Respect & Inspiration: The Legacy of Therese Flaherty

By Nadine Kavanaugh, Associate Director, Wharton Entrepreneurship

“We’re not the experts.” That’s what Therese Flaherty told entrepreneurs over and over again in her 14 years as Director of the Wharton Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Therese believed in the power of entrepreneurs to transform their businesses, and she created a consulting framework based on asking thoughtful questions and challenging assumptions—with the entrepreneurs themselves making decisions, because they’re the experts in their businesses.

Therese 600x450
Therese Flaherty, Director of the Wharton Small Business Development Center

This is the secret to Therese’s tremendous legacy, and why so many will miss her now that she has retired: her tremendous respect for the entrepreneurs she worked with and their businesses. It is also what made her so successful.

Therese Flaherty spent her tenure at the SBDC seeking out local entrepreneurs in order to give them access to the Center’s resources. She was evangelical in reaching out to clients of every educational background, of every ethnicity, and from all parts of the city—though she had a particular interest in West Philadelphia, which the University of Pennsylvania, and the SBDC, call home. Close to 50% of the clients the SBDC works with are women, an astonishing statistic reflecting the growing numbers of female entrepreneurs nationwide. With the resources at hand, Therese did her best to “be in front of people where business is happening.” Therese saw her role as that of an ambassador from Penn, bringing those outside the community in, to be part of the grand educational mission of the university.

Therese with designers from the Macy's Fashion Incubator.
Therese with designers from the Macy’s Fashion Incubator

“Someone once quoted that a great mentor is hard to find, difficult to part with, and impossible to forget. To me, my team and our growing companies, Dr. Flaherty is the embodiment of this sentiment,” says a client of the SBDC, Mustafa Sualp, Founder and CEO, Untra Corporation & AEFIS LLC. “Driven by her tenacious willingness to help others succeed coupled with her immensity of experience, she has positively impacted our lives and professional achievements. For that, we will always be grateful and wish her all the very best in her future endeavors.”

She not only brought local entrepreneurs in; she also engaged Penn students with the business community, where they would learn by doing—and benefit clients at the same time. Each year the SBDC hired 80-100 Penn students to act as small business consultants. Other universities came knocking to watch this program in action, impressed by the sheer number of students and clients, each learning from the other.

“Dr. Therese Flaherty has been a role model for her statewide SBDC colleagues,” says Dr. Mary McKinney, Director of the SBDC at the Palumbo Donahue Schools of Business at Duquesne University. “She has been a source of many ideas and above all, inspiration, within the PA SBDC network as well as in the Wharton SBDC. In her inimitable way, she helped to create higher horizons and vision for her staff and students. Many Philadelphia area businesses can attribute their growth and transformation to the creative assistance the Wharton SBDC provided to them under Therese’s leadership. Therese will be missed, but the infrastructure and foundation she created for the Wharton SBDC will remain an enduring legacy.”

We’ll miss you, Therese. Enjoy your retirement!