When company accountants cornered Michelle Freeman following her husband’s sudden death in a 2006 plane accident, they offered her two options: Sell the company and live comfortably for the rest of her life, or take the reins and turn it around. She took the reins.
In the eight years since, she’s successfully become president and CEO of the Carl M. Freeman Companies and the Freeman Foundation, she’s played a pivotal role in a sports management company, a slew of charitable foundations, and mothered three children along the way. She’s also been honored — first by Elle magazine as one of its 10 Most Powerful Women in Washington, D.C. and most recently by Delaware Today Magazine as one of their 2014 Women in Business.
Freeman was a keynote speaker at a luncheon hosted by the magazine and sister publication Delaware Business Times at the Atlantic Sands Hotel & Conference Center. “This non-Harvard grad has done pretty well for herself,” joked Freeman, a light jab at her only regret – not finishing college. Remorse aside, Freeman said it’s been a firm network of supporters – from her family and friends to the people she works with, who have helped her on her journey. “I’m always surrounding myself with people who know more than I.”
Delaware Today magazine spends almost a year taking submissions for its Women in Business awards, a “who’s who” of Delaware women who successfully navigate the tricky balance of career and personal life, children and philanthropy. It culminates in two luncheons—the one in Rehoboth and a second one to honor New Castle County honorees at the Chase Center at the Riverfront.
Freeman’s story was compelling for many of the women at the event, who ranged from bank executives and attorneys to small business and restaurant owners. Freeman brought her own business strengths into her marriage, she said. A love for homes and background in real estate, she had already helped to develop several communities on her own. After marriage and a move to Montgomery County, Maryland, she settled into her life as a wife and mother, until her life “flipped on a dime.”
That flip left her in control of the 68-year-old company started by her father-in-law. She said she would dress every day in an armor of power suits and heels to make boardroom decisions, and grieve the loss of her husband in small increments. “I was totally targeted to save that company,” she said, “in the middle of a recession.”
Freeman urged the women to pursue things they’re passionate about. She’s currently working with Elle magazine on an initiative to see more women — 20 percent by 2020 — on boards across the U.S.
“There’s something to be said for the worst things that happen to you,” said Freeman. “I can’t imagine my life not doing this.”