Donna Fujimoto ColeDonna Cole pauses in the coffeehouse doorway, grinning broadly as she deeply inhales the sweet aromas of Italian pastries and fresh brew. She studies the cases filled with desserts and asks the barrista about gluten content before selecting two almond flour biscotti. "Wouldn't you know I've gone keto," she smirked.

Cole, founder, president and CEO of Cole Chemical & Distributing, Inc., appears very “zen” and content with life’s many choices. She pensively reflects upon her career chronology.

“God has put me in places, and I didn’t know why at the time,” she said. “He has given me many purposes. Looking back, I realize there has been a lesson in this journey.”

Cole’s path to success certainly hasn’t been traditional or typical.

Born in Denver in 1952 to Japanese Americans, she moved in early childhood with her parents and two older brothers to Mission and McAllen, Texas. As a youngster, she endured bullying for her ethnic differences, yet prevailed by dedicating herself to personal accomplishments.

Mesmorized by twirlers in sparkly uniforms tossing batons and marching in televised half- time shows, she set a long-term goal. She convinced her parents into twirling lessons with a lady who awarded candies for masering the drills. As a junior high student, she soon discovered that playing in the band was a prerequisite for high school twirlers.

“For me, that was a barrier and a challenge,” revealed Cole. She confessed she wanted her dream so badly that she found her brother’s used clarinet and committed to playing. She rehearsed diligently to finally become a member of the “second row.” The high school band director, selected the twirlers. Finally in Cole’s junior year she was chosen. Then, in the begin- ning of her senior year, her twirling career tragically ended with an ankle injury. What she learned about herself, a student with average grades, was that she had the tenacity to complete a 10-year goal and overcome obstacles. Cole shared that she loved growing up in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1960s, crossing into Mexico to party with her friends and enjoying the nearby beaches of South Padre Island. She credits working part-time for Texas Gold Stamps and the local bowling alley with helping her mature at an early age.

After high shool graduation, Cole attended Pan American University. She then followed her father to Uvalde, where sheassisted with the opening of a bowling alley he bought. She started courses at South Texas Junior College, standing out from the cowboy culture in her Mickey Mouse t-shirt, bell-bottom jeans and moccasins. She laughed and said she con- tributed a unique perspective in psychology classes. She quicklty followed her older brother to Houston, where she enrolled in a computer technical school and landed a job as a computer programmer/operator at J.K. Lasser accounting firm. She admits to feeling isolated and disliked for officing in the cold room with the hardware systems, only to emerge with corrections needed by key-punch personnel. Within a few months she left and served as receptionist and secretary at Lone Star Gas Company in the gas purchases and sales department. She enjoyed learning the business and developing lease agreements, letters of intent and contracts.

In 1972, after the birth of her daughter, Tamara, she briefly moved with her young family to Uvalde. After returning to Houston, she was offered employment at Goldking Chemical. Starting as a secretary without a chemistry degree or chemical background, it was there she received resources and contacts to learn about products and manufacturers. With her savvy and people skills, she eventually advanced to vice president of sales and purchased company stock.

It was during a 1979 meeting with a potential Japanese partner that Cole’s business trajectory boomeranged. When presented with the agreement, Cole quickly noticed her name was not included. When asked about its absence, a representative explained it was because she was a woman, and on top of that, she was Japanese. Ap-palled by the response, Cole abruptly walked out with her fellow partners following in support.

In another instance, “I knew I had to stand up and act on moral courage and my value system,” said Cole. “If someone doesn’t want to play fairly, how would it get any better? I didn’t know Ihad it in me. I was 25 at the time. I was crying as I was thinking I would lose my job for being a whistleblower and not do something unethical. Maybe being bullied as a kid helped me to be tougher. I guess I could have been bitter but, instead, I decided I wanted people to like me so I choose a life of service and being nice. I learned I had to do the right thing and go with a gut feeling.”

In 1980, the recently divorced mother of a four-year-old ven-tured out on her own and founded Cole Chemical & Dis- tributing, Inc. with $5,000. At the insistence of chemical industry customer advocates, she was given an opportunity and had a mentor who told her “why not seize the moment” to start her own business. Since then, she has developed a business with up to $90 million in chem- ical sales and chemical supply chain solutions for such cus- tomers, including Bayer Mate- rial Scientific, BP America, Chevron, Colgate, Enbridge, ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin, Procter & Gamble, Shell, The Southern Companies and Toyota. Throughout the years, Cole Chemical has received nu- merous awards from Fortune 500 companies and the Small Business Administration.

Cole served on President George H. Bush’s export council in 1991-93, the board of the US Japan Council and the advospru board of Women's Energy Network (WEN). 

Cole was inducted into the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame in 2009 and was honored as one of Houston Woman Magazine’s 50 Most Influential Women in 2010 and Top 10 minority-owned Houston businesses by Houston Business Journal and First Inductee in the Energy Legacy Awards.

She presently sits on the advisory boards of Asian Pacific American Women, the Institute for Supply Management, The Women’s Home, the Rockwell Fund and National Veterans Network. Added to this, there have been countless awards and accolades.

As one of our city's most respected leaders, Cole graciously shares her expertise and men- tors many employees, women and minorities. She is preparing the next generation of Cole Chemical to take the helm.

I'm learning patience in a different way,” Cole sighed. “I’m willing to let my people make some mistakes. They’ll learn and develop critical thinking skills to never repeat. In five years, I will become chairman of the board.”

She smiled slyly and eased back in her chair. I can then do what I like in that role — PR, marketing and finance.

Cole supports her bold decision to search for innovative products and technology to continue problem solving for her customers with the same strength and instinct she initially found as a child.

“Our quality service exceeds our customers expectations, along with our responsive sourcing,” she said. “We’ve cut costs. We are better at using our resources and at risk management.”

Cole’s latest endeavor is co- founding Pantheon of Women, a company that portrays strong women and supportive men in film and theatrical productions. The first project, the movie, I Dream Too Much, is available on Netflix and Amazon. Breaking Out of Sunset Place, a play that opened to a sold-out crowd, was hysterically funny and heartwarming. Next is a musi- cal to be performed at Queens- bury Theatre in the spring of 2020 — Lady of Agreda.

“I’m finding balance through meditation and the teachings of Hawaiian priestess Puanani Burgess,” said Cole. “I guess I’m finally connecting and sat- isfying both sides of my brain. There is a time and a season for everything, after all. And, I am blessed and grateful for it.”

Lisa Bunse is a freelance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.


  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
Prev Next

Seven Life-Changing Habits to Build During the Pandemic

Scary times are upon us. We're staying indoors, watching the news 24/7, and we're afraid. Everyone around us is afraid. That's because fear is super-contagious. But, we don't have to...

Read more

Mayor names Mary Benton new director of communications

Mayor Sylvester Turner has appointed Mary Benton as the new director of communications, effective immediately. Benton brings valuable years of experience in media relations, strategic communications, crisis communications and social...

Read more

OPINION Use time now to focus on yourself!

Scary times are upon us. We're staying indoors, watching the news 24/7, and we're afraid. Everyone around us is afraid. That's because fear is super-contagious. But, we don't have to...

Read more

New Hope Housing offers solutions to Houston' homeless population

On any given night last year, more than half a million people in the United States were homeless, without any safe shelter or place to call home. New York City...

Read more

New Kinder Institute Report

Building a better and more resilient Houston must start at the neighborhood level, and that can be accomplished by providing communities with leadership training, better information and financial support, according...

Read more

Local pros talk business!

Today, there are more than 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., and Houston proudly  claims more than its fair share of that number. Many of our city’s self-employed professionals...

Read more

Junior League's Food & Beverage Manager talks about work, vols and those awesome orange…

If you’ve been to a special event at The Junior League of Houston (and, who hasn’t) you already know the food is consistently delicious and the service is friendly and...

Read more

Hundreds pack room to learn about METRONext Business Now projects

Business and community leaders, as well as a wide range of vendors, learned February 20  how they can help move forward the 500 miles of travel improvements outlined in the...

Read more

Montgomery County nonprofit revitalizing itself with same mission, new vision

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? One of the oldest and most enduring organizations of its type in Montgomery County is about to do just that...

Read more

Houston Symphony's newest concertmaster communicates with skill and intuition

In South Korea, Yoonshin Song’s mother was very fond of classical music –– so much so she enrolled her young daughter and son in music lessons. Her brother was directed...

Read more

Local production company preparing for world premiere

Having cultivated a thriving artistic hub, Houston is the perfect market for developing and launching new works of theatre. Thus, the world premiere of the new musical, Lady of Agreda...

Read more

'Ecumenical Brigade' continues 53-year-old tradition

There’s nothing very jolly about spending the holidays in a hospital bed — especially if you are battling cancer. But, local businesswoman Fran Epstein knows exactly how to make Christmas...

Read more

MFAH's expansion to complete largest cultural project in North America

The opening of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building next fall will complete the multi-year expansion and redevelopment of the Sarofim Campus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Kinder...

Read more

Law school student achieving lofty goals, despite challenges of Sickle cell Disease

With a grateful heart, 35-year-old Amber Simpson, a student at TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, will receive her well-deserved diploma on May 8, 2020. “It has been a fight all the...

Read more

Workplace Problem No One Talks About

Imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t get a promotion because of your religion or skin color. The only good news would be that you could probably sue your employer...

Read more

Kinder Houston Area Survey reveals lingering concerns in wake of Hurricane Harvey

The 38th Annual Kinder Houston Area Survey was released May 13 at the popular Kinder Institute luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston.   Stephen Klineberg, the founding director of Rice’s...

Read more

8 Handshakes that Hurt Your Influence

Have you ever wondered what your handshake says about you? Your handshake is like your business card. It conveys your confidence, credibility and influence without sharing a single word. Studies...

Read more

8 Handshakes that Hurt Your Influence

Have you ever wondered what your handshake says about you? Your handshake is like your business card. It conveys your confidence, credibility and influence without sharing a single word. Studies...

Read more

Getting Around H-town: Car free and Carefree

From traffic jams to costly parking spots, driving in Houston can often spoil fun outings and weekend plans. In a city that ranks as the sixth most stressful place in...

Read more

10 Leadership Traits that Work in Motherhood

Today, my best friend’s daughter passed her driver’s license test and within minutes I got a text from my BFF saying, “I stood in the parking lot at the DMV...

Read more

Taryn Sims' career highlighted by opportunities to learn

Taryn Sims has been in commercial real estate at Wulfe & Co. for 21 years, and still, she finds she’s constantly learning. “There’s never a day I don’t come across something...

Read more

Betty Bezemer believes in celebrating life each day!

Find the celebration of life in each day! That’s the motto of Betty Bezemer, a top real estate agent at Keller Williams Memorial. She has been working there since 1992...

Read more

Tenacity of persistent women led way for women leaders of today

Thanks to the dogged tenacity of generations of persistent women, the future is bright for business women in the 21st century; generations of women who shaped my journey as an...

Read more

Bayou Land Conservancy renews accreditation

Since 1996, Bayou Land Conservancy (BLC), has been saving open spaces for the Houston region. Now, BLC has renewed its land trust accreditation – proving once again that, as part...

Read more

Mary Benton newly appointed press secretary

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently appointed Mary Benton as his press secretary. The appointment came just two months after Benton stepped into the job on an interim basis. “To no one’s...

Read more

Doerr Institute redefining how leaders are trained

Rice University is using a $50 million gift from John and Ann Doerr to redefine how leaders are made. The Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders opened last July...

Read more

Eileen Morris: 'Making art is like making gumbo'

  The Ensemble Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and Eileen Morris, its artistic director, has been involved since 1982 –– almost from the beginning.    After earning a degree in theater...

Read more
Join Houston Woman Community

From The Publisher

Holiday Traditions

Watching Hallmark movies has been a holiday tradition for many of us for a long time. And, despite the predictable plots and inevitable final scenes, we love to watch them. Sometimes, we watch the same ones more than once!

But, we must be careful! This tradition can become a harmful habit — one that could convince us that an idyllic Christmas can only be had in a small town in the Midwest or alongside a picturesque ski resort.

But, that’s not true, not true at all!

Take it from me, a city girl who was born and raised

Read More
Join Our E-mail List