Polio no obstacle in McShane's rise to success

Kathy McShane never has let polio define her.

"It was clearly a part of my life, but I never thought there were things I couldn't do or shouldn't do," she said.

As a young girl growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, and with her family facing a number of hardships, McShane contracted polio at the age of 18 months. In 1956, when she turned 5, her family decided to leave Scotland and move to the United States.

Almost 60 years later, that little girl has become a successful entrepreneur who runs the Connecticut chapter of Ladies Who Launch in New Canaan and who was named March of Dimes ambassador in October in conjunction with the organization's 75th anniversary.

The March of Dimes helped eradicate polio in the United States in 1979. Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus and often causes paralysis. Polio cases have decreased by more than 99 percent since 1988, from about 350,000 cases then to 223 in 2012, according to the World Health Organization. Today, March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies and to prevent premature births and infant mortality.

McShane was chosen to be ambassador, in part, because she appeared in a poster about polio for the organization when she was 5 and because March of Dimes considers her "a great role model," she said. Her mother, who was involved with the organization, volunteered McShane for the poster.

"When I was a child, the March of Dimes contributed three-quarters of their income to families like mine," McShane said at the October event in Darien.

"As an immigrant, when we first came to this country, we didn't know about doctors or clinics," said McShane, who underwent surgeries almost every year when she was a child. "They were wonderful in terms of helping us figure out where we should go to and who we could afford because we didn't have that much money. It's an unbelievably powerful organization."

McShane said polio never stopped her from doing anything.

More Information
Fact box

As the managing director of Connecticut's Ladies Who Launch, McShane has helped many women begin or expand their businesses. She gives women entrepreneurs a road map to achieve their goals. Ladies Who Launch in Connecticut has more than 300 clients -- or as McShane calls them, "my ladies."

Before Ladies Who Launch, McShane ran the New Canaan-based marketing and brand development agency Kendrew Group, which she founded in 1987. The agency launched marketing campaigns for Visa, MasterCard, JP Morgan Chase and HBO, among others. During her time with the agency, McShane won several awards, including a Small Business Award of Honor given by Bill Gates; a Mark Award for HBO and a CBS News Radio Small Business Hero award.

McShane credits much of her success to the way her parents raised her. "When one has a child that has some sort of a disability, I think they have to make the decision as to how they're going to bring that child up," she said. "Are they going to make them needy or are they going to make them extremely independent? My parents chose the independent route."

McShane remembers being bullied in school and was once told she couldn't ride a bike.

"When people told me I couldn't do it, that would make me want to do it," she said.

When McShane told her younger sister about the bullying, she said, "Come on, let's get on a bike." McShane not only learned how to ride a bike, but she eventually started swimming and doing water aerobics.

Among McShane's words of advice to "her ladies" is that they should "focus, focus and focus."

"Women are so used to multitasking that they tend not to draw a line in the sand and stick to it," McShane, who moved to New Canaan nearly 30 years ago, said. "Because they're so nurturing by nature, they're always trying to help people out."

Women also have a hard time talking about their skills and experience, said McShane, who writes the twice-monthly column "Ladies' Launchpad" for the New Canaan News and Darien News.

"If you have a skill set or you do something so well, but you don't tell people about it, you can't take advantage of it," she said. "So, it's not about bragging or selling. It's about transparency."

McShane coaches women mostly through programs, workshops and one-on-one meetings. For years, she has facilitated a collaborative course called Mastermind Groups, where female entrepreneurs ask and give support to each other.

One of those women is Allyson Spellman, a former actress, entertainment producer and casting director. Spellman, of Greenwich, was trying to start a business when someone referred her to McShane.

With McShane's help, Spellman founded Unleash Your Voice, where she has become a women's empowerment coach. Before the business took off, however, Spellman was having trouble defining her mission.

"I felt that my messaging was conflicting, and I wanted to take my business to the next level. (McShane) helped me see the parts that were missing," Spellman said. "She has a way to really connect with people."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson