By Marci Narum 

Photography: Photos by Jacy

It’s the first piece of advice Deb Eslinger offers women who have an idea to start a business or an opportunity to move into a leadership role. Listen to the knocking, the calling, that voice inside of you.

“When you feel that calling coming to you, you’ve got to answer the door,” Deb says. If it scares you, you answer it quickly. If you know that there is something else you have to walk toward, you have to walk toward it.”

After eight years as the executive director of the Center for Technology and Business (CTB) in Bismarck, Deb is answering a knock that she says has been getting louder for the past couple of years.

“There’s something coming, and I could feel it, I could sense it. I just didn’t know the timing of it all. I could choose to ignore it, and I think I have for a while, but at the end of the day the only person I’m cheating is myself and those I would get to serve in my new capacity.”

Deb is now on course to impact people around the world and help them listen for the sound of their “knocking.” Her final day at CTB was August 16, and as she reflects on her professional path, she points out pivotal moments and people who helped her learn to listen.

AWAKENED BY NEAL

Deb says her husband, Neal, has been her biggest supporter at every exciting crossroad and in every heartbreaking ordeal. The two began dating as Deb was finishing college; she had completed her Biology degree and the plan was to apply to a pre-med program, but that changed after Neal asked her what she wanted to do with her life. 

“I said, ‘I don’t know — no one’s ever really asked me that before.’

“That path had been laid out for me,” Deb continues. “My dad always said, ‘Deb’s going to be a doctor of some sort.’ Doctor wasn’t in my awareness, but maybe other health-related careers like radiology, physical therapy, or occupational therapy could be. 

“I asked Neal, ‘Do I get to decide?’” Deb laughs. “I know that sounds silly, but when things are laid out for you, you kind of just go through the motions. Neal just stopped me in my tracks and asked me if it’s what I really wanted to do.

“So, I did the most obvious thing. I graduated from college with my Biology degree and then I opened a photography studio,” Deb says, laughing again. 

HARD KNOCK TRAGEDY

Deb grew her photography business by specializing in weddings and school sports photographs. 

“I loved it. I’d go into all the schools and take pictures of the individual players so parents could get the buttons or team photos … from grade school all the way through high school, and we had partnerships with pretty much all the schools and some of the rural communities as well,” Deb explains.

Ambition ignites the entrepreneurial spirit, and Deb admits, she pushed herself, determined to prove she could keep up with the demands of her schedule as a business owner while also caring for her 3-year-old daughter Alea and infant son, Isaac. 

A car accident in 2005 claimed baby Isaac’s life and changed Deb’s perspective and every decision thereafter. 

“Losing Isaac was the biggest turning point of my life. It was a rude awakening … ‘What am I doing and I am doing things that really matter and make the most difference for the time that I’m given here?’” Deb recalls asking herself.

“I was up nursing three times a night, I was getting very little sleep, and I was pushing myself to be at the office eight-10 hours a day. I just was not asking for help. I wasn’t taking the time for me, and I see many women doing that. We get ourselves exhausted and tired and burnt out. We’re just in the motions and robotic instead of being in the present and in the moment.”

Deb quickly adopted the mentality that life is very short and we “can never waste the day we are given.” Her life’s purpose was suddenly clearer and redefined.

“I had to figure out how to make the most with the time given to me and how I can make the biggest difference for those around me. How can I take my lessons and try to help others shift their priorities? Live a life of meaning and on-purpose.

“What I know about myself now, is that I need boundaries. I know when I need help and can ask for it. I know when I need to take time for myself. I have a better awareness of my limits,” Deb says.

LEADERSHIP

Isaac’s death marked an undeniable turning point for Deb. In the midst of new circumstances, being her “old self” was difficult; she needed a new normal. Deb sold her photography business and started volunteering. Neal and Deb welcomed a third child, and while Deb stayed home taking care of Alea and little Tia, she dabbled in some home-based businesses that connected her with women nationally and internationally. 

“And then, I got in touch with the IDEA Center (Incubator for Developing Entrepreneurial Activity) in Bismarck. I saw an article in Inspired Woman magazine, isn’t that something? Julie Kuennen was interviewed; I knew I needed to check out this IDEA Center.’” 

Deb was hired to work there in 2010. Fifteen months later, she was recruited to be the executive director of CTB, which now hosts the IDEA Center program and the North Dakota Women’s Business Center. 

Staying true to her newly-established boundaries, Deb began investing in herself through John Maxwell Team Leadership training.

“I knew I needed to become a better leader, especially with the visions I had in my head. I wanted the center to impact North Dakota, so I needed to grow. I knew I needed to be a better speaker. I needed to be a better coach because I knew I would be coaching more entrepreneurs and I also needed to be a better leader. (John Maxwell Team Leadership training) encompassed all I wanted to do.”

DIFFERENCE MAKER

Since then, Deb has influenced thousands of women through programs she established with her team at CTB — the Women’s Business Summit, the Leading Ladies Luncheon, and the Women’s Leadership Program. She has also been instrumental in starting or leading other community-based projects such as the Power of 100 and TEDxBismarck, and hopes to continue her involvement. She calls every achievement a team effort. Deb and her team at CTB received the National Women’s Business Center of Excellence Award in 2016. 

“One person can’t be successful alone,” she says.

Deb continues to foster her leadership skills through the John Maxwell Team, where she now serves on the executive committee of the president’s advisory committee.

“There is a small team of us that supports the leadership and the global team, which influences the future of the John Maxwell Team. I am blessed to serve as a team faculty member, which allows me to lead global calls in the business-building lane and leadership lane.”

Deb believes the call she is answering now is an opportunity to share her experience and skills by helping women grow as leaders and entrepreneurs on a global front.

“I’m ready to really build out my dream of having an international women’s leadership program to empower women in leadership,” Deb shares. “Some of what I’ve done locally is what I’d like to do nationally, but dive deeper with all that I have learned through the John Maxwell Team.”

Deb has teamed up with a colleague she met through the John Maxwell Team and together they are collaborating with other women from across the globe to develop the program.

“We have ideas on what it will look like: ‘Designing Your Dream Life’ and ‘Never Waste Today.’ It’s that idea that every day matters, every hour matters. It comes from all of us having challenges and adversities and knowing how important it is to make today count and live all-out. 

“The project will be virtual, in person, and some peer-to-peer groups. We will probably build some mastermind types of groups and also some programming specifically built for women in leadership, money and mindset, and designing their best life.”

While Deb’s own dream life design process has required that she listen to the “knock” and move toward it, she shares a second, very important piece of advice: take action.

“I just want to inspire women to bet on themselves,” she explains. “As my mentor says, ‘Just trust the process. You may not have all the hows right now, but they will show up once you start to take action.’”

Deb’s mentor must be smiling.

“My favorite quote by John Maxwell is, ‘Make a difference with people who want to make a difference at a time that makes a difference.’ That really sums up what I want to do. Everything that I’ve been teaching and training. It’s time for me to take my own advice and bet on me.”