tough thing,” she says, “It’s a huge undertaking to consider and I asked myself all the time, ‘What am I doing?’”
Brooke was not quite to the point of pulling the trigger when she signed up for IWLC’s 2011 conference. “I was still very much in the ‘I don’t know’ phase when this conference came along,” she remembers.
The conference featured Dr. Maya Angelou, among many distinguished speakers, and focused on growing women into authentic leaders in all aspects of their lives. For Brooke, the messages hit home. The opportunity to hear inspirational speakers while surrounded by strong and like-minded women was exactly the catalyst she needed to confirm she was on the right path.
“It was complete freedom and validation for me,” she says. “To look around the room and see all these other women who were doing the same thing – having great ideas and pursuing the freedom to do your own thing and raise your families…it gave me complete validation of what I should do.”
Brooke remembers hearing about women like herself overcoming challenges and adversity, and she walked away from the conference knowing that if she were passionate about something, she could do anything. “That conference prepared me,” she says. “I knew there would be times the business venture would be great, and there would be times it would be hard, but the whole conference just affirmed my decision. I never second-guessed it.”
The Early Bird Café opened in November 2011. The business has enabled Brooke to manage her career and family with flexibility and uncompromising commitments – characteristics she believes are at the heart of every woman – and a gap that IWLC can continue to close by working with the local business community.
“We’re at the point where women are achieving higher positions in their careers – and that will come with growing pains,” says Brooke. “Women will 100 percent perform their tasks, but they will always balance their families. There is a need for greater flexibility and bridging the gap between women and leadership roles in companies.”
For now, Brooke is enjoying her new role as small business owner and manager, having never looked back after taking the leap.