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Dishing Out Something Different

 

Nosh’s colorful menu boards

Nosh’s colorful menu boards offer plenty of options for vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores alike.

Growing up in Monson, with a father who worked in auto-body services, a young Teri Skinner occasionally visited downtown Springfield with her mother to pick up parts or paint, and they’d make time to stop by Johnson’s Bookstore and other bustling shops.

“I remember loving downtown Springfield,” she said. “Coming from a small town like Monson, there were so many things to do here.”

In the early days of running her restaurant, Nosh, in the Shops at Marketplace — just a few steps from the former Johnson’s site — she recalls the streets downtown being much quieter than they were in her childhood.

Then, a few years ago, she noticed a change.

“It didn’t happen overnight, but leaving here, I started thinking, ‘wow, there are people downtown, just walking around.’ And it wasn’t just MGM, which is great asset, but a lot of community people who wanted to see Springfield become viable. And I just enjoy being down here — I love everything about it.”

Nosh, which just celebrated its sixth anniversary on Black Friday, wasn’t something Skinner planned to operate long-term when she started selling breads and pastries at Marketplace during the summer of 2016.

At the time, she was running a small catering operation out of her home, following a stint at a catering company in Worcester that had burned her out with 70- to 80-hour work weeks.

“What caught my eye was this big wall, and I could picture a menu on it. And I was like, ‘yeah, I can do something with this.’ I had no idea what the menu was going to be; I just knew I could pull it off.”

The owners of Simply Serendipity, a clothing boutique at the Shops, approached Skinner about selling her baked goods at a farmers market on Market Street, the alley that runs behind Main Street between Harrison Avenue and Bruce Landon Way.

“As the summer progressed, people were saying there’s not enough places to eat downtown, so I started bringing sandwiches and salads. Then, as the weather cooled off, I was bringing soups. It was basically a pop-up restaurant every week, with a little table and a tent outside. The BID provided us with small café tables, so people could actually sit out here and eat, which was nice because it’s such a cool space back here.”

She thought that would be the end of that enterprise, but as the cool weather approached, a small space opened up in the Shops, and one of the property owners approached Skinner about it. “She opened up this door, and it was a closet. But what caught my eye was this big wall, and I could picture a menu on it. And I was like, ‘yeah, I can do something with this.’ I had no idea what the menu was going to be; I just knew I could pull it off.”

Two weeks later, Nosh was born, with little equipment other than a commercial refrigerator and a panini press. “That’s how I built my menu, with those two items. I was making soups and sandwiches for the holidays. And during the holiday market, it was successful enough that I said, ‘all right, maybe we can do something with this.’ So we stayed.”

Six years later, Skinner is glad she did, not only growing and expanding her establishment, but getting ready to open up a second location in Gasoline Alley on Albany Street (more on that later).

 

Broader Palate

The expansion happened in 2018, when a pair of divided spaces became available, and Skinner contacted the property owner about taking over both sides.

“My small staff and I worked during the day, then worked at night tearing down walls and stuff. We opened a week before MGM opened,” she said. “It’s been great. The business continues to grow, even though we are so hidden back here. I still get people who come in and say, ‘I’ve lived in Springfield all my life, and I didn’t know this space existed, this whole street.’”

The larger space gave Skinner a chance to expand her culinary offerings, which still center on sandwiches, salads, soups, and baked goods, but a much broader variety of each.

“There were some good original eateries down here, like Nadim’s and the Fort, but not a lot of variety, or something that was our niche at that point,” she said, before recalling her stint working for a restaurant at the veterinary school at Tufts University when her former catering-company employer got the contract there.

“I’ve gotten some pushback on things; I got a one-star review because somebody didn’t like what was written outside. But I don’t want to put on a pretension that these aren’t things I hold dear to my heart. Sometimes, something triggers me, and it’s like, enough is enough.”

“A lot of first-year students would come in who were vegetarians or vegans, and that’s where I honed in on that aspect of the cuisine I present. We also had large-animal doctors who were carnivores, so I had to cook everything. And I felt a restaurant shouldn’t be limited to one cuisine, but should be able to serve all different palates. That’s what my vision was for this space.”

The restaurant has expanded over the years to Saturdays and a couple of evenings each week, but weekday traffic, especially foot traffic from the downtown office towers and surrounding businesses, have long been her bread and butter, as well as people visiting the MassMutual Center for events.

The pandemic posed challenges to all restaurants, but Skinner’s sister-in-law designed an online ordering platform, and Nosh switched to a delivery model, with the small staff doing all the deliveries themselves rather than use an entity like DoorDash. It also partnered with an intern from Baystate Health on a hospital-worker program, whereby people could donate $10 toward a meal for a local healthcare provider, which Nosh matched.

As restaurants reopened, patrons were once again able to enjoy Nosh’s decidedly funky interior design, bedecked in local art, antiques purchased by Skinner’s son and girlfriend, tables built by her husband, and the handiwork of a local woodworker who created countertops and the Nosh sign from reclaimed wood.

“I don’t like buying new things; I think we have enough abundance of things we can reuse and recycle,” she said. “So we try to be as mindful as we can in this industry about what we’re using for products and how they’re packaged and how they leave our establishment and what you can do with them afterward.”

The other dominant visual feature are the colorful, descriptive menu boards and the chalkboard paint covered with the staff’s thoughts — some amusing, some serious, especially around feminist values.

“I wouldn’t want a restaurant that looked like every other restaurant,” Skinner said. “I want my personality in here, and I think my personality is in here, as well as many of the people who work for me. It’s all coming through. We’re a team, so I want them to share their ideas.”

Outside Nosh, facing the alley, is a board that has been used for deadly serious messaging, from the transcript of the 911 call from the Uvalde, Texas elementary school to an angry quote from U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

“These are frustrating times we live in, and I just don’t think we can be quiet about it any longer,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve gotten some pushback on things; I got a one-star review because somebody didn’t like what was written outside. But I don’t want to put on a pretension that these aren’t things I hold dear to my heart. Sometimes, something triggers me, and it’s like, enough is enough. Obviously, when Roe overturned, that was just devastating.”

Inside the eatery are other messages promoting acceptance of all individuals. “All people, no matter what your beliefs are, should be accepted, no matter who you are and who you love,” she said, adding that the bathroom is dotted with still more messages. “We’ve had people erase them. Then we just go back and write it again.”

 

Take Two

Speaking of redoing things, Nosh will soon open a second location on Albany Street, part of a collective called Urban Food Brood that includes Monsoon Roastery, Corsello Butcheria, Urban Artisan Farm, and Happy Man Freeze Dried. The overall concept is part café, part food manufacturing, and part retail, Monsoon Roastery owner Tim Monson recently told MassLive, adding that he expects the operation to open before the end of the year.

A new commercial kitchen is being built for Nosh, which will offer a similar slate of offerings as the downtown location, starting off with breakfast and lunch menus. In the evening, Skinner plans to bring in guest chefs to cook dinner and show off their talents.

“It will have a market feel, with a lot of businesses in there, and we’ll take new businesses just starting off and incubate them, get them going,” she said. “The property owner here did the same for me when I opened up my closet — gave me good rent and was super supportive. Someone might have a great idea or a product they want to sell, but can’t afford a brick-and-mortar place yet. So we’re trying to create that sort of space there.”

And perhaps help someone else who has always loved Springfield find long-term success in the City of Homes.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Women in Businesss

Grass-roots Effort

 

‘Buy Weed from Women.’

That’s what is printed on the back of the coat

Meg Sanders

Meg Sanders

was wearing as she led BusinessWest on a tour of Canna Provisions’ Holyoke dispensary recently.

Those words cover a lot of ground. They’re a request, as well as a statement. They’re also an operating philosophy. And in some respects, they constitute hope for what people will be able to do more easily in the future.

Indeed, buying weed from women — as in women who own or co-own the dispensary in question — is not something easily done. The startup and operating costs for such an operation are extremely high and, for many people — and most women — simply prohibitive. And once one is in, it’s a challenge to stay in.

Sanders, CEO of Canna Provisions, is one of the rare exceptions.

She shifted her career from compliance in financial services to compliance in cannabis while living in Colorado at the time the industry was simply exploding and turning into what she called ‘the wild west.’ She is now a prominent player in the not-so-wild but very intriguing Western Mass. market, overseeing, with her partner, Erik Williams, two dispensaries (the other is in Lee) and a cultivation facility in Sheffield.

Moving forward, she envisions one more dispensary in Western Mass. — she and Williams are looking at several options for acquisition — and the buildout of another manufacturing facility in Lee. And from a bigger-picture perspective, Sanders is looking to hone a business model that will create more profitability in an industry where only a third of all busnesses are profitable.

“ I still believe the best thing in cannabis still has not been invented. We find new cannabinoids every single day; there are new ways to consume this product, new delivery methods, new formulations. Those are all really important parts of where this industry is going. Science is in it, and I am psyched to see the products we come up with to help people.”

When asked about what separates those who are profitable from those who are not, Sanders said it comes down to being smart — with everything from which products (and how much inventory) are carried to the training and development of employees.

“We invest in humans, and we train them,” she said, adding that people are the biggest and most important investment for a company in this sector.

It’s an investment she takes very seriously, and it’s one of the many reasons why she believes Canna Provisions is successful and on the cutting edge when it comes to everything from how products are displayed and sold in the dispensary to how employees are trained, groomed for advancement, and ultimately retained (more on all that later).

“I’m really proud of it — I think it’s the coolest dispensary in America,” she said of the Holyoke facility as she led the tour. “And I’ve been into a lot of them.”

Canna Provision’s dispensary in Holyoke

Meg Sanders says Canna Provision’s dispensary in Holyoke has been designed to resemble an art gallery — and even features works from local artists.

And as she surveys the scene, at that Holyoke location and within the broad cannabis industry, Sanders, who has been quoted in publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Northeast Leaf, sees a number of converging forces and trends, but especially innovation, the sector’s deep impact on the local economy and the local landscape, cannabis playing a growing role in the health and wellness of people of all ages, and the promise of much more of all of that in the future.

“Cannabis is a giant vote for freedom — it’s a giant vote for ‘you know what’s best for your body; it’s not the government’s job to tell you what to put in it, on it, any of that,’” she said. “From everyone that I know that uses cannabis, customers I talk to every day, their life is better. A recent study showed that 60% of Millennials use cannabis for wellness, and when you ask them to define ‘wellness,’ it was stress, relaxation, sleep, and anxiety. The fact that people look at cannabis as wellness is huge.

“And I still believe the best thing in cannabis still has not been invented,” she went on. “We find new cannabinoids every single day; there are new ways to consume this product, new delivery methods, new formulations. Those are all really important parts of where this industry is going. Science is in it, and I am psyched to see the products we come up with to help people.”

The wording on the back of Meg Sanders’ jacket

The wording on the back of Meg Sanders’ jacket is both a request and a bit of hope for what people will be able to do more easily in the future.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Sanders about her business, her industry, the words printed on the back of her jacket, and what she expects to come next with all of the above.

 

Joint Ventures

That aforementioned tour of Canna Provisions came the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It was late morning, just before noon, and the traffic in the store was still relatively light, with a handful of customers exploring the myriad product options or talking to customer-service providers, both behind the counter and on the floor.

But Sanders was expecting a huge day because cannabis, in her estimation, is becoming a growing part of Thanksgiving, especially to contend with the week’s large doses of stress.

“People will be in to get their coping mechanisms and their celebratory pieces so they can deal with Uncle Bob, who might be talking politics at the Thanksgiving table,” she explained. “We all have families, and they’re all very interesting and come with a lot of stuff; this is one way to cope, and it’s not new.”

Meanwhile, she was expecting even bigger crowds for the upcoming Black Friday and the holiday season in general. And such expectations, born from experience in both Colorado and this market, are evidence of the growing influence of cannabis — on the economy and in people’s lives.

Turning back the clock nearly 15 years, Sanders, as noted earlier, was working for a small financial-services company handling a few dozen traders when she approached a friend who was getting in on the ground floor of the exploding cannabis scene in the Centennial State and asked if he could find a place for her.

“I had definitely hit a glass ceiling — there was nowhere else to go and no more money to be made there,” she recalled. “That was happening at the exact same time as this brand-new industry was starting to explode; I reached out to my friend who was creating this cannabis business and said, ‘I’d love to help you guys; what can I do?’

“It took a while for us to find the right place, but I went basically from compliance in the financial industry to compliance in cannabis, and that’s how I got started,” she went on, adding that she became increasingly more involved and eventually become CEO.

Sanders would eventually exit that company — primarily because its board wanted to focus solely on Colorado, while she had larger aspirations for the venture — and work, along with Williams, as a consultant to states, municipalities, and individual businesses as they entered the cannabis business.

“We were helping companies and state regulatory bodies and local governments come up with ordinances that made sense, regulatory frameworks that made sense, and helping people get licensed all over, from Florida to Illinois to Nevada — everywhere,” she recalled. “And then, Massachusetts legalization happened, and we were intrigued by the model in that it wasn’t going to be this massive gaming of the system in a limited-license structure, where if you know the governor, or have the right lobbyist, or if you make donations to the right legislators, you get a license.”

Sanders and Williams eventually consulted for a venture called Canna Provisions and were invited to become part of its operations team. They became CEO and COO, respectively, and guided the company as it gained just the second license issued by the state for a standalone dispensary in Lee, right behind Caroline’s Cannabis in Uxbridge — where she bought her jacket from owner Caroline Frankel. The Holyoke facility, located on Dwight Street in a former paper mill, opened in July 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

In her role, Sanders is involved in all aspects of the business, obviously, but devotes much of her time to staff development and that broad term ‘culture.’

‘At Canna Provisions, we really believe that we’re not just growing plants and growing a business, we’re growing humans,” she explained, adding that the company invests considerable amounts of time, money, and energy to train and develop employees, and then give them opportunities to do different things and advance within the company.

Canna Provisions invests heavily in employee training and development

Meg Sanders says Canna Provisions invests heavily in employee training and development — and the customer experience.

She said she’s currently serving as a facilitator and working with a group of seven employees at the company on a course of leadership training.

“I’m reinforcing my skills by teaching them their skills in hopes of growing humans to become better leaders, which creates happier employees,” she told BusinessWest, adding that most all of these employees have experience in business and customer service but are new to this industry.

“We work really hard to train employees, we spend a lot of money training them, and it’s ongoing,” she went on. “We’ve been told multiple times by people from this industry, and also not from this industry, that they’ve never been to a company that invests so much in training, and they appreciate it.”

 

Down to an Art

While Sanders is certainly well-known within the industry and probably recognized by many she encounters (especially when she shows her ID), she still calls what she does ‘secret shopping.’

These are regular visits to dispensaries across this region and beyond, during which she is always looking at the product mix, the presentation, the staff, and how they interact with customers — all with an eye toward making her own operations better and her own employees ever more responsive to what clients want and need.

“I shop everybody — everybody,” she said, “so that we’re more accurate in our differentiation. I’m able to see what competitors around us are doing, and I can say, ‘that’s one business model — it’s not a bad business model, it’s just not my business model.’”

“We’ve been told multiple times by people from this industry, and also not from this industry, that they’ve never been to a company that invests so much in training, and they appreciate it.”

These secret shopping excursions are just a small part of a broad operating formula aimed at continuous improvement, setting the bar higher, and then clearing that bar.

Sanders believes Canna Provisions does all this in all aspects of its business — from product selection to presentation, but especially with how those on the floor and behind the counter interact with and effectively serve customers, some of whom may suffer from what she called “dispensary phobia,” and a fear of going inside.

And this is a product of all that intensive — and expansive — training that Sanders talked about earlier.

“People have to be on point because your customers expect a certain level of service — they have to know the products,” she said. “It’s training and role playing and practicing and coaching on the floor — teaching them to be more aware of the people who are in front of them.

“This is not a cheap spend, “she went on. “Our average ticket here in Holyoke is close to 100 bucks a pop. When I’m spending $100 or $200 at a location, I do have a bit of expectation to be treated well.”

Overall, she likened the cannabis-buying experience, at least at her dispensaries, to jewelry shopping in many respects, from the high cost of the products to the way that many customers need guidance, or education, on what they’re buying.

Overall, Sanders believes she and Williams have created a different kind of cannabis experience in their locations. The one in Holyoke resembles an art gallery in the way products are displayed, and there are even works of art on the wall. Meanwhile, it pays homage to the property’s roots as a paper mill by putting some of the equipment and office furniture to work in displays.

 

Impact Statement

As she talked about the broad influence that cannabis has had on the local landscape, and will continue to have moving forward, Sanders again flashed back to the early days in Colorado, which came in 2009, the middle of what became known as the Great Recession.

“They just ran with cannabis, and it was crazy,” she said of the rapid growth of the industry and its impact on real estate, cities, towns, and individual neighborhoods. “And this started right after that massive crash and its impact on real estate and mortgages … it was a nightmare. But in Colorado, the opposite happened because all these growers, all of these dispensaries, ended up leasing more than 1 million square feet of warehouse space that had been off the tax rolls for years, just in Denver.

“So, it immediately just infused the city with vibrancy, and it happened all over,” she went on. “It was just one of those interesting economic moments where Colorado did not feel that economic downturn, the bottom dropping out, nearly as much as other states; it was fascinating. And then we kept adding all these jobs, and we kept adding jobs, and building, and then science was involved; the industry just came a long way really fast.”

It continues to grow and evolve, and now, much of what was seen in Colorado is being experienced in other states and other region, including Western Mass., she said, adding that cannabis is having a profound impact on communities like Holyoke and Lee, where she has chosen to put down roots, especially the former.

Indeed, this was a city that rolled out the red carpet for this industry, with its former mayor, Alex Morse, jokingly — although it was no joke — wishing it to become known as Rolling Paper City, a twist on its original nickname, Paper City.

Few actually call it that, but Sanders said there is no disputing the profound impact that cannabis has had in this city, where hundreds of thousands of square feet of unused or underused former mill space has been converted into dispensaries and cultivating facilities.

“Bringing more people to Holyoke is the goal for all of us,” she said. “And I think Holyoke and its bones often get overlooked; I’m so excited that there’s a new art gallery opening on High Street, that there’s several restaurants that we frequent and another new restaurant going in across the way. We have Gateway City Arts, which does concerts all the time. So, there’s momentum, and we’re hoping to be a part of that and help a city that’s been struggling for a long time.

“Together, we’re all going to make Holyoke a better place, with more jobs, more places to live, more restaurants to go to, more shopping, art,” she went on. “I absolutely love this town, and that’s why we came here and spent $1 million to open this dispensary.”

Looking ahead, Sanders wants to see a day when more women can become business owners in this sector.

“It’s very much a closed door, and the numbers are actually going down, which is unfortunate,” she said, noting, again, the sky-high costs of opening and then operating a business in this sector, and the challenge to turn a profit when 70 cents of every dollar earned is returned to the government in taxes.

“Through initiatives at the state level and maybe even at the federal level with safe banking and other things they’re talking about, we need to give minorities and women an opportunity to win alongside all the rich, white money,” she told BusinessWest. “As a female leader in this space, I am super proud to be in this space as a leader and an owner, and I would say it’s one of my biggest motivators to talk about this and do something about it.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

‘A Pivotal Moment’

 

Rites of Passage & Empowerment (ROPE) recently announced its official transition to independent 501(c)(3) status. The Pittsfield-based program, founded in 2010 by Shirley Edgerton, a longtime educator, community activist, and mentor in Pittsfield, has been a fiscally sponsored project of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts since its inception.

ROPE is a proven mentoring program for young women of color and young people identifying as female or non-binary. The mission of ROPE is to celebrate and honor the entry of adolescents into adulthood and provide them with skills and knowledge that they need to be successful, independent, and responsible people.

“This designation marks a pivotal moment for ROPE,” Edgerton said. “We are deeply grateful for the continuous and unwavering support of the Women’s Fund through the years. As we look ahead, we are excited to embark on this new chapter and continue our ongoing work with our scholars and ambassadors.”

Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, added that “it has been our honor to fiscally support ROPE and Shirley Edgerton’s vision. Too few philanthropic institutions believe in the power and possibility of the solutions that women of color create to address systemic barriers. The future is fierce thanks to ROPE’s nurturing of amazing young women and thanks to Shirley’s vision for ROPE itself.”

This new designation comes in the wake of other major news for the organization, which supports young people on their journey to a college education. This past April, ROPE was awarded a significant grant by the city of Pittsfield through its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Community Awards.

“This grant comes at an essential time,” Edgerton said. “Now that we are an independent organization, this multi-year funding will allow us to build into the future with a solid and secure foundation.”

In addition to the weekly mentoring, monthly workshops, and local trips through the Berkshires, two key elements of the ROPE program are college tours and biannual service-learning trips to Africa.

“These opportunities provide our scholars with deep transformational experiences,” said Jean Clarke-Mitchell, a mentor with the program. “It is gratifying to see their growth and confidence bloom with each new opportunity.”

In July, ROPE scholars and ambassadors traveled to Accra, Ghana, where they engaged with young Ghanaians, learned about the customs and culture, and visited historic sites, including W.E.B. Du Bois’ former home, which is now a museum.

Edgerton explained that, while the grant allows for a variety of initiatives, funding guidelines do not include international travel, so the organization engaged in fundraising to ensure the mentees had access to this experience. She then noted the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

“We depend on the ongoing partnership with community members who recognize and embrace their role as a part of ROPE scholars’ village. We are proud to know so many of our ROPE alumni return to the area to mentor the young people coming up behind them, to work in local organizations and government, and to otherwise give back to the community they come from,” she said. “Investing in these young people is truly an investment in the future of our community as a whole, and that is priceless.”

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Getting Employees in the Game

 

Linda Dulye

Linda Dulye

Linda Dulye calls them ‘spectators.’

That’s the term she uses to describe employees who, well, are not in the game, as they say in the sports universe. Instead, they’re watching it from the sidelines. They’re not engaged, and they are not part of the solution, said Dulye, the former journalist turned corporate communications specialist and change-management agent turned entrepreneur who started Dulye & Co. in 1998 to help leaders and their organizations cultivate magnetic cultures where people want to stay and grow.

The Pittsfield-based company, which counts Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Cigna, and other global companies on its client list, helps guide these firms to achieve a ‘spectator-free’ workplace through meaningful connections, open communications, and mutual respect.

“If you’re paying people to show up, put a badge on, and complain all day, all they are … are spectators,” she explained. “And spectators don’t add depth. If you’re going to just leave them on the benches watching, that’s a bad business strategy. Your goal is to be spectator-free, have them down on the field helping you move forward and score.”

Such sentiments have always been important to the success of any organization, large or small, she told BusinessWest, but they are even more critical in this time of profound change in the work environment brought on by the pandemic and related forces.

“This has been the most dramatic change I’ve ever experienced in my consulting career,” Dulye said, adding that, at this critical time, communication and engagement have never been more important, but they have also never been as challenging.

Overall, she said companies large and small have historically waited until a time of profound change, or crisis, before addressing issues such as culture, communication, and engagement. Her simple message is not to wait.

“Let’s not wait for a crisis,” she said. “Let’s be pre-emptive; let’s realize that everything in building a spectator-free workplace is a great business strategy, not just when something catastrophic has happened.”

While helping companies become more connected and engaged — two words she used very early and quite often as she talked about her work — Dulye has also committed herself to helping the next generation of leaders thrive in an ever-changing work environment.

“If you’re paying people to show up, put a badge on, and complain all day, all they are … are spectators. And spectators don’t add depth. If you’re going to just leave them on the benches watching, that’s a bad business strategy. Your goal is to be spectator-free, have them down on the field helping you move forward and score.”

Indeed, she created the Dulye Leadership Experience (DLE), which offers year-round developmental and networking programs (such as an upcoming program on cryptocurrency) and, especially, an intense two-day retreat that, after two years of being a virtual event, will again be in-person in early November.

Applications are currently being accepted for the conference, and 45 individuals from different business sectors will eventually be chosen to attend the retreat, which “is a not a conference,” she said with considerable emphasis in her voice. Instead, it is more of an immersion, where young people hear from experts, who stay for the entire weekend, on various subjects with the goal of improving vital skills and stimulating networks for career and life success. The accent, as it with Dulye’s business-consulting work, is on collaboration and connections.

The DLE is a nonprofit endeavor funded by Dulye, who said she created it because there has always been a strong need for such programming, and that need has also been magnified given the changing landscape in business.

“I invest quite a bit in this because I believe in philanthropy,” she said. “And I believe in helping others see — and seize — their best.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Dulye about entrepreneurship, the leadership experience she created, changing dynamics in the workplace, and, especially, about how she helps companies convert employees from spectators into engaged team players.

 

Dulye Ink.

Looking back on her life and career, Dulye said she had several important role models and mentors, starting with her parents, who were both entrepreneurs.

Her father ran a chain of small newspapers in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley, while her mother started a commercial printing business, a field that was totally dominated by men at the time.

“When you grow up in family business, or businesses, you learn every facet of a business,” she said. “You also learn that you get paid last, and you learn that employees are what enable you to go to college — my parents’ employees enabled me to go to college — and you learn that every single person is vital; it doesn’t matter what their title is.

Linda Dulye says the Dulye Leadership Conference has evolved over the years

Linda Dulye says the Dulye Leadership Conference has evolved over the years, but its mission remains unchanged — to help young people gain the skills and confidence needed to thrive in an ever-changing workplace.

“I got my hands dirty, and I got humbled by both my parents,” she went on. “I never had cushy jobs, and I had to earn my promotions; I never wanted to be the kid that was the boss’s kid. I learned how to love work, and that’s important; I love what I do, and my parents loved what they did.”

Growing up, she worked in both businesses, starting with her mother’s shop when she was 8. By age 13, she was writing obituaries for her father’s papers “back when writers wrote the obituaries, not the funeral homes,” before moving on to the police beat and other assignments.

Meanwhile, her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to go where women traditionally didn’t go, job-wise, certainly inspired her throughout her career.

“My mother was a novelty — there weren’t a lot of women business owners at that time, and I learned a lot from her,” she recalled. “Most of the industries I was in were male-dominated, and I learned how to express my views in a confident way and how to form relationships with people who were going to be very judgmental of me, because I’m the token female out there, so I have to prove myself a little bit more.”

But there was something else she took from her mother that stayed with her through all her various career stops and especially when she went into business for herself.

“She could look at a cloudy sky and always find that patch of blue,” Dulye said. “And it was finding that patch of blue every day — in your work, in your life — that stuck with me. Sitting in rooms where people would ask me when I was going to be serving the coffee, even though I was part of the leadership team at the table, was pretty typical — but I always looked for that patch of blue.”

Dulye didn’t want to go back to either of her parents’ businesses after graduating from Syracuse University, so she went to work for a daily newspaper in suburban Philadelphia called the Bulletin. Her real ambition, she told BusinessWest, was to be a sports journalist, but at the time, the field was mostly closed to women, so she stayed on the news side, while maintaining a love of sports that can be seen in the terminology she uses and references to getting employees into the game and off the bench.

Fast-forwarding a little, Dulye, seeking a better-paying profession, eventually segued into corporate communications, starting at Drew University while earning her master’s degree. With a desire to work for large corporations, she went to work for GE in Pittsfield and later New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

She joined the company in the late ’80s, at a time of dramatic downsizing, a period that provided several critical learning experiences she would apply later in her career.

“There’s was lots of learning about culture, about people, about effective leadership, about communication — you were communicating some of the toughest messages ever,” she recalled, adding that she worked for tough bosses, including Jack Welch, who were “ahead of their time in many respects.”

As GE was in the process of selling its aerospace division, she moved onto Duracell, then Allied Signal and Public Service Electric and Gas.

She made a number of job changes at a time unlike today, when such movement is expected and even appreciated by many of those doing the hiring, because she wanted to be in different environments, experience different organizations, and learn from different leaders.

“I wanted to experience different cultures and leadership styles and get smart in different industries,” she said. “Even though I knew family business, I wanted to learn global business.”

Eventually, after growing tired of lengthy daily commutes to work, she decided to go into business for herself, essentially to pass on to business leaders what she had learned while working for her parents, but also while working in corporate America.

“I knew what companies needed most,” she explained. “They needed people to help their leaders connect with the front-line folks, to help explain change, to help get people motivated, to move forward with goals. With all the work I had done, I wanted to focus on leadership communication and employee engagement.”

 

Connecting the Dots

As she talked about her business and the value it provides to clients, Dulye focused on that word ‘engagement,’ its importance in the workplace, getting people to be part of the team in question, and having them help leadership run the business.

Which brings her back to the importance of having a spectator-free work environment, which businesses appreciate, even if they know they need help to achieve such an environment.

The key, she said, is to give employees the opportunity to get on the playing field.

“My mother was a novelty — there weren’t a lot of women business owners at that time, and I learned a lot from her. Most of the industries I was in were male-dominated, and I learned how to express my views in a confident way and how to form relationships with people who were going to be very judgmental of me, because I’m the token female out there, so I have to prove myself a little bit more.”

“Which means you have to share information, you have to be open to their ideas, and you have to involve them in making decisions on how the business needs to move forward,” she explained. “Otherwise, you’re going to have spectators; that means really stopping, listening, and having conversations, not presentations.

“Presentations do not build relationships; conversations build relationships,” she went on. “That’s what leaders, more than ever, need to do. “Leaders say, ‘I don’t have time’ — and I understand, time management is a massive challenge. However, if you don’t have time to help your people understand what’s going on and why and you think it can be done better, then you’re losing out on the greatest resource you have to help you improve as a business — and as a leader.”

Finding time and becoming spectator-free is obviously challenging, said Dulye, adding that it almost always requires adjustments in culture and leadership dynamics, with a hard focus on upgrading people skills, processes, and practices that ultimately create what she calls a “connected organization.”

Providing critical help with this complex assignment through tools such as its Engagement through Action Planning Process has enabled Dulye & Co. to grow and consistently add new clients over the years, she went on, adding that there have been times — the Great Recession of 2008 was one of them, and the early months of the pandemic was another — when even the largest corporations cut back on consultants.

And it was during what became a very slow period for the company in the fall of 2008, when the company lost 80% of its work, when Dulye found a patch of blue and conceived of what would become the Dulye Leadership Experience.

“In my consulting work, I was noticing that the new grads coming into the businesses really weren’t prepared to integrate well,” she recalled. “They were very smart in their technical majors, but they’d gone from a bubble of being able to pick their friends, being able to hang around a lot of people their own age, and being able to know when there was a test because they would get a syllabus and knew what to read, to showing up and not knowing anyone, and being in a hodgepodge, diverse team that they didn’t pick, with people having all kinds of issues going on that are very different generationally. They need to form relationships and strong communication bonds, and they need to know how to sell themselves and their ideas.”

The DLE, originally established in partnership with Syracuse University, was created as a philanthropic, nonprofit organization to help undergraduates cope with all that and successfully transition to the workplace.

But like any successful business, it has responded to change and evolved over the years.

Indeed, when Dulye moved to Western Mass. in 2017 to re-establish her home and business, programming shifted to attract, develop, and retain young professionals in the Berkshires. And with the pandemic and the dramatic changes it has brought to the workplace, the DLE shifted again, to virtual programming that escalated in frequency and variety and succeeded in attracting a more diverse professional network that now stretches from coast to coast and beyond, she told BusinessWest.

“We started moving and creating new programming every single week to connect people, which means connecting people from all over,” she explained, adding that an alumni group was established, and programs like a ‘breakfast club’ and chat initiatives were created to involve more individuals at a time when technology allowed that to happen.

The DLE soon added workshops on a variety of topics, from public speaking to time management, to provide more and different learning experiences, most of them inspired by polling and questions like ‘what are you struggling with?’

This shift can be seen in the latest offering, an ownership workshop titled “Demystifying Cryptocurrency,” slated for Sept. 20. The one-hour, virtual conversation will feature nationally recognized experts Paul Farella and Alexandra Renders of Berkshire-based Willow Investments, who will discuss, among other things, what blockchains are and how they work, the impact this technology can have on business and society, and the risks and opportunity that exist in this realm.

This workshop is an example of how the DLE works to educate and inform, while helping emerging leaders succeed in a business world where change is the only constant, Dulye said.

As for the upcoming annual retreat, it is, as she noted earlier, an immersion in every sense of the word.

“It’s three days in the Berkshires — you stay at this compound; you don’t come and go like at a conference where you go to a 9 o’clock session and then hit Starbucks at 10 and go back at 11,” she explained. “Once you come in on Friday night, you can’t leave until Sunday, at all, and you need to stay fully engaged with everyone there.”

There’s that word, engaged, again.

Summing up the retreat, Dulye said the goal, the mission, is to get participants to “learn like mad and get out of their comfort zones,” and it has been this way since she first launched the initiative in 2008.

 

Bottom Line

Flashing back a half-century or so, Dulye remembers when her mother took what was a huge risk at that time and invested heavily in a Goss Community press to take her commercial printing enterprise to the next level.

“People would come into her business from all over the world to look at this press,” she recalled. “I have no idea how much she probably put on the line from our family finances and going into debt — although my father had to sign for everything, because women couldn’t do that then. That, I remember, was groundbreaking.

“And I wanted to experience a lot of groundbreaking events in business,” she went on, adding that she certainly has. But, more than experience them, she’s been part of them, through her work as a consultant, but also through creation of the Dulye Leadership Experience.

In both realms, she’s focused on facilitating success in a changing workplace and, as she said repeatedly, helping business leaders create a place where there are no spectators.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business Management Daily News Employment Women in Businesss

SPRINGFIELD — Tiffany Appleton has been named president of the board of directors at Dakin Humane Society in Springfield. Appleton joined the board in 2017 and served as its secretary from 2020–2022.

She is currently the associate director employer relations at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a position she has held for the past two years. Prior to that, she Appleton was a director, accounting and finance division at Johnson & Hill Staffing Services in West Springfield from 2016-2020.

“I can’t imagine what my life would be like without my pets,” she said. “They provide so much value to my life and I joined Dakin initially as a volunteer to support that amazing human-animal bond. I quickly fell in love with Dakin and all the service offerings beyond adoption that further the mission of keeping people and their pets happy, healthy, and together. I can’t wait to see all the good we can do for the community in the future.”

Appleton earned both a master of Education, Science Education, and a bachelor of Science, Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She previously served as a board member at the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley from 2018-2020.

Women in Businesss

Strength in Numbers

By Kailey Houle

Andrea Marion

Andrea Marion says she’s surrounded by ‘bad-ass,’ powerful women at the Mill District.

Before the pandemic, Andréa Marion worked in the nonprofit world.

As it was for countless others, COVID became a period of reflection for her, a time to determine what was really important.

“I wasn’t happy and wanted a change,” she recalled. “I loved what I did, I loved working with and helping people, but I just knew it was time to see what else was out there and see what I can do. I have always loved fashion. I’ve always been into clothing, and style, and what it means to someone and how we represent ourselves with clothing.”

She took this passion for fashion, started a clothing boutique, and eventually took this fledgling venture to one of the pop-up events at the Mill District in North Amherst, where she hosted a table. Two months later, she is a far more permanent fixture at this home to a diverse mix of businesses, many of them owned and operated by women, including the mill itself, which was created by Cinda Jones, president of WD Cowls Inc., a winner of BusinessWest’s Forty Under 40, Alumni Achievement, and Top Entrepreneur awards.

“Being a woman in business at the Mill District has been very empowering.”

And Marion is rejoicing in both her success and business address.

“Being a woman in business at the Mill District has been very empowering,” said Marion, who sells mostly women’s clothing, but is hoping to expand her business to include male and non-binary clothing as well. “I have been a woman in business where I have been the only woman in the room, and that can be very lonely and tough. At the Mill District, I’m surrounded by so many bad-ass, powerful women and I feel like I’m at home. It sounds corny, but it’s so true. I couldn’t have picked a better spot.”

Marion is one of many who expressed similar sentiments — about both bad-ass, powerful women at the Mill District, and how that location has become a source of pride, inspiration, and a growing list of success stories. And about how much they like being part of all that.

Jessica Lavallee owns a Graze Craze location in North Amherst, a charcuterie-style takeout and delivery store that offers catering for events of all sizes. It was founded by a female Air Force veteran in Oklahoma, who recently franchised her stores through the United Franchise Group. The Amherst store is the first franchise in the Northeast, with the closest store to the North Amherst location being in Tennessee.

Lavallee is always looking for a new challenge and opportunities to give back to the community. “One of my favorite things to do is to entertain, and I love the concept of grazing; charcuterie boards fit into that perfectly,” she explained. “As a woman business owner, this gave me the opportunity to have a corporation for support, but make things my own at the same time. It gave me the opportunity to start a business in the food industry, which has always been something I have wanted to do.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked to several business owners and managers at the Mill District. Collectively, they touched on how they manage to inspire each other, but also about the many challenges and hurdles facing women in business today.

Location, Location, Location

Because women are the natural caregivers for their children, society often forgets that they are a person outside of motherhood. Once their children are graduated and out of the house, the mother often starts experiencing empty-nest syndrome. Another individual who works at the Mill District decided she wasn’t going to be that woman.

Kayla Diggins says she’s proud to be role model to young girls.

Kayla Diggins says she’s proud to be a role model to young girls.

Shannon Borrell is the store conductor of the General Store and Local Art Gallery in the Mill District. She explained that her job allows her to do many things around the store, such as a managerial role, building customer relations, putting up posts on social media, and event production for the art gallery.

The store has the nostalgic feel of an old-time general store. It sells a variety of items: household goods, gardening supplies, baking goods, children’s toys, art supplies, bulk candy by the pound, and more. The art gallery showcases art made by people within an hour of the store. Anyone that is interested can submit an online application, and once their work is approved, they can rent space by the linear foot. Artists keep 80% of the commissions, and the remaining 20% of the proceeds go back into the general store for classes that artists are interested in.

Borrell feels that now is the right time to focus on herself.

“I want to do something meaningful,” she said. “If you told me I was going to be working in retail and how you define that experience, I wouldn’t say that that was what I was doing. This space is more about creating community and bringing people together. It’s like retail with a mission — it’s art with an interest in community and getting people involved and an opportunity for more activity in this area.”

She said that working in the General Store and art gallery has challenged her in ways her previous vocation didn’t. As a para-educator, she wasn’t able to push the limit, as she called it. “There are no limitations in events or classes that the store wants to have, or how robust we want them to be.”

Another woman at the Mill District who is pushing the limits is Kayla Diggins. She owns an online clothing boutique named Harper James, selling women’s clothing, accessories, jewelry, and handbags.

Diggins went to school for fashion merchandising and has wanted to start her own business since her first job in the wholesale side of the fashion industry. Even though COVID-19 hit and she closed her shop for a few years, she felt it was time to reopen her boutique and give it another shot.

“It got to a point where I was thinking if I don’t try to do this now, I could regret this for the rest of my life,” she said. “In the beginning of the year, I hit the ground running — I got everything set up and started up again.”

Since starting her business, Diggins said she feels like she’s found her place in life despite the many ups and downs that are part and parcel to being an entrepreneur. Being in this season of life allows her to not only grow but be a mentor to her younger cousin who is following in her footsteps.

Jessica Lavallee with one of her charcuterie boards.

Jessica Lavallee with one of her charcuterie boards.

“It’s so empowering, and I’m extremely proud to tell people that I own my own business — it brings me a lot of pride, a lot of joy, and it is a really tough thing to do,” she said. “It has its ups and downs, but to be able to push forward and set new examples and standards is really exciting. My cousin is kind of in awe of what I’m doing. Being able to set that example and be a role model for someone that is younger and going through the same process means the world to me.”

Shauna Wallace, project manager for Cowls Building Supply and the Mill District General Store, and interim manager of the latter, also feels empowered in her position. Before coming to North Amherst, she worked for a construction company as the project manager and was one of the few women on the payroll.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for me because traditionally coming from the building and lumber industry, I didn’t get that,” she said, referring to the opportunity to work with, learn from, and become inspired by other women. “Now I am, and it is truly a gift to interact with so many wonderful women in the Mill District. It’s been a wonderful past year to be in a position of leadership and to be able to influence the culture of the store and the women I work with.”

“The most difficult piece is getting people to take you seriously. Often when people approach me about my business, I start talking about numbers and research or all of the effort I’ve put in to make this a successful venture.”

Alysia Bryant is starting her first business at the Mill District. Carefree Cakery is a bakery that focuses on taking care of people. All the ingredients used are fair trade, and all employees are paid a living wage. She started in the healthcare field before learning it wasn’t for her.

“I shifted my focus to ‘how can I use the skills that I have in order to help people?’” she said, “And that’s how I ended up here. I’ve always loved baking; I’ve always been good at making things, so I switched my major to business in college. I’ve truly built my life around this.”

While she enjoys working for herself and takes pride in her accomplishments, she acknowledged that it is “exhausting to be a woman in business.” Bryant just turned 28 and said she feels the need to prove herself to others when explaining she’s a business owner.

“The most difficult piece is getting people to take you seriously,” she said. “Often when people approach me about my business, I start talking about numbers and research or all of the effort I’ve put in to make this a successful venture.”

Progress Report

Bryant’s story reflects those of all the women we spoke to at the Mill District, as well as the other women business owners there, including Kim Rodrigo and Courtney D’Antonio, owners of the Lift Salon, and Mary Ellen Liacos, who owns Balanced Birch Studio.

Collectively, they speak of the desire to seek new challenges and to also find the strength and perseverance to overcome adversity.

They also speak to how there is now strength in numbers at this destination — not just in the number of “bad-ass women,” but also in the number of success stories they’re writing.

Women in Businesss

It Can Be Challenging, but It’s a Great Way to Take the Initiative

By Lauren Foley

 

After graduating college and entering the workforce there are endless opportunities and lessons to learn as a young woman in business. The expectations and opportunities of a first job are not always taught in the classroom.

While some of those expectations are directly related to skills and job functions, there are more intangible ones that are expected of people who enter the business world. Soft skills such as growing your outreach, building clientele, and developing relationships, are heavily valued and weighted in the career of business. As women in business, we want to empower ourselves to grow our careers and position ourselves for success. It is imperative that we advocate for our career path and grow our worth in our chosen professions. Well, how does a newly graduated woman enter the workforce and gain growth in these areas in their career? It is simple, networking.

Lauren Foley

“The purpose of networking is to gain connections with other business individuals to create working and professional relationships. Connections can provide many opportunities for young professionals ranging from cliental referrals, job offers, event sponsorships, achievement recognition, and even learning opportunities.”

Before jumping in, the first step is to understand the basic goal of networking. The purpose of networking is to gain connections with other business individuals to create working and professional relationships. Connections can provide many opportunities for young professionals ranging from cliental referrals, job offers, event sponsorships, achievement recognition, and even learning opportunities. The positive outcomes span even farther. By forming connections with other people in similar positions, you create a new network of people who can provide resources to each other, and connections that enable each other to grow.

Where are you networking, how do you do it, and why? Are you looking to create a connection with a specific person who has influence in your field or community? Are you looking to make an introduction within a specific service that would be necessary to advance your career? Are you looking to find more ways to get more involved in your community and be of service? It is important to understand why you are attending each event you attend before you engage. Networking can take place in many different atmospheres such as attending a BBQ, going to an awards’ ceremony, or attending a convention. Your choice in events to attend should be in alignment with your purpose of networking. When looking for a referral source, individuals should look for a working relationship. A working relationship refers to the idea that if the other person’s client needs a service you provide, then they would refer the client to you and vice versa. Those looking for a working relationship should attend a networking event that is sponsored or put on by a local organization where other business professionals associated with the field will also attend — think maybe a trade show, chamber of commerce, or specific public roundtables. If the purpose of networking is to find new clients, then attending a business event or local young professionals’ event where others are just starting their career is the perfect place to create ground-level relationships that could lead to gaining clients.

It is especially important for new professionals to feel empowered at networking event. It can sometimes feel easier to stick to the people you know at an event rather than to approach a stranger and strike up a conversation. A great approach to avoid this issue, is to scope the room, remember your purpose and use the buddy system to approach new people. When using the buddy system, it allows both individuals to have more confidence when starting to network because they can lean on each other while still being able to meet new people.

Remember, there are many ways to network, and some events might work better than others for you depending on your personality and your overall expectations. There are also events that will provide a more specific purpose of networking than others, so it is always important to note how the events went to determine if they are worth your time in the future.

It is great best practice to touch base internally with whoever went to the event to get their feedback. Who did everyone meet? What did they enjoy at the event? Were there any important follow-up tasks post event? What was the overall outcome? Having a quick internal conversation post event can increase the value your networking activities because you will remember who to follow up with, and as previously mentioned, weigh whether you would like to attend again in the future.

Overall, networking as a young women can be challenging but it is a great way to take the initiative to grow our own careers. It can help you advance your career faster while also improving your client service and relationship skills. While the benefits may not feel immediate in nature, networking is a terrific way to get your name out there, create learning points, and gain opportunities as a young professional. So, understand the value you could receive by meeting the right person, and start planning what is most important to you and your career. It is a skill that takes some time to learn, so practice makes perfect and get out there and grow your ‘Net.’

 

Lauren Foley is an associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Berkshire County Business Innovation Business Management Daily News Economic Outlook Education Women in Businesss

The Berkshire Economic Recovery Project, a program of 1Berkshire and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, with funding from the United States Economic Development Administration, announced the launch of its women- and minority-owned business enterprise (W/MBE) module.

The training module, available in both English and Spanish, provides a high-level overview of what it means to be a certified women- and/or minority-owned business enterprise, and how such a certification can help support the small businesses in the Berkshires. In addition to the short overview training modules, interested businesses will also find a direct link to schedule a free intake consultation with the Economic Development team at 1Berkshire.

These consultations will allow 1Berkshire to make direct referrals to technical assistance support to help guide interested women- and minority-owned businesses through the certification process.

“We know we have many incredible small businesses in the Berkshires owned and operated by women, immigrants, minorities, and LGBTQ community members, however we find very few businesses are certified as such,” said Benjamin Lamb, 1Berkshire’s director of Economic Development. “This effort aims to move the needle on helping our underserved business owners access the opportunities that W/MBE certification unlocks, including government contracting opportunities, specific loan and grant programs, tax incentives, and more.”

Businesses and business owners are invited to visit the W/MBE module page at https://bit.ly/3yff8zP for more information and to view the recordings.

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

The Right Ingredients

The staff at the Ekus Group

The staff at the Ekus Group in the reference library that Lisa Ekus has built over the past 40 years.

The Hatfield-based Ekus Group describes itself as a ‘full-service culinary agency.’ This is a unique niche obviously, one that has been successfully cultivated over the past 40 years, during which time the name Ekus, like the names of many of the authors the company represents, has become known across the country and around the world. Summing up the broad range of services, partners Lisa and Sally Ekus (mother and daughter) say they “bring chefs out from behind the stove.”

If one wanted to gain a full appreciation for how the company started by Lisa Ekus back in 1982 has grown, evolved, and emerged over the past 40 years, maybe the place to start is in what she calls her reference library.

It has become the centerpiece — although there are several of those — of the 250-year-old renovated farmhouse in Hatfield she calls home. She started with a small collection gathered in high school and college, and has grown it to 7,000 volumes, with more added seemingly every week; there’s a pile of books outside her office for reading and possible addition to the collection.

There are works of fiction placed in one small section, but the rest — much like Ekus’s career, and that of her daughter, Sally Ekus, now a partner in this venture — are devoted to food and cooking. The volumes are carefully cataloged and arranged by various subjects, meaning everything from food types to geographic regions, authors to individual countries; she recently added two volumes on Polish cuisine.

“There were agencies that did book PR. But we really honed in on chefs, cookbooks, food companies, and understanding the evolution and growth of what was happening on a very vast global stage.”

The library, like her work to create what have come to be known as ‘culinary celebrities,’ is a passion.

“It’s all organized physically, it goes around the globe by country, and then it goes through our country by region,” she told BusinessWest. “And there’s specialty, single subjects — soup, health and diet, wine … you name it. I’ve read maybe 75% of them and I’ve touched them all in some way.”

When asked what makes a book worthy of placement in the library, Sally answered for her mother. “It has to be … unique.”

That’s a word that could, and should, also be applied to this business, formerly known as the Lisa Ekus Group, but changed recently to reflect Sally’s more prominent role. Indeed, there are few companies like this anywhere, and probably only one in a rural setting like Hatfield. And while the library does a good job of conveying its growth and presence, it doesn’t … well, tell the full story — pun very much intended.

To fully understand, we need to visit other rooms of the house, which is adjacent to the company’s offices and plays a huge role in day-to-day activity.

Like the dining room and its massive table. Here, Lisa Ekus has hosted literally thousands of people for dinner over the years, including culinary celebrities such as Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse, and countless others.

Sally Ekus, left, with her mother and business partner, Lisa Ekus.

Sally Ekus, left, with her mother and business partner, Lisa Ekus.

Or the nearby kitchen, which doubles as a TV studio where many of these same chefs have mastered the fine art of cooking for a television audience, a business niche that the Ekus Group has cultivated over the years.

Or the large side porch that Ekus added on the property several years ago. Here, she does more entertaining with those who have become celebrities and those who want to gain that status.

Or the Airbnb that she recently opened with the appropriate name Cooks Chateau. As the pandemic has eased and leisure and business travel have returned, she has booked the space for the next several months, and projects that it will eventually become a solid profit center.

Together, these spaces in the Ekus home speak to a hugely successful business, one that continues to add new lines to its recipe for success, such as a virtual “How to Write a Cookbook” course that Sally considers a logical extension of what the company has done for the past four decades (more on it later).

Looking ahead, Sally said the company will continue to evolve and grow, but likely remain a boutique, as in “small” agency that can provide personalized service to its many kinds of clients.

“It’s not ‘here’s a book — let’s sell it. We want to identify the unique selling points and where in the marketplace this might fit; how can we help an author and a publisher articulate what the primary focus and goal of this particular book is. That’s what we do.”

“We have a desire to grow intentionally in a way that continues to support the work that our current team loves to do and also potentially bringing in a handful of new talent to grow things like our agent-representation program and our talent representation, and also continue to buildout our workshops and culinary expertise,” she said.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Lisa and Sally Ekus about the first 40 years at this unique business and what may come next. Putting it in perspective, Lisa stated the obvious:

“We have so much fun with what we do; it’s one of the best industries to be in.”

 

Course of Action

For Sally Ekus, the phrase ‘growing up in the business,’ has perhaps more meaning than it does for most second-generation business owners and managers.

Indeed, since the Ekus home was — and is — also the office, but also the place where countless celebrities and celebrities in waiting came to meet with Lisa Ekus, cook, dine, and chat after meals with her, and Sally was part of all that; she literally grew up in the business — and around people like Julia Child.

And while she fondly remembers what she calls “the good old days,” she came of age, and became part of the business, as the scene was changing, with developments such as blog-to-book deals, online recipes, the rise of self-publishing, and much more.

From left, Lisa Ekus, Julia Child, and Irena Chalmers

From left, Lisa Ekus, Julia Child, and Irena Chalmers, a noted author and food commentator at one of many gatherings in the backyard of the company’s home in Hatfield.

Today, the company still celebrates the old while embracing the new, and Sally and Lisa are planning the next courses, if you will, for this venture, while continuing to provide the services that have made this company so successful over the past four decades. Summing them up, Lisa said she, Sally, and the assembled team “bring people out from behind the stove.”

By that, she means that the company helps those with culinary skills cultivate a brand while also helping them develop expertise in other areas required to become a true culinary celebrity — everything from writing a cookbook and getting it published, to learning how to cook for a television audience, to effective self-promotion.

While there have been cookbooks for perhaps a century now, there wasn’t, until recently, a focus on the chefs, the authors of these cookbooks, said Sally, noting that the Ekus Group devotes its energies to putting them front and center, and making them, as much as their recipes, the stars of the show.

It’s a package of services that, together, make the company unique and has enabled it to assemble a client list that is a veritable who’s who in the culinary world, with luminaries such as Haile Thomas, Toni Tipton-Martin, Davis Olson, and many others.

Turning back the clock 40 years, Lisa Ekus said she started her company to fill a need for a business that focused on book PR. She moved to the valley from New York City and brought with her an extensive portfolio of connections and experience.

“I developed the business because of, and through, my connections in New York publishing,” she explained. “So, I had a great base upon which to draw clients and get recommendations.”

In essence, she was doing remote work before anyone knew what remote work was, she went on, adding that she loved the lifestyle in Western Mass. and was committed to building a business here and traveling back to Gotham — or anywhere else she needed to go — when needed.

Over the next several years, the company would develop a culinary niche and become, in her estimation, the first and only culinary PR book agency in the country.

“There were agencies that did book PR,” she went on. “But we really honed in on chefs, cookbooks, food companies, and understanding the evolution and growth of what was happening on a very vast global stage. Our niche was putting it forward in book form.

“We worked to put our authors and their expertise out there through the covers of their books,” she went on. “No one had really focused on the personalities, the experts within the categories they wrote about — like Rose Levy Beranbaum and desserts; she wrote The Cake Bible, or Lynn Rosseto Kasper, who founded and was the host of Splendid Table for decades; she was an expert on the Emelia-Romagna section of Italy.

“Books were just put out there,” she continued. “And we really brought the expertise forward on a national level. And I really love personally to understand where someone comes from and what they write about. It’s not simply another book about cookies or Italy or wherever; it’s understanding and taking a deep dive into food.”

 

Stirring Things Up

While the Ekus Group remains grounded in the principles and services on which it was founded, it has certainly evolved over the years and changed as the times have.

The biggest change has simply been the emergence of food and cooking, said Lisa, noting that, 40 years ago, there were very few celebrity chefs, no television networks devoted to the subject, exponentially fewer cookbooks being written annually, few who knew what veganism was, and far fewer people who would say they are really into the culinary arts.

Starting in the early 90s, things started to change, she recalled, and today the landscape is much different.

“We’re willing to, and want to, explore food origins,” Lisa explained. “We want to say, ‘I’m going to cook an entire Korean meal this weekend, and I’m going to buy authentic ingredients and I’m going to make it from scratch. People have taken up cooking and food as a major hobby, and it’s a huge sector economically in the country.”

Elaborating, she said the food business has transformed itself into the food businesses — hundreds of different types, from importers to retailers to specialty food purveyors.

The Ekus Group has positioned itself to thrive in this environment, said the two partners, through the cookbook, but also a hard focus on serving those who want to be players in this movement, if it can still be called that, be they book writers, bloggers, podcast hosts, or simply those who want to take their culinary skills to another plane.

Ekus’s home

Top, the kitchen in Lisa Ekus’s home doubles as a studio for training chefs om how to cook before a TV audience. Above, one of the rooms in the Cooks Chateau.

Elaborating, Sally said the company is working with several hundred clients a year and perhaps a few dozen at any given time on specific book projects. Overall, the work involves building their brand, she said, and taking them beyond their first book, although they certainly help many get started.

“Oftentimes, it’s not just one book or the first book, although we love that it starts there,” she explained. “It’s the second, the third, fourth, fifth, and beyond; we help them build their brand through their publishing career.”

Lisa agreed, and said the company helps those at various stages of the book-writing process, from developing a concept, to finding a publisher, to shooting a photo for the cover.

The broad goal is to ‘position’ the book, she went on, adding the Ekus Group specializes in this value-added service.

“It’s not ‘here’s a book — let’s sell it,’” she told BusinessWest. “We want to identify the unique selling points and where in the marketplace this might fit; how can we help an author and a publisher articulate what the primary focus and goal of this particular book is. That’s what we do.”

Moving forward, the company is always looking for different ways to share its expertise in this large and growing market, she went on, adding that this mindset has led to new and different initiatives, such as the online How to Write a Cookbook course.

There are many such courses on the Internet, said Sally, but few if any that bring the Ekus Group’s level of expertise and understanding of what makes a book successful at a time when shelves are crammed with new titles, and more are written every week.

“I realized that we were getting the same questions about publishing, and cookbook publishing in particular, over and over again, whether they’re from our clients, the consults that we do, or just general curiosity in this industry,” she explained. “So a few years ago, I thought ‘how can we extend a core value of ours, which is to be a resource in this industry?’ And I put together this course, which is an extension of our expertise.”

Elaborating, she said it helps answer questions about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, how to stand out, the role of agents, and much more.

Thus far, the course, which features more than 20 “exclusive, insider tips” from Sally Ekus, has drawn considerable interest, said the partners, adding that it complements other services, such as training in culinary media, which ranges from cooking on TV or before a live audience, to conducting a radio interview. Cooking is one skill, said Sally, but media appearances are another … kettle of fish.

“There are a lot of people who say ‘I’m a food expert,’ or ‘I want to be famous and cook and talk on television,’” she said. “But there’s a very specific skill and personality that needs to be cultivated and trained, so we developed this program, which is the first of its type in this space.”

Over the past 40 years or so, hundreds, including celebrities like Lagasse, known for his mastery of Creole and Cajun cuisine, have had such training in that kitchen in the Ekus home.

As noted, countless cooking celebrities have come to Hatfield over the years, and now more are making the trek with the new Airbnb, which, as its name indicates, has a culinary focus.

“People can visit us, whether they’re a client or not, and be inspired, write, cook, visit the library, and more,” said Sally, adding that as more people become more comfortable with travelling, she expects that the space will become popular with those looking for a quiet spot to create — whether it’s with a laptap or on a stove.

 

Food for Thought

Summing up 40 years in business and the mindset that drives the Ekus Group, Lisa said, “some people eat to live; we live to eat and to celebrate the writers, the authors, the cooks who are doing it so brilliantly.”

And by celebrating them, it is helping them navigate the path to becoming celebrities — on one level or another.

This business is, like those books on the reference library shelves, unique. And as the business marks 40 years, those rooms in the Ekus home show just how far it has come and where it can still go.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News Employment Health Care News Women in Businesss

HOLYOKEHolyoke Medical Center has announced the appointment of Lisa Wray-Schechterle, as the hospital’s director of Community Benefits.

Wray-Schechterle joins the hospital from Pyramid Management Group where she served as the marketing director of the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside, a position she held for more than 20 years.

Wray-Schechterle holds both a master of Arts in Communication and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Western New England University. She serves as a marketing committee member for Girls Inc. of the Valley, a board member of the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, and as an advisory board member for the Holyoke Community College School of Business.

“We are happy to welcome Lisa to our team,” said Spiros Hatiras, Holyoke Medical Center’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “Her proven ability to build collaborative partnerships coupled with her knowledge of Holyoke and the many community based organizations we work with throughout the region, will enable her to successfully manage and expand our Community Benefits program.”

Holyoke Medical Center Community Benefits provides programs and services to improve health in communities and helps to increase access to health care. This is done to advance medical and health knowledge in the community and relieve or reduce the burden of government and other community efforts. Wray-Schechterle has succeeded Kathy Anderson as the director of the department, following Anderson’s retirement. 

“I am excited to extend my knowledge and networking connections to help improve the health needs of the Pioneer Valley,” said Wray-Schechterle.  

“As the hospital has just completed their 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment, I look forward to creating the next implementation strategy based on the feedback we received and expressed needs identified by the community.”

Conventions & Meetings Daily News Women in Businesss

HOLYOKE — The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS) welcomed Elizabeth Hillis, business development associate at WWLP 22 News, to its Board of Directors.

“I’m excited to share my skills with the board and learn new things about the area,” Hillis said. “I’m thrilled to be able to help with the amazing events our organization has to offer. Being a Springfield YPS member is a great way to develop your network, meet other professionals, and become more involved in your community. I can’t wait to get started!”

Business Management Daily News Women in Businesss

CHICOPEE — Bk Investments Hotel Group announced the promotion of Karen Warren to regional director of Operations.

Warren will be responsible for the management of the hotel portfolio. She will have responsibilities for a range of brands, including Residence Inn Chicopee, Hampton Inn Chicopee, Tru by Hilton Chicopee, and Holiday Inn Express in Brattleboro, Vt.   

Vickie Maryou has been promoted to general manager of the Residence Inn Chicopee to succeed Warren.

Daily News Events Sports & Leisure STUFF Made in Western Mass Women in Businesss

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Union Station is again hosting a music video of The Star-Spangled Banner sung by local talent Vanessa Ford, who is known as “The Songstress of Springfield.” Also this 4th of July, is a music video by Kayla Staley, a student at the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts.

Staley performs America the Beautiful in her video, which also includes interior drone video of historic Springfield Union Station.

The videos were planned, recorded and produced by Darcy Young and Mary Cate Mannion, both of whom are producers at New England Corporate Video, a division of GCAi Digital PR and Marketing. GCAi will run both videos for Springfield Union Station on its Social Media channels starting on July 1, and they will run through July 4.

“The 4th of July is very special for all of us in Springfield, and Union Station wanted to add to the celebration,” said Nicole Sweeney, property manager for Springfield Union Station. “Vanessa and Kayla are local treasures.”

Ford began singing in the church choir at the age of seven, and she loves every genre of music. She is an aficionado of classical music, jazz, pop, traditional hymns, and contemporary gospel music. She has performed the National Anthem for many local college sporting events, at Springfield Police Academy Graduations, and for a multitude of high-profile local and national events.

Staley is a 2022 graduate of Springfield’s Conservatory of the Arts and has been singing since she was 12. She enjoys singing at retirement communities and other public venues.

Women in Businesss

A Home Game

By Mark Morris

Jessye Deane, left, with  Diane Szynal.

Jessye Deane, left, with outgoing Franklin County Chamber director Diane Szynal.

While the specific job responsibilities are new, most everything else about Jessye Deane’s new assignment, as executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, isn’t.

Starting with the region this agency represents.

Indeed, Deane is a native of Bernardston and a lifelong resident of the county. So she is quite familiar with the region’s many assets — as well as the considerable challenges it faces, and has faced for decades now.

“When I’m out grabbing a coffee or dropping my kids off for softball, I hear all about the challenges businesses are facing,” Deane told BusinessWest. “Because I live here and run a business here, I feel intertwined with the local economy.”

Those sentiments help explain that, while Deane is no stranger to she is also no stranger to the ins and outs, ups and downs, of running a business or nonprofit. In fact, she’s had experience with both.

In her current position, Deane is the director of Communications and Development for Community Action Pioneer Valley. In her 12 years with the anti-poverty agency, the $36 million non-profit has seen an increase in private funding of more than 1,600%. Deane said her experience with Community Action has given her an education on the various strengths and challenges in each community in the county.

“I plan to get out to meet with businesses and start work on a community needs assessment. An important part of this role is to always ask our stakeholders if we are doing a good job; are we supporting them and are we being effective?”

“Community Action primarily serves Franklin County as well as offering services in other parts of Western Mass,” Deane said. “In my time there, I have become familiar with the differences in each community and the unique economic landscape in Franklin County. So, I come into my new role with that background.”

And with her husband Danny, Deane owns two F45 Training fitness studios, located in Hadley and West Springfield.

“When I hear about the challenges local businesses are facing it’s not some abstract concept,” Deane said. “As a business owner I’m facing those same challenges.”

What’s more, she is certainly no stranger to this chamber, and chambers in general. She’s served on the Franklin County chamber’s board since 2019, and before that, she as an Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce ambassador.

It is this considerable wealth of experience — with the region and the fundamentals of business, and the chamber — that Deane will bring to her position; she will begin in July, when current executive director Diana Szynal takes on a similar challenge — as president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

It is her intention to hit the ground running, and she already has what might be considered a solid head start.

When interviewing for the position at the chamber, Deane wanted to accurately convey her vision for the agency’s role in Franklin County as it relates to both tourism and as a business collective. So she presented a 14-page proposal.

“The best way for me to operate was to put it all on paper and say this is where I think we can go,” said Deane. “I also wanted to make sure that the vision I had in mind was supported by the board.”

While this vision provides a blueprint of sorts moving forward, Deane acknowledged that there is much that she has to learn — about chamber members and their current and anticipated needs, and about the chamber its role as well.

“With my transition into the role and this new business landscape in front of us, it’s a great time to take inventory of what’s working for the chamber and where we should add additional value,” Deane said, adding that, as someone who values numbers and metrics, she plans to gather qualitative and quantitative data to deliver on the objectives she has set for the chamber.

“I plan to get out to meet with businesses and start work on a community needs assessment,” she went on. “An important part of this role is to always ask our stakeholders if we are doing a good job; are we supporting them and are we being effective?”

Overall, this is an intriguing time for the chamber, which moved from Greenfield (and an office now occupied by Community Action Pioneer Valley) to Deerfield at the start of this year. The was made primarily for the chamber to locate its visitor center to a place where more people could access it. Prior to COVID, Historic Deerfield drew nearly 20,000 visitors every year.

Meanwhile, the chamber is building on experiences — and some confidence — gained during the pandemic, when it became, out of necessity, a greater resource to members and the business community in general, and also when it learned new and often better ways to do things.

Indeed, much of Szynal’s tenure at the chamber was spent helping businesses get through an unprecedented public health crisis, something Deane acknowledged and appreciated.

“Diana did an incredible job, and was able to provide growth and stability for our members during that time,” Deane said. “As a business owner I learned quickly that there is no playbook for doing business during a pandemic, which makes Diana’s accomplishments even more amazing.”

As for her own tenure, Deane said she is looking forward to putting all those many forms to experience to work — for the chamber and the county.

“I’m so honored to serve in this role because after growing up and now raising my family in Franklin County, I’m committed to the people here,” Deane said. “These folks are my neighbors and I’m going to do everything in my power to do right by them.”

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Growing Desire

 

Tina D’Agostino

Tina D’Agostino

For many, the pandemic was a time for introspection, for thinking about what’s important in life, for finding what makes one happy. It was that way for Tina D’Agostino, who, after landing in the corporate world following two decades of work at CityStage, decided she wanted to “pursue a career I could love again.” That pursuit led to Blooms Flower Truck and Studio, a business that brings a passion for flowers and some entrepreneurial fire together in the same mobile venture.

 

 

Tina D’Agostino says she’s always been entrepreneurial, and has long had a desire to start a venture of her own. Until very recently, though, the timing just wasn’t right.

By that she meant that she was either busy raising children and working part time, a period much earlier in her career, or working full time, as in very full time, promoting and staging events for CityStage with Springfield Performing Arts Development Corp., until 2018.

“I think that fire, and that interest, was always there,” she said. “But life did not allow me to test those waters and jump in.”

And when it did allow her to jump in and eventually launch Blooms Flower Truck and Studio, the timing could hardly be considered ideal. Indeed, she opened the doors to the truck in the middle of the pandemic, when operating any business was a stern challenge.

In some important ways, however, the pandemic inspired this entrepreneurial gambit, she said, adding that, for her (and many others) that challenging, unprecedented period brought with it time, and reason, for introspection and a focus on what’s important.

And for her, this meant finding work that … well, isn’t really work. Flowers are more of a passion, she said, and working for herself brings rewards on many different levels.

“COVID forced a lot of people to focus on what motivates them and interests them and makes them happy,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s what happened to me, anyway. That, coupled with losing some friends and some family members and realizing that life sometimes is a lot shorter than it should be, I really just wanted to focus on pursuing a career that I could love again.”

In this case, it meant taking a life-long love of flowers and gardening and coming up with something different, specifically a flower truck — a tricked-out Mercedes Sprinter van to be more precise. It’s not a delivery van, but rather a flower shop on wheels, one that she takes to various locations, like the Longmeadow Shops, to sell flowers but also to stage workshops and other programs.

She opened on Mother’s Day — one of those big days for florists — in 2021, and officially opened her studio in the Mill at Crane Pond in Westfield last November. Just over a year in, she described what’s transpired thus far as a rewarding learning experience, one that has yielded all the emotions encountered by entrepreneurs and the normal amounts of highs, lows, doubts, convictions, and nights where she could have done with more sleep.

“It’s certainly stressful figuring out where the next check is coming from and how I’m going to make the next payment on the van,” she continued. “But it’s worth it; at the end of every day, I’m glad I made this move.”

“COVID forced a lot of people to focus on what motivates them and interests them and makes them happy. That’s what happened to me, anyway. That, coupled with losing some friends and some family members and realizing that life sometimes is a lot shorter than it should be, I really just wanted to focus on pursuing a career that I could love again.”

Overall, she has perservered and put down some solid roots in a highly competitive industry. And she has her business on a track to continued growth and new opportunities, while successfully returning to where she was — a place where she loves coming to work every day.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with D’Agostino about her still relatively new venture, where she wants to take it, and how she intends to get there.

 

Stem Class

D’Agostino calls this the fourth chapter in her career. The first three included an intriguing mix of career stops, all of which in some ways helped her prepare for this latest act.

During that first chapter, she worked for a direct-mail company, a treadmill manufacturer, and an elementary school, when her children were very young. After she divorced, she needed full-time employment with benefits, and found it at CityStage, where she would climb the ladder, advancing from director of marketing to general manager to executive director, the post she was in when the city announced it was closing the nonprofit agency in 2018.

From there, she worked at Mercy Medical Center in the office of Philanthropy, and, later took a community-engagement role with Health New England just days before the pandemic arrived in Western Mass.

“I was at Health New England for four days before we were sent home to work because of COVID, so the community engagement part of that never took off,” she noted, adding that she worked at the company into January of this year as she gradually transitioned out of that phase of her career and into this one.

“I realized that, after enjoying a pretty robust career in a nonprofit in a very unique industry, the entertainment industry, it was hard to make that shift to the corporate environment,” she explained. “I think that this, coupled with COVID, promoted me to pivot to this business and become an entrepreneur. To go to a job every day sent me into a bit of a depression.”

Her chosen field, pun intended, is a hobby and passion that goes back to when she was a child.

“My grandmother had the greenest of all thumbs,” she explained. “She was a gardener and had tons of flowers outside and inside; actually, both sets of grandparents had vegetable gardens. We grew up gardening and paying attention to flowers — when I was a kid, it was big outing to go to Stanley Park and look at the roses, and we used to go to flower shows with my mom and my aunts when I was a kid, so I’ve always been around flowers.

“My father died when I was very young, and after he died, my mom went to work part time in a flower shop, so I had that exposure,” she went on. “It’s always been an interest of mine, and I’ve always arranged my own flowers.”

But making flowers a business is challenging in the current marketplace, she told BusinessWest, adding that there are still plenty of traditional flower shops in the region and supermarkets in nearly every area community with huge floral departments.

Upon surveying this scene, she decided she needed something decidedly different, and by that she meant the experience of choosing and buying flowers. And she decided that a mobile model would set Blooms apart and provide that unique experience.

“Blooms has evolved, and it’s still evolving. I’m rewriting the business plan regularly.”

“It’s kind of like a food truck, but with flowers,” she said, adding that she does pop-ups at the Longmeadow Shops and other locations such as wineries and breweries, and will also appear at events like charity golf tournaments. She has also made appearances at businesses — the Big E was one of them — that are showing appreciation to employees by giving them flowers.

Her first real challenge, and maybe the biggest in her estimation, was simply finding a van in which to operate — a difficult task when inventory is short and prices have skyrocketed.

“When I was looking last year, there were zero; there was nothing out there for a few months,” she recalled, adding that at one point she was in line to get a used model but eventually scored a new one and in less time than she anticipated.

Last November, she went next level and opened the studio at the Mill at Crane Pond in space by the loading dock that was formerly occupied by a machine shop. There, she sees some foot traffic for flowers and also conducts some workshops.

Moving forward, she is shaping and reshaping the business model and working to create enough revenue streams to see the business through the months that don’t have those busy flower days, like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and even Thanksgiving, which was more lucrative than she imagined it would be.

Such streams include everything from event planning, something she has done for years, and providing flowers for such gatherings, to an array of gifts she sells at the studio — most of which are intended for marrying couples — to work helping area residents with their home gardens.

“Blooms has evolved, and it’s still evolving,” she explained. “I’m rewriting the business plan regularly; some things have worked, and some things haven’t. The latest incarnation is to focus on as much events business as possible, and try to book as many large events, such as weddings and corporate gatherings, as possible.”

Elaborating, she said she wants to create more added value at such events by providing take-away gifts such as bouquets, or staging workshops for attendees on making arrangements, an interactive experience she calls a “Blooms bar.”

 

Plant Manager

All this is part of an entrepreneurial experience that is, in many ways, what she expected. But in other ways, it’s been much more than she could have imagined.

“I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but it is a lot more work than thought it was going to be because I’m just one person,” she explained. “I have friends and family that help when I need it for larger events, but for the day to day, I’m handling all of it — managing the books, the buying, the marketing, the social media, and the delivery; it’s much more than I thought.

“I do have to remember that it’s good to put things down and put things away,” she went on. “I really have to focus on staying organized, planning my time, and budgeting my time so that it’s not completely taking over. But that’s also the blessing of being an entrepreneur, because you can make your own schedule.”

Overall, the highs and lows, up and downs, have certainly been palatable, because D’Agostino is in a place she wants to be, figuratively, but also quite literally.

“There aren’t really any bad days, but at the end of the worst day, I look next to me, and I’m delivering, or surrounded by, or working with, all this beauty, and that’s really important to me.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Beyond the Numbers

 

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat says the factors holding women back in the workforce must be fully understood in order to shift the tide.

The numbers speak for themselves. But more importantly, they demand a response.

According to a global study published in the Lancet, between March 2020 and September 2021, women were more likely to report employment loss than men during the pandemic (26.0% to 20.4%), as well as more likely to drop out of school or forgo work to care for others.

“The most significant gender gaps identified in our study show intensified levels of pre-existing, widespread inequalities between women and men during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report reads. “Political and social leaders should prioritize policies that enable and encourage women to participate in the labor force and continue their education, thereby equipping and enabling them with greater ability to overcome the barriers they face.”

That’s exactly what the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — and a broad network of like-minded partners — have in mind through an effort they’re calling the Greater Springfield Women’s Economic Security Hub.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund. “So we created our own framework, where we considered the factors that affect some women’s economic security as more expansive than what other people might think.”

That includes a lack of unpaid caregiving. During the pandemic, that issue was the dominant factor in women dropping out of the workforce at an uprecendeted rate. The numbers have recovered somewhat, but not all the way, and the factors causing the workforce exodus remain problematic.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens. So we created our own framework.”

“Women weren’t dropping out of the workforce because they wanted to stay at home and eat bon-bons, but because schools were closed or childcare centers were closed, and someone needs to be home with the children,” Haghighat said. “Oftentimes, because of pay differentials and so forth, it made more sense for women to drop out of the workforce.”

Then there are issues around transportation and internet access. “Prior to the pandemic, people didn’t realize how critical that was,” she went on, whether the problem was lack of online access altogether or having difficulty sharing devices or WiFi with other family members.

To create the research and action project it called the Women’s Economic Security Hub, the Women’s Fund began collaborating with key area partners, including Arise for Social Justice, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western New England University School of Law Social Justice Center.

This work will focus on women, mostly of color and living at or below the poverty line, to understand the myriad factors that make or break an individual woman’s ‘economic engine,’ thereby affecting family prosperity.

The UMass Donahue Institute developed a survey instrument that will be refined, implemented, and analyzed by the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families, and the survey will delve into 12 interconnected determinants, to form a framework which will be used to survey women in communities that have historically faced disproportionate challenges to economic growth.

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears,” Haghighat said. “Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

 

Obstacles to Success

Luisa Sorio Flor, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington and lead author of the Lancet study, noted that “the pandemic has exacerbated gender disparities across several indicators related to health and other areas of well-being. Women were, for example, more likely than men to report loss of employment, an increase in uncompensated care work, and an increase in perceived gender-based violence during the pandemic, even in high-income countries.”

By partnering with the UMass Donahue Institute and surveying 200 area women, Haghighat hopes to localize those global trends to determine where the economic engine is jamming.

“Is it child and dependent care or job preparation or lack of a supportive network?” she asked. “We added ‘supportive network’ as one of the determinants we use, understanding that, when something goes wrong in a woman’s life, she might have a supportive network she can reach out to when things are going wrong, like a grandmother who can watch a child. But we realize that, oftentimes, women will lack that supportive network, which will obviously deter them from achieving economic security.”

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears. Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

Another determinant is identification, which can be a serious barrier not only for undocumented women, but women emerging from incarceration.

“When you come out of incarceration, you don’t just get handed your ID. You have to re-establish your identification, which is mindblowing to me,” Haghighat said. “So many things these days require identification, so that’s a huge barrier to getting housing, getting paid to work, all those things.”

A report from UMass Amherst School of Public Policy (SPP), released last month, revealed some of the impacts that the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic had on Massachusetts households. Led by UMass Amherst economist Marta Vicarelli, the team from SPP’s Sustainable Policy Lab surveyed more than 2,600 Massachusetts residents from October 2020 to February 2021 to gather information about the challenges households faced due to the public-health crisis and its socioeconomic fallout, and the strategies adopted to address these challenges.

The survey covered a wide range of topics, including employment and financial strains, childcare and education, physical and mental health, substance use, and food security. Vicarelli said the team’s analysis devoted particular attention to women, children, and minority populations.

“Our results shed light on the socioeconomic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts households across different socioeconomic groups,” she wrote. “Many of these impacts have been persisting throughout the pandemic. Special focus is devoted to delays in children’s academic and emotional development, negative mental-health outcomes, and negative effects on women’s employment. If not addressed quickly, these socioeconomic impacts will have lasting, and possibly irreversible, implications for the United States. We hope that our results will inform the design of policies that address these impacts and support vulnerable groups.”

Notably, the survey found that 31% of respondents saw a decrease in overall income and savings, and women were more likely than men to report having become financially dependent on their partner due to pandemic disruptions. Echoing the global Lancet study, female respondents were also more likely to indicate substantial changes in their professional life to support the needs of their households, such as keeping their jobs but working fewer hours, taking unpaid leave, leaving their job, or changing jobs.

“There’s a real concern about lost stability for retirement purposes,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “And who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth. Over time, we’ll see how that plays out.”

 

An Ongoing Conversation

A 2019 Women’s Fund report called “Key Findings on the Status of Women and Girls in Western Massachusetts” highlighted the fact that women in Hampden County were underemployed and experiencing high rates of poverty. Since then, COVID-19 has complicated the issue, and the impact on women in Greater Springfield has disproportionately affected black and Hispanic women — often women concentrated in low-wage employment who were shut down for extended periods or were laid off entirely.

The 2019 report also emphasized barriers for formerly incarcerated women, positing that resources like affordable housing, debt relief, financial assistance, access to sober housing — especially for women — quick reunification with children and other family members, and continuity of therapy and recovery are greatly needed.

The next report will be a tale of how COVID impacted everything. That and the Women’s Economic Security Hub survey are necessary next steps in closing troubling gaps for women when it comes to economic security, Haghighat said.

“Who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth.”

“And not just for us, but for area policy makers,” she added. “It’s important for them to take this lens to things — people quitting or not taking positions, not just because of pay, but because of hours, transportation, getting there. We want this framework for thinking about all the things affecting women. Then, employers can be more visionary about making sure the workplace or compensation package they’re creating really responds to the realities women are facing.”

She noted that federal lawmakers can get behind supporting physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges, but often balk at other forms of support, like a national early-childcare program that has come up for discussion in Congress before, but never went anywhere.

“I look at that as a huge missed opportunity,” Haghighat said — one of many that may one day be remedied as decision makers get a grip on the hard data that’s forcing too many women into hard decisions they shouldn’t have to make.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Putting the Focus on Leadership

 

It’s called the CliftonStrengths Assessment.

And that name pretty much says what it is. Created by Gallup, it’s a 177-question assessment designed to identify an individual’s strengths when it comes to leadership.

There are 34 such strengths, as identified after years of research by Don Clifton, and they include everything from communication and consistency to focus and positivity, said Colleen DelVecchio, founder of Colleen DelVecchio Consulting.

But identifying strengths is merely the first important step in the process toward becoming a better, more effective leader, said DelVecchio, who will lead an experiential workshop called “Activating Your Leadership Strengths” at the upcoming sheLEADS women’s conference being staged by the Chamber of Greater Easthampton.

Indeed, one’s strengths need to be … well, activated, she said, adding that her program, which she delivers several times a week on average to a wide range of audiences, is designed to help individuals put strengths identified by the assessment to full and effective use.

“Our focus is on providing attendees tools and connections that they didn’t have when they walked in.”

“We’ll look at these strengths and talk about how to aim them at your job; how do you aim your strengths at the things you need to do to become a leader?” she said, adding that attendees should leave the room with a clearer understanding of their five greatest strengths when it comes to leadership and, more importantly, how to apply them.

DelVecchio’s program is one of several components scheduled for sheLEADS, the rebranded professional-development conference launched by the Easthampton Chamber and then sidelined, as so many similar initiatives have been, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The half-day conference, with the theme “Bold, Brave, and Beyond,” will also include a panel discussion, titled “The Language of Leadership,” featuring Pia Kumar, chief strategy officer for Universal Plastics in Holyoke; Lynnette Watkins, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton; and Waleska Lugo-DeJesus, CEO of Inclusive Strategies.

It will also include a keynote address, called “Be Great Where Your Feet Are,” from Robyn Glaser, senior vice president of Business Affairs for the Kraft Group (owner of the New England Patriots), made possible by the event’s speaker sponsor, bankESB.

The sheLEADS conference is slated for Friday, May 20 from noon to 5 p.m. at the Bolyston Room in the Keystone Building, 122 Pleasant St., Easthampton. For tickets and details, visit www.easthamptonchamber.org/events.

Moe Belliveau, executive director of the Easthampton Chamber, said the women’s professional-development conference has become an important annual event, attended by women in virtually every sector of the economy. Over the past few years, it has been a virtual event, but the chamber decided that, with COVID subsiding and the number of cases declining, it was time to return to an in-person format.

The chamber is, in many ways, easing its way back in with the conference, opting for a half-day format, rather than full day, followed by networking at Abandoned Building Brewery. Roughly 100 attendees are expected, and they are being spaced out in a nod toward safety during the pandemic. There is also a virtual component to the conference, featuring the keynote address and panel discussion.

Like DelVecchio, Belliveau said the conference is designed for women looking to find their voice when it comes to leadership and learn from others how to be a more effective leader — in the workplace, but also in the community.

“This is a high-energy day filled with professional development, relationship- and leadership-building opportunities,” Belliveau said. “Our focus is on providing attendees tools and connections that they didn’t have when they walked in.”

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Reimagine the Possibilities

 

In many respects, the Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference that will unfold on April 1 at the MassMutual Center is the same one that was put together for early spring 2020 and then canceled by COVID-19 — and then canceled again amid a surge in early 2021.

Indeed, most all the speakers, including keynoter Tyra Banks, the model and media maven, are the same as those originally scheduled probably 30 months ago.

But the day-long event, expected to bring more than 1,300 people to downtown Springfield, simply can’t be the same as the one blueprinted back in 2019, said Sandra Doran, the school’s sixth president, who took the helm just a few months after the 2020 event was canceled.

And that’s because the world has changed so much in the interim, she told BusinessWest, and the conference needs to reflect that.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things,” said Doran, adding that the changed landscape, and the response to it, is reflected in the new theme for the conference: Reimagine. “What was considered adaptive two years ago is now considered routine today. This concept of really being prepared, with a plan A and a plan B … in the past, we might have had a couple of different strategies; now we have 10 different strategies because we know people’s needs are changing, the needs of employers are changing.”

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

Karen Woods, assistant vice president of Brand Strategy, Marketing, and Integrated Communications at Bay Path, agreed.

The original theme was ‘Own Your Now,’ she explained. “The idea was, ‘wherever you are in your life … own it, move forward, make decisions, and decide what’s next.’ But the pandemic changed a lot for people, so to ask people to ‘own their now’ seemed trite; the past two years not only affected the Women’s Leadership Conference, they affected women.

“And so this year, we have the theme of ‘Reimagine,’ and reimagine is really a gift,” she went on. “Because no matter where you are and what you’ve been through, you have this opportunity to come together, to network, to connect, to be with other women, and really start to think about what is the future, not just for you as an individual, but for our community.”

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

That theme, ‘Reimagine,’ will be threaded through a full day of programming that will include Banks’s keynote address at 3:15 p.m.; a luncheon talk featuring Patrice Banks, founder of Girls Auto Clinic; and the morning keynote, featuring Suzy Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural (more on them later). And it will also be incorporated into a series of break-in sessions, with titles ranging from “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work” to “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace.”

 

Face to Face

The return of the Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC), especially in its in-person format, is an important development for the region, said Doran, noting that, during its 25-year history, it has not only brought provocative speakers and historic figures to Springfield — a list that includes Margaret Thatcher, Madeline Albright, Rita Moreno, and many others — it has given attendees invaluable insight to bring back to their homes and offices.

Doran told BusinessWest that, while some thought had been given over the past two years to staging a WLC remotely, it was quickly determined that such a presentation would simply not be in keeping with the many goals — and expectations — for this conference, which has become a tradition in Western Mass.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow,” she explained. “And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

As organizers of the event saw COVID easing, with cases declining across the country, the decision was made to move forward with a live event, one that will have some restrictions, including proof of vaccine or a negative test to enter the MassMutual Center, as well as masking up when not eating or drinking.

Woods said ticket sales have been brisk, and a turnout similar to what has been the norm over the past several years is expected.

“We’ve been following the trends and the local, state, and federal guidelines,” she said. “Normally, we would start our advertising in the fall, and we were really looking at this spring. In speaking with our sponsors, exhibitors, and those buying tickets, we sense that people are feeling comfortable and ready to come back out for a gathering like this.”

As noted earlier, the overall lineup of speakers for the 25th WLC hasn’t changed since that event was originally blueprinted in 2019. But what has changed are the times, and some of the challenges being faced by women — and all those in the workforce.

And the speakers have been asked to reflect on what has transpired and incorporate these changes and mounting challenges into their presentations, said Doran, noting that the 25th WLC, like those before it, will leave attendees with plenty to think about as they consider how to reimagine their own lives and careers.

Indeed, the three keynoters are all successful entrepreneurs and innovators, who took decidedly different paths to success.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

The day will start with what promises to be an inspirational, and entertaining talk by Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural, brands she has transformed into a more than $500 million business empire.

Featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Entrepreneur, Batiz has been named one of Forbes’s “Richest Self Made Women in America” (2019) and EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year (2017). But to get there, she had to overcome some of life’s lowest lows — poverty, sexual abuse, depression, two bankruptcies, and a suicide attempt — which led to what she calls “the luxury of losing everything.”

The luncheon keynote speaker, Patrice Banks, is credited with opening up the male-dominated automotive industry and bringing a fresh perspective to that business. Girls Auto Clinic offers automotive buying and repair resources, services, and products by women to women. Prior to establishing GAC, she worked for more than 12 years as an engineer, manager, and leader at DuPont, a science and technology company.

Karen Woods

Karen Woods says the conference was rethemed from the one canceled two years ago to better reflect pandemic realities.

Frustrated with the lack of resources educating women on car care and her inability to find a female mechanic in the Philadelphia area, Banks enrolled in automotive- technology school to learn how to work on cars. Her mission with Girls Auto Clinic was to create a place she wanted to bring her car for repair and maintenance. She has since made it her mission to educate and empower women through their cars.

By telling her story, she continues to make history, through engaging talks, interactive workshops, authoring an informative car-care guide, and the successful running of a repair garage with female mechanics and a nail salon.

The day’s programing will conclude with a keynote talk by Tyra Banks, the supermodel who has become a serial entrepreneur as well. She created and executive produces America’s Next Top Model, has an Emmy Award-winning talk show (The Tyra Banks Show), hosted America’s Got Talent, and is consistently ranked by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.

Banks is CEO of the Tyra Banks Company, a multi-faceted corporation focused on beauty and entertainment. In 2012, she graduated from the Owner/President Management program at Harvard Business School, from which she created her one-of-a-kind cosmetics experience, TYRA Beauty. She recently developed Fierce Capital, the investment arm of the Tyra Banks Company, which invests in early-stage companies, including firms that are female-led or female-focused.

Her passion is the TZONE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that invests in young women to help them realize their ambitions and approach life’s challenges with fierce determination. The TZONE now takes residence at the Lower Eastside Girls Club Center for Community in New York City and focuses on five core pillars: entrepreneurship; financial literacy; elocution and self-presentation; health and wellness; and self-esteem, beauty, and body image.

 

Breaking Out

As noted earlier, the conference will also feature a number of breakout sessions designed to both inform and inspire.

Session 1 takes the title “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work,” and will be led by Jennifer Romolini, a writer, speaker, senior digital-media strategist, and author of the book Weird in a World That’s Not: A Career Guide for Misfits.”

She will essentially debunk the theory that office-politicking extroverts are best set up for success. The session will help attendees understand, among other things, how to stop feeling like a freak at work, how to start using one’s misfit nature as a strength in the workplace, and how one’s sensitivity and empathy can make her a boss who not only succeeds, but effects real change.

Session 2 is called “The Power of Meaning: Making Your Life, Work, and Relationships Matter,” and will be led by Emily Esfahani-Smith, author of the book The Power of Meaning, which outlines four pillars essential to living a life that matters: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.

In this breakout session, Smith will present the latest in psychology and neuroscience (as well as the wisdom of great philosophers) to help attendees live more satisfying lives, and focus in on those four pillars.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow. And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

Session 3, titled “The Real Role of Gut Instinct in Managing Complexity and Extreme Risk,” will be led by Laura Huang, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the book EDGE.

In her talk, Huang will discuss her research on decision-making in organizations and why the question shouldn’t be about data-driven decisions versus gut-feel-based decisions. Instead, effective organizational outcomes are the result of understanding the set of rules that are inherent in any complex decision, which dictates whether more data actually helps us make better decisions. Bringing her diverse work and research background (having conducted dozens of interviews with investors and observing pitch meetings with entrepreneurs) to analyzing the role of gut instinct in making choices, Huang developed an in-depth understanding vital role that gut feel plays in managing complexity and risk — and the difference between big wins and playing it safe.

Session 4 is titled “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace,” and will be presented by Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. In 2019, her book, titled Don’t You Know Who I Am: How to Stay Sane in the Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, was released. She is also the author of the modern relationship survival manual Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life.

Session objectives include understanding what a disruptive personality style looks like and how it may affect oneself; learning how to manage disruptive personalities in the workplace, and what works (and doesn’t work); understanding how systems and people enable disruptive personalities in the workplace, and becoming familiar with a 10-step plan designed to provide the tools to manage disruptive personalities.

For more information on the conference, visit www.baypath.edu/events-calendar/womens-leadership-conference.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Mall Star

Lynn Gray

Lynn Gray went from selling Holyoke Mall gift certificates at age 15 to running the facility as general manager.

Lynn Gray has truly come full circle, from attending the grand opening of Holyoke Mall as a newborn to her role as general manager there today. In a career spent in the shopping-center world, she has seen plenty of evolution and a few major challenges as well, the pandemic being the latest and perhaps most daunting. But current customer traffic and interest in available space tell her this is an industry with plenty of life, and she’s passionate about helping individual businesses succeed within it.

 

 

When Lynn Gray was two weeks old, her mother packed her up and took her on her very first outing — to the grand opening of Holyoke Mall in 1979, the center where she now works as general manager.

“How cool is that, right?” she asked.

The mall has certainly been a family affair; her mother worked there from its opening as an office manager, and her grandmother would later come on board as a customer-service manager.

“When I was 15, I started at the customer-service desk in the middle of the mall selling gift cards — well, back then it was gift certificates,” Gray recalled. “So that’s how I got into the shopping-center industry.”

It’s been a journey that has taken her across the Northeast and down the East Coast, but mostly at Holyoke Mall and Hampshire Mall, where she was general manager from 2016 until earlier this year, and is still serving in an interim role at the Hadley complex while a replacement is found. And, having been around shopping centers throughout her entire career, she’s seen plenty of evolution in the industry.

“It feels to me very cyclical,” she told BusinessWest, citing, as an example, the 10 years she spent away from Pyramid Management Group, which owns the Holyoke and Hampshire malls, as well as 12 other properties. Between 2006 and 2016, she was with General Growth Properties, taking on various marketing roles, eventually becoming marketing director for the East region.

“I was really focused on the East Coast and got to work with a lot of properties there, from marketplaces to smaller centers to super-regional centers in a variety of different markets. It was funny because, coming back to Hampshire Mall, where my management experience had started, I saw this evolution happening at the properties.”

“When I left them, I had just helped open Target and Trader Joe’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy,” she said by way of explanation — all of them big-name staples at shopping centers across the U.S. at the time.

“It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”

“Ten years later, Best Buy had closed, and we had already replaced them with PetSmart. We were putting in a bowling alley; we were putting in a gym. So I saw the the transition from the early 2000s — from Kmart to Target to a variety of new big boxes coming in — and then, when I came back, I saw that cycle over to the lifestyle components like a Planet Fitness, like a bowling alley and an arcade. It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”

Indeed, that’s the driving evolution in malls today, she went on — a move not necessarily away from retail, but complementing retail with more entertainment, experiences, and dining options.

“There’s been a lot of change even these last few years, and then, of course, COVID happened,” Gray said. “So then you see a little more of that cyclical stuff happening with the big boxes turning over and repurposing them for a variety of uses.”

And it’s not just a local phenomenon, she added. “I get to support leasing for all of our properties, so I’m not just focused on Hampshire and Holyoke; I get to see what’s happening across the Pyramid portfolio and across the industry. We’re seeing more hotels, we’re seeing apartments, we’re seeing shared office spaces in a lot of our properties. So it’s kind of cool to see it’s not just about a shopping center anymore, it’s about creating a lifestyle.”

 

Coming Home

Coming back to Hampshire Mall as general manager in 2016 was truly a full-circle event for someone who had built a career from the bottom up at the two local Pyramid properties. From her humble beginnings selling gift certificates at Holyoke Mall, she progressed in the mid-’90s to an office-assistant position at Hampshire Mall for a few years, which evolved into a marketing role. She returned to Holyoke in the late ’90s as assistant marketing director, then went back to Hampshire as marketing director before her stint with General Growth Properties.

“When I came back to Pyramid again,” she said of her hiring as general manager there in 2016, “it was like coming home.”

As for the recent evolution in the use of mall space, one that’s especially noticeable at Hampshire Mall, Gray said even individual tenants understand the trend.

“A lot of our partners in our tenant base have really gone out of their way to try to diversify their use,” she noted. “A great example is Pinz. You’re not just there for bowling; there’s also an arcade, there’s food, there’s dart throwing, axe throwing, all kinds of things. It’s about keeping people in these spaces longer, and that’s something we’re offering at all of our properties.”

That’s why both malls now feature a gym, bowling, and arcades, as well as shopping (including some big boxes, like Target, which is also featured at both). “We really are creating a destination for you to find everything you need. It’s creating sort of a downtown feel.”

No longer can mall managers cater only to people who want to stop in, get what they want quickly, and leave, even though there are still plenty of those. It’s about giving them more to do once they arrive and, therefore, more reasons to come in the first place.

“I think people have more choices today,” Gray said. “They have less time, more on their plates, they’re going in a million different directions, and creating a space they’re going to frequent more often because they’re not coming here just for shopping is critical, because it keeps us relevant; it keeps us top of mind.

“They’re not just going to Target to get their essentials, they’re coming here for a day with their family and going bowling, or maybe they’re coming several times a week because they’re visiting the gym. Or they’re having their birthday parties at Altitude,” she went on. “It’s a space that’s far beyond just a shopping destination. They’re coming more often and spending more time because they’re coming for a variety of different uses.”

Hampshire Mall in particular is no stranger to innovation. Gray credited the wisdom of its original owners, who built a shopping center on farmland in Hadley more than 40 years ago. The Route 9 corridor eventually exploded with much more retail, dining, and other amenities, fed by the affluent communities of Amherst and Northampton that bookend it, and, of course, UMass Amherst and other local colleges.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises.”

“Somebody had this idea that putting a shopping center there would be really successful, and it has been,” she said. “It’s very desirable real estate now.”

Still, no one in the shopping-center industry was prepared for the impact of COVID-19.

“The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty, which still resonates with a lot of us,” she said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises. Supporting those businesses, which were hit the hardest during the pandemic, has been something we’ve really tried to put our efforts into.”

That statistic surprises some people, she noted. “Some consider us to be the big-box destination and forget there are so many businesses in this center that are locally owned, here and at Hampshire, and I like to remind people of that. They live in your community, they’re supporting your kids’ schools and sports teams, and they also lease space at a shopping center. It’s not just about the big box and the large retailer.”

The good news, for tenants of all sizes, is that traffic numbers at the malls are up — not just from 2020, but from 2019.

“I think that’s a testament to people itching to get out,” Gray said. “They’ve been missing that in-person connection and getting outside their four walls, and we’ve been able to give them a reason to do that.”

And they’ve been, for the most part, gracious about safety protocols that still fluctuate between communities; in fact, Holyoke Mall currently recommends mask wearing, while Hampshire Mall requires it.

“They want to get out, so they’re going to do what they can to follow the rules so they can continue to frequent those businesses,” she added.

 

Leading by Example

Gray has long been active in the community, and for the past two years, she’s been president of the board directors at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“They were obviously two of the most challenging years for small businesses in particular, so being part of a chamber supporting them was really gratifying,” she said. “Being able to be in the trenches with the executive director and the board of directors and all the various committees that were supporting businesses staying open and surviving the pandemic … I’m really proud of the work we did there.”

She also serves on the board of the Amherst Boys and Girls Club — another family connection, as her mother served on the board of the Chicopee club for many years. She’s also a state ambassador in Massachusetts for CHERUBS, an organization that raises awareness and funds around congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition that affects newborn babies, including Gray’s own baby, who passed away seven years ago.

As the mother of a 19-year-old son, “I think it’s important to set an example for him that it’s not just about getting up, going to work, doing your job, and coming home at the end of the day — it’s about outreach and community development and being out there. It doesn’t just make you feel good, you’re actually doing good. I think it’s important to set that example for our future leaders as well.”

At her day job, of course, she supports businesses in other ways.

“It’s a little win every time we see a new business open, whether it’s an existing business or a small business just starting up. Pyramid is a leasing company; that’s what we do. We want to lease our spaces, we want to stay fresh and relevant, so every time we have a new tenant that’s opening up, we’re excited to share that news. I think it’s a testament to us as a developer that we’ve been able to celebrate so many new openings.”

Gray has heard the rumors over the years that shopping centers aren’t doing well, or are on the decline.

“But people still want to open businesses in successful centers. We’re seeing more and more walk-in requests to look at spaces. There was a time when the phone wasn’t ringing at all, but they’re starting to see that the trend is going up and people are craving being out and about and not just holed up in their homes anymore.”

She also loves working with existing tenants on ways to expand and market their businesses. “They really took a hit, so anything we can do to support the business and spread the word, anything we can do to keep the businesses going, I want to be part of that.”

Gray’s mother no longer works in the shopping-center world; she’s in residential real estate now. But she was very excited to hear her daughter was now general manager of Holyoke Mall.

“She said she’s really proud, and I said I’m really proud, because I went from selling gift certificates at the customer-service desk and answering phones to actually leading the charge for Western Mass.’s largest shopping center. I’m the first woman general manager at Holyoke Mall, and I’m really proud of that. I’m proud to share that story because maybe a little girl can hear that and know that you can start small, and if you grow and work hard at it, someday you can do this too.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Taking a Leadership Role

Lora Wondolowski says leadership is constantly changing and evolving

Lora Wondolowski says leadership is constantly changing and evolving, and that’s one of the many intangibles that has kept her at the helm of LPV.

 

When Lora Wondolowski became founding executive director of Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV), it certainly wasn’t with the expectation that she would one day be hard at work planning 10-year anniversary celebrations.

Indeed, Wondolowski said it was more her style, her pattern, to launch organizations and programs, stabilize and build them, and then move onto something else, probably in four or five years, as she did with her previous assignment, as founding director of the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters and the Environmental Voters Education Fund in Boston.

“I’m someone who gets restless — who has trouble staying,” she said in reference to the many lines in the ‘work history’ section of her résumé. “My last two organizations, this one and the last one, were startups, and if I look at the trajectory of my career, a lot of the work I’ve done over the years is starting new programs or new organizations. I didn’t see myself able to sustain within an organization; I thought I’d get bored.”

Suffice it to say that, in this job, she hasn’t.

When asked why, she said there are several reasons, starting with the inspiration she gets from the graduates of LPV’s LEAP program and their success stories (a list that includes exactly half of BusinessWest’s eight Women of Impact for 2021 — more on that later).

But there is more to Wondolowski’s lengthy stay with LPV. Much more, as she explained.

“The work we do keeps changing and growing, and that’s because leadership is ever-changing; our curriculum is ever-changing,” she explained. There is a lot to keep me engaged and energized as I look for new opportunities for our organization.”

Over the past decade, Wondolowski has become a leader in her own right. She is currently serving on several boards, including those for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and the Connecticut River Conservancy. Meanwhile, at LPV itself, she has managed and grown the organization, expanding its original mission in several different ways that have collectively made it an important addition to the region and its business community.

And, like those at the helm of virtually every business and nonprofit in the region, she has seen her leadership skills tested during COVID-19, a time of extreme challenge for LPV.

“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently.”

In the spring of 2020, the pandemic forced the agency to offer its programming remotely, make difficult but necessary staff cuts — Wondolowski was a one-person show (and on reduced time) for several months —and eventually take its graduation to a drive-through format similar to what was seen with area high schools.

In 2021, staffing is back to something approaching normal thanks in part to two rounds of PPP, programming has returned to the in-person format, and another class is working its way toward commencement next spring. But some companies are struggling to enroll employees in the program due to staffing constraints and other challenges, and ‘normal,’ as in what existed prior to COVID, is very much a moving target.

Meanwhile, COVID has also made its way into the curriculum. Sort of. Indeed, the pandemic and its side effects have put new emphasis on decision making, conflict resolution, and other matters that have prompted changes to some of the programs, Wondolowski said.

“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently,” she explained, adding that LPV changed up one of its sessions, from a hard focus on negotiation skills to one recalibrated to center on collaboration and conflict management — out of necessity and the times we’re in.

“I’m seeing more conflict,” she said. “I think some of it is dealing with people remotely, and the communication skills you need are different, and how people are approaching it is different.”

The graduation ceremonies for the LPV class of 2020

The graduation ceremonies for the LPV class of 2020 were drive-through in nature, one of the many challenges to contend with during the pandemic.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Wondolowski about LPV as it turns 10, but also about her own leadership role in the region and that notion that leadership is ever-changing and how this still relatively new addition to the local business landscape is helping its participants navigate these changes.

 

Following the Leader

On one wall of her office on the ninth floor of Harrison Place — space LPV is now sharing with Tech Foundry — Wondolowski has put photos of the agency’s graduating classes. A few of the most recent classes are missing, and there are Post-it notes where those images should be — gentle reminders to fill in that space on the wall.

Wondolowski has had a number of other matters on her mind besides those photos lately. Indeed, she has been steering the agency through the whitewater churned up by COVID while also planning for the long term for an agency created to meet a recognized need cited by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress: to create more programming to give people the skills and confidence they need to become leaders in the community.

Overall, there are now 327 alumni of the LEAP program, a number that is a source of pride in and of itself. But the accomplishments of those graduates and their continued upward movement in terms of success in business and involvement in the community are much bigger sources.

Among those alums are a number of elected officials, including Holyoke’s first Hispanic mayor, Joshua Garcia, class of 2016, who won that office just a month ago, as well as state Sen. Adam Gomez (class of 2018) and a number of city and town councilors and school-committee members across the region.

“There’s still so much more work to do. And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”

“We’ve had close to two dozen of our graduates run for office since 2017,” Wondolowski noted. “There are several on the City Council in Springfield and school-committee members up and down the Valley.”

There are also a number of business leaders and, therefore, individuals who have graced the pages of BusinessWest — especially, those issues announcing winners of its various awards. Indeed, a number of the 600 individuals possessing 40 Under Forty plaques are LPV alums, with some going through the program before they were honored by BusinessWest, and some after.

Meanwhile, as noted, four of this year’s Women of Impact — Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts; Charlene Elvers, director of the Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College; Madeline Landrau, Program Engagement manager at MassMutual; and Tracye Whitfield, Springfield city councilor and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer in West Springfield — are also alums.

The most important statistic is that 97% of the alums are still living and working in the Pioneer Valley, Wondolowski said, adding that keeping talent in the region — by getting people engaged in individual cities and towns and the 413 as a whole — was one of the motivating factors for creating LPV.

And the business plan for the organization is simple: to keep growing those numbers and inspiring more people to become leaders and get involved. It does this through a program that, at its core, connects its participants with the community to identify needs and, through the formation of ‘leadership learning lab groups,’ address those needs. In conjunction with local nonprofit partners, Wondolowski explained, teams have developed projects related to children, youth, community and economic development, arts and culture, anti-racism, and much more.

The experience creates a progress of self-discovery and growth, she went on, adding that LEAP participants return to their organizations with stronger relational and leadership skills that they also apply to the communities in which they live and work.

As for her, the decade she has spent at the helm of the agency has likewise been a process of self-discovery and growth.

“There’s still so much more work to do,” she said of LPV and its mission. “And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”

This need to be entrepreneurial and take small risks was exacerbated by — and in all ways impacted by — guiding LPV through COVID.

Wondolowski said the past 22 months have been a learning experience on all kinds of levels, but especially when it comes to decision making and confronting change on a massive scale.

“It’s been a real a roller coaster,” she said. “In the beginning, it was, ‘OK, we just have to do this,’ and we pulled our board together to make some tough decisions. In the early months, we were meeting very regularly, and in some ways it was hard … but it was in different ways than it is now because there was a sense of purpose, and knowing we were all coming together helped a lot.

“As it dragged on, and it waxes and wanes, there are some days when it can just be really overwhelming and hard,” she went on. “You get decision fatigue.”

These are the same challenges confronted by all business and nonprofit leaders over the past 22 months, she said, adding that COVID and its many side effects have brought changes to how and where work is done, and thus profound changes to the dynamic of the workplace.

And many of these changes are long-term, if not permanent.

“We’re not going to go back to fully in-person workplaces for a long time,” Wondolowski said, adding that many workers have been very productive at home, and many see little, if any, reason to return to the office. And a number of companies large and small see the logic in allowing remote work to continue.

But with this seismic shift comes changes in how people communicate — and how they must lead.

“There are all these questions about work culture and how you create a culture when people aren’t not all in the same place,” she said, adding that this represents just one of new frontiers, if you will, when it comes to managing in these compelling times.

“For our last class, we actually had a session on executive presence and focused a lot on how you communicate effectively virtually, and all the things about body language and how you frame yourself on the camera,” she told BusinessWest. “These are things you would never have thought about, and now you do.”

 

Bottom Line

That’s just one example of how leadership is, as Wondolowski said earlier, ever-changing. And that’s one of many factors that has not only kept her in this job longer than she ever thought she would be in it, but kept her engaged and energized.

As she plans that 10th-anniversary commencement for next spring, she is also thinking about the many springs to follow and the future classes of LPV and what they will need to be impactful leaders in the community and in business.

Filling in those blanks, especially in the era of COVID and the profound changes it has brought to the landscape, is not easy. But if anything, Wondolowski has demonstrated that she not only grooms leaders — she has become one herself.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Hidden Costs

A recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the TIME’S UP Foundation shows that workplace sexual harassment has large financial costs and economic consequences.

The report, “Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment, is the first-ever attempt to monetize the lifetime financial costs of sexual harassment to individual women. Among those interviewed, workplace sexual harassment cost individuals anywhere from $600 to $1.3 million or more over a lifetime, depending on the wages of the worker.

The report shows how sexual harassment contributes to the gender wage gap and limits women’s earning potential. These costs can be seen through job loss and unemployment, lower earnings, missed opportunities for advancement, forced job changes, and loss of critical employer-sponsored benefits like health insurance and pension contributions. The financial impact of workplace sexual harassment can be detrimental and long-lasting to those who experience it.

“As employers rethink their post-COVID workplaces, we need to ensure that work — whether it’s remote or in the office — is safe, dignified, and equitable.”

The short-term and long-term impact on the economic security of those working in low-wage jobs can be particularly severe. Workers in lower-income occupations and those impacted by historical racial and ethnic discrimination were more likely to be in economically precarious situations without significant savings. A $600 wage loss can quickly translate into increased debts and credit card fees, eviction, homelessness, and food insecurity.

“As employers rethink their post-COVID workplaces, we need to ensure that work — whether it’s remote or in the office — is safe, dignified, and equitable,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of IWPR. “This report shows the different ways sexual harassment imposes financial and economic costs to women workers.”

Added Jessica Forden of the TIME’S UP Foundation, “no person should ever choose between reporting sexual harassment or speaking up for themselves while considering whether they might lose their ability to feed their families or take their children to the doctor. When we think about the true cost of sexual harassment, we have to think about what’s at stake when women come forward and how this impacts not just them, but everyone around them: their families, communities, and more.”

For every individual interviewed, the experiences of harassment were compounded, and the costs magnified, because those who could have addressed the harassment (including supervisors, human resources staff, and colleagues) failed to act, and, even worse, often retaliated against the employees who were harassed. Few were able to seek legal advice, being kept away by uncertain immigration status, lack of funds, or lack of information on their rights.

Based on in-depth interviews with survivors of workplace sexual harassment, as well as with experts, the report charts the detailed pathways that lead to financial costs to individual workers as a result of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation. Key findings from the report include:

• The costs to economic security are particularly profound for workers in low-paid jobs. While lower earnings and lower job quality in many women-dominated service-sector jobs mean that the monetary costs of harassment are lower for those in these positions, for one fast-food worker forced out of her job, lifetime costs still totaled more than $125,600.

• The lifetime costs of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation were particularly high for those pushed out of well-paid, male-dominated occupations, reaching $1.3 million for an apprentice in the construction trades. The cost of a single year out of work for another apprentice in a construction occupation translates into a lifetime loss of $230,864 due to lost wage progression and foregone benefits.

• Forced career change may necessitate paying for new degrees or credentials. These costs came to almost $70,000 for one woman, reflecting direct tuition costs for a two-year community-college degree plus lost earnings over two years as she pursued her new degree.

The report suggests that culture change, company change, and governmental change are all needed for prevention and accountability.

“It’s clear from our interviews that a lack of enforcement is a part of what’s missing,” said report co-author Ariane Hegewisch of IWPR. “Sexual-harassment policies alone will not work unless there are consequences when they are broken.”

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Crafting Connections

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

When Hannah Rechtschaffen set about to open an art gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she didn’t envision a static space; instead, her goal was to develop a vibrant, eclectic, multi-media gallery that not only focused on local artists, but forged connections between them and the public through workshops, classes, events, and even the everyday conversations that bring to life the stories and history behind each artist and each piece. A couple weeks after the gallery’s opening, she’s optimistic those creative collisions are already happening.

 

Anika Lopes’ roots in Amherst go back six generations, so the town is special to her. But as a milliner — an artist who designs and creates hats — she has made her name in galleries and boutiques in much larger cities, especially New York.

Now, as the highlighted artist for the recent grand opening of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she feels like she’s come full circle.

“This is the first time I’ve shown in Amherst,” she told BusinessWest. “I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

“I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

The Hannah in the gallery name is Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking at the Mill District, who launched a gallery after Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation owner of the property, asked her to. But Rechtschaffen infused that task with her own vision for an eclectic, multi-media collection of rotating artists (21 are on display now, hailing from 13 different towns, with some being replaced every quarter), but also a space-rental model that continually reinvests in bringing more exposure to the artists (more on that in a bit).

“Every three months, some of the artists will turn over, so there will always be something fresh, and there will also be some carryover,” she said. “I want people to feel good knowing they’ll come back in here and see new stuff. That’s a really crucial part.”

Also rotating will be the front window space, with which the gallery will highlight a certain artist. For the opening weeks, that’s Lopes, who was on hand to celebrate the gallery’s opening on June 19.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

“In conjunction with Juneteenth, we wanted to make sure we were highlighting a local artist of color, and Anika’s work with the hats … gives us an opportunity to kind of push the boundary a little bit on what art is,” Rechtschaffen said of the front window space. “We can also have historic installations there, or we can do installations of artists who aren’t local, but maybe they’re doing work you can’t find locally, and we want to highlight it.”

History is important to Lopes, whose display at the gallery includes not only her hats, but original hat blocks created by one of first black men to have a millinery factory in the garment district of New York City — which she uses to hand-block her hat designs, which she then hand-sews.

“There’s a lot of history here, and it’s been amazing to merge this [artwork] with Amherst history as part of the Juneteenth celebration,” Lopes said. “It was just a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Amherst and what’s going on here at the Mill District, which was, in itself, such a pleasant surprise to see and experience. It’s an inspiration for where Amherst can go.”

As for the rental model, Rechtschaffen charges $20 per linear foot per month for wall space, which gives the artist use of the entire wall, floor to ceiling. She also takes a 20% commission on any art sales, all of which cycles back into the gallery for marketing, events, classes, and anything that brings more people in to see the work.

“Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

“That’s the idea — the commission isn’t just flying out of the artist’s pocket; it’s going right back into running the engine of the business side,” she said, noting that she modeled it after Woolworth Walk, a much larger gallery in Asheville, N.C., which features 230 booths in a former Woolworth’s store.

“In charging a little bit of rent, you create this ownership that artists have of the space. I want to overhear an artist say, ‘oh, I want to show you my gallery.’ I know that I’m doing it right when they have that connection to it,” she explained.

“I wasn’t sure it would translate, and especially coming out of COVID, I felt so self-conscious about putting the model out there, to charge them money up front, even if it was a low rent,” she went on. “I’m an artist; I know how hard it is. But no one batted a eye. Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

 

Art of the Matter

One of Rechtschaffen’s goals was to highlight a wide variety of art, and she’s done that, with the first 21 exhibitors — all but a couple of them women — working in media ranging from paint to felt to polymer clay. True to its name, the gallery aims to draw from local artists, meaning those living within a one-hour radius.

“We want to connect anyone coming to the Mill District with the wealth of art and artists in the area because it’s crazy how many artists are living right around here,” she said.

In addition, “it was really important to me to have both emerging and established artists sharing the space. For some of these people, it’s their full-time job, they’re artists, it’s what they do. And for some people, it’s very much on the side of what they do; maybe they want to make it a larger part of their livelihood, or maybe they’re retired and they’re just doing it because it’s a passion.”

Showing those works side by side forges connections between artists and their various media — and so does a large gathering table toward the front of the gallery, which will host classes, workshops, and “conversations” between artists and the public.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Rechtschaffen related a conversation with one of the exhibitors, Maxine Oland, a well-known local artist who operates an Etsy page.

“I was like, ‘oh, would you be open to teaching a class called Should I Bother Having an Etsy Page?’” she recalled. “Because it’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to keep it up, and there’s a cost involved. I get artists all the time saying, ‘should I bother? Is it worth it?’ What better way to have that conversation than with an artist who’s going to be honest and say, ‘well, for me it’s been worth it, and I sell X amount a month, and here’s the process.’

“So those kinds of classes and pop-up conversations can happen with emerging and established artists, and those who don’t consider themselves artists, coming and listening and learning from each other,” she went on.

Lopes sees great value in the gallery’s focus on connection, calling it a “lifeline for artists.”

“As I’ve been able to see the space and the artists coming in here, especially at this time, where people are coming out of COVID, where everyone in the arts has been affected, it’s really a place that has inspired artists,” she said. “I think it’s building confidence within artists and giving people hope.”

Rechtschaffen said the Mill District itself is intended to be a place that tells a story and builds community, which is why Jones felt an art gallery would be a strong component to begin with.

“Every artist in here has a story behind why they make the art they make, why it’s important to them,” Rechtschaffen told BusinessWest. “I can point to any one of them and tell you the backstory, and it just adds to why someone would connect with a piece and then decide to take it home.”

Stories like Susan Roylance, a longtime woodworker who, one day, carved a face and wasn’t sure what to do with it. She put it aside, but then got inspired by it, and started working in both wood and felt to sculpt whimsical characters. “I feel like every one of those sculptures is a children’s book waiting to happen,” Rechtschaffen said.

Or Dana Volungis, who worked for 24 years for Yankee Candle, got laid off during the pandemic, and started painting … only 10 months ago; her oceanside landscapes and other work belie that short gestation period. “Ten months!” Rechtschaffen said. “I didn’t even realize that when she submitted her application.”

Or Ruth Levine, who makes metal clay jewelry, but set it aside for a time to focus on being a parent and grandparent. “Now here she is,” Rechtschaffen said. “She was so empowered when she was setting her space up, saying, ‘I remember how this feels; this is great.’ She said to me, ‘if you hadn’t opened this gallery, this stuff would still be in my garage.’ I said, ‘you just validated everything for me, because I’m so glad this is not in your garage.’”

Visitors to the gallery, then, aren’t just seeing art, Lopes said. They’re connecting with history — the history of the area and the people who create art here — and maybe take a piece of that history home.

 

Animal Attraction

To add a bit of childlike fun to the gallery, Rechtschaffen commissioned Ivy Mabius, a close friend of Jones and a mural artist, to create a jungle-themed bathroom, complete with large, colorfully painted sculptures of an elephant and a giraffe. “Already, kids who see it don’t want to leave. It’s such an attraction. Kids — and adults — are going to want to come and use the bathroom.”

The general store that adjoins the gallery also features a unique bathroom — this one with one-sided glass, so users have a full view of the sidewalk and parking lot outside. But eclectic bathrooms aren’t the only connection between the two spaces. Rechtschaffen can see a time when artists who have displayed in the gallery find a space in the store to sell their crafts.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Again, it comes back to making connections and offering a wide range of exposure to local art. The front table can also be used as a co-working space, or just a spot to hang out, she added.

“This is really meant to be something people can access all the time, however they need to. The goal is for people to see great art and great work,” she went on, noting that a master cabinet maker from Cowls Building Supply built all the gallery’s walls, shelving, and fixtures on wheels, so the configuration of the gallery can be changed. Artists who want to apply to rent space may do so at bit.ly/HannahsGalleryApplication.

Rechtschaffen also envisions sharing art outside the gallery at pop-up displays, art fairs, holiday events, and other gatherings — again, with the goal of connecting local art to as many people as possible. And they’re hungry for it, she added, like one woman who came to the gallery opening and said it was her first social event in a long time.

“She was like, ‘I’m good, I’m good; this is helping.’ It’s not just about getting people back out there; for business owners and people creating these events, we have a responsibility — if we’re inviting someone into a space, we need to be mindful of what that space feels like, that it feels comfortable. I take that very seriously, creating a space like this where people can come enjoy themselves.”

As people emerge from COVID isolation, Lopes said, one positive is that many have learned a lot about themselves, and that’s especially true for artists, who can now move forward with new understanding and new vulnerability — and a new audience at the Mill District.

“We are into telling stories and making sure people get to see art,” Rechtschaffen said, “but also learn something about their community.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Women in Businesss

Shoebox Greetings

Suzanne Murphy has put UTCA on a path to continued growth and influence — in this region and well beyond.

As she looked back on 30 years in business — and a very different kind of business, to be sure — Suzanne Murphy retold a story she’s recounted probably hundreds of times.

It concerns the conversation one of her clients had with the firm it was leaving to start doing business with Murphy’s Unemployment Tax Control Associates (UTCA) — as related by that client.

“He said, ‘I just got off the phone with our current vendor, and I told them I was moving my business to your company — and they laughed and said, ‘that’s a little shoebox out in Western Mass.,’’” Murphy recalled, adding that the implication was clear — that those in this region are not on the cutting edge in this realm. “He then said, ‘I was sure to tell them that this was one highly organized, very effective shoebox, and that’s where I was taking my business. And I also told them to think about those kinds of comments and how they land out in Western Mass.’”

Murphy said those remarks, which date back to the early days of her venture, and especially those referring to the size of her company and its mailing address, have stuck with her all these years, especially as she continues to add clients — and employees — from across the country.

Indeed, no one is laughing at this not-so-little shoebox anymore — although UTCA is still rather small when compared to some of the giants that also handle unemployment matters for businesses, although they do it as one of myriad services rather than focusing energies on that one area (we’ll get to all that later). In fact, UTCA has emerged as a regional and national leader in this realm.

“From all we’ve heard, the governor and the Legislature have no intention of revisiting this matter, and I think that’s very shortsighted.”

And most of the reason why is its founder, a thoughtful, enterprising entrepreneur who sat down with BusinessWest recently to talk about everything from her business and how it has evolved to the future of work and where it’s conducted in the wake of the pandemic, to the state’s recent decision not to use some of the $5 billion in federal stimulus money coming its way to help businesses absorb the massive unemployment-insurance costs facing them.

That controversy over the so-called solvency assessment has certainly put Murphy and her company’s work under a much brighter light. Indeed, while she’s been very successful at what she does, companies don’t need UTCA’s services until they need them — and over the years, it has operated in relative anonymity, if that’s the right word.

But the recent debate over the solvency assessment and state’s decision to not use stimulus funds, and instead stretch the payments out over the next 20 years, has brought Murphy and her firm to settings ranging from an East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce (ERC5) webinar to BusinessWest’s podcast.

It’s a subject she’s passionate about, and she believes the state’s decision will have some long-term ramifications.

“I think it’s ill-advised, and I think it will put the state at a competitive disadvantage,” she said, noting that many bordering states and others as well are friendlier from an unemployment-tax standpoint. “From all we’ve heard, the governor and the Legislature have no intention of revisiting this matter, and I think that’s very shortsighted.”

As for where people work, Murphy said the pandemic has shown her — and it should have shown every employer — that workers don’t need to be in the office to be effective, and they don’t even have to be in Massachusetts, which is good for employers, but potentially not so good for the Bay State, especially given its recent stance on unemployment costs and the manner in which other states have become much more business-friendly in that regard.

 

Taxing Situation

As she talked with BusinessWest, Murphy was preparing for what she expects to be — and really hopes will be — the last move her company makes. Or, at least, the last move she will make.

Indeed, as she walked amid furniture and boxes with sticky notes on them to tell the movers where to put them, she said she was trading space at 1350 Main St. in downtown Springfield for a building she purchased in West Springfield, one more suited to the hybrid/remote work model the company has adopted, and one that will even let employees work outdoors of they so choose.

“We want to make it a modern, fun place to work,” she explained, adding that the company should be moved in by mid-July.

The move is the latest of several, an indication of how UTCA has grown over the years, not only in size, but in stature within the realm of unemployment and, as the name on the letterhead says, unemployment tax control.

Murphy was handling such work for a larger firm, one that is no longer in business, when she decided it was time to go into business for herself — with a different business model.

That model was to take a handful of clients that were encouraging her to strike out on her own and start a business in Western Mass. and launch a venture focused entirely on helping companies manage and reduce their unemployment costs.

“I was toying with the idea of doing something, but I was still unclear on whether this was the path I wanted to take,” she recalled, adding that she credits those clients with being persistent and convincing her to take the plunge.

Starting with just herself and a single employee, she he took that small but reliable block of clients and continually built upon that base, primarily by differentiating herself from the larger competitors — “huge data warehouses,” as she described them — such as Equifax and Experian, for which unemployment services are part of a one-stop-shop model and, typically, a loss leader.

The differentiation, in addition to focusing solely on unemployment-tax matters, comes in the company’s proactive, rather than reactive, approach to serving clients, said Murphy, adding that, in this industry, it is generally understood that, in order to protect an organization from unwarranted claim costs, the most effective measures an employer can implement must occur before the employee has separated.

“ I feel the market needs a reliable, responsible, client-focused broker in the industry, and I’m going to keep slugging as long as I can.”

Elaborating, she said UTCA helps companies identify and target cost drivers, and then works with them to develop solutions for reducing them, an MO that has resonated with a wide range of clients.

The firm now boasts 20 employees, including Murphy’s daughter, Meghan Avery, senior vice president; and son, Evan Murphy, director of client development, as well as a number of independent contractors who handle hearings in a number of different states.

Getting back to those giants in the industry, Murphy said trying to compete with them, at least with regard to price, is extremely difficult, and this is why so many smaller players have not been able to stay in business over the years. She’s determined not to join the growing list of casualties.

“I would not do that my clients; I feel the market needs a reliable, responsible, client-focused broker in the industry, and I’m going to keep slugging as long as I can,” she said, adding that she laments the loss of many smaller players.

“I’d welcome more privately held, small or medium-sized competitors from the perspective that they be expected to be more focused on results, unable to confuse the marketplace with a very diluted spectrum of services or a blitz of advertising,” she explained. “It’s said that iron sharpens iron, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s plenty of business to go around and no shortage of complexity or issues employers must contend with in our space.”

 

Market Forces

There has certainly been enough business in recent months, as companies of all sizes have been forced to contend with the huge bill that has come due in the wake of huge numbers of people going on unemployment due to the pandemic and the deep toll it took on businesses across virtually every sector.

Indeed, Murphy described that period as by far the busiest of her career, dominated by helping clients handle both legitimate and fraudulent claims — and there were large numbers of both.

And then came what most would describe as a controversy regarding the solvency assessment and the decision of the governor and the Legislature about how to address it.

From her position on the front lines of this battle, Murphy heard directly from a number of small and mid-sized business owners facing huge assessments, often through no fault of their own, at a time when many were still struggling to fully dig their way out from the pandemic. Thus, she became highly visible, and highly vocal, in efforts to convince the Legislature to use money from the American Rescue Plan to offset those costs to businesses. Despite those efforts, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature have instead opted to spread out the payments — an estimated $7 billion in total — over 20 years, a decision that disappoints her on many levels.

“There need to be discussions about tax equity and tax justice. The larger corporations are not going to feel this as much. But the smaller and medium-sized businesses are going to be far more disadvantaged; it’s going to impact them detrimentally. There’s no upside to how this was managed.”

“The governor and the Legislature believe the fix has been provided and nothing more needs to be done,” she said. “And that could not be further from the sentiments that we are experiencing on the ground, from our clients, and even those who aren’t clients — people who have reached out to us because they know of our role on this issue.

“There need to be discussions about tax equity and tax justice,” she went on. “The larger corporations are not going to feel this as much. But the smaller and medium-sized businesses are going to be far more disadvantaged; it’s going to impact them detrimentally. There’s no upside to how this was managed.”

As noted earlier, this controversy has put UTCA, and especially Murphy, under a brighter spotlight. For her, it’s a different role, one she’s accepted enthusiastically because of what’s at stake and because of the way her clients — and, as she said, non-clients, too — are now in the line of fire.

“It has morphed into more of an activist role, especially with our work with the ERC5,” she noted, adding that such involvement is important in that it helps bring the perspective of the small-business owner — often lost on those in power, in her view — into the forefront.

But the pandemic has done more than bring unprecedented levels of business — and visibility — to the company. Indeed, Murphy said it has also provided lessons in how work can be done, and where.

Elaborating, she said her company, like many others, has adapted a hybrid/remote model of work, with many employees working from home. But because of the technology available, home doesn’t have to be in the 413, or even in Massachusetts. And as employers look at whom they might hire and where they live, unemployment-tax rates and policies will likely play an increasingly significant factor in those decisions.

“Massachusetts will have to compete with every other state now — and there are 21 other states that have chosen to use federal stimulus funds to offset their losses on their unemployment trust funds,” she explained. “Massachusetts has used zero dollars for that purpose, and has chosen to strap employers with a 20-year assessment.

“We have two positions to fill,” she went on. “And now, we can interview and hire people from Michigan or Texas or California, and those will be the jurisdictional states for unemployment. As more employers with remote workforces become aware of this, they may be more prone to hire people from states where the unemployment-tax burden is much less.”

This changing playing field allows UTCA, and all companies, for that matter, to cast a wider net, said Murphy, and attract talent that was formerly out of reach because of geography.

“We used to talk about getting people from the eastern part of the state to relocate to Western Mass., and that was a difficult task,” she told BusinessWest. “All that has shifted; we can now focus on recruiting directly in the market where our competitor is — or wherever we want to be. We can do our homework and attract people within our industry who have niche experience and knowledge, or we can attract others who are in a demographic we want to focus on to make our company more diverse, as well as productive. And I would be surprised if businesses do not see the opportunity there to have a very robust workforce that will give them a competitive advantage.

Doing her homework and staying on the cutting edge of trends and new developments in business has enabled Murphy to take that ‘small shoebox’ referenced by that jilted competitor all those years ago and turn it into a much bigger shoebox — and, more importantly, one of the region’s more intriguing business success stories.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Learning to Take Charge

By Mark Morris

Only one-third of all businesses in Western Mass. are owned by women, according to a recent survey. In the healthcare sector, one of the largest employers in the region, leadership positions are held by women 41% of the time — with outliers like one hospital where it’s only 16%.

These findings are from a 2019 study commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts titled “Status of Women and Girls in Western Massachusetts.”

To address disparities like the ones in the survey, the Women’s Fund and Holyoke Community College (HCC) have teamed up on an eight-week training program this spring for women who want to enhance their leadership skills.

Titled “Women Leaning into Leadership: Empowering Your Voice,” the course begins March 25 and runs through May 13.

According to Michele Cabral, executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at HCC, the idea for the course grew out of the Women’s Leadership Luncheon Series, hosted by the college.

Until COVID-19 forced it into a virtual meeting, the college hosted the luncheon every month for the past five years. With attendance limited to 28 attendees, four women leaders would each select a topic relevant to women and leadership, then break out the attendees into four groups to discuss their particular subject. The next month, the groups would rotate so they could discuss a different topic with a different leader. Areas of discussion have included dealing with different leadership styles, the role of communication, and conflict management when you’re the only woman in the room.

When COVID hit, Cabral said they pivoted to a remote video lunch and changed the format to having one person lead the discussion and opening it to anyone who wants to join via video. A recent conversation covered how to deal with changes brought on by the pandemic. Because some women wanted to discuss some of the topics in more depth, Cabral said, developing a course was a logical next step.

Michele Cabral

Michele Cabral

“These women want to get to know themselves better, to identify what skills they need to focus on and promote their strengths. They were looking for a more structured program to help guide them through that process.”

“These women want to get to know themselves better, to identify what skills they need to focus on and promote their strengths,” she explained. “They were looking for a more structured program to help guide them through that process.”

A few years back, Monica Borgatti attended the Women’s Leadership Luncheons at HCC. As chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, she especially liked the cohort-style of learning (a collaborative approach in which individuals advance together in an education program) that took place at the events.

“The cohort model works well in this type of learning situation because people start to feel comfortable with each other, and they are more willing to be vulnerable as they share and learn together,” she said.

The luncheon reminded her of a program the Women’s Fund used to run known as the Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI). While it had some success, Borgatti and her colleagues thought the program suffered from trying to be all things to all women and fell short in that effort. After compiling feedback from women who had gone through LIPPI, the Women’s Fund put the program on hold.

“LIPPI grads gave the program its highest marks in the cohort learning approach,” she recalled. The graduates also cited networking opportunities and making connections as solid benefits from the program.

After wrapping up LIPPI, Borgatti explained, the Women’s Fund’s emphasis shifted from creating and running programs to identifying leadership programs it could adapt for this area, as well as support for existing programs.

“When I learned HCC was developing a more in-depth leadership program, I thought it was worth exploring to see if there might be a partnership opportunity for the Women’s Fund,” she said.

 

Engaged in Equity

The course is targeted to women in mid-career, especially those who are emerging as leaders in their careers and the community. As part of its partnership, the Women’s Fund is offering sponsorships of up to $650 to defray the $799 tuition cost.

“The Women’s Fund is contributing in such a meaningful way. With their sponsorships, HCC is able to bring this program to people who would not have access otherwise,” Cabral said, adding that many employers do not reimburse the cost of training, so these sponsorships make the course more accessible for women who struggle to pay for self-development.

“HCC provides the education, the Women’s Fund provides the sponsorship, and together, we bring our common mission out to the community,” she noted.

Borgatti said taking part in the course was an easy call because it allows her organization to reach women who are seeking personal and professional development. “We want to see more women in leadership positions across our region, so we’re proud to partner with HCC to help more women become effective leaders.”

While the goals of the Women’s Fund address gender equity and gender justice, Borgatti also made it clear that her organization also strives to improve racial equity and racial justice.

“We know that women are not in leadership roles as much as men, and there are even fewer women of color in leadership positions,” she said, noting that the HCC course is one way to support the current and future leaders of color in the community.

“HCC provides the education, the Women’s Fund provides the sponsorship, and together, we bring our common mission out to the community.”

Borgatti added that her organization became involved to make sure affordability would not prevent anyone from taking the course. “We want to encourage more women of color in programs like this, and we want to make sure it’s financially accessible for all women.”

Cabral noted several highlights of the course, such as assessing communication styles and techniques, as well as working with each woman to develop a professional roadmap to help her reach her potential. Each program participant will also receive 30 minutes of private, one-on-one coaching from Annie Shibata, owner of Growth Mindset Leadership and Communication Coaching in Cincinnati, who will coach each student via video link.

“Incorporating one-on-one coaching elevates the course to a higher level of really personalizing the experience for each individual,” Cabral said.

One of the main reasons the Women’s Fund got involved was to encourage more representation of women in leadership. Borgatti hopes women who take the course emerge more confident in their skills and abilities to step into all sorts of leadership roles.

“We want to see more women CEOs, more women chiefs of police, more women judges,” she said. “Unless we support women being able to access these opportunities, we’re not going to see real change.”

At the end of the day, Cabral said, she and Borgatti share a common mission: to elevate the skills of women who are willing to put in the work. “We want to make sure those skills are here in Western Mass., and they stay in Western Mass.”

Women in Businesss

Progress Report

By Janine Fondon

On March 8 (International Women’s Day), the 2021 On the Move Forum to Advance Women, presented by Bay Path University, Springfield Museums, and a host of local organizations, virtually hosted some 200 women of all backgrounds from Western Mass. and beyond. Through conversations and speakers, women voiced their hopes and elevated their concerns to support the future success of women in leadership at all levels.

Speakers noted there is much work to be done to change the trajectory of women in companies and organizations, given that women still operate in a world where they are paid less than men. Also, women have limited leadership opportunities in the C-suite and have experienced workplace challenges in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Also, black women and Latinas still make less than anyone in the workforce, and their opportunities for promotions are certainly limited. Where do we go from here?

The forum theme, “Women in Leadership: This Is What Change Looks Like — Past, Present, and Future,” offered attendees an inter-generational, cross-cultural, gender-inclusive, and history-infused conversation focused on advancing women, led by moderator Nikai Fondon.

The event presented voices and content that showed what change could look like — young, diverse, professional women on the move to create a new world; experienced leaders of all backgrounds who share their expertise; and college-aged women exploring new skills. Now in its fifth year, the event has engaged more than 1,000 women in community conversations and presentations on women’s history, empowerment, and advancement.

“The numbers also show us that change needs to happen to build more inclusive workplaces at all levels and in all industries. We must keep watch that our colleges and universities understand the magnitude of not only recruitment and retention, but belonging and mentoring.”

This year’s event aligned with the priority theme of the 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World.” According to Catalyst, “in 2020, women of color represented only 18% of entry-level positions, and few advanced to leadership positions. While white women held almost one-third (32.8%) of total management positions in the U.S. in 2020, Asian women (2.2%), black women (4.1%), and Hispanic women (4.5%) held a much smaller share.”

During the forum, the speakers and participants during the conversations voiced the sentiments expressed in these statistics. Most women still face obstacles in moving up the ladder at work. These statistics remind us that young women professionals who are rising to new opportunities in industry may have to pick up the path of experienced women today who still fight these trends after more than 20 years.

The numbers also show us that change needs to happen to build more inclusive workplaces at all levels and in all industries. We must keep watch that our colleges and universities understand the magnitude of not only recruitment and retention, but belonging and mentoring.

Also, as black women, Latinas, and women of color climb the ladder of success, they find that every step along the way may not come with the support they need or expect. A study conducted by Lean In and SurveyMonkey finds that, although more than 80% of white employees view themselves as allies to women of color at work, just 45% of black women and 55% of Latinas say they have strong allies in the workplace. There is more work to be done to build relationships that drive trust and transformation in the workplace, and more conversations need to confirm informal and formal sources of support.

 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

To help make a change in the workplace, educational institutions, companies, and organizations continue to underscore the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. While these efforts allow for some change, we need strategic approaches to systemic racism and inequities that address issues for companies and individuals. Many young professionals, consumers, and communities are at the forefront of social justice, so shifts in social responsibility, outreach, and accountability could drive change on many levels.

Bay Path President Sandra Doran noted in her speech that she has been committed to the advancement of women and the power of education. “I embrace these beliefs because I come from a family of educators and strong women. I have witnessed first-hand the power of higher education for women. My grandmother attended Barnard, a women’s college, and my mother returned to school to earn her degree at a women’s college as an adult learner. With such personal role models, I felt called to be the president of Bay Path.”

However, noting the effects of COVID-19, she noted that, “by now, we all know the burden of the pandemic fell harder on women than on men. Women make up the majority of front-line workers in deeply affected industries like retail, food service, hospitality, and healthcare, and also picked up a disproportionate share of the additional loads of schoolwork, housework, and elderly care. Black women have faced the highest rate of unemployment among women at 8.9%, followed by Latinx women at 8.5%. This pandemic has uncovered the fragility of our systems, from healthcare to daycare to education, and it is our calling, women — and men of substance — to create change. And the pipeline of women in leadership positions has shrunk.”

“As we move past International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, there must be even more commitment to revisiting practices in workplaces, classrooms, boardrooms, meeting places, and Zoom rooms to deliver equity, belonging, and dismantling ‘isms.’”

Doran also referenced an IBM study that “noted how women on corporate boards and in C-suites around the world have made no progress since 2019, when IBM did its first study on the subject.”

Another report, the 2020 Women in the Workplace study, conducted in partnership with Lean In and McKinsey, tracked the progress of women in corporate America. The data set reflects contributions from 317 companies that participated in the study and more than 40,000 people. According to the report, “the boundaries between work and home have blurred, and women, in particular, have been negatively impacted.”

In the study, women of color were noted as particularly impacted by COVID. “Women — especially women of color — are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. Meanwhile, black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. This is an emergency for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership — and future women leaders — and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”

 

Adverse Impact on Black Women and Latinas

While many black women and Latinas have made strides and found success in corporations and organizations, far too many remain underutilized, left behind, not included, and overlooked for opportunities. The numbers document their trajectory in a world where, in most cases, they are paid less than everyone else. Also, according to a report by CNBC, “employment for black women is 9.7% lower than it was in February 2020. Employment for white men, white women, and black men is down 5%, 5.4%, and 5.9%, respectively.”

A report by Lean In also confirms the experiences of black women in the workplace, noting that black women are significantly underrepresented in leadership roles, much less likely to be promoted to manager (and their representation dwindles from there), more likely to see their successes discounted, and less likely to get the support and access they need to advance. In addition, black women face more day-to-day discrimination at work. They want to lead — and they are motivated to improve their workplaces — but often find themselves unfairly penalized for being ambitious.

These findings should cause us all to pause and revisit our workplace policies, practices, and procedures. While not every black woman may have these experiences, other personal scenarios that they face result in negative trends. Most of all, these findings should prompt us to think about how everyone is treated in the workplace and how we treat each other. Most of all, we should consider how we can understand what others feel and find ways to communicate. If we were all treating each other as ourselves, we would not have these trends.

 

LGBTQIA+ Equality

While many communities and individuals experience an uncertain landscape in the workplace, we must continue to stay vigilant about trends that impact inclusion. For LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, queer, intersex, agender, asexual, and other queer-identifying) communities, the journey to equality continues to “ebb and flow,” as Kathleen Martin of Springfield College and her wife, Andrea Hickson Martin of Bay Path University, noted:

“There is no doubt that there have been tremendous strides over the past decade for LGBTQIA+ equality. In 2012, the Obama administration supported marriage equality. In 2015, in the Supreme Court of the United States case Obergefell v. Hodges, marriage equality was made federal law, paving the way for our marriage in 2017. In 2019, Congress approved a comprehensive LGBTQIA+ civil-rights bill, providing non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQIA+ community in employment, housing, public spaces, education, jury service, credit, and federal funding. During the Trump administration, however, LGBTQIA+ rights were rolled back through a ban on transgender military service, the appointment of anti-LGBTQIA+ judges at various levels of the judicial system, the rolling back of the Obama-era Civil Rights Act protecting transgender and non-binary workers from employment discrimination, and the rescinding of Title IX rules requiring schools, including colleges and universities, to address sexual harassment, including sexual violence.

“As with everything in life, there is a constant ebb and flow,” Martin and Hickson continued. “On the first day of the Biden-Harris administration, President Biden signed an executive order preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, reinstating the LGBTQIA+ protections the Trump administration removed. More recently, the administration has directed the Department of Education to ‘review all of its existing regulations, orders, guidance, and policies to ensure consistency with the Biden-Harris administration’s policy that students be guaranteed education free from sexual violence.’ This includes an evaluation of the Title IX burden of proof issued under the previous administration.”

As stated, the ebb and flow of policy continue to take us away from setting a more consistent, inclusive world and workplace where all people can succeed.

As we move past International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, there must be even more commitment to revisiting practices in workplaces, classrooms, boardrooms, meeting places, and Zoom rooms to deliver equity, belonging, and dismantling ‘isms.’ Also, we must begin to employ new ways for engaging, recognizing, and retaining black women, Latinas, and women of color who are still hidden in plain view.

 

Janine Fondon is a writer, speaker, assistant professor, and chair of Undergraduate Communications at Bay Path University. She is a frequent contributor to publications and media outlets on the topics of social justice, women’s history, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She recently curated and produced an exhibit and series of public events at Springfield Museums, called “Voices of Resilience: The Intersection of Women on the Move.” She was named a 2020 Difference Maker by BusinessWest, a 2020 Pynchon Award winner, and one of the top African-American female professors in 2018 by the African American Female Professors Assoc.

Women in Businesss

Pink Slip

By Joanne Hilferty, Dan Kenary, and Brooke Thomson

In 2020, the same year a record number of women were elected to Congress and the first woman was elected vice president, COVID-19 had a devastating and potentially permanent impact on women in the workforce.

The percentage of women participating in the U.S. labor market in October 2020 was the lowest since 1988, and of the 9.8 million jobs that have not yet returned, 55% belong to women. In one year, COVID-19 wiped out a generation of progress and put the precariousness of being a woman in the modern American workplace into stark perspective.

Before the pandemic, women in Massachusetts were participating in the workforce at increasing rates, surpassing the national rate by 2019. COVID-19 brought them back to where they were at the end of the Great Recession in 2009.

More than 40% of female employees in Massachusetts work in education, healthcare, and social assistance, sectors that have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Add the lack of quality childcare options brought about by the closure of schools and early-education programs, and you have a perfect storm forcing women to face gut-wrenching choices.

“In one year, COVID-19 wiped out a generation of progress and put the precariousness of being a woman in the modern American workplace into stark perspective.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2020, when schools typically reopen, a staggering 69% of women said the pandemic was keeping them from returning to work for reasons other than downsizing or business closure. In a survey conducted by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) last fall, 67% of employers listed lack of childcare as a primary concern for their workforces.

Fortunately, organizations in Massachusetts are taking a leadership role in addressing the ongoing challenges facing women in the workforce. The Boston Women’s Workforce Council, the Commonwealth Institute, and the newly formed Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education are focused on advancing important changes, such as pay and representation equity. Even before the pandemic, women on average made about 81 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Women and men should have the same options to pursue a career and raise a family, but the pandemic has laid bare the reality that women are expected to take greater responsibility for their families without sufficient support.

Ensuring that jobs traditionally filled by women have more extensive protections and finding a path toward more balanced representation of women in industries like information technology, transportation, and construction — fields where female representation is still limited — are also critical steps to achieve greater balance in the long term. However, immediate action is needed to ensure progress made by women does not erode further.

That is why AIM is calling on employers to make a commitment now to review their practices and policies and make immediate, substantive adjustments to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on women and other caregivers in the workforce. Specific recommendations include:

• Committing to providing pay increases and advancement steps to women caregivers on schedule rather than penalizing those who have been on leave or working limited hours;

• Extending the time workers can be on leave to coincide with the duration of the pandemic;

• Giving hiring preference to former workers, if their experience and skills allow, who were required to leave the workplace due to family demands;

• Extending the time that returning workers can bridge tenure for benefits and other considerations to coincide with the full duration of the pandemic;

• Listening to individual employees about their specific needs and expectations and not making assumptions about what each woman or caregiver can or cannot do; and

• Instituting practices that reduce conflict with remote schooling, such as not holding meetings before 9 a.m. or at lunch, when children need assistance.

These steps alone will not fully offset the impact of the pandemic on women; they will, however, demonstrate the business community’s commitment to supporting the Commonwealth’s skilled female labor force. Massachusetts cannot afford to go back to business as usual as the light begins to shine at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, especially when it comes to how businesses and public policy treat working women.

The pandemic has presented an unprecedented responsibility for the Commonwealth and the nation to see decreasing numbers of female workforce participation for what they are — gaps in the system allowing available and accessible talent to fall straight through. Failure to act on them now will have long-term, devastating impacts on the Massachusetts economy.

Joanne Hilferty is board chair at Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and president and CEO of Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. Dan Kenary is immediate past chair of the AIM board and CEO and co-founder of Mass Bay Brewing Co. Brooke Thomson is executive vice president of Government Affairs at AIM. This article first appeared as an op-ed in the Boston Globe.

 

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

A Matter of Self-worth

When Jessi Kirley took the reins at the Family Business Center in 2018, she was looking for a new challenge — and some meaning.

“I had a major what-matters-most moment,” she said. “I had just lost my dad to cancer, my own health was suffering, I’d been working in the medical field for 20 years, and I was facing burnout and overperformance. When my dad died, I ended up quitting my job — what mattered most was reconnecting to my health and wellness.”

The FBC, known for its dinner forums, morning workshops, peer-advisory groups, custom consulting, and other programs cultivated under the long-time leadership of Ira Bryck, proved a gratifying role, but it — like so many companies and organizations across the U.S. — became a financial victim of COVID-19 and closed its doors last spring.

“That was another moment when I asked myself, ‘what really matters?’” Kirley said. “Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

As the single mother of three teens, she felt pressure to provide stability to her household, but she also loved working. “It was a lot of figuring things out, like so many of us needed to do. And what I noticed was that I felt compelled to go back to my roots of helping people.”

Seven months later, the result of those ideas became JKirley Collective, which offers personal- and professional-development courses, beginning with its first track, the “Dignity Series,” and the pilot program in that track, “Dignity in Conversation,” which includes a virtual workshop on Jan. 19 and a follow-up virtual peer-group session on Jan. 26.

As she explained, JKirley Collective collaborates with others who share the mission of helping people unlock their potential to build the lives they want through transformative action. As the pandemic wore on, she said, “I found myself asking what really matters — to me, and to this world. I started a business to pursue my passion of helping people unlock their potential, to craft the lives they want.”

It’s quite a detour from when she studied biology at Smith College with a goal of one day curing cancer.

“I was very ambitious,” she said. “But I always came back to that anchor within myself, wanting to help people. With COVID and the loss of jobs and just moving through this workforce disruption and transformation, how can I help people navigate that? What skills do I have? That’s what brought me to offer my Dignity Series programs.”

 

Three Pillars

Although ‘dignity’ is the theme of the collective’s first series of courses, it’s also the foundational concept of the business itself, Kirley explained.

From that foundation rise three pillars. “The first is dignity as defined by self-worth, something that’s inherent, that we bring with us all the time. The second pillar is the embodiment of this connection to our self-worth; there’s a difference between simply understanding dignity and bringing it into the body and seeing it as a platform for growth and a way to increase confidence and ward off self-doubt. That’s the embodiment piece.”

The third pillar is about action. “We’ve dived into concepts of self-worth and our dignity and really worked on ways to embody that and practice that. So, how do we connect to our agency, our actions, our free choice? And the choice, in this case, maybe, is to move through these disruptions to make a better life for ourselves, or to be more generous, or to step into a new role.”

Many individuals these days are certainly doing the latter. “In this time of change, we’re stepping into new responsibilities, with massive amounts of uncertainty — and what does that feel like? Maybe we’re unsure of ourselves, not confident, doubting our own abilities, questioning our success. And that can derail our ability to reach our goals and move to the other side.”

Getting back to the collaborative concept at the heart of her new enterprise, Kirley credits Andrea Bordenca, who is helping her design and develop the Dignity Series, with being a sounding board as she built the business.

“Considering her valuable experience, it gave me a kind of safety net,” she said of Bordenca, who is CEO of both the Institute for Generative Leadership and DESCO Service, as well as the founder of Lead Yourself Youth. “Taking a chance to start a business — the visioning, the planning — is a very vulnerable experience, and it can be scary. Having a safety net in Andrea allowed me to reach higher.”

Jessi Kirley

Jessi Kirley

“Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

Another early collaborator is Amy Jamrog, a financial advisor and founding partner of the Jamrog Group, who is helping Kirley develop a second track of courses, called Claim Your Worth, which will incorporate concepts of self-worth and dignity into practical lessons on financial empowerment. That program’s first course will launch on Feb. 10.

The individual classes are collaborations as well; offerings in the Dignity Series will include Kelly Vogel, owner of Sound Passage, who helps her clients discover the power of their voice; and Dr. Tom Naro, a physical therapist and owner of My PT.

Naro actually approached Kirley, she said, because he felt her concepts could help his clients reach their physical-therapy goals. “Sometimes they struggle with self-doubt, questioning their self-worth, think they don’t deserve to feel good and look good — all those negative thoughts,” she explained.

Each class will feature a workshop followed by a peer-group session a week later, so participants can be introduced to theories and then unpack them in a deeper way, talk about their own personal struggles, and develop strategies for action. While the classes are held virtually now, Kirley sees a role in the future for a hybrid model, even after folks are able to gather in groups again, because it opens her programs up to a wider geographic area.

And, while most participants will likely be women, JKirley Collective welcomes everyone. “Honestly, who doesn’t need this kind of work?” she said. “We know from consumer behavior that women tend to sign up for self-help, self-improvement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for everyone.”

She also sees many different applications of these courses, from employee-assistance programs to management team building, to an individual preparing to join a nonprofit board or take on a new leadership role in the community. “The theme is, when we step into something new, by force or by choice, we can doubt ourselves. We want to help people be successful in whatever change they’re going for.”

Currently a business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, Kirley has been committed to serving the community in various capacities for more than 20 years. “I had the fortunate opportunity to go through a Foundations course with the Institute for Generative Leadership,” she said, “which helped me clarify my offering and build a collaboration model for my business.”

 

Bump in the Road

However, she ran into a discouraging roadblock right off the bat. She initially planned to launch in the fall and call her enterprise DignityWorks — a name that, despite her research, proved to be a problem.

“A business owner in the UK contacted me who had been using DignityWorks for many years, and I faced the threat of litigation,” she recently wrote in her blog. “I halted all program promotion, postponed the pilot to January 2021, and resigned to go back to square one for brand name and design. It felt like a devastating loss of time, money, and momentum. This breakdown opened the door for all of my dignity threats to come knockin’!”

Specifically, all the ‘I’m not worthy’ stories she helps clients deal with flooded her own head and wracked her body with anxiety, thoughts like “I should have known how to avoid this setback,” “this business will never be ‘real’ or earn me a living,” “I am letting everyone down, and no one will trust me after this,” and “I look like a fool, and who am I to start my own business?”

She had to put her own advice into practice — to stay calm, actively move away from anxiety and toward dignity, and take “many deep breaths” — before having a productive Zoom meeting with the business owner across the pond, and then going about changing her business name.

Through the whole experience, “I had to walk the talk of my own worth,” she told BusinessWest. “That was pretty cool.”

By the way, she loves the new brand name, especially its focus on the word ‘collective.’ “Who am I as a person? What are my values? I love connecting people, and I love working collaboratively. When I started to think about my values, it was important that collaboration was the driving force in starting this business.”

So, a new year begins on a more positive note. “Having endured 2020, we’re trying to start 2021 by finding ways to invest in self, grow positively, and have better wellness,” Kirley said — and, above all, do it together.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Undervalued Again

By Alex Thornton

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic downturn it has caused, have hit everyone hard. But the impact has not been spread equally. A new report by UN Women has found clear evidence that, although both genders have seen their unpaid workloads increase, women are bearing more of the burden than men.

Even before the pandemic, women were spending on average three times as many hours as men on domestic chores, childcare, and looking after vulnerable or elderly loved ones. Widespread restrictions on daily life, school closures, disruption to businesses, and a big rise in working from home have made many tasks more time-consuming and arduous. And more women than men have reported an increase in their workload in almost every aspect of domestic life.

The data also shows more men saying they usually don’t do a particular task. The average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average man. Nearly one-third of women report spending more time cooking and serving meals, compared to just under one-fifth of men. Half of all men say they don’t normally get involved in preparing food at all.

A similar picture emerges when looking at childcare. Research for UN Women carried out by Ipsos in 16 countries showed that, before the pandemic, women spent an average of 26 hours per week looking after children, compared to 20 hours a week for men. That has now risen by 5.2 hours for women, and just 3.5 hours for men. As a result, the average mother now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average father.

There are big regional differences. Although every nation surveyed showed a rise, the effects were most pronounced in less affluent countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, compared to wealthier countries.

The pandemic has reaffirmed the persistence of gender bias in social and cultural norms. All but a small fraction of men acknowledge that their wives or partners are doing more around the house, while just two-thirds of women say the same of their husbands or partners. Perhaps more concerning for gender equality in the future is that parents are more likely to notice their daughters doing more to help than their sons.

The overall effect is that the gradual progress toward gender equality seen in recent decades could not only stall, but be reversed.

Already, more than 28 million women over age 25 are estimated to have left the labor market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries over the last year, compared to 24 million men. Given that women were already less likely to be in the workforce, this represents a serious threat to the economic status of huge numbers of women. On a global scale, it’s thought that the pandemic will push a further 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty by 2021.

Despite the clear evidence that women are disproportionately suffering economically from the effects of the pandemic, the vast majority of measures that have been enacted by policymakers do little to address the increased burden on women.

However, there are some notable exceptions: increases in monthly child allowance payments in places like Argentina, expanding paid parental-leave programs in Italy and Belgium, and compensating parents affected by closures, as in Germany and South Korea.

Perhaps the biggest step would be simply recognizing the value of the unpaid domestic and caring work done by women, pandemic or not. The 16 billion hours spent on unpaid caring every day would represent nearly 10% of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate. Women were grossly undervalued before the pandemic — now the situation is getting even worse.

 

Alex Thornton is senior writer, Formative Content for the World Economic Forum.

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Knowledge Is Power

The WBOA team with a mural

The WBOA team with a mural commissioned from member and artist Mary Kearney.

 

When the Women Business Owners Alliance launched in 1982, there wasn’t anything quite like it, Anita Eliason said.

“Because there were so few women business owners in the Valley, they felt a need to get together and kind of strengthen their bond and share the experiences they were having that, maybe, were different than the experiences of men in business,” said Eliason, WBOA’s president. “They kind of broke some barriers and did it with a sense of camaraderie with other women business owners.”

These days, business groups, including those focused on women, are much more prevalent, but she thinks the WBOA is still unique — because of its diligent focus on education.

When the alliance became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit recently, “the goal was to establish ourselves as an educational organization,” she said. “Some organizations exist to bring people together to be one another’s customers, like BNI; the whole point of getting together is so I can get to your six degrees, and you can get to my six degrees, and we can all create business.

“We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

“That’s not how we operate,” she went on. “We really come together to be enlightened, to be educated, to be inspired so go out and do the business of work. It’s not so much that your sister’s going to be my client, and my mother’s going to be yours. It’s mutually getting together to up our skill level.”

Members of the WBOA say the organization has proven beneficial on many levels, offering inspiration and knowledge from other women’s experiences in a supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. There’s a comfort level many say they haven’t found elsewhere, and it’s helping them gain the confidence and connections to succeed at business and in life.

The organization’s tagline is “going the extra mile for women in business,” reflecting that desire to be more than a networking group or one solely focused on generating new business. In fact, the WBOA tends to avoid the word ‘networking,’ and concentrates instead on making connections and sharing information in a variety of ways.

Eliason, who is also the senior business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s (MSBDC) Western Regional Office, said not all alliance members are business owners. Some aspire to own a business, while others — such as managers of banks and insurance companies — aren’t technically owners, but are responsible for a company’s day-to-day operations.

“Some people think it’s a social organization, and I think 40 years ago it was something like that. I have the sense that, when they started, they met over dinner in restaurants to start with and then became more formal,” she noted. “Many networking organizations have cropped up in the meantime that are women-focused, and we see ourselves as complementary to those.”

Meaning, the WBOA adds value women professionals may not find elsewhere, and education is at the heart of that value proposition.

For example, the group holds a breakfast meeting every second Thursday at the Scibelli Enterprise Center in Springfield, where the WBOA is based. While the organization has operated remotely since March and the events are virtual for the time being, they have continued without interruption.

Members of the alliance

Members of the alliance meet for an evening roundtable discussion during pre-pandemic times; all meetings since the spring have been remote, but none have been canceled.

Last month, the guest speaker was an electrical engineer at Raytheon and a Six Sigma lean-manufacturing black belt, who talked about organization and creating leaner operations. A week later, as is typical following the breakfast events, a longer evening program took a deeper dive into the subject matter, and more specific strategies were introduced.

The WBOA also holds quarterly events like social-media boot camps, which, last spring, featured a general session and 14 breakout sessions. Next month, a virtual financial workshop will present an accountant, an enrolled agent, and a tax preparer, who will speak about tax laws, PPP forgiveness, and a host of other issues. “The goal is to leave with a profit-loss statement and a balance sheet from this year and then set up a blank one for the following year.”

One of the positives of hosting the organization — and, before the pandemic, these events — at the Enterprise Center is that so many resources, from the SBA to SCORE, are also located there, and that aspect has been missed, Eliason said.

“It’s a great hub of activity for women business owners. But when we had to shift online, we never missed a meeting. We continued to meet without exception, which we’re kind of proud of,” she said, noting that even more programming was added, such as ‘happy hour’ events that are more motivational in nature than the breakfast discussions, with topics ranging from personal wellness to navigating remote work. “It’s really relevant stuff.”

 

Making Connections

It also requires resources to make it all happen, which is why the WBOA seeks sponsorships from organizations to underwrite its work. “We’re nonprofit, but there are expenses,” Eliason said, noting that fundraising has been more difficult in a year when businesses of all kinds are struggling.

Still, she made a point of listing many of the businesses that do support the alliance’s work, including Advanced Manufacturing, Allstate Longmeadow, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Attorney Marie T. Jablonski, Bacon Wilson, Dale A. Frank Financial Group, Fletcher Sewer and Drain, Goss and McLain, Jerome’s Party Plus, JL Raymaakers & Sons, Latka Printing, Main Street Deli, New England Disc Golf, Veryl’s Automotive Services, and WEIB-FM.

Collaborators include the MSBDC, SCORE, Valley Community Development, the Franklin County CDC, the Center for Women and Enterprise, and Common Capital. The WBOA also created the first TedX event in Easthampton and established the WINGS mentor program at STCC.

“We see ourselves as a place to learn about all the other resources that are available and always come back for additional education. That’s why we’re strategically placed at the Scibelli Enterprise Center,” she said. “We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

It’s been called a sisterhood in the past, and Eliason appreciates that.

“I think of it almost like a sorority — we’re going through similar experiences, we have similar challenges, and for every challenge we face, there’s someone who was at that level with their business years ago, and someone who hasn’t gotten there yet.”

Elaborating, she noted that BOA members feel comfortable calling on professionals who have been through what they’re experiencing. “It’s an evolving group of people at different stages of business ownership, so there are people you can call on, really, for anything.”

Right now, the group boasts about 45 members, though it has topped 100 in the past, and Eliason expects the number to rise to about 70 next year, once the pandemic slows. That number, she said, would be a sweet spot, generating a rich pool of experience and connections, but not such a high number that events become unwieldy.

As for those events, she said platforms like Zoom will continue to have a place at the WBOA even after members return to meeting in person, because the virtual events have cast a wider geographic net, and those technologies also allow the organization to archive webinars where important information gets shared.

In each meeting and newsletter, members also learn about available loan and grant opportunities to help them grapple with a pandemic that has hit small businesses hard, and forced many to close altogether. Other members are trying to keep their businesses afloat while working at home and balancing their careers with what their kids need in terms of remote learning.

“They’re doubling as a teacher for their kids,” Eliason said. “That’s not just a woman’s challenge, but for many of them, it’s been tough trying to juggle those two roles. It’s a lot to navigate.”

Even without the adjustments wrought by COVID-19, there’s always more to learn about how to build and grow a business, and to that end, WBOA leadership will continue to identify categories of information that would be most useful to its members.

“We’re looking for even more diversity of speakers in terms of the industries they come from,” she said. “It’s about linking what’s deliverable to really out-of-the-box thinking.”

 

Making the Time

In this difficult year, Eliason knows women aren’t necessarily looking for another networking group. But the WBOA isn’t just another networking group.

“Just come,” she said when asked what she’d say to women wondering whether the alliance is for them. “Attending a meeting is significant. It’s a really safe place to learn information. A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t need what the main speaker had to say, but one of the other people who spoke for five or six minutes, she made it worth coming.’

“We think of it as a think tank,” she continued. “If you’re stuck or in a rut, you can just put yourself in a place where there’s every possibility that someone will say something that will further you. Someone will say something in the course of a meeting that makes you say, ‘yeah, that was great.’”

And the learning — and, hopefully, growing — continues.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Urban Oasis

mani-pedi area

Leanne Sedlak (right) and Kim Brunton-Auger renovate the mani-pedi area of their new location.

When spas were allowed to reopen several months ago following a statewide economic shutdown, clients of SkinCatering, LLC were happy to return — even if booking became a little trickier.

“I haven’t been able to meet the demand,” owner Leanne Sedlak said, noting that some staff couldn’t return during a raging pandemic because they or a family member were immunocompromised, while fewer clients than normal were allowed in the space, and extra time had to be added in between appointments for cleaning and sanitizing.

“I feel like we’ve been limping along in a way,” she added. “It is frustrating for the client, and it’s hard to tell them, ‘no, we’re booked up for the next three weeks because we have two people working.’”

Meeting that demand will be easier now that SkinCatering has moved downstairs to the main level of Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in a larger, renovated space offering massage, skin care, hair and nail treatments, among other services.

“It’s nice coming down here,” she said. “We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

Sedlak and Kim Brunton-Auger, a licensed aesthetician who joined the company in 2012 and now serves as vice president of skin-care development, celebrated the move downstairs with a VIP event last week, taking time amid the bustle to recognize the challenge of keeping their enterprise not only alive, but thriving during a year of unprecedented challenge for small businesses.

“We’re definitely blessed because we know other businesses had the opposite experience, so our heart goes out to them for sure,” Sedlak said. “We’re very grateful; we know how fortunate we are in that regard.”

 

Hit the Road

Like many who start down the path of entrepreneurship, Sedlak did so out of necessity. In 2010, the U.S. was dealing with a different sort of economic crisis, the Great Recession, and both she and her husband were laid off from their jobs.

So, when she finished her time in massage school, she went into business for herself with a venture she would call SkinCatering. At first, it was a traveling enterprise, with Sedlak taking her massage table door to door.

“We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

“I’d load up my Tahoe with all my stuff and drive to my first appointment of the day, and that would pay for my gas the rest of the day,” she recalled. “To be in this space now, to build something like this, and to be in business for 10 years, feels validating.”

Since opening a salon in Tower Square toward the end of 2013, the company — mainly focused on massage and skin care — has grown significantly over the years, and the new space will allow for a salon and nail services, which had been a dream of Brunton-Auger’s for some time.

These days, SkinCatering offers massages, body wraps, waxing, Reiki, facials, an infrared sauna, and more. The company formulates its own line of skin-care products that don’t use harsh chemicals and are vegan, gluten-free, and ‘cruelty-free,’ meaning they’re not tested on animals.

“That’s been the mission all along,” Sedlak said of the company’s ‘clean’ products. “It’s a big trend now, and I hate using the word ‘trend’ because it’s not going away; it’s a way of life now. I love it when other estheticians discover our products and their clients have great results.”

Indeed, SkinCatering sells its products in other salons, and is also commissioned by other companies to create private-label products. Both Sedlak and Brunton-Auger would like to see the skin-care line grow in the future.

While retaining its original location upstairs for offices and a product-development laboratory, the new space downstairs is completely dedicated to client services, including four rooms for massages — including always-popular couples massages — and skin care, as well as two hair stations, two stations for manicures and pedicures, and an infrared sauna for one or two people. The latter is perfect, Sedlak said, for people who might want to try a sauna experience, but are intimidated by a larger, group sauna at a gym.

Equally important is a comfortable, subtly lit ‘tranquility area’ where clients can sit between appointments for multiple services, or while waiting on a friend, while sipping tea or water — a more important amenity now that each piece of furniture and surface must be well-sanitized between treatments. “It’s part of the spa experience now instead of there being an awkward pause,” Sedlak said.

“We have to take extra time to super-sanitize,” Brunton-Auger added. “Back-to-back isn’t what it used to be.”

As for other COVID-related changes, staff wear masks, aprons, goggles, and — except in the case of massage — gloves, all of which are changed out between appointments.

The pandemic led to other pivots as well, including a switch to making hand sanitizer in the lab back in the spring. It was hard to find materials and containers at times, Sedlak said, but a small salon like SkinCatering was able to make the production switch more quickly than a large company could. In the meantime, even when the shop was shut down, product orders soared, as people still wanted to treat themselves.

“We had more skin-care orders in the first two weeks of the shutdown than we ever had in the pre-COVID days,” Brunton-Auger said. “It saved the business in some ways.”

 

Moving On Down

She and Sedlak both expect the move downstairs to boost their business further, especially after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, whenever that might be. For one thing, they can stay open seven days a week; because the upstairs space was tucked amid offices, the floor essentially shut down on the weekends, and they would have to call to security to turn on the lights every Saturday; they kept it closed on Sundays.

Now, with a shop right next to the hotel entrance that draws more foot traffic, SkinCatering will be open seven days a week.

“We have been working on this project for almost two years, so to see it finally realized and ready to open is a great feeling of accomplishment, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Sedlak said. “Tower Square has a history of being a hub of activity for Springfield, and we’re very excited to be a major part of why people are coming back into the city.”

And perhaps, eventually, not just the city, as the partners have explored the possibility of franchising their model.

“It’s a duplicatable system that works,” Sedlak said, especially in conjunction with hotels. “It’s an amenity for the hotel and the rest of this tower. It’s convenient, but I don’t want to be known as a convenience spa. I mean, I want it to be convenient, but when you come in, you also have an incredible luxury experience.

“And I don’t mean luxury like stuffy,” she was quick to add. “We want you to be relaxed. It’s the idea of lush, but you feel so comfortable here, you want to stay for a long time. The theme is an urban oasis. Modern, clean, funky, cool, but comfortable.”

While expanding a business during a pandemic may not be the most comfortable move for a small business, so far, Sedlak and Brunton-Auger are proving it’s the right one.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Courting History

Danielle Williams

Danielle Williams, seen outside the courthouse in Northampton, says her time as an assistant clerk magistrate has helped prepare her for service on the bench.

Danielle Williams was asked about the style, or approach, that she would bring to the bench as a District Court judge.

She paused for a minute to think, and then recalled a conversation she had with a colleague recently — one that revealed just how she intends to address each matter that reaches her.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities,” she said. “Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

She told BusinessWest that this human factor, the people represented in the words typed on those pages, was driven home during her years spent as an assistant clerk magistrate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court, a position with a wide job description (more on that later), and one that opened her eyes to not only court procedure, but also the many issues facing those living and working in this region — and her own skill sets and abilities.

Williams said she didn’t take the clerk magistrate’s job with the goal, or intention, of becoming the first African-American woman to be sworn in as a District Court judge in Western Mass., but she was eventually convinced by many of those she was working with that this was the logical next step — and that she was ready.

Williams brings what might be called an eclectic résumé to her latest position, one that includes experience in the Hampden County District Attorney’s office … and experience writing and producing comic books.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities. Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

Indeed, as she told BusinessWest when she was named one of its 40 Under Forty honorees in 2015, Williams, while practicing law with the Northampton-based firm Fierst, Kane, and Bloomberg LLP, specializing in, among other things, intellectual-property law, she was also writing stories about unlikely superheroes known as the Mighty Magical Majestics.

While Williams still has somewhat of a passion for science fiction and graphic novels, she has spent the past several years focused entirely on the law and, more specifically, the courts.

After a short stint working in the Office of the Attorney General in Springfield, she joined the Trial Court as an assistant clerk magistrate in the spring of 2016, a role she’d been drawn to since very early in her career.

“I really admired how they [magistrates] really controlled the courtroom and set the tone for giving people access and making sure they felt comfortable in the courtroom,” she noted. “They dealt with all the components of the courtroom, whether it was probation, members of the public, the lawyers, the other court officers. There was the administrative aspect and also the substantive aspect, where they presided over small claims and criminal show-cause hearings, and I decided that’s really what I wanted to do.

“When I got that job, I was thrilled, and I loved it,” she went on. “I really anticipated staying there.”

But it wasn’t long before people started asking her what was next when it came to her career. The obvious answer was the bench, and while she listened to those who said she was ready to take that step forward, including Judge William Boyle, whom she considers her first mentor, she was at first reluctant, thinking she wasn’t ready to take that step forward.

“I think we’re always our toughest critics,” she said. “We want to be at our very best before we move on to the next level; you want to make sure you’re ready for the responsibility, have the education and knowledge, all that.

“Judge Boyle said, ‘why don’t you think about it?’” she went on. “I said, ‘but I’m not ready, judge; I haven’t even thought about it.’ And he said, ‘well, you should think about it.’ That meant a lot to me that someone who has seen me grow through my legal career thought this was something I should consider.”

Eventually, she gained the confidence to apply, and while her first bid for the bench was not successful, she applied again, and this this time, in a decidedly different interview process in the midst of a pandemic, she succeeded in impressing various interviewers and the Governor’s Council, the body that confirms nominations made by the governor.

She said her four years as assistant clerk magistrate certainly has prepared her for this next stage of her career.

“As an assistant clerk, you come to know who you are, especially if you’re sitting in the Springfield District Court,” she explained. “I know my temperament, I know the different agendas that happen in the courtroom — and having a different agenda is not a bad thing. The district attorney’s office represents the Commonwealth, the defense attorney represents their client, and I am a neutral party in the courtroom. Understanding those things, and having experience in managing all those different agendas in the courtroom, has been invaluable.

“Also,” she went on, “to sit in those sessions with the judges in motion hearings and trials, and listen and try to anticipate how I would respond to those issues, has been a tremendous platform for me, and a way to be prepared for the role of associate justice.”

If the interviewing and selection process was different because of COVID-19, so, too, was the swearing-in ceremony.

Usually a formal affair attended by hundreds of colleagues, friends, and family, this swearing-in was conducted from her dining room with just a few people in attendance.

“I had planned to have it in the atrium on the Springfield District Court, where I could hopefully social distance and have the public, friends, and colleagues in attendance,” she said. “But, given the circumstances, it seemed safer just to have a small swearing-in for now.”

As for where she’ll be next week, or the week after … she doesn’t know yet. While appointed out of Westfield, she could be in one of several other courts across the region, from Chicopee to Palmer to Orange, depending on where there is need.

What she does know is that, whichever court she’s in, she’ll bring in that mindset she mentioned at the top — that court cases are not documents or pieces of paper; they represent people, families, and communities.

It was the ability to communicate this philosophy, if you will, that helped her win this coveted — and historic — appointment, and it’s the one that will guide her for the next 26 years or so.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Impossible Choices

Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program

The Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program has helped numerous women like Carolyn, who was provided with equipment and coaching to start an online business.

It’s a setback that could take years, even decades, to reverse when it comes to economic equality for women.

About 617,000 women left the U.S. workforce in September, compared with only 78,000 men — nearly eight times as many. About half the women who dropped out are in the prime working age of 35 to 44.

“One of our strategic plans centers around economic security for women and girls,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. “Obviously, that’s more important now, because many women are concentrated in low-wage jobs to begin with, and a lot of those jobs — ones traditionally filled by women — have disappeared because of the pandemic.”

According to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the pandemic-fueled recession is tougher for women for two main reasons. First, as Haghighat noted, the crisis has battered industry sectors in which women’s employment is more concentrated, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, and healthcare. This was not the case in past recessions, which tended to hurt male-dominated industry sectors like manufacturing and construction more than other industries.

Second, the COVID-driven economic shutdowns have closed schools and daycare centers around the country, keeping kids at home and making it harder for parents — especially mothers, who tend to provide the majority of childcare — to keep working.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn,” said Margaret Tantillo, executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence. “It’s frustrating for parents to be sitting at home and trying to do what they need to do as well as help their children learn. A lot of women have several children at home.”

According to the study, among married parents who both work full-time, the mother provides, on average, about 60% of childcare. And when schools started up remotely last month, it further strained parenting demands. That contrast in accepted gender roles has contributed to a mass exodus of women from the work world that could have long-lasting ramifications.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn.”

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “They have to navigate all that. Even if it’s a working couple, women tend to make less money, so if something has to give, and someone has to give up their job for a while, it tends to be the woman because she’s already making less money. That’s what we’re seeing.”

At the same time, according to a study by management-consulting firm McKinsey, while women account for 39% of the global workforce, they are overrepresented in three of the four hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic: accommodation and food services (54%), retail and wholesale trade (43%), and services such as arts, recreation, and public administration (46%). In addition, only 22% of working women have jobs that allow them to telecommute, compared with 28% of male workers.

The numbers get worse for women of color; while the U.S. female jobless rate remained at 8% in September, it’s higher for black and Hispanic women.

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes,” said Tanisha Arena, executive director of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, adding that some individual success stories have been wiped out.

“Some businesses will never open back up because they didn’t survive the pandemic,” she noted. “How many women own those businesses, or work at those businesses? The effect will be long-lasting. When you’ve lost your job and it’s not coming back, how do you pay your bills?”

 

Holding Up the Pillars

Still, last month’s massive decline in female employment is at least partially — and possibly mostly — due to the lack of childcare options, Russel Price, chief economist at Ameriprise, told CNN, noting that employment in child daycare services was still down nearly 18% in September from its pre-pandemic level.

One factor influences the next, Haghighat said, which is why the Women’s Fund has been working on a grant-funded project to create an ‘economic mobility hub’ in the region by identifying and bolstering key pillars — social determinants of either success or pain — that impact one’s ability to navigate the economy. “If one of those pillars is disrupted, like housing or transportation, that can be devastating for women and families.”

Arena agreed, noting the most obvious example — how a lack of daycare can lead to job loss, which can lead to an inability to pay rent or mortgage. “Now we’re talking about a housing issue in the middle of a pandemic — and with the moratorium being lifted, how many people are facing eviction and being homeless? I see the fallout of these economic challenges.”

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes.”

In addition to distributing food to seniors, directing people to housing resources, and other programs, Arise has even paid some individuals’ routine bills. Arena used the example of an auto-insurance bill: an overdue bill can lead to a ticket, impound, or court date, all of which can generate costs far above the original missed payment, or even the loss of a job. Suddenly a life spirals out of control over $100 or less.

“It can derail someone’s life in a way that policymakers can’t grasp,” she added, citing their inability on Capitol Hill to come up with further stimulus — as if a $1,200 check in the spring adequately covered eight months of hardship. “It’s not their life.”

Haghighat said her organization’s work has uncovered some of the cracks in public support systems and how they impact not only employment, but food security, public health, and any number of other factors the pandemic has only exacerbated.

“It’s easy to say, ‘oh, it’s just an employment issue or a social-services issue.’ It’s more complex than that.”

Then there’s the broad issue known as the ‘digital divide,’ or the inability of many people to access the technology needed to function in today’s economy — an issue that’s come down hard on women since they’ve experienced more disruption.

Tantillo recalled that, as soon as Gov. Charlie Baker announced the shutdown in mid-March, “we picked up the phone and called our participants and found a lot of them had issues they didn’t have before. And one thing that came up was connectivity and being able to access and utilize the internet.”

Identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for 25 women, 13 of whom have since enrolled in a local workforce-development program for job training.

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children.”

“Everyone has a different starting point,” Tantillo said. “We assess where they are and provide coaching to the point where they can do all the things they need to do for a job search.

“I can’t imagine what their lives would be like right now if they didn’t have access to the Internet and able to do all these things,” she continued, adding that the digital divide was a reality for many long before COVID-19.

“The women we serve, they had to go to the library to go on the computer and do a job search, with maybe a kid in tow. How are they working in the same playing field as everyone else? They’re not. And the majority of women we serve are women of color.”

Then, of course, all the libraries closed, and the pandemic further exacerbated that computer-access divide. While Dress for Success has donated equipment and provided coaching for area women, that’s only a micro-level solution.

“It illustrates what’s needed at the macro level. What we’re doing really highlights what is going on in our communities. When women are trying to get out of poverty, and they’re not able to connect to a job search, it leaves not just them behind, but their families, for generations.”

“If we want an economy that’s going to thrive,” Tantillo went on, “we need to have citizens participating in the new economy, and the new economy is going to be online. Everyone has a vested interest in this. It’s an injustice if we don’t fix it.”

 

Ripple Effect

The National Bureau of Economic Research survey suggests the ramifications of the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact on women could be long-lasting. The authors estimate that 15 million single mothers in the U.S. will be the most severely affected, with little potential for receiving other sources of childcare and a smaller likelihood of continuing to work during the crisis.

Even if they do return, leaving the workforce for any amount of time — which, again, 617,000 American women did last month, by either choice or because their job disappeared — will affect their lifetime earning potential, which already lags behind that of men.

All that piles on top of the health impacts — both physical and mental — of this challenging time, an area where the digital divide creeps in as well, Tantillo said.

“It impacts people’s ability to stay engaged through telehealth. We talk about social isolation; it impacts the ability to connect with family and friends. People are now talking about connectivity as if it’s a utility — that’s how important it is.

“We created a pilot for what needs to happen regionally in order for there to be real change and access for everyone,” she added. “It needs to be regional, and people need to put resources into this.”

Arena noted that people often use the term ‘essential worker’ or ‘frontline worker’ to talk about medical professionals, but so many other people who are truly essential and working on the front lines — truck drivers, grocery cashiers, gas-station attendants — have had to make tough choices about whether to work and make needed income or step away and guard their health.

She says the legislators fighting in Washington don’t understand — and don’t seem to care — how this year has taxed individuals, and especially women, in so many ways.

“Now that schools are closed, can you get to your job?” she asked. “Am I going to lose my livelihood because of these economic conditions, or literally lose my life by going to work? People are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Women in Businesss

In the Right Mold

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, ‘chief strategy officer’ at Universal Plastics.

Back in mid-March, Pia Kumar recalls, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good deal of absenteeism at the five plants within the Universal Plastics fold — maybe 40% by her estimate, a number that spoke volumes about the high levels of fear and anxiety within the workforce.

So Kumar, who co-owns the Universal family of businesses with her husband, Jay, and has the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’ printed on her business card, did what she says comes naturally to her.

She got on the phone.

“I called every single employee that was not here and talked to them about their concerns,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this was maybe 200 people across the five facilities. “In some cases, I talked to their wives, their husbands, their children; I wanted to understand what we could do together as a business to make sure they could come back in and do the essential work we were doing.

“We make the diagnostic machines used to test for COVID, so we needed to come back in and get working, but we needed to keep people safe,” she went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty, and we needed to establish trust.”

The company earned it by taking painstaking steps to comply with work regulations put in place in four different states — everything from masks and face shields to social-distancing measures and temperature checks, with most ideas coming from employees. And in a matter of a few short weeks, absenteeism all but disappeared.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days. I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

Kumar’s phone calls, and those subsequent actions taken by the company, provide some valuable insight into not only her management style — although it certainly does that — but also into her approach to business and her specific, and very broad, role with the company.

Indeed, while she’s certainly involved with strategy, as that business card would indicate, and she is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, she’s predominantly focused on people and their well-being. And that goes for the community, as well as the Universal ‘family.’

This is evidenced by something she calls ‘office hours.’ These are the twice-monthly Zoom meetings she conducts with employees at each plant to help them feel more connected at a time when traveling to those plants is far more difficult and, well, people need a connection.

And she’s finding that, while Zoom is certainly a different experience than the in-person office hours she had been conducting until the pandemic (more on those later), they’re in some ways more effective.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days,” she noted. “I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

It’s also on display in a number of programs and initiatives she’s helped introduce at the company that are designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment and success in the workplace — and in life itself.

“We have someone in our HR department whose whole job is to make sure that we make people successful outside of work, so that they can be successful at work.” she said of efforts to help employees with everything from attaining a driver’s license to securing day-care services.

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields with ‘skirts,’ one of many new products it has developed in the wake of the pandemic.

As for her own efforts in the realm of work-life balance, she said, simply, “I work at it.”

By that, she meant that she finds time for work, family, and to be alone for a few moments each day, early in the morning — time she spends meditating and planning, for the most part.

“I need to get my planning done to feel prepared for my day,” she explained. “I do a 10-minute meditation, then I spend 30 minutes planning, and then I take my dog for a walk; it works for me.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Kumar about her work with her husband to grow and expand Universal. But mostly, the talk was about people and helping them handle all that work and life can throw at them — even a global pandemic.

Clear Intentions

As she talked with BusinessWest in the company’s recently opened corporate offices, located next door to the Holyoke plant on Whiting Farms Road, Kumar showed off a display of one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio of products.

These are face shields — which the company started making a few months ago to help meet demand for personal protective equipment within the region — that feature what she called ‘skirts.’

Designed specifically for teachers, these customized products allow for open communication without muffling the voice or hiding expressions — things masks can’t do — while providing more protection than a common face shield.

“You can wear it all day — you’re fully covered, you’re fully sealed,” she said while demonstrating the product, noting there are several styles, including models invoking Halloween and Christmas, and another promoting breast-cancer awareness. Response has been good, she noted, and there are ongoing discussions about perhaps making such shields for children.

These PPE products are part of the company’s pivoting efforts during the pandemic, she explained — a way to assist the community and especially the healthcare and education sectors while also keeping employees working at a time when many traditional customers, including those in aerospace and medical-device manufacturing, have scaled back as a result of the pandemic.

And such efforts are among the current focal points for the Kumars, who acquired Universal Plastics roughly eight years ago — she dates the transaction to the birth of their first child — from long-time owner Joe Peters. Flashing back to that purchase, Pia said the couple, who met while they were both working in finance in New York after graduating from college, were looking for a challenge they could undertake together.

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together,” she said. “We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke as part of the company’s Link to Libraries sponsorship, says her discussions with employees have helped her understand the many barriers that people face when it comes to succeeding in the workplace.

And that’s exactly what has happened with Universal, a company launched by Joe Peters’ father in Chicopee and eventually moved to Holyoke.

Indeed, the Kumars have added four other companies over the past several years, with the goal of attracting different types of customers and doing more for them. Expansion efforts started with the acquisition of a competitor, Mayfield Plastics in Sutton (since renamed Universal), an operation similar to the one in Holyoke.

“We offer a product called custom thermoforming,” she said of the Holyoke facility. “It’s good for small volumes, but as some customers ramped up, we would lose those customers. Then we started thinking about how we could keep that customer for a longer life cycle, and we started looking at injection molders.”

This led to the acquisition of Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio in 2018, and the subsequent addition of a blow-molding facility in Pennsylvania that had a strong focus on medical-equipment manufacturing — steps that have greatly diversified the corporation and opened the door to new types of opportunities.

While Pia is certainly involved with all aspects of the company, especially short- and long-term strategy, she told BusinessWest that people are her main focus, and it’s a role she believes she’s well-suited for.

“I try to spend a lot of time with employees; it’s part of what my focus is with the company,” she explained. “I like to really get out there and talk to people and really understand what our people are saying and thinking, and what their fears are.”

She traditionally did this through those aforementioned office hours — the in-person variety, especially in Holyoke, where she would walk the floor every day and talk with people. With the other plants, she would make a point of getting out to each at least once a month.

But COVID-19 changed all that, as it has many other aspects of this business — from the products being made, like those face shields with skirts and plastic dividers for automobiles (similar to those found in cabs), to the precautions being taken to keep employees safe.

Shaping Core Values

What hasn’t changed, especially during these trying times, is the company’s — and especially Pia’s — efforts to help employees overcome those barriers she mentioned.

And there are many of them, she went on, adding that a good percentage of the company’s employees are single mothers, who faced a number of hurdles before the pandemic and now face even more. She came to understand these hurdles over time, she said, and it was a real learning experience.

“Before we came here, we lived in New York City, we worked in finance, we worked in venture capital,” Kumar explained. “We were doing things with a group of people who had a lot of opportunities; they went to certain schools and had the right types of jobs and the right kind of résumés. Coming here and working in manufacturing gave me an understanding of the barriers that people face that I never had.

“I was in many ways taking for granted things like childcare and transportation and having access to affordable education,” she went on. “These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together. We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

This understanding of the issues has translated into policies regarding attendance and other matters that Kumar considers worker-friendly.

Elaborating, she said the company has explored such things as ride-sharing and on-site day care and have encountered significant barriers to success. What has worked, she noted, is talking with people to understand their specific situations, and then making accommodations when and where they are practical.

“Our single mothers are some of our best workers,” she told BusinessWest. “And understanding that and working with that population to make sure that they have the tools they need to be set up for success became personally important to me.”

It was through her work with employees to understand and then help remove barriers that led to her involvement with a number of area nonprofits and institutions.

That list includes Link to Libraries, the nonprofit that fills school library shelves and encourages reading by placing area community leaders in the classroom to read — Universal Plastics sponsors the Morgan School in Holyoke, which many of the company’s employees attended — as well as the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Bay Path University, and Springfield Technical Community College, which she serves as a foundation board member.

She’s become so enamored with STCC manufacturing graduates that she has a standing rule with her operations manager: “if someone comes to us from STCC, you have to give me a reason not to hire them, because they’re all people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just need an opportunity. And that’s the kind of company we are; that’s the kind of company we need to be. We need to be the kind of company that gives people a chance, and we need to do it over and over again.”

As for her own professional development, Kumar said she doesn’t have a coach, per se, although her husband might count as one. But she does read quite a bit on the subject.

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant, says that, while she’s focused on all aspects of the business, connecting with employees and helping them address challenges has become her primary focus.

What she does have are mentors. She listed Susan Jaye Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries, and Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired business owner and director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Springfield office — both winners of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award.

“I’m not afraid to ask for help; I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know something,” she said, adding that she believes good managers share these traits. “Feedback is a gift, and I firmly believe, if you don’t want to know the answer, then don’t ask the question. But if you ask the question, you need to be able to stomach the answer.”

When asked about how she approaches the broad assignment of achieving work-life balance, she said simply, “I work at it.”

“These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“I spend a lot of time planning, I delegate a lot, and I am very comfortable with having a list of things I wanted to get to but didn’t at the end of the day,” she explained. “There are days when the company is the most important thing — when COVID first happened, we needed to make our employees safe. And then, there are other times when it’s more important that we’re there for our children. My mother is having surgery next week, so that will be the focus then.

“I feel very lucky that I have a supportive partner who helps me manage all these things,” she went on. “But we also have a really great team. We’re not the experts — we didn’t come in with a deep background in manufacturing, and that’s why we keep people from our acquired businesses. Our job is to take all the information and provide the right vision.”

Parts of the Whole

Summing up her approach to her broad role at Universal Plastics, Kumar said, “my biggest failure as a leader is when someone can’t tell me what they really think; if they can’t tell me what they really think, we have a problem.

“I encourage people debating and saying ‘no, this is how we should be doing it,’” she went on. “And when there is that open communication, there’s trust, and that allows me to do more, and the more we can grow as a business.”

Open communication. Trust. Helping employees overcome barriers. These are the keys to success at this company — and any company, said Kumar, stressing, again, that four-word phrase she used in connection with all these matters: ‘we work at it.’

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Critical Tools

As women continue to experience the devastating impact of unemployment due to COVID-19, representing close to 60% of all lost jobs this spring, the food-service, hospitality, retail, and travel industries have been some of the hardest hit.

Further delivering on its mission of empowering women, at a time when many are forced to reimagine their lives, Bay Path University is offering a free three-credit online undergraduate college course in August. The course, “Fundamentals of Digital Literacy,” will help women expand their digital technology skill set and be better prepared for the workforce of the future. The course is offered through The American Women’s College, Bay Path University’s fully online division designed to fit busy women’s lives.

“We hope this free course inspires women to look to a better future through education at a time when they are experiencing such uncertainty,” said Carol Leary before her recent retirement as Bay Path president. “This is our way to offer women an opportunity to discover the benefits of online learning. We have deep experience serving women in a proven college format resulting in a graduation rate that is 20% higher than other adult-serving online programs.”

“Fundamentals of Digital Literacy” is a six-week, three-credit course in which students will examine best practices for utilizing social-media and digital-communication tools in the workplace. In addition, they will learn practical skills for a digital world and gain an increasing awareness of the risks of digital communication essential in all fields. By mastering the fundamentals of computing technology and demonstrating digital literacy, women who complete the course will have developed the computer skills needed to thrive in a 21st-century workforce that is continually changing.

“We hope this free course inspires women to look to a better future through education at a time when they are experiencing such uncertainty. This is our way to offer women an opportunity to discover the benefits of online learning. We have deep experience serving women in a proven college format resulting in a graduation rate that is 20% higher than other adult-serving online programs.”

Leaders in the Women in Travel and Hospitality and Women in Retail Leadership Circle organizations are sharing this free course opportunity with impacted employees impacted. The course offering is not exclusive to these groups, however, and any woman in sectors affected by COVID-19 are welcome to enroll.

“At a time when the retail industry has been dramatically impacted, it is refreshing to see Bay Path University, an institution dedicated to advancing the lives of women, provide an opportunity for women in our industry to gain a valuable skillset and college credits,” said Melissa Campanelli and Jen DiPasquale, co-founders of the Women in Retail Leadership Circle.

Unlike other online degree programs, students enrolled in classes through the American Women’s College at Bay Path University are able to get immediate feedback on individual academic performance. They also get the support they need to excel in the program, such as coaching, counseling, virtual learning communities, and social networking. The courses are designed to help provide the flexibility women need to engage in their studies, while still balancing their daily lives, jobs, and families.

As a result of the innovative approach to learning offered through the American Women’s College, women successfully earn degrees at higher rates than national averages, the institution notes. The model has been widely recognized by industry experts, the federal government, and granting agencies since its inception in 2013. Most recently, the American Women’s College was awarded a $1.6 million grant from the Strada Education Network to use its unique model to close the digital-literacy gap for women.

Enrollment in this six-week, three-credit course is subject to availability. This offer is intended for women who are first-time attendees of Bay Path University. Active Bay Path University students and those enrolled within the past year are not eligible for this offer.

Any student enrolled in this course who wishes to officially enroll into a certificate or degree program at the American Women’s College or Bay Path University must submit the appropriate application for admission and be accepted according to standard admissions guidelines. 

To register for the course, visit bpu.tfaforms.net/41. The registration deadline is July 20, and enrollees will have course access on July 27. For more information, visit www.baypath.edu/baypathworks.

Women in Businesss

Engineering Change

Ashley Sullivan

As recently as last year, Ashley Sullivan didn’t expect to one day sit in the president’s chair at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun — but that was OK, since she enjoyed her job so much. Now, as the firm’s leader, she gets to emphasize and expand on what she likes, including a culture of mentorship and growth that encourages employees to continually learn and pursue more responsibility, all in service to clients with ever-changing needs.

There was a time last year, Ashley Sullivan said, when the principals at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun (OTO) weren’t sure how the company’s succession plan would proceed, or who would be its next leader. But they knew they had to talk about it.

“So many other companies are at the same age, where the leaders are getting ready to retire, so what now?” said Sullivan, who was named president of the 26-year-old geoenvironmental engineering firm in January. “I kept hearing maybe they’d look for an outside buyer, and I think it was just put off, put off, put off, because they were having fun doing what they were doing.”

But the conversation had to proceed, she went on. Of the three founders, Jim Okun works part-time, Kevin O’Reilly plans to cut back as well. While Mike Talbot plans to be around full-time for awhile, the firm needed direction for the future.

“They didn’t want to close the doors. We have a great company and a great staff,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “So I think people at different stages, so it was maybe people wanted different things, and it was just put off.”

When the conversation got serious, the solution, they found, was right in front of them.

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company. Once you get past that, it gets a little easier.”

“I’ve learned through this process, and talking to other companies going through it, that it’s not an easy thing to transition from the founders to a generational company,” she said. “Once you get past that, it gets a little easier. So it was just something we had to work through and negotiate through. The choice ended up being, can we transition internally? Can we make this work? Do we have the people to make this work? And we just fought like hell to make that work.”

The transition has been well-received, said Sullivan, who came on board at OTO 20 years ago. Since then, she has been instrumental in growing and developing business in the geotechnical and construction services of the company. She has also been a key mentor to junior staff and an advisor to upper management, as well as an influencer on the firm’s marketing, work culture, and business development (more on all of that later).

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project

Ashley Sullivan discusses the One Ferry Street project in Easthampton with OTO field engineer Dustin Humphrey and client Mike Michon.

“The energy here is fantastic. Last year was tough — when you’re working on any sort of change, it’s hard because everybody’s a little nervous: ‘what does this mean for me?’ And sometimes you lose focus on the overall goal,” she explained. “We have the clients, we have the work. We just had to figure out how to keep it going. So last year there was a little uncertainty and fear, for lack of a better word. This year, once the paperwork was done, the energy is through the roof.”

Culture Matters

It was during a time when she was working fewer hours that Sullivan came to understand and appreciate her workplace and its culture.

“They allowed me to have a flexible schedule when I had children, and it was something you didn’t see a lot at that time,” she said, noting that she cut back to 24 hours in 2005, sometimes more if she was needed, and was still working 32 hours not too long ago. Not surprisingly, she’s a strong advocate of work-life balance.

“I was still allowed to progress and advance my career in that way, and now I can say that it works. You can let people have a balance of where they want to be home. I wanted to get my kids on and off the bus, but I wanted to have a meaningful career too, and I found that difficult at 40 hours. So it’s something that I strongly feel works, and I want to continue to develop that culture here.”

Sullivan also instructs the civil engineering capstone design course at Western New England University. In this role, she guides graduating students through a mock building project where many of her peers join her in presenting practical technical knowledge, writing skills, and soft-skills training.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women,” she said. “We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Teaching also requires her to constantly learn more, she added. “Plus I was doing something I loved, working with students. The energy in a classroom … it just re-energizes me. Mike Talbot is now teaching a class because we see the benefit to being in community. I’ve hired a couple of my students — I have an intern from there now. It’s a great feed to get great engineers. It’s been so helpful in ways I never thought it would be.”

Sullivan enjoys being a mentor in other ways as well, including for young engineers at work.

“I love to build confidence in people,” she said. “I was a very shy kid, and I think engineering, amazingly, somehow gave me confidence in school, and that’s what I like to do for other people. I like to encourage them or say, ‘you can do more than this,’ or ‘here are some habits that will help you,’ and you see them just soar.

“There are so many amazing people here,” she said, and she strives to encourage them. “‘You got this.’ ‘You can do this.’ ‘Go to that meeting; you’re going to kill it.’ What can we do to help you?’ That’s what really gets me excited in the morning, helping people and seeing them achieve — and seeing how it builds on itself and builds on itself.”

But encouragement comes not just in words, but in opportunities. She cited the example of Christine Arruda, who started with the company in an administrative role, then took classes in drafting and computer-aided design, and now manages much of the firm’s industrial-hygiene work as a technical specialist.

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work

Ashley Sullivan observes soil-investigation and foundation work at the One Ferry Street project.

“It’s not uncommon here for people to come in and try different things. We have a culture of, ‘do you want to try to do that? Let’s do it.’ It’s a growth mindset, and I want that to continue and explode,” she said. “What do people want to do? What are some of their goals? Let’s get people into the roles they enjoy and then support them in whatever ways they can be supported. You get people doing the things they really enjoy.”

Much of the company’s evolution over the year has been tied to industry trends and the shifting needs of clients, and this focus on continuing learning serves that growth well, she said, again citing Arruda’s interest in radon, which is something schools have been concerned about in their buildings.

“Our big thing is, how can we provide value for a project?” she said. “There are only so many clients in this area. To be successful, we have to continually adapt to what clients’ needs are. So we’re always adapting and growing, and I think people who work here like that.”

Changing with the Times

Change — and taking advantage of opportunities — have been constant since the early days of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun. Before the three founders launched their venture in 1994, they were working together at an environmental-services firm in Connecticut.

The Bay State had just developed the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, a law that tells people how to go about cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. As that program rolled out, the three saw an emerging need for people with their skills. So they started a company.

“I like to make a difference with the younger engineers, especially women. We don’t see a lot of women in this field, and if girls don’t see women in those roles, they don’t even know it’s possible. But my children think nothing of women engineers. They just know it’s possible.”

Over the years, OTO’s services have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, which may involve helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand, or determining the strength of an existing building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

Sullivan said Massachusetts has done a good job cleaning up its largest contaminated sites, so the firm now focuses more on-site redevelopment.

“The big cleanups mostly are done, but you still have things that were left in the ground because they said it’s OK to leave them in the ground, but if you’re going to redig or redevelop that site, you need to manage it,” she explained, noting that it’s tougher these days to find untouched land to develop in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, so geotech services on redevelopment projects are becoming more important. “We shift to what our clients need.”

The end result is often satisfying, especially when a vacant eyesore, like the old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton, come to live.

“Those are some of our favorite projects, because whenever we see a property get redeveloped and reused and come back to life, that just benefits the neighborhood, the community, and us. Those are great projects.”

Suffice to say, Sullivan loves her job on a number of levels, and wants her employees to feel the same way, which is why she keeps raising the bar when it comes to culture, mentorship, and growth.

“We’re not afraid to ask for help,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that she brought in a leadership group — the Boulder Co., based in Connecticut — to cultivate soft skills and leadership training.

“We had a retreat, and it was absolutely amazing. It’s really giving people skills like emotional intelligence and how to get over fears of speaking in public and how to work together better. It’s led to a big energy change here, and you’re seeing people step out of their shells and believe they can do more,” she explained. “We always know we need to be technically proficient and get that training, but sometimes, as engineers and scientists, we forget about the other half — that all our work is based on relationships, and if we continually work on that, we’ll do well.”

It’s a message Sullivan doesn’t mind sharing far and wide.

“My goal right now is to be one of the best places in Springfield to work because I think that’s how you attract the best people,” she said. “One of the reasons I stayed here was because I was able to do these things.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Bringing the Past to Life

By Laura Grant

Janine Fondon is seen here next to a portrait of her grandmother Miriam Kirkaldy.

In 1917, Miriam Kirkaldy landed on the shores of Ellis Island seeking to create a new life for herself. Despite the discrimination she faced as a woman of color, she found work in New York City and eventually became a homeowner before starting a family.

More than 100 years later, her granddaughter, Janine Fondon, stood beside her portrait at the Springfield Museums exhibit “Voices of Resilience: The Intersection of Women on the Move.” Fondon curated “Voices of Resilience” to honor the accomplishments of women who changed the world — and the exhibit does this in a number of ways.

It highlights ‘hidden figures’ with a particular focus on women of color, including African-Americans, Latinas, Caribbeans, and Native Americans, among others. The walls of the exhibit are covered with panels, all of which have photos and descriptions of these women. Examples include Jenny Slew and Elizabeth Freeman, or MumBet, who fought the legal system for their freedom in the 1700s, as well as LuJuana Hood, who founded Springfield’s Pan African Historical Museum in 1995. The exhibit stretches over hundreds of years, chronologically, beginning with female pharaohs and queens — “the first female CEOs,” Fondon said.

The exhibit provides ample evidence showing just how dedicated Fondon is to uplifting the communities around her.

She explained that she splits her focus into three main areas. The first is teaching. Having received a graduate degree in Communications and Business, she has held multiple editorial and managerial positions for companies such as ABC-TV, BankBoston, CBS-TV, and Digital Equipment Corp. She began teaching in 2012 and is currently an assistant professor and the chair of the Communications Department at Bay Path University, as well as an adjunct faculty member at Cambridge College and Westfield State University. She teaches undergraduate communication classes with subjects ranging from marketing principles to social media, and absolutely loves the work.

“It has been a joy because we have walked into the new era of communication,” she told BusinessWest.

One of Fondon’s clearest goals is to push for diverse and inclusive communities, and to that end, she launched her own company with her husband, Tom Fondon, in 1996. UnityFirst has seen many forms over the years, but at its core, the intent is the same: the website strives to share stories of people of color.

And through e-mails, newsletters, and social networking, it connects people from all across the country. News updates and profile pieces are distributed to a network of more than 2 million members. It also hosts the African American Newswire, which users can utilize to send information directly to more than 4,000 press groups and publications.

While UnityFirst has a focus throughout the U.S., Fondon also strove for upliftment specifically within the Pioneer Valley with “Voices of Resilience,” which is open through April 26 and features the stories of activists and businesswomen spanning hundreds of years who have history within Massachusetts.

Making Connections

When curating the exhibit, Fondon aimed to not only provide information but to give visitors a chance to truly learn about these women and connect with them. This also meant encouraging attendees to consider their own lives or to give gratitude toward the people who had inspired them. Part of “Voices of Resilience” features a board where visitors can write their own stories and pin them up.

Many people used the chance to thank the women dear to them — mothers, sisters, teachers, and friends. Some highlighted historical women, such as mathematician Katherine Johnson. One guest said Fondon herself is an inspiration.

“On the day of the opening, we already knew it was going to be a powerful exhibit, and we were honored to have it here at the Museums. … There was so much positive energy and so many happy people, proud people. That felt incredible.”

Fondon said she felt it was crucial to give visitors an opportunity to share their history. As such, she worked with poet María Luisa Arroyo, who wrote a piece specifically for the exhibit. The poem insists that all stories belong in this space. In the final line, she writes: “Sit here. I will listen.”

This idea of connection — hearing stories and telling them in turn — is reflected in the exhibit’s events. Springfield Museums staged a ceremony on the date the exhibit opened, and the event brought in the voices of some of the featured women, such as the family of Carole Fredericks, a blues and rock artist. Her relatives were able to talk about Fredericks’ life and the legacy she left on music. In Fondon’s words, it “opened up the storytelling.”

“On the day of the opening, we already knew it was going to be a powerful exhibit, and we were honored to have it here at the Museums,” said Karen Fisk, the museum’s director of Marketing and Communication Strategy. “We were overwhelmed by how many people showed up. Our Blake Court was absolutely full, and people were lined up all along the balconies looking down, which was a beautiful sight. There was so much positive energy and so many happy people, proud people. That felt incredible.”

“Voices of Resilience” was also home to the fourth On the Move forum on March 8, which is International Women’s Day. Beginning in 2017, Fondon organized this annual event to encourage conversation and networking among women in the community. This year’s forum featured keynote speaker Kamilah A’Vant as well as a group of business owners and professors as panelists ready to answer questions from the audience. Much like the opening ceremony, it provided a chance for genuine connection between the speakers and the visitors.

Fisk remarked on this event as well, saying she and Fondon wanted at least 50% of the gathering to consist of adolescents and young adults. To their delight, they far surpassed this goal. Groups from multiple schools came to the event to engage with the panelists and ask questions about employment and voting.

“The On the Move forum had young people and older people speaking to the power that women have, especially when they work together,” Fisk explained. “Janine unites people to work together.”

The exhibit’s closing ceremony will be on April 26 and will serve as a direct collaboration piece between Fondon and several spoken-word poets, as well as with Marlene Yu, a Chinese-American artist whose acrylic paintings are currently on display in the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Springfield Museums.

These works are massive, bright, and colorful, while also capturing the spirit of environmentalism and providing commentary on climate change. Her work will be featured during the event’s closing ceremony, and Fondon was glad to have a chance to collaborate with her. Despite Yu’s age, she continues to paint nearly every day and has produced more than 4,000 pieces of work in her lifetime.

Fondon found that inspiring.

“There was a perfect melding between the ‘Voices of Resilience’ and [Yu’s work]. That is the heartbeat of the exhibit,” she remarked. “I said, ‘she’s a resilient woman’ without even knowing her — just from the power of those pieces.”

Of course, Fondon’s hard work does not go unnoticed. Her work at WTCC 90.7 FM, a diversity-focused radio program in Springfield, earned her an honorary degree at Springfield Technical Community College. She was recognized as an outstanding professor by the African-American Female Professors Assoc. and has received countless other awards for her leadership abilities.

Still, what drives Fondon the most is not accolades; it’s rooted in her family. That is the reason why she is able to give so much to the community. Fondon said she works with her husband on everything, particularly regarding UnityFirst, which the two of them started together. The exhibit even features a quilt given to Fondon in order to honor their marriage. It represents not only the joining of two families but also the deep cultural history behind the heirloom. It is clearly a prized possession, and one that sits right in the center of the exhibit.

Her daughter is at the heart of what inspires her, too.

“I want my daughter to not only know the history, but make new history,” Fondon said. “We need to get our young generation in this city excited. We need to engage them in their future. Even my daughter was just so excited to learn about her grandmother.

“If we can help young people not only find their story here, but also give them the ability to make new stories, that’s what a community wants,” she added. “We need to make sure they know that we want them, and we want them to help drive the future of this city.”

Women in Businesss

Scenes from the Dec. 5 Event

More than 450 people turned out at the Sheraton Springfield on Dec. 5 for BusinessWest’s second annual Women of Impact luncheon. Eight women were honored for their achievements in business and in giving back to the community. The keynote speaker was Lisa Tanzer, president of Life is Good. This year’s honorees are (pictured, left to right):

• Katherine Putnam, managing director of Golden Seeds;

• Carol Moore Cutting, president, CEO, and general manager of Cutting Edge Broadcasting;

• Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of Springfield Public Schools;

• Mary Hurley, Massachusets Governor’s Councilor;

• Ellen Freyman, partner at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin;

• Tricia Canavan, president of United Personnel;

• Jean Deliso, principal with Deliso Financial Services; and

• Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley.

The Women of Impact program was sponsored by TommyCar Auto Group and Country Bank (presenting sponsors), Comcast Business and Granite State Development (supporting sponsors), New Valley Bank & Trust (speaker sponsor), and WWLP 22 News/CW Springfield (exclusive media sponsor).

Women in Businesss

Wellness in Season

Denise Pelletier was inspired by her own experience with the benefits of salt therapy to help others find similar success.

Denise Pelletier was gifted a trip to a salt cave for her birthday — not your average way to celebrate another trip around the sun.

But Pelletier has bartonellosis, a chronic Lyme disease co-infection that can produce symptoms like fever, fatigue, headaches, and bone pain. When her sister heard about salt therapy and the benefits it can bring, she took Pelletier to a salt cave, thinking it might help with some of the pain she was suffering from.

In the process known as halotherapy, pure, drug-free, pharmaceutical-grade salt is heated and ground into microparticles by a machine called a halogenerator and dispersed in a room or salt bed.

The results of her first salt-therapy session, Pelletier said, included relief from allergies and asthma, among other things.

“I realized that, when I do salt therapy, I don’t need to use my inhaler twice a day, and I don’t need to take my allergy medicine every day,” she said, adding that, if she doesn’t get in at least one or two salt sessions a week, she finds herself needing to use more medication. “For me, it made such a huge difference.”

Although she originally had no intention to start a business, she felt she needed to share the benefits of halotherapy with other people who may be going through a similar thing.

“I’m one of those people that, when something works so wonderfully for me, I want to help other people,” she said. “I thought, ‘how can I bring this to other people?’”

The answer was opening Enisde’s Salt Therapy Halotherapy Spa on Main Street in Palmer.

Science hasn’t quite caught up with the halotherapy trend yet, at least in the U.S., and concrete evidence of the benefits are oftentimes conflicting. But salt therapy has been around for centuries and is more popular in Europe, used as a natural and holistic method for health and wellness.

For Pelletier, the results were fantastic — which is why she’s sharing the benefits of the holistic regimen with others.

Go with the Flow

When thinking about her main goals for her new business, Pelletier had one thing in particular on her mind: keeping a positive and relaxed energy throughout the entire space.

But it took a lot of work to get there, as months were spent gutting the entire building with help from family to make it the business she dreamed of.

“The feel is very important to me, which is why we put so much into the décor,” she said, adding that salt walls and salt floors, while they do not necessarily contribute to the health benefits, add a lot to the relaxation part of the experience. “There’s a lot of people that feel a whole shift in energy when they come in.”

According to Pelletier’s website, salt is negatively charged, which means it naturally attracts positively charged particles and cancels out harmful electromagnetic vibrations in the environment and in people’s bodies. In many cases, this feeling is compared to visiting a waterfall or spending a day at the beach.

Denise Pelletier says she put much thought and effort into the décor and and feel of her establishment, and people “feel a whole shift in energy when they come in.”

And while she by no means recommends eliminating prescribed medicine while practicing halotherapy, she says using it along with salt therapy may help people cut back on the medication they are taking.

“Whether you have breathing issues or skin issues, it’s just something that’s so good to do for yourself, even if you decide to do it once or twice a month,” she said. “It really is that feeling of well-being because it’s actually doing something for you.”

There are five rooms in Enisde’s Halotherapy focused on this well-being feeling — the Dawn Room, which provides the full salt-cave experience with a room-wide salt floor; the Willow Room, with moon pods to sit on that deliver a full-body, weightless sensation; the Bosai Room, featuring a large salt sandbox floor on half of the room and wood floors on the other half; and the Zen Room and Namaste Room, which include state-of-the-art salt-therapy beds for those who want a more private experience.

Salt therapy is more popular in Europe, but is starting to gain traction in the U.S.

Halotherapy rooms are 45-minute sessions for $40, and salt-bed rooms are 20-minute sessions for $20. The salt beds, Pelletier said, were a must-have because the concentrated salt air in the enclosed space is beneficial to those seeking relief, and at a quicker pace.

Give Salt a Chance

Pelletier says the benefits, especially during this time of year, are far greater than what most people would expect.

“It definitely helps you stay healthier in the wintertime, with the flus and the bugs going around,” she noted. “If you are overcoming something, this is wonderful for you because the salt removes toxins from your lungs, it reduces swelling in your lungs and sinuses, and it detoxes your skin.”

While this method of relaxation hasn’t quite caught on in too many places yet, Pelletier hopes people will give halotherapy a try and see the benefits for themselves.

“It’s nice to have something that’s positive and about wellness,” she said. “My hope is that people will want to start taking better care of themselves and making it a priority.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Women Supporting Women

Meghan Rothschild

Meghan Rothschild

When Meghan Rothschild launched Chikmedia as a two-woman operation five years ago, she was determined to build a successful marketing firm that focused heavily, if not exclusively, on women and brought a fierce attitude and a sense of fun into the work. Five years later, as the head of a small team with an ever-growing clientele, she says those philosophies haven’t changed — nor has the need for a company that reminds women of the power they wield when they lift each other up.

Marketing has come a long way in the 21st century, Meghan Rothschild says, in ways many companies struggle to understand.

Take social media.

“When we first started, social media wasn’t what it is today — it was something that businesses absolutely used, but it wasn’t this intricate skill set you have to educate yourself about in order to be up to date on the latest trends. That’s been one of the biggest advances,” said Rothschild, whose marketing firm, Chikmedia, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.

“We’ve learned how to use social media from a business perspective in a really successful way,” she went on. “Our social-media management is much more comprehensive, and includes graphic design and creating custom content, and using the live features and story features on all the platforms. That’s evolved quite a bit. But other things about this business are the same, like writing press releases and helping people have grand openings at their businesses.”

“You have all these places that have ample budgets, or have a staff person dedicated to marketing. We like to work with the companies that don’t have that. Marketing is such an important part of business ownership that people forget about.”

Chikmedia is unique in other ways, though. For one, Rothschild — who gives herself the title “chief badass” — says she started the business to put an emphasis on female-run organizations and women business owners with an “edgy, fierce, and authentic” approach.

At its inception, Chikmedia focused mostly on social media, graphic design, and public relations. However, the firm has expanded its services outward, with branded events (more on that later) and a series of educational workshops that aid businesses with social media, personal branding, PR 101, and crisis management, to name a few topics.

While not all clients are female-run companies, the average client, Rothschild explained, is a woman who owns a small to medium-sized business who isn’t sitting on a six-figure marketing budget and, therefore, needs to be creative with her efforts.

“We sort of thrive in that space, finding unique and creative ways to engage audiences that aren’t going to cost you $100,000,” she said. “You have all these places that have ample budgets, or have a staff person dedicated to marketing. We like to work with the companies that don’t have that. Marketing is such an important part of business ownership that people forget about.”

Among its newer clients are the region’s new Futures Collegiate Baseball League team, the Westfield Starfires. Chikmedia also worked with Square One, a Springfield nonprofit that provides a range of early-education and support services, in launching a new service line that expands childcare to all hours of the day. The company has also partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts in sponsoring several events.

In short, it’s a varied clientele, which means a lot of education going both ways.

It all feeds into a “fierce” attitude she further describes as “bold, empowering, having confidence, and positioning clients in a way that they are the experts on their subject matter.”

In fact, Rothschild said, empowering women is at the core of everything she does, having been harassed and encountered inappropriate treatment many times in the corporate world — and not only by men.

Educational workshops

Educational workshops have become a staple of Chikmedia’s services — and a way to put more autonomy in clients’ hands.

“It’s one thing to walk into an environment and not be supported by your male peers, but to encounter that from your female peers is really something. It’s frustrating,” she said. “I said, ‘this is going to stop with me. I’m going to start a company whose mission and sole purpose is women lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.’

“As a culture,” she went on, “it’s really easy for us to give each other a hard time and drag each other down and be super competitive, but we want to be the complete opposite of that — women supporting women.”

Choosing a Path

Rothschild had been in marketing for eight years — with stints as marketing and promotions manager at Six Flags, development and marketing manager at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and director of marketing and communications at Wilbraham and Monson Academy — when she teamed up in 2014 with Emily Gaylord, who brought a strong design skillset to the partnership they called Chikmedia.

With about two dozen clients coming aboard in the first few months, including Bueno y Sano, UMass Dining, Papa John’s, ArchitectureEL, Energia Fitness, SkinCatering, and Lioness magazine, they were, frankly, overwhelmed with the early response and realized they had something that was more than a “side hustle,” as Rothschild put it.

Gaylord eventually left the company to pour more of her time and passion into the Center for EcoTechnology, where she works as Communications and Engagement director. Meanwhile, Rothschild was balancing ownership of Chikmedia with a full-time gig at IMPACT Melanoma. A survivor of the disease who had built a national platform for skin-safety advocacy, she was working for IMPACT as Marketing and Public Relations manager when he realized she had to make a choice.

“I spent about four years at IMPACT, and last year, the success of Chikmedia was getting to the point where it wasn’t sustainable — I couldn’t do both. And I felt like Chikmedia was the right path.” Today, she still serves as a spokesperson for IMPACT, which is among Chikmedia’s clients.

As the company has grown its client base, Rothschild said, so has its emphasis on education and training, both one on one with clients and in the community.

“We’ll do a training for anyone. We did one-hour training for a client on Constant Contact; she was new to the software, so she brought me in, and I walked her through,” she recalled. “If you have someone in your office that’s supposed to be managing Instagram and they don’t know how to use it, instead of giving them a month or two months to learn all the intricacies of it, bring us in for an hour, and we’ll educate them on what to do. That way, we’re putting the power back into corporate hands. A lot of people would love for us to manage their social media, but it’s not the most cost-efficient thing as opposed to us coming in and training your staff how to do it.”

“I’m going to start a company whose mission and sole purpose is women lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.”

She also teaches personal branding and social media at Springfield College, calling education a “side passion” alongside marketing and helping firms grow. Often, she takes what she’s done in those classes and packages the material into condensed workshops for clients and other audiences, like a three-part series she recently conducted on navigating one’s personal brand — what it is and why it’s important.

“It’s super relevant,” she said. “Think about social media. Even though universities are starting to adapt, starting to insert it into the curriculum, it’s definitely not a standard part of the curriculum. So I’m helping to fill that void until everyone catches up.”

While teaching, though, she’s often learning — specifically, about each client and industry she takes on.

“Our specialty is learning the industry, and we’re working with everything from financial investment firms to UMass Dining, Dunkin’ Donuts, local spas like SkinCatering and Beauty Batlles, nonprofit organizations, event-planning companies … we’re sort of a mix. I always say to clients, if we don’t know something about this subject matter, we’re going to learn it.”

She tries to be honest with each potential client, too. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘this is what I need,’ and I’ve said, ‘I don’t think we’re the right fit for you; I think you should go to XYZ.’ Or, ‘I don’t think you’re ready for marketing yet; I think you should see a business advisor first.’ We’re not going to put a square peg in a round hole. We want the right fit.”

Fun with a Purpose

In all those efforts, she’s also passionate about keeping the emphasis on making marketing and branding fun. When BusinessWest sat down with Rothschild and Gaylord five years ago, after the launch of Chikmedia, they said if they’re another stressor in a client’s day, they’re not doing their job right. Today, as the sole business owner, Rothschild has not abandoned that philosophy.

“I can be hard to stay true to that because, as an entrepreneur, you’re trying to stay afloat and get all the work done. But I made a promise to myself when I made this a full-time job I was going to continue that path and have fun in everything I do. You spend the majority of your waking hours at work; you’d better enjoy what you do and be passionate about it.”

Ashley Kohl, owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts

Ashley Kohl, owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts, was one of many women business owners show-cased at Chiks’ Night Out.

Part of that sense of fun comes out during the firm’s branded events, such as Chiks’ Night Out event, which took place in Springfield in March to promote the spring line of Addy Elizabeth, a chic clothing boutique.

“All the focus is on women entrepreneurs, so all the models and sponsors are women entrepreneurs. We’re not calling them models, but women business owners. When they walk on runway, we describe their outfit — and their business. So women are learning what women on the runway have to offer them in terms of services.”

Then there’s a bus tour called Chiks’ Day Out, a sort of shopping trip where every stop is a female business.

“That’s how our events are positioned,” Rothschild said. “We want leave them tingling, saying, ‘oh my God, there’s such a need for this — for women to connect in a fun way.’ It creates a sense of community.”

Chikmedia promotes connections through its strong social-media presence as well, on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as its own blog — not to mention its line of branded merchandise, like T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like ‘Boss Chik.’

“I see women wearing our T-shirts, hats, and sunglasses, and I’m not sure if there’s another local firm that has that kind of presence,” she told BusinessWest. “I really am proud of that, how we’ve been able to leverage our own brand to help our clients.”

Besides its core team of four in Western Mass., Rothschild has an intern in Providence, a part-time accountant, and contractors spread out over its service areas, which extend beyond this region into Boston, Cape Cod, Rhode Island, and Charlotte, N.C. In today’s high-tech world, she said, there’s plenty a company can do remotely for clients, although she needs to be in front of them for certain tasks, like running events and producing video content for social media.

And there’s plenty of room for the firm to grow, she noted, adding that its success in its first five years has been a gratifying challenge — in every sense of both words.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t I say I enjoy being my own boss,” she said. “Of course, as an entrepreneur, you say, ‘I’m going to manage my own schedule and take vacations,’ and the reality is you never take vacations. Even when you go on vacation, you’re on the phone. When you’re a business owner, you’re the business. It’s my burden to bear; its not someone else’s. It’s not someone telling me to do something; it’s me being accountable to myself.”

Still, she added, “I love marketing and PR, I love social media, I love writing. Having control of my own company makes me happy, and my team makes me happy — they’re smart, awesome people. I genuinely love what I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Exchange of Ideas

President Carol Leary (right) and other Bay Path leaders

President Carol Leary (right) and other Bay Path leaders with the group of visitors from Jissen Women’s University in Tokyo.

Bay Path University has a long history of forging paths for women to work together, and this year that involved helping students cross oceans and continents to learn from one another.

Six students from Jissen Women’s University in Tokyo, Japan recently ventured to Bay Path to partake in a week of learning, adventure, and cultural interchange as a part of a new hybrid exchange program between the two universities. Bay Path was selected as one of only two U.S. institutions to take part as part of the TEamUP project pairing U.S. and Japanese institutions together to develop a dual hybrid exchange program and Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) course.

During their weeklong stay, students from Jissen were able to visit the Bay Path campus, where they met with students, took in a student theater production, and had tea with Bay Path President Carol Leary. They also visited New York City, Boston, Northampton, the Springfield Museums, LEGO, and Yankee Candle, and ended their trip at the Bay Path Women’s Leadership Conference and a farewell dinner at Red Rose Pizzeria. Next month, students from the American Women’s College (TAWC) at Bay Path will visit Japan.

The program, made possible by support from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, goes beyond international travel and includes student collaboration in an online course that the Japanese and American students will take together, with curriculum to be jointly developed by the partners. This aspect of the program gives these students, in particular the adult non-traditional students of TAWC who may have work commitments or children at home, a chance to experience another culture firsthand.

“This innovative model for international exchange will offer women, who might not otherwise have the opportunity, the ability to participate in a culturally rich and diverse learning experience,” said Veatrice Carabine, deputy chief for Partnership Development at the American Women’s College. “We are grateful for the generous support of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission in supporting this exciting opportunity for our students.”

Advancing the Mission

Advancing the higher education of women and preparing them for leadership roles in their professions and communities is central to the respective missions of TAWC and Jissen Women’s University, and the education this collaboration hopes to provide will extend far beyond their trips. Students will examine values related to women’s moral and ethical leadership in Japan and the U.S., including issues of social justice, diversity, and service to others. Through an experiential learning lab, students will assess leadership styles in these cultural contexts and think critically and creatively about the necessity of vision, trust, and cultural awareness to gain strategic competitive advantages for action in a global world.

“Students will have impactful opportunities to share and exchange global perspectives, compare and contrast women’s roles and leadership, and use technology tools to complete projects across time and space — not to mention develop relationships with Japanese friends.”

“I’m thrilled to partner with the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and Jissen Women’s University to share collaborative, cross-cultural learning experiences to students at the American Women’s College, both through the course content and learning activities, as well as through the travel and hosting opportunities,” said Maura Devlin, deputy chief learning officer at the American Women’s College. “Students will have impactful opportunities to share and exchange global perspectives, compare and contrast women’s roles and leadership, and use technology tools to complete projects across time and space — not to mention develop relationships with Japanese friends.”

In a time of increasing globalization, bringing together women of different ages, backgrounds, and nationalities to learn from one other and equipping them with a greater sense of confidence, leadership, cultural awareness, and connectedness to a global world can be a powerful strategy for empowering women to address the world’s most challenging issues, and that has always been at the heart of Bay Path’s mission, she added. For the students involved, this experience will broaden their understanding of how women’s leadership can be applied to influence organizational change in differing global contexts, as students’ own leadership skills, cultural awareness, and confidence in engaging with others globally are developed.

This article first appeared on the Bay Path University blog; www.baypath.edu/news/bay-path-university-blogs

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