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Entrepreneur leaves her imprint

by Kim Smithgall

Kim Smithgall is a freelance writer in Saratoga Springs.

For designer Martha "Molly" Brister Haley ’64, running a successful business is similar to racing sailboats. "You’re on the starting line and you have to get from here to there. First, you have to plot your course. Then you have to take into consideration all the things that can alter your plans," she explains. "There are lots of zigs and zags along the way. You have to keep your eyes on the competition and be open-minded enough to approach life creatively."

In sailboat racing, in business ventures, in volunteer work . . . in life, Haley has done just that. Her zigs and zags have included motherhood, founding a business, and counseling young businesswomen.

Haley is a second-generation Skidmorean (the daughter of Margaret Palmer Brister ’35) who followed up her B.S. in art by earning certification in art education at Boston University. When she and her husband moved to Marblehead, Mass., it was the perfect starting line for her entrepreneurial adventures. Just as she began teaching at Marblehead High School, the head of the art department took a sabbatical. Haley stepped in. "I was 26 years old and had no experience. I just jumped in," she remembers. "I think that was the beginning of my attitude of ‘Why not?’ Each time I come to a new challenge, I don’t ask myself why; I ask myself why not?"

That philosophy came into play when Haley was asked to teach silkscreening courses for the Marblehead Arts Association. Although she had little experience in the printing technique, she developed her talents and taught the classes. It was there that Haley met Kathy Walters, and the two started a textile design business called Marblehead Handprints.

"Working from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays, we printed fabrics in a tiny space at the back of my house. At first, we were developing items related to children–we both had small children." Adds Haley, "We were facing the same challenges then that women face today–balancing personal and professional lives."

Soon afterward, Haley also faced divorce and single parenthood. Again applying her can-do attitude, she and Walters developed Marblehead Handprints from a tiny home-based business (which sold its first item, a carriage quilt, to a neighbor) into a highly successful company recognized across the country and beyond. In its 22-year history, Marblehead Handprints produced hundreds of products, including tote bags, kitchen items, neckties, and travel accessories. Haley and Walters worked with other manufacturers to put their designs on gift cards, notepads, mugs, tiles, and clothes. The products were sold in more than 20 Marblehead Handprints retail outlets coast to coast. A national wholesale business expanded their reach to include such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Jordan Marsh, and Bullocks.

Today, remarried and living in Chevy Chase, Md., Haley continues her design work on a smaller scale while spending most of her professional time advising future entrepreneurs. With "more than two decades of business experience to share," she says, "I know the pitfalls and the mistakes people can make." For the past nine years Haley has worked with agencies that train and advise female entrepreneurs. She served as director of counseling and special programs for the American Woman’s Economic Development Corporation in Washington, D.C., and was instrumental in establishing the Women’s Business Center in D.C. She was also asked to develop a pilot program in Norfolk, Va., for military spouses wanting to start their own businesses. That enterprise was "quite a challenge to get off the ground," but Haley succeeded. Hey, why not? And for her efforts she was honored as Woman of the Year (1997) by the Women’s Business Center and also as a Women in Business Advocate of the Year (1999) by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Haley recently shared her expertise in the first Skidmore-hosted session of Camp $tart-Up, a summer program for teenage girls interested in launching their own businesses. Says Haley, "I enjoy working with this age group. I see a lot of confidence and knowledge in young women today." And, she adds, they remind her of her daughters Melissa, assistant curator for the New York Historical Society, and third-generation Skidmorean Margaret ’93, who works with the Oregon Humane Society.

For Haley, who knows where the next zig or zag will lead? She and husband Ed Freitag have just earned their brown belts in karate, and, while they chart the next course for their lives, they’re off to the Galapagos Islands. Why not?


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