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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 20, 2003

Brockovich boosts island fund-raiser

By Sara Lin
Advertiser Staff Writer

Erin Brockovich's involvement in a contamination case became a Hollywood movie. Now she's investigating cancer risks at a Beverly Hills high school.

Gannett News Service

Erin Brockovich appearance

A fund-raiser for the American Business Women's Association, Imua Chapter, supporting scholarships for adult women returning to school

11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sunday

Coral Ballroom at the Hilton Hawaiian Village

$75 in advance, $100 at the door

For more information about scholarships and the American Business Women's Association, see www.hawaiiabwa.org.

Private investigator Elise Johnson will be tailing Erin Brockovich when she comes to Honolulu to speak at a fund-raiser on Sunday, but there's no secrecy involved.

"I would love to have some tips on how to be a better investigator. Maybe we could join horses," joked Johnson, who runs a one-woman private eye service called Busch Investigation. "Brockovich and Busch. I'll even put her name in front!"

Johnson is one of an estimated 1,000 local businesswomen and admirers expected to attend a luncheon with Brockovich (also known as Brockovich-Ellis, as she is now married) at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, hosted by the Imua Chapter of the American Business Women's Association. The event raises money to provide scholarships for adult women returning to school.

The Imua Chapter receives more than 50 scholarship applications each year. However, its fund-raising usually tops out around $10,000 — enough to cover two or three scholarships a year.

Statewide, the American Business Women's Association receives more than 400 applications every year. This year, the chapter hopes that Brockovich's visit will bring in enough money to provide 30 scholarships. Association members hope Brockovich's appearance raises $75,000.

"We tried to think of someone who would be an example for us," said Maryellen Markley, vice president of the chapter. "Virtually all of us have families, and have had to work and go to school. It hasn't been easy for any one of us. Erin was just a natural."

Brockovich stepped into the national spotlight when her story was the focus of the 2000 blockbuster "Erin Brockovich" film, starring Julia Roberts. She's best known for her cleavage and her work on a case involving a coverup of water contamination that caused many illnesses in a community. The case ended in 1996 with a $333 million settlement for the 634 plaintiffs of Hinkley, Calif. (Brockovich was traveling at press time and unavailable to talk about the program.)

Although the association receives scholarship applications from women working in a variety of fields, most applicants are interested in service industries and have done a lot of volunteering. The organization supports women pursuing any kind of degree from bachelor's on up. "If they didn't have the opportunity to finish college when they were young, we want to help them do it now," Markley said.

"Women in Hawai'i tend to have children young and work in jobs similar to what their parents did. You tend to be categorized here depending on where you come from," Markley said. "It's harder for women here to break out in a new direction, particularly adult women with children."

Markley, a former scholarship recipient, knows how valuable that kind of support can be. Twenty years ago, an American Business Women's Association scholarship made it possible for her to go back to school for her MBA. A full-time legislative writer on Capitol Hill and a single mother with an infant son, Markley received $15,000 over three years from the association chapter in Washington to pay for her schooling.

"The organization made me feel like I was worthwhile and agreed going back to school was a good idea. The chapter I applied to knew I worked full time and knew I had a child, but they had faith in me. It made all the difference," she said.

Today, Markley is the owner and executive director of All-Star Sports & Therapy Center, a downtown nonprofit physical therapy and rehabilitation center that provides free help for people with chronic disabilities.

The Hawaii American Business Women's Association consists of more than 2,000 businesswomen from diverse vocations.

"When I need support in some area of my career or personal life, it's like shopping on eBay," said member Red McDonald. "It's the first stop for reliable support for all of these services." McDonald runs a private nonprofit foster- care and adoption agency. When her teenagers needed to learn about personal finances and job interviews, her colleagues in the association donated their time and held workshops.

But before there was a network of women supporting each other, there were women like Brockovich, who struggled. Growing up dyslexic and abandoned as a young mother with three small children, she was unable to get anyone to take her seriously.

As a private investigator, Johnson encountered similar obstacles trying to break into male-dominated trade. When she joined a large investigation firm, Johnson had trouble moving up the ladder. Tall, blonde and attractive, much like Brockovich, she felt that her male colleagues weren't taking her seriously. She stayed on long enough to earn her certification and then promptly opened her own business.

With her old car as her office, Johnson has served subpoenas with a baby on her back. She also keeps a bikini tucked in her glove box in case her subject heads for the beach. A past Imua Chapter president, Johnson said she believes in helping women go back to school. "If you have your degree, nobody can ever take that away from you," she said. "Sometimes as a woman in business, you need every boost you can get. If you can't make a go of it in a man's company, then start your own business."

Through its scholarship program, the American Business Women's Association helps women help each other

"Years ago, groups of women sat around and crocheted together. Nowadays there are many more serious businesswomen," said Markley. "It is really important, particularly if you are new in business, to know others who can advise you. It's just so nice to ask someone that you trust to get that information."