CURRENT FALL 2019

Donna Fujimoto ColeDonna Cole pauses in the coffeehouse doorway, grinning broadly as she deeply inhales the sweet aromas of Italian pastries and fresh brew. She studies the cases filled with desserts and asks the barrista about gluten content before selecting two almond flour biscotti. "Wouldn't you know I've gone keto," she smirked.

Cole, founder, president and CEO of Cole Chemical & Distributing, Inc., appears very “zen” and content with life’s many choices. She pensively reflects upon her career chronology.

“God has put me in places, and I didn’t know why at the time,” she said. “He has given me many purposes. Looking back, I realize there has been a lesson in this journey.”

Cole’s path to success certainly hasn’t been traditional or typical.

Born in Denver in 1952 to Japanese Americans, she moved in early childhood with her parents and two older brothers to Mission and McAllen, Texas. As a youngster, she endured bullying for her ethnic differences, yet prevailed by dedicating herself to personal accomplishments.

Mesmorized by twirlers in sparkly uniforms tossing batons and marching in televised half- time shows, she set a long-term goal. She convinced her parents into twirling lessons with a lady who awarded candies for masering the drills. As a junior high student, she soon discovered that playing in the band was a prerequisite for high school twirlers.

“For me, that was a barrier and a challenge,” revealed Cole. She confessed she wanted her dream so badly that she found her brother’s used clarinet and committed to playing. She rehearsed diligently to finally become a member of the “second row.” The high school band director, selected the twirlers. Finally in Cole’s junior year she was chosen. Then, in the begin- ning of her senior year, her twirling career tragically ended with an ankle injury. What she learned about herself, a student with average grades, was that she had the tenacity to complete a 10-year goal and overcome obstacles. Cole shared that she loved growing up in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1960s, crossing into Mexico to party with her friends and enjoying the nearby beaches of South Padre Island. She credits working part-time for Texas Gold Stamps and the local bowling alley with helping her mature at an early age.

After high shool graduation, Cole attended Pan American University. She then followed her father to Uvalde, where sheassisted with the opening of a bowling alley he bought. She started courses at South Texas Junior College, standing out from the cowboy culture in her Mickey Mouse t-shirt, bell-bottom jeans and moccasins. She laughed and said she con- tributed a unique perspective in psychology classes. She quicklty followed her older brother to Houston, where she enrolled in a computer technical school and landed a job as a computer programmer/operator at J.K. Lasser accounting firm. She admits to feeling isolated and disliked for officing in the cold room with the hardware systems, only to emerge with corrections needed by key-punch personnel. Within a few months she left and served as receptionist and secretary at Lone Star Gas Company in the gas purchases and sales department. She enjoyed learning the business and developing lease agreements, letters of intent and contracts.

In 1972, after the birth of her daughter, Tamara, she briefly moved with her young family to Uvalde. After returning to Houston, she was offered employment at Goldking Chemical. Starting as a secretary without a chemistry degree or chemical background, it was there she received resources and contacts to learn about products and manufacturers. With her savvy and people skills, she eventually advanced to vice president of sales and purchased company stock.

It was during a 1979 meeting with a potential Japanese partner that Cole’s business trajectory boomeranged. When presented with the agreement, Cole quickly noticed her name was not included. When asked about its absence, a representative explained it was because she was a woman, and on top of that, she was Japanese. Ap-palled by the response, Cole abruptly walked out with her fellow partners following in support.

In another instance, “I knew I had to stand up and act on moral courage and my value system,” said Cole. “If someone doesn’t want to play fairly, how would it get any better? I didn’t know Ihad it in me. I was 25 at the time. I was crying as I was thinking I would lose my job for being a whistleblower and not do something unethical. Maybe being bullied as a kid helped me to be tougher. I guess I could have been bitter but, instead, I decided I wanted people to like me so I choose a life of service and being nice. I learned I had to do the right thing and go with a gut feeling.”

In 1980, the recently divorced mother of a four-year-old ven-tured out on her own and founded Cole Chemical & Dis- tributing, Inc. with $5,000. At the insistence of chemical industry customer advocates, she was given an opportunity and had a mentor who told her “why not seize the moment” to start her own business. Since then, she has developed a business with up to $90 million in chem- ical sales and chemical supply chain solutions for such cus- tomers, including Bayer Mate- rial Scientific, BP America, Chevron, Colgate, Enbridge, ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin, Procter & Gamble, Shell, The Southern Companies and Toyota. Throughout the years, Cole Chemical has received nu- merous awards from Fortune 500 companies and the Small Business Administration.

Cole served on President George H. Bush’s export council in 1991-93, the board of the US Japan Council and the advospru board of Women's Energy Network (WEN). 

Cole was inducted into the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame in 2009 and was honored as one of Houston Woman Magazine’s 50 Most Influential Women in 2010 and Top 10 minority-owned Houston businesses by Houston Business Journal and First Inductee in the Energy Legacy Awards.

She presently sits on the advisory boards of Asian Pacific American Women, the Institute for Supply Management, The Women’s Home, the Rockwell Fund and National Veterans Network. Added to this, there have been countless awards and accolades.

As one of our city's most respected leaders, Cole graciously shares her expertise and men- tors many employees, women and minorities. She is preparing the next generation of Cole Chemical to take the helm.

I'm learning patience in a different way,” Cole sighed. “I’m willing to let my people make some mistakes. They’ll learn and develop critical thinking skills to never repeat. In five years, I will become chairman of the board.”

She smiled slyly and eased back in her chair. I can then do what I like in that role — PR, marketing and finance.

Cole supports her bold decision to search for innovative products and technology to continue problem solving for her customers with the same strength and instinct she initially found as a child.

“Our quality service exceeds our customers expectations, along with our responsive sourcing,” she said. “We’ve cut costs. We are better at using our resources and at risk management.”

Cole’s latest endeavor is co- founding Pantheon of Women, a company that portrays strong women and supportive men in film and theatrical productions. The first project, the movie, I Dream Too Much, is available on Netflix and Amazon. Breaking Out of Sunset Place, a play that opened to a sold-out crowd, was hysterically funny and heartwarming. Next is a musi- cal to be performed at Queens- bury Theatre in the spring of 2020 — Lady of Agreda.

“I’m finding balance through meditation and the teachings of Hawaiian priestess Puanani Burgess,” said Cole. “I guess I’m finally connecting and sat- isfying both sides of my brain. There is a time and a season for everything, after all. And, I am blessed and grateful for it.”

Lisa Bunse is a freelance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.