When it comes to business, Athena Uslander is one smart cookie. In fact, her decision to leave a lucrative career as a structural engineer to pursue her entrepreneurial bent has produced the sweet success that is Athena’s Silverland Desserts, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Uslander’s career change evolved from a need to match a profession with her passion and personality.
“All my life, I wanted to be an engineer even as a little girl following my uncle who was an engineer,” Uslander said. “When I got my first job in the field, the whole office was men in suits and you could hear a pin drop. If I went a little wild or laughed, everybody in the office looked at me like I committed a crime. I realized it wasn’t my personality. I’m very colorful and creative. I thought to myself, ‘I am going to rot in here’.”
In 1983, Uslander partnered with friend Lisa Silverman to open Athena’s Silverland Desserts, which was founded essentially on the idea of offering an irresistible brownie from an old family recipe. A year later, Silverman moved to San Francisco with her husband and Uslander assumed sole ownership.
“It was tough at first,” Uslander said. “I just had a baby and my [first] husband wasn’t too supportive. These little old ladies would look in the window of our store and think, what are they doing in there. But, I really believe if you work hard enough, you’ll get it done eventually.”
Quite the contrary, Uslander’s business, located on Desplaines Avenue just south of Madison Street, shot through the roof in the late 1980s thanks to marketing through various food and trade shows. Athena’s Silverland Desserts currently offers more than 65 different gourmet-style brownies, dessert bars, crispy rice treats, nutritional bars and cookies.
Approximately 95 percent of Athena’s Silverland Desserts revenue is generated from wholesale transactions with distributors and retailers in Illinois, New York, Florida and California.
“We never tried to be trendy,” Uslander said. “Our focus has been to make high quality products that stand the test of time.”
That business model has obviously worked as the River Forest resident has sold assorted brownies and cookies to an impressive array of distributors including Ghirardelli, Mrs. Fields, Olive Garden, Sunset Foods, Oberweiss and several other nationally known businesses.
In addition to her tasty treats, Uslander’s business has flourished because fundamentally it has always been about helping others, she said. Reflective of the pillow in her office, which reads, “Stressed is Desserts spelled backwards,” Uslander believes in enjoying life and valuing her team of loyal employees.
“The greatest rewards for me are that I feel like I have helped give a life to my 20 or so employees,” she said. “They have a made living they can be proud of, sent their kids to school and have their own homes. I remember one time when my mother-in-law told me, ‘What is this stupid brownie business, you should be home with your kids.’ Well, that stupid brownie business has paid for two of my kids to go to college and will pay for a third one to go as well.”
In 2005, Uslander was chosen as a model and spokeswoman for Dove’s Pro-Age campaign, which offers skin care products targeted to women over 50. While the publicity has helped her business, including visits on shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, Uslander said she’s just happy to support women and at any age.
“I’m very much a women’s advocate obviously, and I realized that women over 50 are kind of forgotten in terms of advertising,” said Uslander, who turns 53 this week. “It’s good to show real women and real people and not a 6’2″, 22-year-old anorexic model all the time.”