Dawn Richardson: From High School Teacher to Spirits Distiller

Dawn RichardsonDawn Richardson had an unusual upbringing, but in a way one that made her the ideal candidate to take the leaps of faith required of an entrepreneur. “I was a gypsy kid and went to 20 different schools before I graduated from high school.”

Richardson’s mother was a 70’s hippie, roaming the West with her family living out of a school bus. She was the first female construction worker in the state of Utah, earning money where she could season-by-season and taking classes in small college towns along the way. “You might say she marched to the beat of her own drum,” says Dawn.

But to her daughter, it was normal, everyday life, and there were parts on the road Dawn loved. When it was time to go to college, Dawn headed to a small liberal arts school in Durango, Colorado, where she could explore lots of classes and go skiing. She got a degree in political science thinking that she might eventually head to Washington, DC and work in politics.

“My parents (Dawn’s mother married when Dawn was 13) had always pushed me to teach but I would protest, ‘I don’t want to go into that underpaid, female-dominated, and underappreciated profession,” she remembers. But ironically her desire to travel helped push her in that direction. The family travel bug got her, and she headed to Japan to see the world while earning money teaching English. She taught in Japan for two years, and then returned home and got a masters in education and a teacher’s license and, after brief forays teaching skiing, and then working for a cell phone company, headed back to the classroom.

 “Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”

For the next 14 years, she taught social studies to high school students. Dawn loved teaching but felt it was time to move on. She felt additional pressure outside the classroom from parents and administrators and then a mysterious illness sidelined her and gave her time to think. “I got a virus that caused my spinal cord to swell and it really scared me. I thought it could be the stress of teaching or just being around all those germs. We still don’t know what it was. Suddenly I was faced with my own mortality and I realized, I’m not happy and I need to change that.”

Dawn and her husband, a software developer, had always talked about opening their own business some day. “Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”

Together they investigated several options including a beer garden, but were deterred by the enormous start up costs of upwards of a million dollars. But when Rising Sun Distillerythey really started looking at the business, they realized the largest profit is made in alcohol. Then a story on the evening news about local distilleries caught their attention. Looking at the viability of that kind of business, it seemed to make sense.

They started slowly. Her husband continued working and Dawn got her real estate license so they could bring some money in as they were starting up.

They consulted with another distillery in Colorado where they live, and read lots and lots about the business. Then they began experimenting by making wine and beer. When they felt comfortable, they went all in. Cashing in 401Ks, and selling a rental property they owned, the Richardson’s were able to cover the start up costs of property and equipment. Additional business and home equity lines of credit covered them through a few months of operating.

Rising Sun Distillery LogoThey launched Rising Sun Distillery with a line of gin and vodka. Their niche? Local, organic, non-GMO products. And just five months into the business, they are also recipe testing some peach vodka and a pear brandy to expand their product offering soon. While any entrepreneur knows that making the product is just the beginning, the Richardson’s count themselves lucky to be launching in Colorado.

“First of all, alcohol is a highly desirable product. But also, we live in a state where we can go door-to-door and sell our product because liquor stores are all privately owned.”

While her husband and her mother take the lead on outside sales, Dawn develops the recipes and manages the in-house tasting room where they feature their liquors in a range of artisanal cocktails.

In the short four months since they’ve opened, Rising Sun can now be found in 25 different bars and liquors stores in Colorado. Slowly but surely, they are growing the business.

“It’s a bit scary for sure. We’re not paying our bills with profits yet but we’re seeing signs that sooner rather than later, that will happen. But there’s so much to learn in this industry and I feel like we’re just babies starting out. But it’s really fun.”

Richardson’s one regret?  Her freewheeling childhood gave her a comfort with risk taking, but it didn’t give her any mentors in business. I’d love to talk to other women who are doing this because it can be hard and that would be a nice support.”

Tips from Dawn Richardson
  • Assess your comfort level with risk, if you are not a risk taker and are not comfortable with the worst case scenario, then opening a business might not be the best choice.
  • Working for yourself is a 24 hour job.  The satisfaction of working for yourself far outweighs working for someone else, but it is very hard to leave work at home and have a work life balance.
  • There is so much more to opening a business than I first thought, and a lot of the tasks are not in my skill set.  It is important to know when to outsource and when to hire help or when to join with others.

Lynne Goldberg: OMG! I Can Reinvent Myself

Lynne Goldberg MeditatingIn a short period of time, Lynne Goldberg lost all the personas with which she had come to identify herself.  They fell away, one after the other. No longer expectant mother, daughter, wife, sister or businesswoman, she was left with only one face to look at in the mirror and she didn’t like what she saw.

Goldberg grew up in Montreal, Canada, and joined the family retail chain business where she spent more than two decades in charge of merchandising management. She was a typical type-A executive, stressed out and overworked, which wasn’t exactly helpful when she and her husband decided to start a family.

“We had a lot of trouble getting pregnant and went through numerous failed fertility treatments. I was overjoyed when I finally discovered I was pregnant with twins after four years of effort.”

“It really helped me. We wear so many masks all the time and when you finally get down to it, who you are at your core really doesn’t change. Knowing that helped me shift from meeting external identities to finding myself.”

Her joy turned to sorrow, however, when Goldberg’s mother was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. The stress, combined with her full-on work Lynne Goldbergschedule, forced Goldberg to take bed rest on her doctor’s orders to save her pregnancy. It was all in vain as she miscarried and had to deliver the fetuses. Within the year, Goldberg’s mother died and her world fell apart as her brothers pushed her out of the family business.

“My mind was just not there anymore. I couldn’t perform at work and wasn’t able to do what they needed done. It was a business after all, so they asked me to leave. And despite having adopted two children, my marriage unraveled. I lost everything in a few short months,” she recalls.

She threw herself into a new line of work, using money from her buy-out to launch a home décor importing business to support herself and her children. Nevertheless, it was hard, as she was constantly travelling to China and Europe. On a personal level, Goldberg was angry, disconnected, and generally unhappy. She carried around the feeling that there had to be more to life.

Seeing her struggle, a friend turned her on to meditation.

“It really helped me. We wear so many masks all the time and when you finally get down to it, who you are at your core really doesn’t change. Knowing that helped me shift from meeting external identities to finding myself.”

She continued running the business but was really drawn to meditation and signed up for more and more courses, trying to figure out how she could develop that aspect of her life further. She began teaching meditation at hospitals and schools, until she finally came to the realization that teaching was what gave her the most satisfaction. Although her importing business was doing well, with clients like Costco and Walmart on board, Goldberg decided to sell and focus full time on teaching meditation.

“It was an easy decision.  There wasn’t any meaning in what I was doing; it didn’t make me feel good. Teaching did. When you get out of your own personal drama and look at the world from a bigger perspective, what good you can do, your mentality shifts. It’s empowering.”

And her perspective did change. Goldberg reconnected with her brothers, with whom she is very close today. She remarried and – most importantly – she’s happy and fulfilled.

“I went from being consumed with anger to having family that I love. It’s like that expression says, ‘Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal withOMG I can Meditate! Poster the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.’ One of my biggest life lessons has been forgiveness. Now I choose to find the things that give me joy. Instead of feeling something was taken away from me, I shifted to what I have.”

But the Type-A exec still lurked beneath the surface, and Goldberg wondered how what she was doing could be bigger – how she could reach more people and give them the same joy she was experiencing. As it happened, Goldberg’s husband, a fellow meditation convert who had been in tech, was feeling the same way. His last business produced ringtones and mobile content, and his number-one selling app was the fart ringtone. So it’s hardly surprising, he too was having the sense there’s got to be more and wanted to help his wife in her mission. The couple teamed up with another husband and wife duo who also meditated and had experience building apps.

After one year in development, the result was OMG I Can Mediate, a mobile app targeted at people who have never meditated before. The app launched in March 2015 with 12 weeks of content (the first of which is free) and over 100 specialty meditations from helping you wake up in the morning or go to sleep at night to dealing with your kids. There’s even the wonderfully named “My Boss is a Jerk” which teaches compassion.

OMG I Can Meditate! Logo“If you live in NY or LA, then meditation is widely accessible. But in most other places, it’s still primarily just the early adopters. We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to meditate and make it less daunting and a little fun,” the 52-year-old explains. “The irony is that the very devices that have made us more frenetic can also be the means to finding peace and happiness.”

They are constantly updating and adding new content to the app. After the launch, they were the number-one app in India – an unexpected but pleasant surprise. And AppPicker.com called OMG I Can Mediate “best meditation app available in the app store.”

Looking back at how her life has changed, Goldberg is effusive “I feel blessed, truly grateful. I cannot believe how lucky I am. We wonder why tragedy happens. Sometimes the explanation takes 20 years to figure out. If I knew back then how everything would turn out, I would have been a lot happier. But at least now I have this sense of trust that when stuff happens, it’s meant to happen and it’s going to be OK. It takes the drama out of the day-to-day stuff.”

Test drive the meditation app.

Tips from Lynne Goldberg

  • Building a business process requires a great deal of perspective.
  • Do what you are passionate about. You’ll find success, if you truly love what you’re doing. But remember, you can define success in many ways. Happiness should be the baseline.
  • If you’re thinking of launching an app, keep these things in mind: Keep it simple; Be patient. It takes time to build a brand; Believe in it and let go of expectations; Breathe!

 

 

Nicole Morgenthau: Once a Teacher Always a Teacher?

Nicole MorgenthauAs a young girl in Washington State, Nicole Morgenthau dreamed of being a doctor – a dream she held onto almost all the way through her college career at Virginia Wesleyan. But, in her senior year, it dawned on her that it was still going to be a really long time until she actually got to work in the field. Twelve more years of training seemed daunting, and, simultaneously, her English professor approached her and suggested she consider a career in literature, an area that seemed to be a natural fit for her. So Nicole pursued a focus in creative writing and ironically, instead of diving into a career right away, went on to get a masters in literature at Old Dominion University. (more…)

Calee Blanchard: Leaving Teaching to Test Her Talents

Calee Blanchard at the DeskCalee Blanchard thought she had finally worked her way up to her dream job of teaching literacy in elementary school. She had taught abroad, taught students with special needs, acted as a resource teacher, and was now teaching reading to small groups of first graders in Nova Scotia, Canada. She had thought, at one point, that it was just where she wanted to be.

The problem was that as much as Blanchard enjoyed teaching, there were aspects of it that she just couldn’t embrace. After ten years she found that while she loved working with the kids she didn’t like the strictures of teaching. She didn’t like the fact that no matter how hard she worked and honed her skills, the job itself didn’t change much, and there was little to distinguish the hardest working teachers from their less motivated peers.

“I worked my butt off and thought I was a good teacher, but you might be standing next to someone who hated what they were doing and you’re both regarded in the same way,” she recalls.

Calee Blanchard iMac-27All that changed in 2014, when Blanchard decided she needed to make a change. Blanchard’s friend, Katelyn Bourgoin, was in the early development stages of an innovative new idea and suggested that Blanchard would make a great partner. Blanchard had done some volunteer work with Bourgoin and clearly saw the possibilities for herself and the new company. So Blanchard quit her teaching job and together they launched Vendeve, an online marketplace that allows women to buy, sell, or swap services based on their own skills. It is, as far as they know, the world’s only skills marketplace for women.

Blanchard knew when she left teaching that she was stepping into a completely different world, but it was these differences that intrigued her. “The coolest thing is that as a teacher your pay is based on a set number of hours, and no matter how hard you work or how many extra hours you put in, the pay stays the same. In my new world, it’s all about results; it’s all based on talent and hustle. If you work really hard and are good at what you do, it pays off. The energy that I’m surrounded by now is amazing.”

“As founders, we have to be super organized and wear all the hats to get all the jobs done. As we grow, we may be able to specialize more. But you have to get your hands dirty. Luckily, we’re realizing that as women we’re pretty good at everything.”

There is a simple vetting system required to become a member of Vendeve, after which a member is able to set up a profile offering their skills, and if Calee Blanchard Offersthey wish, requesting the skills or services they are hoping to find. The services offered are richly varied – logo design, nutritional counseling, interior decorating, legal services, and proofreading are but a few of the offerings. Some services, like hair cuts or personal massage, require that both parties live in the same area, while many can be exchanged virtually anywhere in the world. Members can choose whether they wish to sell or swap their service.

Blanchard, listed as Vendeve’s COO and co-founder, refers to herself as the yin to Bourgoin’s yang. “Katelyn is definitely our spokesperson; she excels at sharing our ideas and vision, and I love the behind the scenes execution. It’s a great balance —  she’s the maker and I’m the doer.”

Coming from a teaching background there were definitely some adjustments that Blanchard needed to make. “In teaching you often have to work solo. But now, collaboration is huge and at times I have to push myself to get out of my comfort zone. I am an introvert by nature. But I’ve learned that putting your ideas out there, making yourself a bit vulnerable, is what takes you places.”

Calee Blanchard Black and White
Vendeve co-founder, Katelyn Bourgin

And Vendeve is going places. They have four employees currently on their team and are looking to add a fifth. They have secured funds from angel investors and are in final negotiations with a venture capitalist firm. And, in just a few short months, they’ve enrolled close to 2000 members in over 18 countries.

“Sometimes fundraising and financing can be frustrating because it takes us away from other things we’d like to prioritize, but it’s a necessary part of the process,” Blanchard says. In the interest of raising capital they’ve hosted investor nights, participated in Launch 36, an accelerator program, and perfected their pitch.

“As founders, we have to be super organized and wear all the hats to get all the jobs done. As we grow, we may be able to specialize more. But you have to get your hands dirty. Luckily, we’re realizing that as women we’re pretty good at everything.

“Sometimes it feels like things are going slowly but then we look back and we’re like ‘Holy crap, we have really come far.’ We can actually just log onto our page and see the results right in front of us, the things we were just thinking about that are now reality.  We are right on target or even ahead, so we’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s only been a few months and we have come a long, long way.”

Think Vendeve sounds intriguing?  Interested in learning more? Calee and Katelyn would like to offer Career 2.0 readers full and instant access to Vendeve so you can check it out for yourself. Just go to Vendeve and enter Invite Code C2.0Passion.

Tips from Calee Blanchard
  • You have to have the right mindset for a start-up. You need to be stubborn and competitive and keep pushing forward.
  • Stop thinking about it, dreaming about it, reading about it. Take the plunge.
  • Share your ideas and get feedback. Ask for things. It’s amazing what can come from being direct. And offer help in return; it has to flow both ways.
  • The best advice we got from an adviser was this: When you pitch, share the big-picture vision of where you want to go. Don’t frame your pitch based on where you are now; it should be about your dream and where you hope to be – your vision. That made all the difference for us.

Leslie Fishlock: The Geek on a Mission to Take the Terror out of Technology

Leslie Fishlock Geek Girls

Leslie Fishlock is an unrepentant geek and self-declared rabble-rouser who loves nothing more than to disrupt.

Questioning her tactics for getting more women into tech, a smug woman once criticized her for “teaching old ladies how to open PDFs.” She was far off base in terms of what Fishlock and her organization Geek Girl is actually doing, but the 50-year-old founder admits if that’s what it takes to help them understand technology, then she’s all for it.

“She totally missed the concept that if you don’t start somewhere learning how to do things for yourself, you’re never going to get into more advanced fields like aerospace or engineering. Maybe I’m not training astronauts of the future but I certainly am making technology accessible.” (more…)

Aurora Anaya-Cerda: Moving her Community Forward, One Book at a Time

Courtesy of Johnny Ramos
Courtesy of Johnny Ramos

Opening an independent bookstore at time when most were shuttering their doors against the Amazon giant might seem like a risky and even foolish venture to some. But not for Aurora Anaya-Cerda. The determined California native spent six years working multiple jobs before she realized her dream of opening a literary hub in the heart of East Harlem, New York.

“I wish every neighborhood had an independent bookstore. There are stories at Casa Azul that are not told anywhere else in the city; that’s what’s magical.  Customers realize how important La Casa Azul Bookstore is for our community, how our buying power can ensure our stories remain in El Barrio. My dream of opening a bookstore has become my community’s dream.” (more…)

Lorene Grassick: A Life in the Hills with Load-Lugging Llamas

llama_Major Spots 2012b
Grassick with Major Spots, grandson and great grandson of Jedidiah and Fred Astaire

If you are lucky enough to go hiking through the Sierra Nevadas one summer and happen upon a woman in her late 70s leading some llamas and some equally lucky tourists, you’ve probably come face to face with Lorene Grassick. The grandmother of reinvention, Grassick is on her fourth career as a pack llama trekker and breeder.

“I had great examples as a child. My mother was an entrepreneurial woman and both my parents worked all their lives. I am just lucky that I was able to turn my passion into a business that allows me to spend my days with the special soul karma of friendly llamas.”

Grassick has always been ahead of the game in terms of life events. Before attending high school, she starting a career in book-keeping for her apricot-orchard owning parents in California. By 16 years, she was married and at 19 she already had two children. For the next ten years, Grassick was an accountant for several businesses until she fell out of a tree picking apples and broke her right arm. (more…)

Samantha Razook Murphy: Creating a Movement from a Summer Camp

Beth_Samantha_Melisa_SillyThey say that necessity is the mother of invention, and no one knows better than Samantha Razook Murphy.

Running a residential summer camp for teens, far from family and friends, this creative mom launched her own day camp for young girls to occupy her daughters while she worked round the clock. With a focus on hands-on science and project-based fun, Curious Jane was an immediate success and has evolved today into a highly successful camp, after-school, and community-events business aiming to empower girls to solve problems and experiment in unexplored subjects.

“We take a STEM approach but it’s also creative. Really my goal with the girls is to remove fear of failure as they tend to have greater internal and external pressure to get something right. I want girls to fail. I want them to see it’s totally fine and they can learn from it. I want them to use their hands, look at the world in a different way, open the kitchen drawer and see tools and resources for their creativity, and, best of all, know they can do it themselves,” she explains with enthusiasm.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Razook Murphy always did well at school. Academics were a top priority, and she didn’t disappoint when going to Yale. But her choice of major – graphic design – at an ivy league school was non-traditional. Graduating a year early, Razook Murphy moved home and did some work in the field only to discover it wasn’t really her thing.

She married young, at 23, to an entrepreneur who was building a computer camp business in which she was very involved. But the day after her honeymoon, the newly pregnant Razook Murphy was initiated into the very grown-up world of financial strain and endless worry: “My husband, Doug, was in a very serious car accident. He survived but the recovery process took a year. The business went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. We were wiped out and basically had nothing.”

With her options limited, Razook Murphy felt her best shot was to retrain and – thanks to her parent’s support – she returned to school to get a Masters in industrial design. With their one-year-old daughter and not much else in tow, the couple moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she started studying at The Pratt Institute and Doug began to rebuild his business. “It was pretty tough going. We were lucky enough to have a lovely older woman across the street who looked after Eleanor while I studied and worked on Doug’s business. We had to take a lot of loans and drained our financial resources, but we managed.”

With her degree in hand and another baby joining the family, Razook Murphy ramped up her involvement in the business. While this was the family’s main bread and butter, she still found time to teach at Pratt and do some industrial design freelance projects.

Fast forward a few years and with the recession going strong, Razook Murphy and her husband needed to get a little more creative about making money in order to stay in their increasingly expensive Brooklyn neighborhood. The plan was to establish a new overnight program – Blue Tree Camp – for teenage girls on the Bryn Mawr campus outside Philadelphia that Razook Murphy would run while her husband remained in Brooklyn.

But what about her daughters? What to do with them while she worked?

LivvyGrace_Samantha_Eleanor_Sitting
With her daughters Livvy Grace and Eleanor

“I didn’t have anything in my mind. I was in pure panic mode. I was only thinking, ‘We have to be able to pay the rent so we’re going to call Bryn Mawr and rent space there to run a teen girls’ summer camp. Maybe I can set up a day camp on the side for younger girls where I can put Eleanor and Livvy Grace while we work and work and work. Curious Jane is a fun name. Yeah, let’s go with that.’ It was as simple as that,” she laughs.

And so Curious Jane was launched purely out of necessity, as so many service-oriented business are.

Before taking it to Bryn Mawr campus later in the summer, Razook Murphy rented some space in Brooklyn, signed up a few of her friends, and got started. “We ran a few weeks of Curious Jane in early summer then I packed up my kids, packed my stuff, moved to Bryn Mawr, lived in the dorms for six weeks, ran Curious Jane there and then ran the teen overnight program,” she recounts breathlessly.

Starting small, Razook Murphy hired one teacher and did everything else herself, from driving the camp van to designing the classes, all the while being responsible for Blue Tree. She created an umbrella entity, Girls Dream Out Loud, to house Blue Tree and Curious Jane. “So I won’t lie, it was incredibly stressful that first summer. My kids were there, other kids were there. I look back on it and it creates panic in my stomach. But you put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.”

The following summer, she saw the pay-off. While the Bryn Mawr Curious Jane camp remained small with the focus being on the teen Blue Tree program, the1973956_10151955129636516_1973352057_o Brooklyn camp took off. “We went from 78 camper weeks in 2009 to 520 one year later … 700% growth! What happened was that the girls came, they loved it, their moms loved it and we had an audience.”

And who wouldn’t love classes with names like Guerilla Art, Spa Science, and Gadgets + Gears. You can even learn how to create your own graphic novel or made quiz boards with conductive paint in Wired 101.

Growth came mostly through word of mouth and there was a huge response from the community. Within another summer, Curious Jane opened a Manhattan location and today offers its camps in eight locations.

While it initially subsidized Curious Jane, after six years the Blue Tree teen residential camp has run its course and this summer was its last. “Basically Curious Jane proved to be the much stronger brand. It was able to support itself. It’s unique in that it’s all girls and based on themes like toy design or electronics. These 6-11 year olds are so jazzed to be in the classroom working on their projects because the staff is just so awesome. Curious Jane’s approach has attracted the most phenomenal young women as staff members. It’s a very collaborative and inspiring environment,” Razook Murphy explains.

Curious Jane got a big boost in 2014 when it won a generous small-business grant as part of a nation-wide competition. “It was tremendous! There were CJ_Mag_Cover_BlackOutlinesome debts that needed to be cleared but most importantly we were able to engage a business development group. We’d always grown organically and didn’t have a strict game plan. Frankly we were a little all over the place and they helped us narrow the areas we wanted to move into, to lay a path should we wish to pursue additional funding. We also secured a new office space which allowed us to accommodate more staff and supplies and therefore do more outside of the office. And finally we launched a magazine for cool creative girls. It’s advertising free, full of fun stuff to create, and just awesome!”

And how does she feel now from those heady camp days in 2009? “I’m thrilled, I love waking up every single morning and coming to do what I do. That’s an enormous blessing. I love the people I collaborate with and the fact that I do something good for girls, especially my own girls. They can see a role model, a strong confident woman. Success for me has been being able to grow and develop resources at every state, and frankly to have developed a little bit of grit. People respond so positively to Curious Jane and I get to make a living from that. How great is that?”

Tips from Samantha Razook Murphy

  • Don’t let fear of failure hold you back.
  • Connect strongly with your first customers, value them, learn from them, serve them, they are by far your best tool in growing your business.
  • Mind your time and your energy — throw yourself in but take a moment to step back
  • Reach out for feedback — it’s scary but critical
  • Put one foot in front of the other
  • Remember that “balance” has no momentum… chaos does. Get comfortable with that, use it!

Rebecca Klemm: Counting Her Way to Entrepreneurship

Rebecca KlemmWe all know that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France and that Lady Liberty carries a torch, right? But quick, can you tell us how many spokes the crown has, and what that number represents?

This might be a simple one… the answer is seven, representing the seven seas and seven continents. The single torch represents unity. The date on the book is the birthdate of the United States. So collectively, the symbols tell the story of people from all around the world coming together to the United States – immigration. But this is just one of many stories that Dr. Rebecca Klemm gets excited about telling children and adults as part of NumbersAlive!, a small business she started quite by accident in 2011 at the age of 61.

Forty years prior, Dr. Klemm was a junior in college preparing to teach math. She secured a position teaching 9th grade while still in her final year as an undergraduate. At the end of that year, she was admitted to the PhD program in Statistics at Iowa State University. (more…)

Kathleen Marinaccio: The Art of the Matter

KathleenThe old saying goes, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. But that’s not quite the way it worked out for Kathleen Marinaccio who had a full and prosperous career as a corporate creative director before eventually opening her own art school. Not only was she ready to be the boss, but she was also drawn to the idea of encouraging others to entertain the idea of a career in the arts.

But it didn’t always look that way for Marinaccio. For as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a nurse. “My father had MS and I thought if I was a nurse I could cure him,” she says. Marinaccio would watch the nurses taking care of him then she would paint pictures of herself as a nurse, also taking care of her dad. “I have tons of pictures of me in all different scenes, making my Dad better.”

But when she was 12, her father died, and with that so did her dream of a career in medicine. But her love of art didn’t, and Marinaccio continued to paint from 12 on, expanding beyond the nursing pictures.photo (4)

Her focus on art continued through high school, and when she was considering college, Marinaccio’s high school art teacher encouraged her to apply to the renowned Pratt Institute in New York City.  Knowing she would have to bear the financial weight of college on her own, she applied for the Pratt Scholarship. Although she didn’t win, she placed 13th, still quite a feat, and enough to push the college to entice her to come with other grants.

So in 1987, when she was 18, she packed her bags for Brooklyn. “At that time, Brooklyn wasn’t the best place but I loved it.  And I decided early on to become a graphic designer. I knew I couldn’t paint the rest of my life and needed to make money.”

Her senior year at Pratt, she did an internship for NBC studios, a stint where she was producing ads for Emmy-nominated shows and logos for sports events.” She loved every minute of it. From NBC she jumped to Harper Collins the book publisher as a graphic designer.

It was not the pay or the job description that sealed the deal for her: “The woman who was interviewing me couldn’t find a pen to write notes, so after looking all over, she picked up a purple crayon – which happened to be attached to my coloring book resume – and took notes with that. I just thought that was so awesome and funny, and clearly there was some sort of chemistry because at the end of the interview she said you’re hired!”

It wasn’t just interview chemistry. The woman became a mentor to Marinacco, and the two struck up a lifelong friendship as a result. “She always wanted me to strive for the best and always try to do as much with art as I could. It’s hard to believe an art director I met almost 23 years ago is now one of my closest and dearest friends.”

Marinaccio stayed at Harper Collins for a year and a half when she moved to take a position as a junior designer at The Lotus Group, a NYC design firm. “I was just 23 at the time and was supposed to be out partying and doing real life stuff, but yeah, I wasn’t doing that. I was working.” Six months into her job at Lotus, she moved into the senior designer position, and then a few months after that she heard from a Pratt friend who was working with Marvel Comics that they were looking for a freelance graphic designer. Marinaccio had the skillset and the work sounded interesting so she took the position … as a night job.

It was a grueling schedule but she loved it … working three jobs (oh, did we fail to mention the weekly bartending gig?), doing what she loved for great companies. “I didn’t sleep and I worked a ton. I don’t know how I did it all but I just kept working and banking the money.” But at 25, she needed a break, just a vacation really. After meeting someone in a bar who lived in LA and extended her an invitation to visit, Marinacco decided a vacation was long overdue. Her boss agreed and even said, “you need a break. Take the trip, and I’ll pay for it.”

After a week in California, Marinaccio knew she had to move there. She loved the weather and the beach and the laid back lifestyle after seven non-stop years in New York City. “When I got back my boss said, oh my God, did I just pay for you to realize you want to leave your job here?”

Marinacco never had trouble landing jobs. Her work ethic preceded her and when she put the word out that she wanted to move to California, her colleagues at Marvel connected her with people at New World Entertainment (of Wonder Years fame) who were looking for a creative director.

With $6000 in her bank account, the 26-year old headed West.  New World eventually got sold to Fox, a move that led Marinacco to take her design skills in-house … literally. “I realized I really wanted to work for myself and I opened my own design firm, Fishbrain Graphic Design, out of a third bedroom in my house. From 1998 until 2010, Marinaccio ran her business, with her now husband, another refugee from NYC.

In 2010, it had been 12 years since Marinacco had “worked for the man” and when Warner Bros. came calling with the chance to takeover their Media Research design department, she jumped.  But it was that move that really brought it home for Marinacco, “When executives were banging their hands on the table in frustration during meetings, I realized I had been in the game too long.”

photo 1 (3)Those art teachers who had guided Marinaccio long ago must have been speaking to her subliminally because, one day at Warner Bros., it hit her – she had to open an art school.  “I wanted to teach all forms of art to all people. I had had a career already. I wanted to teach other people who liked art how to do it, how to practice it, and to get them to the point where they could have a great career in art if they wanted to.”

At first Marinaccio, started out of her house again, in the evenings and on the weekends. First one student, then three, then four. All of her students were people who had other jobs but wanted to be graphic designers – a challenge Marinaccio was well prepared to teach.

“I couldn’t wait to get home and help the students. It was like THIS – all of this has been for this moment right here. I would go to meetings and I would sketch my students’ projects and try to find solutions for them.”

Even though the writing was on the wall so to speak, it took one of her students to hammer the point home. “She came up to me and said, ‘you need to do this for real.’”

The next day while driving to work, a phrase popped into her mind: Reimagine, Enjoy, Aspire, and Learn. After work she told her husband she had come up with the acronym for the school: REAL. “My husband, who thinks most ideas are dumb just said, ‘brilliant’, and then of course, I said, ‘Shit, I don’t know anything about opening a school.’”

Over the next couple of months, Marinaccio networked like crazy. She reached out to funders, community leaders, teachers and more. Before she knew it she had 15 teachers saying they were willing to teach a class or more if she needed it and a commercial real estate location. She was on her way to raising $30K in crowdfunding through MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding source by and for women. With some money in the bank and her former student and now partner, Tina Cho, on board they launched REAL on March 19, 2014.

“I knew that if I didn’t try it, I would always regret it.”

It wasn’t easy but she kept moving forward. Her motto when she hit stumbling blocks was simply, “I gotta do it.”

photo 3 (2)
REAL’s 4th of July parade float

Today, REAL Creative Space occupies 1250 square feet in Los Angeles’ Westchester Triangle near LAX. REAL offers workshops and camps for adults and kids ages 5-18, that combine people’s current interests with their desire to learn art. A recent summer camp, MineCraft –ing, which focused on the popular game but combined the artist styles of Mondrian and Picasso was hugely successful. Marinaccio still works at Warner Bros., teaches at Otis College of Art & Design, but now also co-manages REAL and teaches Freelance 101, the graphic design class that launched this amazing art school.

She draws adults to the school with monthly couple’s art nights the 4th Saturday of every month. And importantly, in addition to inspiring others to pursue art, she is committed to donating a portion of all proceeds to rejuvenate art programs at the local schools. Open just since March, she’s already raised $1500 for local schools.

“Its not about us. Its about helping people learn art. I went from corporate to listening to my community, and this is exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Tips from Marinaccio

  • Always be learning. There is never a point in life where we know all the answers, challenge yourself to learn something new every day.
  • Be honest but be nice in the process. The best thing you can do for people is to tell them the truth, but please give criticism without being negative or mean. It’s important to let people know that you care about them and that your notes are meant to be helpful.
  • It’s never too late to try new things or change your life. Over the past 10 years, my students have taught me that if you are not happy it’s OK to make a change. Thank you to all of them for having the courage to make a change and open my eyes so that I could make a change too.

Susan Fletcher: From Writing Algorithms to Nurturing Absorbent Minds

tophatHow would personality-typecaster Briggs-Meyer classify a problem-solving, puzzle-loving woman who spent 20 years in computer programming only to leave the sector in her early 50s to open a Montessori childcare center? Is there a personality that combines being analytical, systematic, and detail-oriented with a sensitive, spontaneous and playful side? If so, then Susan Fletcher surely would fit that bill.

“I loved working in IT but I’ve gone from logical and impersonal to warm and intensely personal. I get such a kick out of watching the children learn and grow. It’s not just about reading and writing. Little kids are learning to put their dishes away when they are finished eating. They are learning about nature, geography and art. I had to smile the other day when the mother of a 3-year-old told me the response she got to ‘How was school?’ was ‘Great! We painted Starry Night by Van Gogh.’ We are accomplishing what I want. The parents are seeing it and they are excited by it.”

Fletcher’s career in IT got off to an early start. In the 9th grade, she joined her father after school in his lab at a hospital where she programed a new computer they had just purchased. “Keep in mind this was the 1970s so I’m talking the early days of computing. I would sit and write programs to teach the computer to draw graphs. I just loved it, it was so much fun.” Fletcher’s path was clear and she went on to study computer science and mathematics at DePauw University in Indiana.

She married and, joining her then-husband in Washington DC where he was studying law, Fletcher took a position with government contractor SYSCON developing custom applications for the Navy for five years. “I found out recently they are still using one of the systems we wrote in 1986. I don’t know what that says about the Navy, but for me it was kind of exciting to hear I wrote something they are using today,” she laughs.

Fletcher took a two-year “break” to have kids while doing Masters course-work in computer science from the University of Virginia. From there, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she developed software applications for a variety of mid-sized telecoms, hospitality, and retail businesses. Moving again in support of her husband’s career – this time to Atlanta, Georgia – Fletcher briefly stopped working until her marriage came apart and her husband relocated to Hong Kong following their divorce. “It was tough. I was working as a systems analyst for a large agriculture cooperative and the kids were only 4 and 7 years.

With parents living in DC, Fletcher decided to return to the nation’s capital and look for work. She landed a position with USA Today supporting advertising department applications and, after three years, moved over to the Bureau of National Affairs (today known as Bloomberg BNA) building websites and managing content delivery. Seeking more seniority and a supervisory role, the ambitious Fletcher did an MBA at the University of Maryland while working fulltime.

Anthony Susan at Malia's weddingThe new degree paid off and Fletcher signed on as VP Operations for a small publishing company. It was all going swimmingly until the market crash in 2008 and the 44-year-old mother-of-two-bound-for college found herself unexpectedly laid off. After six months, she joined the Federal Trade Commission as an IT project manager but it was a morale-breaking three-year stint. “All the fun of solving puzzles and writing software that people would use was gone. There was lots of politics, a lot of hand-holding, making sure people were doing their job. It was frustrating. My life had changed. I had gotten remarried and the kids were gone. I wanted to do something more personal, feel again like I was contributing more.”

Searching around for inspiration, Fletcher thought back to earlier days when her boys had attended a Montessori, an experience she loved. But as a busy single mom it has been difficult to juggle before- and after-care, and the spring and summer camps that were always needed while she worked. “I thought if I had wanted the best experience for my children during the day – with stimulating activities and a warm and supportive environment – and without interruption during summer and other breaks then of course others would too. I wanted to have a Montessori like the original founder intended as true childcare facility supporting working families from drop off in the morning to pick up in the evening. Just because you have to work fulltime, you shouldn’t have to accept a lower quality program.”

Fletcher hit the ground running. She did a lot of research on childcare licensing and regulations, and started looking for locations. She finally got to a point where a decision had to be made, one way or the other: “It seemed like the right time. I found a commercial realtor and partnered with a Montessori teacher. But then the hard work began as Maryland has very specific staffing and facility requirements. Ideally I would have bought land and built a school but the cost was prohibitive at $2–3 million. At one point, I almost gave up because I found the perfect location but then ran into zoning issues and had to abandon the process.”

But she persisted and using personal savings, a home equity line of credit, and a loan from her parents, Fletcher signed the lease on an old gym in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While construction got underway, she began recruiting Montessori-certified teachers as state licensing rules require having sufficient staff on hand (1.5 teachers to every child for a 12-hour day). Fletcher kept working at the FTC until the summer before Top Hat Montessori opened in 2012 and since then has been onsite except when out taking courses on child development, curriculum and planning, emergency preparedness, and childcare administration to name just a few. “There’s a lot of training involved,” she emphasizes.

“For my mid-life crisis, instead of buying a sports car, I opened a school. It’s been difficult and I’ve made some expensive mistakes. Even with an MBA, I don’t know anything about running an early childhood education business so I have struggled with staffing, navigating the complex regulations and licensing requirements, and marketing to young parents. In hindsight, I realize I was naïve, but I absolutely love it. It is fulfilling in a way that my IT career never was. Even knowing how hard it’s been, and how little I knew when I started, I am really grateful that I have had this opportunity.”

 

Tips from Susan Fletcher:

  • Be prepared but accept that no matter how many people you talk to, no matter how much you read and how many classes you go to, there are just some things you learn from being in an industry for a while.
  • Use a business consultant from the very beginning if possible. I worked with a childcare specialist to help me turn things around recently but her help would have been even more valuable from the get-go.
  • It’s never too late for a second career. Feeling passionate about my work is rewarding, and makes all the problems seem worth while.