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Women in Businesss

Women in Businesss

Navigating the Process

By Jennifer Sharrow, Esq.


Women- and minority-owned businesses play a vital role in our local economies. They also play a larger role within communities in general — they serve as gathering places, education centers, and inspiration for future generations of entrepreneurs.

But, much like they represent our community, often largely by reason of the makeup of their ownership, they face challenges of historic and continuing discrimination. This can result in issues with access to capital, less favorable terms in negotiating contracts, and challenges finding suitable office or commercial spaces.

Formal certification as a woman- and/or minority-owned business can help alleviate some of those burdens. There are a number of different organizations that provide this certification. The state of Massachusetts has the Supplier Diversity Office; the U.S. Small Business Administration has the 8(a) Business Development Program and the Women-owned Small Business Federal Contract Program; and there are a number of private groups that issue certifications and provide other support, such as the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and the National Minority Supplier Development Council.

Jennifer Sharrow

Jennifer Sharrow

“Our women- and minority-owned businesses are already proud of their accomplishments, and now more than ever they deserve to celebrate their status.”

Getting certified brings new opportunities from federal agencies, state and local governments, and certain large corporations, who often designate a percentage of contracts for certified women- and minority-owned small businesses. Certification may open up access to exclusive networking, training, and educational programs for business owners. Certification may also increase eligibility for loans, grants, and programs specifically designated for certified entrepreneurs, such as management and technical-assistance programs.

All certification programs contain similar requirements, and if you’re an owner looking to get certified, you will want to start gathering information about the business, information about you, and information about the ways that you lead the business.


The Business

This will include standard documentation that the business is legally operating in good standing. Typical documents submitted about the business include formation documents filed with the secretary of State, governing documents such as the bylaws, financial records, and copies of lease agreements and customer contracts.

It is possible for a newly formed business to get certified, and where certain documentation is unavailable, such as tax returns, the certifying program will generally accept replacement documentation or narrative answers about the business operations.


You as an Owner

This will include proof of ownership of the business, such as stock certificates or the operating agreement, showing that the business is at least 51% women- or minority-owned. Additionally, the owner will need to submit personal information in the form of a photo ID, evidence of citizenship, and a résumé.


How You Manage the Business

This is very important. The certifications generally require not just 51% ownership, but also that the women and minority owners exert substantial control over the operations of the business. These aren’t programs for propping up a token leader, but instead for acknowledging those who have had to run their business while jumping over additional hurdles due to their race, gender, ethnicity, or other diverse class status.

Evidence for this often takes the form of answering a series of questions on who has the power to make financial decisions; take charge of bidding, negotiation, and signing of contracts; supervise employees, and manage the office.


What’s Next

Most programs will involve back-and-forth communication with the program certifiers, and for the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, an investigator is assigned after submission of the application for verification and additional information gathering on the business.

Once approved, in addition to taking advantage of the benefits offered through the programs, the certification gives bragging rights. Our women- and minority-owned businesses are already proud of their accomplishments, and now more than ever they deserve to celebrate their status. A formal certification will only further benefit the business, and when they grow, we all reap the rewards.


Jennifer Sharrow is an associate with the law firm Bacon Wilson, P.C. in the Corporate Department, and is licensed to practice law in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Driving Ambition

Alex Balise

Alex Balise


Alex Balise always thought she would get involved in the family business.

She just thought that would happen when she was maybe 40, not in her mid-20s, as things turned out.

But since they did turn out that way (and we’ll go back and explain way later), she is now eight years into what has become an intriguing and wide-ranging career, one that has her engaged in everything from cars — the family business is Balise Motor Sales — to car washes; from two laundromats (one in Springfield and the other on the Cape) to whatever might come next for this 105-year-old enterprise.

Indeed, Balise, 36, representing the fourth generation of the family to assume leadership roles with the company, recently saw her role change, or, to be more precise, expand. While she’s still director of Marketing, she is now also director of Corporate Strategy, which means she will play a large role in helping to shape what might come next.

“I’ve been doing more … projects,” she said, being intentionally vague. “I’ve been very involved in the car washes, and that’s been a rapid expansion, and we’re also looking at some other business opportunities that we haven’t done before.”

While doing that, she is still leading the marketing efforts for the Balise company, which has dealerships in the 413, on the Cape, and in Rhode Island; car washes in Western Mass. and Connecticut; five collision centers; and that aforementioned laundromat in Springfield’s South End.

“We’re doing a lot to highlight our people in the ads recently, and that makes sense. After all, they’re the people who make Balise … Balise. Our teams are who make the difference, so why not have them be the face?”

This a wide-ranging assignment, one that keeps a staff of six (with some help from a few agencies) busy, and includes ad creation, media buying, social media, website content, and determining if, how, and to what degree the company will honor the myriad requests it receives for support from area nonprofits, a difficult assignment because, as she put it, “I can’t think of a single thing that came in that wasn’t a good cause; they’re all good.”

For many years, marketing at Balise was the purview, if you will, of her late uncle Mike, who succumbed to stomach cancer in 2015 and was named a BusinessWest Difference Maker posthumously in 2016. He was the face of the company, she acknowledged, adding that she has resisted any and all efforts to become the new ‘face,’ noting that “I don’t have the personality for it.”

Instead, she has led efforts to make the company’s employees the collective new face, with ads featuring them in many different roles.

“We’re doing a lot to highlight our people in the ads recently, and that makes sense,” she said. “After all, they’re the people who make Balise … Balise. Our teams are who make the difference, so why not have them be the face?”

Meanwhile, she is carrying on her uncle’s tradition of getting involved in the community, especially in the broad realm of education.

Alex Balise is carrying on her uncle Mike Balise’s tradition

Alex Balise is carrying on her uncle Mike Balise’s tradition of buying coats for students at Springfield’s Homer Street School, now the Swan School.

Indeed, just as Mike did for several years, she reads in the classroom for Link to Libraries at the recently opened Swan School, a replacement for Homer Street School, which was sponsored by the Balise company for many years.

She also carries on another of Mike’s traditions — buying winter coats for students at the school — and takes it to another level with some serious shopping for deals, stretching the allotted dollars and using the savings to buy hats and other accessories.

“Costco will have these deals — ‘spend this much and get this much off,’” she explained. “So I’ll buy them in buckets so that we get the most of the discount, and then I’ll use what we saved with the discount to buy the extra things, like hats and gloves. There are definitely some things that Mike started that we’re happy to continue.”

And while doing all that, she’s also raising two young children, son Connor, 5, and daughter Emma, 3. It’s a complicated and delicate balancing act, one that she discussed, along with many other topics, in a wide-ranging interview with BusinessWest for this issue and its focus on women in business.


Drive Time

One of the better perks for those in the auto-sales business — even those in charge of marketing and, now, corporate strategy — is being able to drive a demo.

And for Balise, the car of choice — and there is a lot to choose from in an auto group that sells several different makes — is the Toyota Crown, a sporty hybrid sedan. Yes, a sedan. Even with two young children, she’ll leave the SUVs for others to drive.

“If we have the opportunity to have more focused donations that have a bigger impact on the organizations that we’re helping, that’s the direction we’ve decided to take.”

Although this sedan doesn’t look much like anything else on the road.

“I’ve never had more people ask me, ‘what is that you’re driving?’” she said. “Because it is a little different.”

Balise spends a considerable amount of time in whichever Crown she’s driving at the moment — she doesn’t keep them past 5,000 miles — splitting her days between the 413, Rhode Island, and the Cape. While driving, she’s usually listening to audiobooks (she likes both fiction and nonfiction and is currently ‘rereading’ the Harry Potter books) and thinking about all the many balls she’s keeping in the air at present.

All this wasn’t exactly where she pictured herself at this stage of her life and career, but there have been some, well, unexpected turns.

Like most who grew up around the car business, Balise spent summers and school breaks working in various jobs at dealerships. She recalls working in the parts department, calling customers to tell them their appointments were coming up, and even handling paperwork created by the federal government’s infamous Cash for Clunkers program designed to fuel auto sales in the wake of the Great Recession.

But she wasn’t thinking about making this a career.

Alex Balise meets some residents of the Zoo in Forest Park

Alex Balise meets some residents of the Zoo in Forest Park after the company wrapped a vehicle and donated it to the zoo for its educational programs.

Instead, while earning her undergraduate degree at Colgate University, she was thinking about teaching and then working in the broad realm of education policy.

But she graduated into a tough job market in 2009 and eventually moved to Boston with her husband, Trevor McEwen, who did manage to find work. She eventually secured some herself, working for a student health-insurance brokerage and consulting firm for three and a half years.

She learned a lot about business in that role, but decided she needed to further that education and earned an MBA, with a concentration in marketing, at Babson College. With that degree, she sought work in education consulting and hospital operations, but “couldn’t find anything I loved.”

Meanwhile, Balise Motor Sales was opening another car wash in West Springfield, and her father, Jeb, its CEO, asked her to run some pro formas and work on the project.

“That was really interesting — I didn’t know anything about car washes, so I learned a lot there,” she said, adding that she spent most of her time on the Cape, where the company opened its first such facility.

To make a long story shorter, that learning experience would be the start of her career with the company, she said, adding that she moved on to a different project, the opening of a Kia store in West Springfield in 2016 after the company was awarded that franchise.

And during that project, Balise’s vice president of Marketing retired, and Alex was asked by then-President Bill Peffer to take over that broad realm.

She did, but while doing so, she became a hybrid worker long before that phrase came to be, working at her home in Framingham two or three days a week and driving to West Springfield the others.

“My father didn’t love that idea — he felt that a manager should be in the office every day,” she recalled. “He said, ‘how can I manage these people if I wasn’t there every day?’ But I decided to do it and see if we could make it work. And we did.”


To a Higher Gear

Balise eventually moved back to this area in 2018, putting her further away from the company’s dealerships in Rhode Island and on the Cape, but in a better place overall to oversee marketing for a steadily growing portfolio of auto-related businesses.

And some not auto-related.

Balise said the laundries, operating under the name Love Your Laundry, were her father’s idea, and the Springfield facility, right behind the company’s Mazda dealership, was seen as a way to help the residents of Springfield’s South End.

“It’s not something that we’re planning to blow up and have 25 locations, like the car washes, but if there are opportunities … we’ll see where it goes,” she said, adding that she has plenty of other things on her plate, especially the duties that come with being director of Corporate Strategy.

Whatever the title on the business card might be, Balise said she will always be heavily involved in the community. In fact, opportunities to do so comprised one of the larger reasons why she joined and then stayed with the company.

“I felt I could make a bigger impact through the family business than I could on my own if I worked somewhere else,” she told BusinessWest, adding this impact comes in many different forms.

One of them is playing a lead role in reviewing requests for support from the area’s legion of nonprofits and deciding which directions the Balise company’s philanthropic efforts will take.

It’s a huge responsibility and one she takes quite seriously.

“Having to say no is the worst — it’s tough,” she said, adding quickly that it’s even harder to say no when Balise doesn’t have guidelines for its giving.

So the company — more specifically, her team — created some, addressing everything from areas of focus, such as youth, education, healthcare delivery, and civic and community development, to how to make the most impact.

“In talking about it and in looking at what we’ve supported historically and where we’ve been able to have the biggest impact, we thought we could say yes to $100 for several small donations and have small impacts for some, or … we could refine our guidelines and make sure that, where we’re donating, we have a bigger impact that’s going to have a lasting result in the community.

“So instead of sponsoring a golf tournament or a gala, we want to actually sponsor the new computers or building a new classroom or medical deliveries, as opposed to the 5Ks to raise money. They’re all important, and we need all of those to fundraise, but if we have the opportunity to have more focused donations that have a bigger impact on the organizations that we’re helping, that’s the direction we’ve decided to take.”

Meanwhile, as noted, she is out in the community herself. In addition to reading at Swan School, she’s a corporator at Square One (the company also sponsors a classroom there), and, in the Providence market, she helped wrap presents to be given to patients at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, an initiative that involved many from the company.

While doing all that, she also saves large amounts of time for family, part of the balancing act that is part and parcel of being a woman (and, especially, a manager) in business today.

“It’s a lot, and it’s hard,” Balise acknowledged. “I’m lucky that I have a great team at work, and I have family nearby that can help pick up some days.

“When you have two young kids and you work, there is no balance. Basically, when I’m not working, I’m focused on my kids and my family, and we try to fit in as much as we can and have dinner together.”

Women in Businesss

Growth Spurt

Ashley Batlle calls confidence a “superpower,”

Ashley Batlle calls confidence a “superpower,” and aims to instill more confidence in her clients by making them look and feel better.


Ashley Batlle says she just took a “teenage step.”

That’s different from the baby steps businesses take after they open, in everything from products and services offered to marketing and workforce. She’s been taking those baby steps since opening her beauty and wellness spa, Beauty Batlles, five years ago.

The teenage step was more dramatic (as teenagers often are). It took the form of a physical move from a somewhat hidden space on Front Street in Chicopee to a prominent storefront on nearby Cabot Street — and a much larger floor area to provide new and expanded services.

“We’ve grown with baby steps, and now we just took a huge teenage step to where we’re at right now,” Batlle told BusinessWest. “We’re more of an advanced beauty spa now, and we’ve added a whole wellness section to it.

“That being said, a lot of people don’t understand what advanced beauty is,” she admitted. “It’s a term that I just started using to make my elevator pitch a little easier.”

Perhaps the most notable advanced service is a cryotherapy chamber. Cryotherapy, also known as cold therapy, exposes the body to cold temperatures to heal and treat various medical ailments, she explained.

“Cold helps with inflammation. It helps with circulation. It helps with mood regulating if you have anxiety or if you’re really stressed.”

“Cold helps with inflammation. It helps with circulation. It helps with mood regulating if you have anxiety or if you’re really stressed,” she said. “And there aren’t too many cryo chambers in the area.”

Batlle gave a few examples of people who might benefit from that technology.

“Obviously, athletes are number one when it comes to that. But if you suffer from fibromyalgia, if you have arthritis, any kind of condition that is caused by inflammation, when the pain comes from the inflammation, the cryo chamber would be amazing for you,” she explained. “If you have migraines, we do have localized cryo as well; we have clients that come here just to get a quick treatment to help them when they feel a migraine coming on or if they’re actually suffering through a migraine. We have some clients that are seeing some results with their vertigo. If you have back issues, we have something for you. So everybody can come in for help just getting through the day.”


Taking the Leap

Batlle was licensed as a cosmetologist in 2002, a path she pursued mainly because she didn’t know exactly what career she wanted to pursue after high school, and wanted something she could always fall back on no matter what career choices she made.

“After I went to cosmetology school, I worked at a couple of salons, doing hair, and realized that was not my jam,” she recalled. “So I left the industry for about 14 years. I focused a little bit more in sales — I sold everything from cell phones to cable and solar panels, which was a really great journey because it taught me a lot and led me to where I am now.”

She also worked as a makeup artist in films and television before deciding to open her own business in 2018, first in a tiny space in Holyoke, then, about a year later, in downtown Chicopee.

Beauty Batlles’ new cryotherapy chamber

Beauty Batlles’ new cryotherapy chamber is useful for a range of conditions, from fibromyalgia to arthritis to migraines.

“I started with microblading, which is a semi-permanent tattoo for your eyebrows, which is still a service that I offer. Then, little by little, we became more of a spa, adding more aesthetic-type services. I added lash services and waxing services, and then we added body-sculpting treatments, which help with reducing fat and tightening skin.”

On Front Street, she began adding body-waxing services, facials, and skin-care services, creating more of a spa atmosphere, she explained.

“We offer a lot of advanced-type facials that help with either severe acne or with anti-aging, where you can literally walk out of here looking a few years younger without any kind of surgeries, without any kind of injectables, without any invasive treatments.”

And at the new location on Cabot Street, “we added the wellness aspect to it. We have a lot of big machines that do a lot of really awesome things. They help with pain management, they help with anxiety, they help with stress, they help if you have any issues with sleeping, and they’re great for recovery. They’re not just for athletes; these are also treatments that any person can do to help them with whatever it is that they’re struggling with on a day-to-day basis.”

Finding a larger, more prominent space was necessary for a number of reasons. The business was growing to the point where she needed more staff to serve clients, but didn’t have enough space to house more staff and more clients. “Plus, I was in a space where I wasn’t really in a storefront. I was kind of hiding behind another business.”

“I’m glad I went down the path of wellness. It’s brought me into a whole different world, with all this technology and all of these amazing biohacking tools that I’m able to bring into our community.”

The new location on Cabot Street had been a dance studio with two storefronts, allowing her to reconfigure the interior space to both meet current needs and introduce the new wellness elements, including the cryotherapy chamber.

“I’m glad I went down the path of wellness. It’s brought me into a whole different world, with all this technology and all of these amazing biohacking tools that I’m able to bring into our community,” she said. “And I’m not done with the growth. Like I said, this is my teenage stage. I’m waiting to get to adulthood.”


Community Minded

The growing-up years have been marked by a commitment to community involvement as well, including the fourth annual toy and coat drive, going on through Dec. 21, which Batlle called a “pride and joy” of hers.

New, unused toys collected at Beauty Batlles are donated to children in the foster-care system through the Department of Children and Families (DCF). New, unused coats are donated to Alianza, a domestic-violence shelter in Chicopee, while used coats are donated to Tapestry to support the homeless community.

A newer wrinkle is an “adopt-a-teen” effort for teenagers in the DCF system.

“Because of all the toy drives that are happening everywhere, a lot of the younger children in DCF get toys, and they get to open presents on Christmas morning, and the teenagers just get, like, a $25 gift card because there are no presents that are age-appropriate for them,” Batlle explained. “So I’ve teamed up with DCF, and they give me a list of teenagers that are in the system; we get their name, gender, age, and their wish list, so that they can have some personalized gifts given to them on Christmas morning, just like the little ones.”

Beauty Batlles also just wrapped up a canned-food drive to benefit Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen & Pantry in Chicopee. And in 2020, when the world — and many businesses — were shut down, Batlle launched the Hero Project, collecting funds to provide complementary self-care services for healthcare workers and first responders, which they were able to use when the spa reopened.

“I was sitting at home doing absolutely nothing,” Batlle recalled. “So, I thought, let me put some time and effort into giving back to people who are doing this work.”

Collectively, such efforts simply make her happy.

“There’s something so rewarding about being able to give back … when you have a platform where you’re able to bring awareness to your clientele, and in return be able to give back to people who are less fortunate,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s joyful, and it makes me feel good. I just want to do what I can and use my platform to do it.”

Meanwhile, Batlle continues to promote her new services and treatments, with an eye toward future growth. But at the end of the day, she said, the most gratifying element about her job is making people feel better, in every way.

“My big thing is, if you look good, you feel good. Confidence is a superpower. I feel like you can take on the world if you’re feeling better about yourself,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just an eyebrow wax or being able to make somebody’s aches and pains go away, or just a facial. Sometimes we need a little TLC, and we don’t realize that. But if we make ourselves feel better, then we feel like we can take on the world and do whatever it is that we need to do.”

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Promising Pipeline

Tricia Canavan (far left) and HCC President George Timmons (far right) in the Tech Hub digital classroom with Tech Foundry graduates (and current Tech Hub fellows) Lasharie Weems, Shanice McKenzie, and Anelson Delacruz.

Tricia Canavan (far left) and HCC President George Timmons (far right) in the Tech Hub digital classroom with Tech Foundry graduates (and current Tech Hub fellows) Lasharie Weems, Shanice McKenzie, and Anelson Delacruz.


Tech Foundry was launched in 2014 with a specific goal: to increase the technology workforce in Western Mass. at a time when employers were struggling to attract and retain talent.

“Since then, we’ve grown and really have focused on working with low- to moderate-income people and also people from non-traditional backgrounds who may be underrepresented in the tech sector,” said Tricia Canavan, who came on board as Tech Foundry’s CEO last year.

The nonprofit does so by offering professional development, technical career training, career coaching and internships, and job placement in order to connect people to existing IT opportunities, she added. “We’re very proud of the fact that our alums access living-wage jobs and are on these great career pathways.”

If anything, she noted, the need for Tech Foundry is stronger than ever. Recent studies of the workforce environment in Massachusetts suggest up to 400,000 people need to be attracted, recruited, or reskilled in order to keep business in the Bay State humming at optimal levels — many of those in the broad realm of IT.

“There has been a talent shortage in the tech sector and in other sectors, even pre-pandemic, but since the pandemic, we’ve seen those trends accelerate.”

“We all know that the tech sector is on fire, and there are lots and lots of opportunities for growth, and you don’t always need a college degree to access those things,” Canavan said of Tech Foundry’s innovative model that lets students stack certifications to help them get their foot in the door in IT and then progress up the career ladder.

“There has been a talent shortage in the tech sector and in other sectors, even pre-pandemic, but since the pandemic, we’ve seen those trends accelerate,” she added.

The reasons are varied, from mass retirements of Baby Boomers — which means the departure of much senior and middle management, as well as rank-and-file IT workers, from the workforce — to fewer children in the K-12 pipeline.

“Just by sheer numbers, we have fewer kids that are going to be graduating from high school and entering the workforce and/or going to college — that’s fewer kids to engage as young professionals once they complete their education. Also, some of the forecasts that I’ve seen have upwards of 60,000 young professionals projected to move from Massachusetts,” she added, for reasons ranging from cost of living to a housing shortage.

“It’s sort of this perfect storm of economic conditions that are creating persistent needs in the workforce for workers of all types, but there is absolutely a need for more workers in the tech sector.”

Tricia Canavan says Tech Hub is a way to address the region’s digital divide.

Tricia Canavan says Tech Hub is a way to address the region’s digital divide.

The core, 18-week Tech Foundry program has helped produce more of those workers locally, but the nonprofit is equally excited about its newest initiative, called Tech Hub, a broad collaboration that also includes Holyoke Community College (HCC), the Western Massachusetts Alliance for Digital Equity, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the Accelerate the Future Foundation, Comcast, Google, Bulkley Richardson, and other partners.

“This has been created as part of the Western Mass. Alliance for Digital Equity’s efforts to address digital equity, and the digital divide here in Western Mass.,” Canavan explained. “We, as part of the consortium working on the digital divide in Western Mass., identified an opportunity to be able to support digital-equity efforts while also continuing professional-development training for our staff, students, and alums.”

Located at 206 Maple St. in downtown Holyoke, Tech Hub, which opened to the public on Oct. 26, offers basic and intermediate digital-literacy training, with an eye on enabling people to access jobs of all kinds, not just specifically in IT.

“It starts off as basic as, ‘do you know how to use a mouse? Do you know how to use a trackpad? This is how you get on the internet,’ all the way up to exposure to things like Google Sheets, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Excel, that sort of thing. We want to help people access the basic digital literacy that they need to thrive at work, at school, in healthcare, and connecting to others in the community.”

That’s the first leg of the Tech Hub stool, she explained; the others are providing computers free of charge to eligible people, and providing technical support and one-on-one troubleshooting services to people in the community.

“Everybody probably has someone in their family that uses technology but maybe is not an expert. When they have a problem, where do they go? So we envision providing that support for the community through Tech Hub.”


Confidence Restored

As a single, stay-at-home mother with young boys, Lasharie Weems often felt overwhelmed — particularly when it came to technology.  “My 5-year old was probably more digitally literate than I was,” she said.

The remote instruction her children required during the pandemic proved even more baffling, she added. “My older two sons go to a science and technology school. I struggled to even help them with their homework.”

“We want to help people access the basic digital literacy that they need to thrive at work, at school, in healthcare, and connecting to others in the community.”

After enrolling in Tech Foundry’s free, 18-week program, she said her confidence was restored, and it actually brought her family closer together.

Weems now works for Tech Foundry. She told her story at the grand opening of Tech Hub, where she will be serving as an American Connection Corps fellow.

“Today is an exciting occasion for all of us,” Weems she told the crowd assembled outside Tech Hub’s digital classroom. “But for me, it’s a personal achievement as I celebrate the journey it took to get me here. Tech Hub is my opportunity to pay it forward, to help countless others identify and bridge the gap in digital equity.”

Canavan said connections like that are important.

“What was exciting to us about this project was the ability to expand the impact of Tech Foundry, but we’re also staffing Tech Hub in part with alums of Tech Foundry through a one-year professional digital fellowship program,” she explained. “They work under the guidance of Tech Foundry staff to provide the training and technical support services. In addition, we will have students who will be doing co-op and internship work while they’re in the program.”

From left: Tech Hub fellow Shanice McKenzie, Tech Hub manager Shannon Mumblo

From left: Tech Hub fellow Shanice McKenzie, Tech Hub manager Shannon Mumblo, and Tech Foundry deputy director Michelle Wilson in the Tech Hub digital classroom.

HCC President George Timmons said it was fitting for Tech Hub to be based at the Picknelly Adult & Family Education Center (PAFEC), one of the college’s satellite campuses in the heart of the city, which also houses HCC’s Adult Learning Center as well as other community programs, including the Holyoke High Opportunity Academy, an alternative public high-school program. 

“The mission of Holyoke Community College is to educate, inspire, and connect,” he said. “Through this initiative, we hope to promote access to technology and connectivity, digital literacy, and education, while giving individuals the tools they need to be successful.”

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia agreed, noting that four students who attend the Holyoke High Opportunity Academy at PAFEC have already signed up to be part of the Tech Hub program. 

“I think we can all agree that digital literacy in 2023 is as vital as reading literacy was 50 years ago,” the mayor said. “Whether it’s filling out a job application, communicating with a customer, maintaining accessible records, or even booking a flight, digital fluency is a necessary life skill.

“But the Tech Hub mission recognizes something else: that there exists a digital divide that is the result of inequities in access, opportunity, housing, income, and schooling,” he went on. “The free training and support that will take place at this site and at community partner locations is going to be a liberating game changer.”


Opportunity Knocks

Meanwhile, important work continues at Tech Foundry, Canavan said, and applications for the next cohort of students are open at thetechfoundry.org through December.

“We work very intentionally to engage with the community to get the word out about TechFoundry, and there are a lot of different strategies that we use to do that,” she noted, including social media, referrals from community organizations, and partnering with schools to make students aware that Tech Foundry can be a career-development option for them.

“I think it’s a really good option for people because the training is excellent,” she added. “It’s really an intensive training with a great track record of people accessing employment in the tech sector after they graduate, and it’s at no cost.”

Canavan, who has a deep background in nonprofit management and was also president of a staffing agency, United Personnel, said it’s gratifying to see people come through the Tech Foundry program and improve their lives, and she’s hoping for similar impact from Tech Hub.

“I was eager to return to the nonprofit world after selling my business a couple of years ago and felt very fortunate when this job was open at Tech Foundry. I think it’s a great opportunity for me to use my background in recruiting and staffing and also leverage the workforce and economic-development work that I was doing in that role in the nonprofit world, in partnership with residents and community partners and employers,” she told BusinessWest.

“I love this job because it’s pragmatic and solutions-focused,” she added. “There’s tons of opportunity right now, so how do we work together to help residents of Western Mass. access those opportunities? It’s exciting.”

Women in Businesss

A Leap Well-taken

Meghan Rothschild

Meghan Rothschild says she wanted her firm to inspire and empower women business owners to find their voice.


As her boutique marketing firm celebrates 10 years in business this year, Meghan Rothschild can’t help but recall the doubts that crept in before she made the leap as an entrepreneur.

“I remember as if it were yesterday, the night I had decided to go full-time with the company, lying in bed next to my husband, just in sheer panic,” she recalled. “‘What if it fails? What if I fail?’ I just kept asking him over and over again. And he was like, ‘if you fail, we’ll figure it out, but you have to leap for the net to appear.’”

Even after creating Chikmedia, Rothschild wasn’t sure whether it would remain a side gig alongside her other pursuits. “I never wanted to be a business owner. I remember people asking me, ‘will you ever go full-time with that company you started?’ And I’d be like, ‘no way. I want nothing to do with being responsible for other people’s income, for being responsible for my own revenue. I don’t want the stress of that.’ So … I am amazed.”

To mark the occasion, on Aug. 9, Rothschild and her team celebrated the 10-year anniversary at a party at TAP Sports Bar at MGM Springfield alongside clients, friends, and supporters — a milestone for which she’s grateful.

“I’ve always been a very driven person. I started working when I was 14 years old. I got my own bank account. I paid for my own stuff throughout high school, not because my parents made me, but because I just wanted to be responsible for myself,” she explained. “I put myself through undergrad and graduate school and got my master’s so that I could become a professor because I’m passionate about teaching. So I know I have the drive — but the fact that I’ve been able to successfully run a business for 10 years is still something I’m a little bit in awe of.”

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 2013 with Emily Gaylord, who brought a strong design skillset to the partnership they called Chikmedia.

“ I know I have the drive — but the fact that I’ve been able to successfully run a business for 10 years is still something I’m a little bit in awe of.”

Gaylord eventually left the company to pour more of her time and passion into the Center for EcoTechnology, where she works as director of Communications and Relationship Development. Meanwhile, Rothschild was balancing ownership of Chikmedia with a full-time gig at IMPACT Melanoma. A skin-cancer survivor who had built a national platform for skin-safety advocacy (more on that later), she was working for IMPACT as Marketing and Public Relations manager when she realized she had to make a choice. Today, she knows she made the right one.

At its inception, Chikmedia focused mostly on social media, graphic design, and public relations, but has expanded since. “We’re a full-service, boutique firm. So we do everything,” she said. “We do graphic design, social-media management, PR, expert positioning, media pitching, grand openings, press events. We also do influencer marketing, which is what makes us really unique.”

The firm is sponsored by certain brands in the Western Mass. area and helps produce content to endorse their product lines, she added. “So we’re pretty comprehensive, but we are a small firm.”

In doing so, Chikmedia has won awards from the Telly Awards, the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, and Cosmopolitan. Its mission has always been to help small, women-led businesses thrive through “badass marketing” (Rothschild’s term), public relations, branding, and more.

From left, Chikmedia’s Jax Nash, Liza Kelly, Meghan Rothschild, and Jill Monson

From left, Chikmedia’s Jax Nash, Liza Kelly, Meghan Rothschild, and Jill Monson at the firm’s anniversary party on Aug. 9 at MGM Springfield.

The firm has also helped hundreds of women-owned businesses across the country; provided an annual scholarship called Chiks of the Future for women of color pursuing marketing, PR, and communication degrees; and hosted dozens of networking events over the years to connect female entrepreneurs with one another.

And, clearly, Rothschild isn’t done.


Women Helping Women

While not all Chikmedia clients are female-run companies, the company’s focus on women was important to Rothschild from the outset.

“I wanted to help inspire and empower women business owners to find their voice, learn how to market themselves, learn how to be in front of the camera, and really advance their own business. So that has been a core mission of Chikmedia since its inception.”

As a boutique firm, she explained, clients don’t get one dedicated account manager. “You’re going to get the full team, and you’re going to get customized work. You’re not going to get cookie-cutter templates. Everything we do is very strategic and customized based on who the client is.”

“You might be really good at what you do, but if you’re not good at leading, managing, communicating, setting strategy, and finding vision for your company, the other stuff is going to fall apart.”

In an era when many young entrepreneurs feel they can do their own marketing, Rothschild says it’s more complicated than they may realize.

“Why do you think you can do your own marketing? Because you have an Instagram page? That doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “You need to understand marketing strategy, you need to understand how to craft messages that are going to resonate with your intended audience, you need to understand how to analyze your Google Analytics and your website hits.

“And all of this plays together,” she went on. “You have to really assess your audience, where they are, how to find them, how to communicate effectively to them. So I always say to people, ‘you can try, but I’ll see you in a year.’ And that’s inevitably what ends up happening.”

Part of the challenge is keeping up with the evolution of modern marketing, especially in the realm of social media. A professor of social-media marketing at Springfield College, she said she has to reinvent her syllabus on a regular basis.

“My course content changes every year because some of what I was teaching five years ago is not relevant,” she noted. “I would say social media and digital marketing are probably the biggest ways in which the field has changed.”

But Rothschild brings more than expertise; she brings an attitude that’s unapologetically edgy and even “sassy,” she said, but also one that’s protective of work-life balance.

“We’re really good about setting boundaries and making sure our clients know you can’t text me at 9 o’clock at night and start talking about business,” she explained. “And you can’t make me wait three weeks for content and then expect me to turn something around the next day if I’ve been asking you for stuff. I’ve had a lot of clients say to me, ‘I really appreciate the boundaries that you’ve set and the clear communication that you’ve set.’ And they really like our sassy, creative energy that we bring to the table.”

She said her fight with melanoma age 20 was a factor in her philosophy about balancing work and life, and it’s something she instills in her employees as well.

“When I graduated from college, I immediately didn’t want to work crazy, crazy hours and miss family activities and miss out on milestones of my nieces and nephews. So I really had to find that work-life balance kind of immediately,” she said.

“So that’s another thing that I brought to the table when I started Chikmedia: we’re going to try really hard to be done by noon on Fridays so that people can unplug for the weekend and get ample time to recover. Because, in my opinion, a two-day weekend just doesn’t cut it.”

That policy extends to week-long company shutdowns around July 4 and between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“We’re not allowed to email one another. We’re not allowed to email clients. And clients have learned, we’re unavailable that week — because you have to unplug; you have to give yourself space to recover.”


More Than Skin Deep

Rothschild’s own recovery from skin cancer changed her life going forward in many ways. She spent more than a decade as a melanoma-awareness advocate and became a national spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation before working for IMPACT Melanoma.

“That really shaped a lot of my work and my ability to do PR effectively and be on camera,” she told BusinessWest. “I used to do tons of media interviews with Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire and Inside Edition — these huge, national outlets. So I had to learn really quickly how to be concise, how to get to the point, how to give good sound clips, which are now skills that I get to help my clients hone.”

She still works in skin awareness, including a partnership with TIZO, a national skincare brand with an SPF line. “We do something every year around Melanoma Awareness Month, which is in May. They actually just brought me to a beauty show in Dallas, Texas to give a lecture on my story and how to protect your skin.”

Rothschild is also working with the Melanoma Research Foundation, and one of Chikmedia’s clients is BrightGuard, a sunscreen-dispenser company that provides access to free sunscreen across the country. “So it’s been wonderful to be able to take that work that was so important to me and transition it into the work I do at Chikmedia.”

For aspiring entrepreneurs she meets at colleges, looking for advice in making the jump, Rothschild has some blunt advice.

“It’s not that I discourage them, but I look at them and say, ‘you need to understand that a lot of what is involved in running a business is stuff that you’re not going learn here. You need a few years of real-world work experience in order to be able to do it.’

“That’s the biggest thing that I try to express to my students: ‘I fully support your goals of wanting to be an entrepreneur, but you’re going to do it faster and better if you spend your first two or three years out of college in a full-time job setting, learning what it’s like to work with people, to manage people, to be a leader, learning what’s a P&L, what’s a budget, what’s a fiscal year?’

“You might be really good at what you do, but if you’re not good at leading, managing, communicating, setting strategy, and finding vision for your company, the other stuff is going to fall apart,” she went on. “I can’t tell you how many entrepreneurs I see who are so skilled at the craft and the service they provide. And then they decided to start their own company, and their team’s a mess, they have high turnover, and everybody is disgruntled because they don’t know how to effectively lead.”

Rothschild values her own education in that realm, which includes a master’s degree in corporate communication with a focus on leadership. But even that didn’t prepare her for the emotional weight of running a company and not only generating revenue for herself, but keeping women she cares about employed as well.

“I say to people all the time that you need to be ready to be strapped into a roller coaster full-time. Entrepreneurship is no joke; it is not for the faint of heart. There are extreme highs, and there are some low lows.”

“I say to people all the time that you need to be ready to be strapped into a roller coaster full-time. Entrepreneurship is no joke; it is not for the faint of heart. There are extreme highs, and there are some low lows.”

But the highs keep her going.

“I genuinely love marketing and PR. I don’t know what it is. I mean, there are days where I don’t, and I think to myself, ‘man, I should have gone with marine biology,’” Rothschild said with a laugh. “But I love content creation. I love my team. I love being out in the field … I really do enjoy it, and my team has made it so much fun.”

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Applying Lessons

Founder and CEO Nicole Polite

Founder and CEO Nicole Polite

As the staffing and recruiting company she launched in 2013, the MH Group, celebrates 10 years in business, Nicole Polite explained that her path wasn’t always in the employment world. But she quickly found a passion for it.

After serving as an MP in the Army National Guard, she thought her natural progression would be into law enforcement, as a police officer or a correctional officer.

“My dad was working at Ludlow at the time, so I went to my dad and said, ‘can you give me a job?’ — like all kids do with their parents. And he did just that,” she recalled. “But after I received the job offer, I was having second thoughts. It was third shift; I didn’t want to do that. I was a new mom as well. And it just wasn’t the career path I thought I wanted to take.”

So she shifted gears and landed a job at MassMutual, which was a valuable experience — starting right at the interview process, when the woman who perused her résumé said something that has stuck with Polite to this day.

“She said, ‘you know what? You’re not qualified for the position we have open in my department. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do — I’ll get you the job interview.’ At 23, that was the first time someone told me I wasn’t qualified, but that was good to hear because she was correct. And it really stayed with me.”

It also spurred her to study and prepare rigorously for that interview, and she got the job. “And that led to a 10- or 11-year career. It completely changed my entire life.

“My takeaway from that was that someone sat at a table I was not privy to and put my name forward and granted me the opportunity to have a career that lasted all those years. So that was fuel to my fire, my passion in life. I want to go back and be able to do the same thing for other people.”

“That was fuel to my fire, my passion in life. I want to go back and be able to do the same thing for other people.”

While volunteering at a MassMutual Community Responsibility event at Western New England University, helping high-school students through a Junior Achievement employment-awareness program, Polite (then known as Nicole Griffin) was assigned the task of mentoring a young man and teaching him how to interview for jobs. After two days of career and interview prep work, she invited him back for a mock interview. And he showed up wearing jeans and a baseball cap.

“After the interview, I said, ‘you did a very good job, but you’re not really dressed appropriately for an interview, especially with a baseball cap on.’ And I’ll never forget his response. He said, ‘look, my parents never worked. I don’t even know what that looks like.’ And that was like a dagger to my heart because that was his reality. And I said, right then, ‘I’m going to help people in those situations and see how I can make an impact.’ And it grew, like a burning desire.”

While working at MassMutual as a financial underwriter — providing analysis, sales, and marketing for the company’s products — she became a certified interviewer and started a small nonprofit on the side, called the ABCs of Interviewing. There, she consulted with other nonprofits, companies, and individuals, helping them with interviewing skills.

From there, she made the leap into entrepreneurship, leaving MassMutual in 2013 to open Griffin Staffing Network.

The company would change names twice: the first to ManeHire about five years later. As she told BusinessWest at the time, she wanted a new name that evoked lion imagery. “I like the lion — it represents strength and courage and resilience, and those are some of the key components you need when you’re looking for employment.”

Nicole Polite (top) with Kassaundra Woodall, senior recruiting manager at the MH Group.

Nicole Polite (top) with Kassaundra Woodall, senior recruiting manager at the MH Group.

Today, she still likes the name, but explained why a change to the MH Group was in order. “It was fierce — empowering women. That was the goal of the name with me and my marketing partner when we came up with it. But it lost some of its brand and became a little confusing. People were confusing the name as ‘man hire,’ like a job-ready type of employment firm, and we are the complete opposite; about 70% of our jobs are direct-hire. So we dropped that and just go by the initials, which is the MH Group.”


Getting to the Next Level

The MH Group’s recruiting and staffing work focuses on the nonprofit sector, as well as healthcare, insurance, and manufacturing.

But it does so in a way that ensures that matches stick, and that goes back to Polite’s experience landing that job at MassMutual. For instance, the firm conducts workshops to teach people how to interview for a job.

In addition, “I teach my staff and train them that, when you have someone in front of you, you mentor on the spot. And that’s from entry-level to C-level positions. If you have the opportunity to tell someone about something that could be answered in a better way, or just give them some pointers on their résumé, things to highlight and things not to highlight, just mentor it on the spot.

“And then, in terms of employers, we do a lot of vetting up front. So you’re getting an applicant from the MH Group that has been highly vetted and has had some training as well.”

That’s especially important at a time when employers in most sectors are struggling to attract and retain sufficient talent — which gives job seekers more leverage than normal.

“I have clients that have really met the needs of the applicants and employees. They’ve changed their benefit structures, their PTO time, their flexibility, their hybrid schedules. I would say employers are really trying their best to meet the needs of the workforce.”

“It’s a very competitive market — and the workforce knows that it’s competitive. So they’re asking for things they’ve never asked for before. They’re pushing back in ways they’ve never pushed back before; they’re really going through benefits, medical benefits, with a fine comb to make sure it’s something that is valuable to them and their family structure.

“But I will say my clients are meeting their needs,” she added. “I have clients that have really met the needs of the applicants and employees. They’ve changed their benefit structures, their PTO time, their flexibility, their hybrid schedules. I would say employers are really trying their best to meet the needs of the workforce.”

As part of its 10-year anniversary, Polite is also launching the MH Cares Foundation, which uses the power of mentorship to help underserved populations achieve fulfilling careers.

“Most people in HR and CEOs can understand this: you post a job position, and you have hundreds of applications — and, out of those applications, maybe a few that qualify. And you wonder, ‘why is that? Why do so many people apply for positions that they may not be qualified for?’”

Playing off the saying ‘no child left behind,’ Polite sought to create a program where no job seeker is left behind. So the foundation matches job seekers with mentors, using a curriculum to help that job seeker get to the next level.

“It’s more than just applying for a job. We’re going to put you with a mentor who can actually mentor you through that process, whether it be helping you with your résumé or coaching you on interviewing,” she explained. “And then, the second component is giving you volunteer work within that industry or that field and having you work there so that you can gain some experience. The goal is to make sure that we are meeting job seekers where they’re at and bringing them to the next level.”

The foundation will host a kickoff event this fall, and in the meantime, volunteers who want to be mentors to job seekers can visit www.mhcaresfoundation.org and register to be a volunteer.


Deepening Roots

Polite notes that “a core philosophy for the MH Group is the need for both roots and wings.”

For her, those roots run deep in Springfield, as her great-great-granduncle was Primus Parsons Mason, a Black entrepreneur and real-estate investor who is most well-known as the namesake of the city’s Mason Square neighborhood.

Active in the community, she has served the Greater Springfield region on multiple nonprofit boards, such as the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Dora D. Robinson Women’s Leadership Council, and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission council. She has also served as a business advisor at the Entrepreneurial & Women’s Business Center at the University of Hartford.

MH Group

Nicole Polite says the MH Group name more clearly conveys the firm’s purpose than its former name, ManeHire.

Because of her success to that point, she was selected to BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2014 and then won the magazine’s Continued Excellence Award (now known as the Alumni Achievement Award) in 2017. And she was only getting started.

“This has been extremely gratifying — for one, to take such a huge risk of leaving a very good company with great benefits, great structure, great financial standing, and to launch out into my own business … and then just to still be here for 10 years, is very gratifying,” she said.

The MH Group provides staffing for companies from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., and Polite believes it has the potential for a national reach. But locally, she wants to continue outreach to the community, including partnering with local schools to teach job-readiness training.

“We can reach them at a younger age. Then, one day, I hope this will be a part of the curriculum … because job readiness and career readiness is something that’s taught, but not taught the level it should be.”

Polite told BusinessWest she attended its annual 40 Under Forty event this past June and felt emotional seeing many people her company had helped to find employment.

“That’s very gratifying to see them all really excel within their fields. We have people we placed in entry-level positions that are now in management, vice presidents, heads of corporate compliance. It’s amazing to look back and to see people’s growth.”

She’s also encouraged by the many employer clients who have remained partners since the day she opened her doors.

“That makes my heart extremely happy. They’ve grown into family,” she said. “It’s like a dream sometimes — like, pinch me, I’m dreaming. I didn’t think this dream of mine could grow to where it’s at today.”

Women in Businesss

A Legacy of Caring, Getting Involved


Dora D. Robinson

Dora D. Robinson

It’s been more than 30 years since the incident just outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Springfield, but Nate Johnson says he won’t ever forget what happened that Halloween afternoon.

Or the woman who committed what he described not as an act of kindness, but rather as “heroism.”

A group of teenagers had gathered outside the MLK Center, he recalled, and a fight broke out among them — a “real fight.”

He was in the middle of it, he said, adding that, from seemingly out of nowhere, Dora D. Robinson, the director at the center, grabbed him and pulled him out of the fracas.

To this day, he doesn’t know why she picked him from among all the others. He’s just grateful she did, because that was simply the beginning of her influence on his life.

“She’s my superhero that came to rescue me,” he said, making a point to use the present tense, adding that Robinson, who passed away last month at age 71, essentially “adopted” him at that point and became a mother figure, mentor, inspiration, and someone who helped open doors and compel him to walk through them.

Opening doors and guiding people through them … that might be a concise yet effective way to at least start to sum up a remarkable life and career in public service that included a lengthy stint at the MLK Center, a tenure as president and CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV), and many other leadership roles.

But her passion for serving the community, creating opportunities for others, and battling social injustice continued long after she formally retired, said those who knew and worked with her.

Indeed, Helen Caulton-Harris, commissioner of the Division of Health and Human Services in Springfield, who worked with Robinson on a number of initiatives and was her close friend, remembers that, just a few days before she fell ill, Robinson was working on a maternal health program in Indian Orchard and had called her asking if she would write a support letter so Robinson could secure funding for the initiative.

“Dora started her life in Elmira, New York, but Springfield was her heart and soul,” Caulton-Harris said. “She put everything she had into this community. Her leadership was critical. Even after she retired from her formal job, she still felt her passion to be a leader and to make sure she was creating opportunities and leaving a legacy of supporting nonprofits.”

Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, agreed. She said Robinson chaired one of the committees setting up the agency’s Young Women’s Initiative, one of many endeavors she was passionate about.

“She felt strongly about empowering young women of color,” Haghighat noted, adding that she eventually convinced Robinson to join her board. “What was compelling to her was that this initiative was mentoring young women of color, teaching them about philanthropy, which was very close to her heart. They learned about nonprofits that were doing work in the areas that they identified as barriers to their own prosperity in Springfield. So it was a wonderful way to learn that philanthropy can be a tool of social justice.”

Robinson learned that lesson early on in her career, and one of her many passions, said those we spoke with, was to impart that lesson on others.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we reflect on the life and career of Dora D. Robinson, who certainly was an influential woman in business, with her business being the community she lived and worked in and her tireless efforts to bring about equity and opportunities for everyone.


Passion Play

Born in Elmira, Robinson made a lifetime commitment to social and racial justice starting with her participation in the Poor People’s March on Washington as a teenager in 1968.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, completed graduate studies at Smith College, and earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut.

She put those degrees to use in a number of leadership roles with area nonprofits and on countless boards. She served as vice president of Education at the Urban League of Springfield and corporate director and vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development.

“She understood her responsibility to mentor and nurture and create pathways for future leaders. She understood the need to give young Black individuals, as well as seasoned individuals, an opportunity for growth. She knew she held a unique responsibility to make sure there were others in our community who followed us.”

Starting in 1991, she served as the inaugural leader of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and as a member of the MLK Community Presbyterian Church, and actively supported the Project Mustard Seed campaign to raise funds to build a community center to serve as a place for youth and family in the Mason Square neighborhood to thrive. Nearly two decades later, she had established MLK Jr. Family Services, a multi-service agency with a $3 million operating budget, 75 full- and part-time employees, and more than 100 volunteers with services delivered at three program sites located across Greater Springfield.

Robinson took the helm at the UWPV in 2009 as the first woman to serve as its CEO. Under her leadership, the agency launched several new strategies to diversify revenues contributing to education, homelessness initiatives, basic needs, and financial-security programs. She also led the founding of the UWPV Women’s Leadership Council (now renamed the Dora D. Robinson Women’s Leadership Council in her honor) to engage local women leaders in supporting financial literacy and health initiatives for women and girls.

She retired from the United Way in 2017 but continued to work on passion projects, including the Indian Orchard Citizen’s Council, the Black Behavioral Health Network, and many others.

Over the years, she served in a number of regional, state, and national leadership roles with groups including the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Springfield Library Foundation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston community advisory board, Springfield Technical Community College, and as a founding member of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.

Beyond all these lines on a résumé, Robinson is remembered for her boundless passion for the region and especially its underserved, her sense of humor, as well as her willingness to donate her time, money, and leadership to innumerable causes and organizations in this region and well beyond. She is remembered as a dynamic, forward-thinking administrator who led by example and was able to inspire others.

“As an administrator, Dora Robinson was strategic, and to me, that was one of her greatest strengths,” Caulton-Harris said. “She looked at the lanes of her administration, of her leadership, and she was very strategic about who she interacted with and how she interacted.”

Elaborating, she said Robinson understood the role she played as a Black woman in leadership roles and embraced all that came with it.

“She understood her responsibility to mentor and nurture and create pathways for future leaders. She understood the need to give young Black individuals, as well as seasoned individuals, an opportunity for growth. She knew she held a unique responsibility to make sure there were others in our community who followed us.

“Dora had a spirit that could not be harnessed. She was an explosive force of love everywhere she went; everyone she interacted with felt that generosity of spirit,” Caulton-Harris continued. “I think her legacy is one of warmth, almost like the warmth of the sun — her rays sort of permeated everything she interacted with.”

Johnson concurred, and said that, to him, Robinson was a more than leader in the boardroom. She was a leader on the streets of Springfield — in his case, quite literally.

“I’m thankful and grateful for her,” he said. “She treated me like I was her son. She stayed with me for the past 30 years, and I stayed with her. And she’s still with me.”

Caulton-Harris agreed, and then spoke for everyone who knew Robinson when she said, “frankly, I’m not sure how I move forward without her. I’ll miss her.”


Lasting Legacy

As he talked about Robinson, her legacy, and her influence on him, Nate Johnson said use of the past tense simply won’t cut it.

She remains a large and powerful force in his life and how he lives it, and always will be, he said, adding that the lessons she imparted, the example she set, and her directive to keep reaching higher and find new ways to make the most of his life, while also making a difference in the lives of others, will not only stay with him, but guide him for the rest of his life.

And there are countless people across the region who can, and do, say the same thing.

That’s the kind of impact reserved for superheroes.

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

No Place Like Home


Founder and CEO Sheryl Blancato.

Founder and CEO Sheryl Blancato.


It’s called Homebound to the Rescue.

The idea behind this initiative, one of many launched over the years by Second Chance Animal Services, is that many senior citizens can’t afford to provide basic medical care for their pets or don’t have transportation to bring them to a vet.

What Second Chance does is bring care to the pet owner’s doorstep by visiting low-income senior-housing areas to offer low-cost vaccinations, testing, and other care, so the animals stay healthy and, just as important, don’t have to be surrendered because they can’t be properly cared for.

Then there’s Project Keep Me, which provides temporary housing for the pets of domestic-violence survivors, enabling their owners to seek safe housing arrangements while ensuring the well-being of their animal companions, and later returning them to a more stable environment. Without such a program, people in crisis often have to choose between staying in a dangerous situation and losing their beloved pets.

“Our main focus is what we call surrender prevention. If they have a loving home, we want to keep them there, if at all possible.”

“Maybe your sister can temporarily house you, but she’s got dogs, and you have cats, and the dogs don’t like cats, so you have to find a place for your cats,” said Sheryl Blancato, founder and CEO of Second Chance. “So we’ll take the cats, up to 90 days. It’s a wonderful experience to be able to get those people out. We hope that shelters take the animals as well, but not all shelters do. They just need that transition time, and we need to get them out of that dangerous situation.”

“Keeping families and pets together” is a slogan found on many of Second Chance’s brochures, and for good reason: it’s at the heart of what Blancato and her team do.

Simply put, she founded the organization in 1999 primarily to find homes for homeless animals, but later began providing low-cost medical care and vaccinations, realizing that healthy animals are less likely to be surrendered. And many of the programs that have followed have been with the same goal in mind: not only to help animals find homes, but keep as many as possible from being surrendered at all.

“Our main focus is what we call surrender prevention. If they have a loving home, we want to keep them there, if at all possible,” Blancato said in describing why programs like Homebound are so important. “For those that are on Social Security, retired, on a fixed income, those pets are often their sole daily companion. They’re vital to the health of the senior as well. They provide companionship, they keep your blood pressure down, they stave off loneliness, and with dogs, they walk them, so they get outside and meet people.”

This focus on not only making sure animals have good homes, but also improving quality of life for their owners has seen Second Chance expand its reach dramatically over the past 24 years. From its beginning with $400 in cash and donated land, it now encompasses four hospitals (in North Brookfield, Springfield, Worcester, and Southbridge) and serves about 44,000 animals a year.

Second Chance’s Springfield location

Second Chance’s Springfield location is one of its four community veterinary hospitals.

“There are times I’m like, ‘wow, this is amazing,’” Blancato said. “I’ll sometimes go in a hospital to meet with a manager or something, and I just watch what goes on in the lobby, and I listen. And I think, if I had helped 44,000 animals in my whole career, that would have been great. But to have that be a yearly thing is wonderful.”

For this issue’s focus on women in business, we visited one of those hospitals to sit down with Blancato to talk about the broad work of this nonprofit, why it’s so important, and why more people — and donors — need to know about it.


Bringing Home Buster

At least some of the credit for her long career in animal welfare goes to an escape artist named Buster.

That’s the puppy Blancato — then a single mother of three — adopted during her 20s, following a tough stretch in which her husband left and she battled cancer. And Buster was “ridiculous” at getting out of the yard. So Blancato got to know East Brookfield’s animal-control officer, and they became friends — and he eventually offered her a job as an animal-control assistant. He retired not long after, and she took over his role.

“ I think, if I had helped 44,000 animals in my whole career, that would have been great. But to have that be a yearly thing is wonderful.”

“Once I became an animal-control officer, I picked up a lot of strays that were never claimed. And the struggle I had was getting them homes, getting them medical care, all that stuff,” she recalled. “I worked with no-kill shelters, which were many in Massachusetts, and I would have to hold on to the dog for a few weeks. And I thought, ‘we need a resource here in this community.’”

As it turned out, a neighbor had a plot of land he wasn’t using, and when Blancato approached him, saying she’d like to start a shelter, and asking if he would donate the land, he agreed. By that time, she had adopted another dog, Dusty, who had been abused.

Lindsay Doray says Second Chance not only rescues animals

Lindsay Doray says Second Chance not only rescues animals, many from other parts of the country, but also provides services that allow owners to keep their pets and not have to surrender them in the first place.

“He was the reason this became really important to me, because if I didn’t take him in, what would have happened to this dog? So that was the real kickoff for Second Chance.”

So, while raising three children — and, by that time, two stepchildren — she took that $400, raised whatever else she could, and built the adoption center that still sits on the property today.

“The original intention, when I founded the organization, was that it was for helping homeless pets, but we quickly realized that a lot of animals were being surrendered simply because the people did not have the means to afford veterinary care — something catastrophic happened in their life or to the pet.”

The shelter was offering spay/neuter services and vaccines in the early years, but Blancato realized she could do more to keep pets and families together through expanded veterinary care. The first hospital was built in neighboring North Brookfield in 2010 and expanded to full-service care in 2013, and the other three hospitals followed, giving Second Chance a broad footprint across Central and Western Mass.

“We had to strategically place hospitals because not everybody could get to North Brookfield,” she explained. “We do about 1,500 to 1,700 adoptions a year, but the rest is veterinary — spay/neuter, vaccine clinics, all of our other programs and services.”

Those services also include:

• The Helping Hands outreach, which assisted 76 rescue sites, shelters, and municipal facilities in 2022, providing low-cost spay/neuter and vet care, while accepting homeless pets from other facilities;

• Project Good Dog, which matches behaviorally needy dogs with inmates in pre-release programs at local correctional institutions, providing 24/7 care and training for the dogs while teaching handlers patience, compassion, and responsibility;

• A pet-food pantry that served more than 7,600 pets in 2022, distributing dog and cat food to 25 local human food pantries — again, helping financially struggling families keep their pets;

• Mobile adoption, education, and vet-care events; and much more.

The low-cost veterinary care provided at the hospitals makes a huge difference, longtime Development Manager Lindsay Doray said.

Rescue program brings mobile vet services

Second Chance’s Homebound to the Rescue program brings mobile vet services to seniors where they live.

“Prior to the services that we offer, people weren’t taking their pets to the vets yearly because they couldn’t afford to,” she noted. “Maybe they did the bare minimum and got the rabies vaccine, and that’s it. But when the animal became sick, either they would end up having to surrender the animal, or the animal would go without care.”

Blancato agreed that preventive care is critical.

“If you don’t get regular maintenance on your car, at some point, it breaks down, and then it’s very expensive. The same thing happens with animals,” she said. “A lot of people never go to the vet because of fear of the cost and everything involved. And once we get people in and they see that, ‘oh, this isn’t so bad,’ they understand that bringing them in yearly makes it a lot easier, and they can maintain the health of their pet for a lot less money.”

Second Chance’s services cost more than what clients can pay, so the nonprofit relies heavily on grants, donations, corporate sponsorships, and a few fundraising events each year to make up the difference and keep growing.

Even for adoptions, Doray said, “what we receive in adoption fees only covers about 50% of what we’ve put into the animal medically.”

At the same time, Second Chance is not short-changing its medical team, Blancato said.

“We have the highest quality of staff, and we pay at or above market standards because we want to attract veterinarians to us,” she said, noting that the U.S. is currently dealing with a shortage of between 7,000 and 10,000 veterinarians. Second Chance currently employs nine vets, but needs at least four more to keep up with demand.

“There’s a misnomer out there that, if you work for a nonprofit, we pay far less. And that hasn’t been true for many, many years,” she added. “We have to attract the same talent as any veterinary hospital; I’m competing for the same talent they are. I want the top talent here because I want the best of the care for the animals.”


Lending a Paw

Doray has worked with these animals — and families — long enough to understand the importance of what Second Chance does.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘if people can’t afford an animal, they shouldn’t have one.’ And I say, ‘well, what about your 80-year-old grandmother who loses her husband, and she’s obviously not in the workforce anymore. You think she should have to give up her 15-year-old cat because now that she doesn’t have a spouse, there’s less money in the household?’ They say, ‘well, no, you can help those people.’

“Then I’m like, ‘OK, what about the woman who lost her husband at 45, and they’ve got three kids? Should they also have to give up the family dog because the husband’s gone and the mom now has to go back to work and she’s got three kids to support?’ ‘Well, no, you can help them.’

“‘So, what about a wheelchair-bound person whose dog or cat is their sole daily companion, and they’re not able to get anywhere? Should they have to give one up because they can’t physically work because of whatever injury or disability they have?’ And then they’re like, ‘oh, now I get it.’

“These are real-world situations that happen to people,” Doray continued. “Nobody expects to lose your spouse, but it happens, and you shouldn’t have to lose something else that you care about. Sometimes it’s a very temporary situation where you lose your job, and a year later, you’re back on your feet, and you’re able to pay the full veterinary cost.”

And many Second Chance clients do, indeed, pay full cost.

“Even for them, our rates are still very competitive,” Doray said. “But they also love our vets, and they support our mission, and they know that, by coming to us, they’re helping to subsidize the cost for somebody else, for the 80-year-old woman who just lost her husband and doesn’t want to lose her cat.”

Second Chance operates mobile vaccine clinics across the region.

Second Chance operates mobile vaccine clinics across the region.

Second Chance pushed through the pandemic like all nonprofits did, but those years set back the cause of animal homelessness nationwide by bringing adoption and spay/neuter programs to a temporary standstill.

“In 2019, we were so excited because euthanasia in this country had dropped to a point that I figured, within two years, we would be at zero. Then COVID hit, and it basically flatlined everything for two years,” Blancato said. “Now, we’ve got two to five years to get to zero, when we were so close.

“It’s heartbreaking for all of us in animal welfare, and I know it’s been devastating in the South, because they got used to not having to euthanize for space, and now they’ve had to go back to it. That’s why we want to get as many animals up here as we can and get them homes, and be able to take more.”

Blancato doesn’t envision working more than 10 more years, and said the organization has been structured — with a strong, dedicated team in place — to continue thriving long after that.

And it should — “because the need isn’t going to ever go away,” she said. “There’s always going to be a need to take care of animals, there are always going to be animals that find themselves homeless, there are always going to be people who need veterinary care. So this is very gratifying. But I didn’t do it alone.”

Women in Businesss

Making Workplaces Better

Allison Ebner

Allison Ebner says EANE’s services have become more important in the wake of recent workforce challenges, from retention to legislative compliance.

Looking back, Allison Ebner said she’s had the perfect trajectory to transition into her newest role, as president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

“My background has always been in the third-party services area, working in the staffing industry,” said Ebner, who joined EANE seven years ago. “You get to see so much when you’re in so many different businesses, so many different organizations, across a variety of industries, working with their leadership teams and their human-resource departments.”

Those roles, over the years, included talent agent at FIT Staffing, director of Membership Development at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and vice president of Sales & Marketing at United Personnel Services.

“So I’ve had the opportunity to get to know so many of the businesses that are members of EANE throughout my career,” she added. “And that’s why it’s really fun to be able to step into this position and continue some of the relationships I’ve had with HR professionals and CEOs for a number of years.”

Longtime EANE President Meredith Wise recently announced she will be stepping down at the end of June after 28 years with the organization, the last 21 as president.

“We have the opportunity every day to make 1,050 organizations across the Northeast better, to have a better employee experience. We talk about that here — how we help create exceptional workplaces.”

“I am so proud of our accomplishments and the work we’ve done to continue the 100-plus-year tradition of the association, including expanding our footprint to serve employers in Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as all of Massachusetts,” Wise said. “The depth and breadth of our resources and services has grown to meet the ever-changing needs of our members and employers in the region.”

Ebner joined EANE in 2016 as director of Membership and Partnerships, overseeing the group that is responsible for keeping members with the association and expanding membership, as well as developing relationships with partners who might provide services and support to members.

For example, “we have partners in the payroll space. We have partners in the background-checking space,” she said. “And we fully vet those vendors and bring them to our members if they’re good partners for our members to have and use.”

Last year, Ebner was promoted to vice president of Membership and Partnerships, and later selected by the board to succeed Wise. Linda Olbrys will join the EANE team as the new director of Membership and Partnerships, bringing considerable experience in both human resources and talent acquisition and retention services.

As for Ebner, she brings not just her experience to the president’s chair, but a passion for EANE’s multi-faceted work.

“We are a nonprofit organization that provides amazing resources to these member companies, and we all really believe so strongly in that mission,” she told BusinessWest. “We have the opportunity every day to make 1,050 organizations across the Northeast better, to have a better employee experience. We talk about that here — how we help create exceptional workplaces. That’s really what we do.”


What’s the Pitch?

Ebner jokes that it’s impossible to craft an elevator pitch detailing all the reasons a business should join EANE. An elevator ride of that length simply doesn’t exist. But it helps the discussion, she said, to break its services into three pillars.

The first is membership support, funded by annual dues that are benchmarked to the number of workers a member employs.

“Probably the most popular member benefit we have is access to our employer hotline, which is staffed Monday through Friday from 8 and 5 with seven or eight certified HR professionals. Members can call with compliance questions, employee-relations issues, safety-related issues, best practices, anything around policies, forms … really, anything.”

Last year, the hotline fielded more than 5,000 calls. During the first year of COVID, it took more than 8,000 as companies were suddenly faced with unprecedented challenges.

“When needs arise, people want answers, they need advice, they need resources,” Ebner said. “Our director of Compliance, Mark Adams, was doing weekly Friday webinars with 500, 600 people — it almost crashed our Zoom. Everyone was trying to keep up — ‘well, what are they saying now about compliance? What do we do about testing? Are we allowed to require masks, or not require masks?’ It just got so crazy. And we had to be on top of everything.

“The pandemic was a game changer,” she added. “The hotline was really crazy during that time. And it still remains our most popular member benefit.”

But members also get access to monthly webinars, compensation and salary-benchmarking data, a library of sample forms and policies, and an online resource tool offering performance-management systems, job-description writing tools, and other resources.

“The pandemic was a game changer. The hotline was really crazy during that time.”

The second pillar has to do with HR support services, like employee handbooks, affirmative-action plans, audits, and recruiting services.

“We’ve done a lot of compensation reports for organizations. When you can’t find the talent, the first place people go is, ‘well, what am I paying? Am I paying fair market? How am I benchmarked versus my competition?’ So we’ve done a lot of compensation work over the last few years, during the talent crunch.

“We also use a service called HR Partner, where, if you need an extra hand in HR or you’re missing HR — maybe you’re a small organization, and you don’t have a dedicated HR person, or maybe you lost your HR person to a medical leave — we have a team that will go out and be your HR team,” she explained. “That’s a really nice option for folks, and a very fast-growing part of our business here at EANE.”

The third pillar centers on learning and development, including more than 40 different training programs, both virtually and on site.

“Our learning and development area is very, very strong, and that’s a fast-growing part of our organization,” Ebner said. “We just had a leadership summit with over 500 attendees at the MassMutual Center.

“So, it’s all those resources, the HR services and the training. What I love about EANE is we’re all under one umbrella; members get a discount on all the HR services and training, and then they get all those benefits with their membership dues,” she went on. “Our challenge is shortening that elevator speech. But, in alignment, it all makes sense.”


Growing Footprint

That network of services and resources benefits members of all sizes, she said, and from all across the Northeast; the majority of EANE members are in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, but the organization is growing in Vermont, and it has members in New Hampshire and even Maine as well.

“It’s for a five-person organization that’s looking for support getting started with their HR infrastructure, all the way up to a large healthcare organization here with more than 10,000 employees,” she noted. “The sweet spot for us is that 50- to 300-employee organization.”

No matter what their size or sector, employers of all kinds continue to deal with compliance challenges, from proposed legislation to raise the Massachusetts minimum wage again to recent laws regarding sick time and family leave.

“We’re looking at those challenges from a compliance standpoint, federally and statewide. But I think what’s really changed for organizations is the deal between employers and employees — that currency, that transaction.”

Elaborating, Ebner noted, “pre-pandemic, employers were really in the driver’s seat. The talent crunch was tight, but it was still a very employer-driven economy for the workforce. That has been turned upside down, and it’s turned into an employee-driven marketplace, where employees are making demands. They want more flexibility. They want work-life balance. They want to work differently. They want to work from anywhere.

“That’s where we’ve had to pivot and provide resources to employers so they can sustain their organizations,” she went on. “And a lot of our members are in multiple states, too. So paid family leave in Massachusetts is very different than paid family leave in Connecticut. And if you’ve got a headquarters in Massachusetts, but you’ve got another facility in Connecticut, you have to know everything; you’ve got to know what’s happening in both states, plus federally. We just brought on a new member, and they have remote employees in 22 states, which means you’ve got tax and employment implications in 22 states.”

HR professionals often find it challenging to keep up with all of that on their own, Ebner noted, and that’s if a company even employs an HR team. “So we really try to provide that value, where we keep up with those things so you don’t have to. And we execute on those things that you need to know.”

And while the questions might not be flying the way they were during COVID, the quickly changing nature of business — from compliance to talent retention to strategies for pay and benefits — is a constant.

“It’s challenging, obviously, but it’s gratifying, helping businesses navigate all this,” Ebner said. “That, I think, is our core mission. That’s why we work here.”

Women in Businesss

Changing Tides

The Massachusetts labor force has transformed in recent decades, with some of the biggest changes being the advancement of women, workers getting older and more diverse, and a divergence in labor-force participation rates based on levels of educational achievement.

Those are among the findings in “At a Glance: The Massachusetts Labor Force,” a policy brief written by Aidan Enright and published by Pioneer Institute, with data drawn from the institute’s new laboranalytics.org website.

“Decreasing labor-force participation rates among prime-aged (25-54) men and college-educated individuals may portend future labor shortages,” Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios said.

Nationally, the labor-force participation rate among 25- to 54-year-old men has fallen from 96.2% in 1948 to 88.8% last year.

Massachusetts had nearly 300,000 unfilled jobs in 2021. Inadequate daycare capacity, a mismatch between the skills needed for these jobs and the skills possessed by potential workers, immigration restrictions, and a spike in retirements during the pandemic are among the reasons economists cite for the shortage.

The number of individuals 65 and older in the Massachusetts workforce rose dramatically in recent years, then plateaued and decreased from 2019-21, possibly due to retirements during the pandemic. Overall, the number of older workers more than doubled between 2007 and 2021, from 131,000 to 271,000.

The increase in older workers was particularly notable among women aged 55-64. Between 2007 and 2021, an additional 105,000 women in that age group entered the workforce, compared to 79,000 men.

According to the report, women are likely the reason why New England has a high labor-participation rate compared to other census regions, as women there have a higher rate than in all but one other region. New England men, on the other hand, had the fourth-highest rate out of nine total census regions in 2021.

The pandemic also affected women the most — their employment rate dropped 7.7% compared to 6% for men — even though their recovery from it has been quicker than for men. Women in Massachusetts also had a labor participation rate 4.5% higher in 2021 than women nationally. While men in that age range accounted for 79,000 additional workers to the workforce, women added 105,000.

Among other findings in the report:

• As a higher rate of older individuals remained in the workforce, the number of 16- to 19-year-old workers fell by 40,000 between 2019 and 2021.

• The labor-participation rate among non-whites has been higher than among white workers in every year since 2018. Minorities accounted for 18% of the Massachusetts labor force in 2007, rising to 30% in 2021. The Massachusetts workforce is still less diverse than many other states, but it’s by far the most diverse in New England.

• In New England, Massachusetts ranked second behind New Hampshire with 62.1% of its total population employed in 2021. Previously, the Commonwealth also often ranked behind Connecticut and Vermont.

• Massachusetts saw a notable increase in the size of its workforce between 2016 and 2018 before shrinking during the pandemic. In 2018, the labor-force participation rate reached its highest level since 2007, and the workforce was still larger in 2021 than it had been in 2016.

Without policy intervention, serious structural challenges will remain for the Massachusetts labor force, the report notes. Like the rest of New England, Massachusetts has an older population and will struggle to maintain and grow its labor force as Baby Boomers continue to retire and less-populous younger generations attempt to fill the void they create. This, if left unattended, will create an employment desert. Employers finding it increasingly difficult to hire skilled candidates to fill positions will limit the state’s economic growth potential.

To address these issues, the report continues, the Healey administration and Beacon Hill lawmakers should consider three primary areas that are ripe for reforms and advocacy: expanding daycare capacity and affordability, expanding vocational-technical school programs, and advocating for less-strict high-skill immigration caps.

One of many issues that keep healthy, prime-aged adults sidelined from the labor force is concerns over childcare. Several studies have indicated that affordable childcare increases the number of hours worked by mothers and frees up parents to re-enter the labor force. Nationally, Massachusetts ranks below average in terms of available childcare. One study found that, in 2019, the state was likely more than 30% below demand in terms of available seats. This lack of supply has severely inflated prices; the average parent pays as much as $20,000 a year for an infant and $15,000 for a 4-year-old, ranking Massachusetts near the bottom of all states in affordability.

Separately, many workers remain sidelined as a result of a skills mismatch between them and employers. While there are nearly 300,000 job openings in the state, there remain 140,000 unemployed workers, a ratio of more than two open jobs for every unemployed person. This ratio has largely remained the same since 2021, despite millions of dollars spent on workforce training.

Lastly, and likely most consequentially, the state has suffered from diminished immigration levels due to overly restrictive federal immigration policies. Massachusetts relies heavily on immigrants, as the state would likely have seen significant net outmigration without inflows from immigrants over the last decade. Only recently has the state lost net residents — more than 110,000 since 2019 — due to pandemic-era restrictions on immigration and other compounding factors like remote work and an increased cost of living.

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

From the Grounds Up

Hayley Procon

Hayley Procon entered college with the goal of one day getting into broadcast journalism.

In fact, her ambition was to be the “next Erin Andrews,” as she put it, referencing the well-known sideline reporter for FOX on its NFL broadcasts.

“I loved baseball, and I still love baseball; I just wanted to be on the sideline for the Red Sox,” she told BusinessWest, adding that it wasn’t long after arriving at Suffolk University in Boston that she realized that this wasn’t a realistic, or even desirable, goal.

And upon transferring to Springfield College, she would set a new goal — to be her own boss.

“I definitely didn’t want to work for someone else,” she explained, with a note of extreme confidence in her voice. “I didn’t want to put in the work and put in the effort and see someone else basically reap the benefits; I don’t want to work hard for someone else’s success.”

She kept pursuing that goal and made it reality in what would be called a joint venture with her mother, Kristen Procon. Together, they acquired an established business, Common Grounds, a coffee shop on busy Boston Road in Wilbraham, while she was still in college — a venture for which she would win the Spirit Award from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

“I definitely didn’t want to work for someone else. I didn’t want to put in the work and put in the effort and see someone else basically reap the benefits; I don’t want to work hard for someone else’s success.”

Together, the partners made a few subtle changes, building on an existing foundation, and have built on that success story. While doing so, though, they have taken things to a different level, becoming serial entrepreneurs with the opening of Aura Day Spa in Ludlow, a new venture they have taken from the ground up — as opposed to the grounds up with the coffee shop.

As she talked about these ventures, Procon used many of the words and phrases summoned by others profiled over the years in BusinessWest’s Women in Business sections. She said her work has been fun and rewarding, but also challenging and, at times, a little frightening.

In the end, though, she has no second thoughts about the entrepreneurial path she has chosen because she’s ultimately doing what she set out to do back in college — put her name over the door, figuratively if not literally, and sign the front of the paycheck, not the back.

“I really enjoy it,” she said of the entrepreneur’s life. “There are some days when I wish I did the 9-to-5 and went to work for someone else, but I don’t think I would have been happy in the long run.”


Bean Entrepreneurial

Procon told BusinessWest that she’d been coming to Common Grounds, a popular spot in the back of a large office and retail plaza on Boston Road, when she was in high school.

The business came onto the market in September 2020 — yes, the height of the pandemic — and, despite the many challenges facing all businesses at that time, but especially those in the broad hospitality sector, Hayley and her mother decided to take the plunge.

Haley Procon and her business partner and mother, Kristen Procon

Haley Procon and her business partner and mother, Kristen Procon, have become true serial entrepreneurs, starting with Common Grounds and then opening Aura Day Spa.

“It was COVID, and everything was still pretty weird,” she recalled, using that word to sum up a time when many consumers were still hunkering down, college students like herself (she was just starting her senior year) were mostly taking courses remotely, and those in hospitality were managing day to day. “We found out it was for sale, we walked in, we sat down with the owner, and we bought it a month later.”

As noted earlier, the two partners took the existing, and fairly successful, business and made some minor but important tweaks, including adjustments to the menu, changing some furniture, extending the hours of operation, and, perhaps most importantly, opening on Sundays.

“Sunday is a good coffee day, a good breakfast day,” Procon said. “But overall, this place has been running great, and we wanted to keep the same vibe; we have a lot of great regulars, and we have great work-of-mouth.”

She said the business draws heavily from the plaza it’s located in, as well as the massive Post Office Park, home to a YMCA and dozens of businesses large and small, just down the street.

While she’s managing her own business, this is certainly not what she was thinking about when she was in college and planning and plotting to work for herself one day — and soon.

“I never thought I’d own a coffee shop … I’ve never worked with coffee before, and I figured, ‘how hard can it be?’” Procon asked rhetorically, before answering the question by saying that every business, even an existing one with a core of loyal customers, comes with a complete set of challenges.

“I just loved the idea of having a spa and building from scratch. My hobby is building; I like taking things from the ground up and just expanding from there. Seeing it from start to finish is something I really wanted to do.”

She said the partners split up the duties of running the business, with her mother handling most of the accounting and bookkeeping responsibilities while she tackles marketing, social media, and many of the day-to-day operations.

It’s a juggling act that was taken to a much higher plane when the two decided to double down, if you will, and take entrepreneurial plunge, this time with a new business, a spa they opened in Ludlow last September called Aura Day Spa.

Unlike Common Grounds, this was something that she aspired to do and has been thinking about for some time now.

“A spa has always been a dream of mine,” she said. “And when we realized how well we did with this place [Common Grounds] and how well we worked together, we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘let’s try to open a spa.’

“Neither one of us is in the cosmetology industry; we don’t do any of the services,” she went on. “But I just loved the idea of having a spa and building from scratch. My hobby is building; I like taking things from the ground up and just expanding from there. Seeing it from start to finish is something I really wanted to do.”

Having a dream and making it a reality are two different things, she acknowledged, adding that she did extensive research into everything from where her spa concept might work (Ludlow was quickly identified as a community in need of such a facility) to what types of services should be offered.

“I was all over the internet looking at spas; I went around here looking at spas, and just pieced together how ours would run,” she told BusinessWest. “We have no experience in the industry, but we did our homework, and here we are.”

That due diligence led to a former dance studio on Holyoke Street that the partners gutted and converted to a facility offering everything from facials to massage; body contouring to a sauna.

The venture is off to a solid start that Procon credits to hiring the right people to provide those services, some aggressive efforts to get the word out about the facility, and continued work researching the industry with an eye toward best practices and the best avenues for achieving results.

“I’m always looking at other places — East Coast, West Coast, just seeing what other places are doing and how to stay up to date in the industry and what we can add,” she said. “I just like to stay on top of all that and find new ways to bring people and add more services.”

Procon dares to ponder where this venture might go next and perhaps the possibility of opening several Aura spas. For now, though, she and her mother have their hands more than full managing these two businesses, as well as the ups and downs and emotional swings that are part of parcel to being business owners.

“It’s a grind,” she said, borrowing another term, sort of, from her coffee-shop business. “I love the idea of being a business owner, and everything falls on you at that point; I just knew that this is exactly what I wanted.

“I realize that the more I put into it, the more I’ll get out of it,” she went on. “I’m excited to get to that point — I know it will take a few years, but we’ll get there.”


Skin in the Game

When asked about the path she’s chosen and what she likes about being an entrepreneur, Procon said this life offers her everything she wanted and expected. Well, sort of.

“I like the freedom that it offers,” she explained. “I have very little right now — I’m tied to both of these places for quite a long time, but just being able to show people what we did and what we started and what our goals are, it’s really rewarding, knowing that I’m in here most mornings at 5:30 and then go over to the spa. Some people call me crazy, but it’s very rewarding.”

It is certainly that, and the woman who wanted to be the next Erin Andrews found something much better.


Women in Businesss

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

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]