Maryland is home to many innovative, savvy and powerful female business owners. In this issue of Path to Excellence, you’ll meet several of the women who have started their own successful businesses. Their stories are an inspiration to us all.
Owner, Cool & Associates
It’s not always obvious you’ve struck gold, but for those who have crossed paths with Veronica Cool, it’s obvious. Cool is a corporate finance expert, but that’s not the only thing that makes her special.
“Being a woman, and being Hispanic at a high level in finance is a rarity,” Cool said. “Because of that, unofficially, I became the Hispanic liaison for the Hispanic market. I would be sent all over the country and world to discuss financial topics — some topics of which I didn’t necessarily have the formal background in.”
And that’s when Cool had what she calls her “aha” moment.
“There is a low literacy for businesses trying to reach the Hispanic market. So it occurred to me —why am I giving my services away for free?” she said.
Cool, a native of the Dominican Republic speaks fluent Spanish, and has a formal education in the U.S. After serving the corporate banking world for 20 years, she opened up her consulting firm, Cool & Associates, LLC in 2011. Her main focus: connecting society to the Hispanic market.
“It’s an amazing, unique market that hasn’t been reached,” she said. “Today, there is definitely an increase in awareness of reaching that market, but organizations aren’t dedicating the resources. They think they can just use the intern. It’s not just about awareness; it’s about inclusion. The Hispanic market — we — have a voice and we aren’t being leveraged or considered.”
Cool has spent the last few years helping organizations connect and bridge the gap with the Hispanic market whether it’s tapping into their financial, consumer or voting power.
“I can’t change the world and impact my people by doing it one at a time, it has to be big. We want the Latinos to be heard,” she said.
Her goals don’t end there. Cool sees this as an opportunity to not only make a name for herself as a woman, but as a Hispanic as well.
“My goal is to burst through every ceiling and give access,” she said. “My advice to women? Be fearless. I went to summer camp for entrepreneurs. That was the only time there was a line for the men’s bathroom. That should tell you how many women are in the business.”
A true believer in empowering women, Cool thinks women often undersell themselves — a trait that men typically don’t share.
“Women truly undervalue their expertise. It impacts our ability to scale. Expertise can have a price tag,” she said. “Know your value, know your worth and charge accordingly.”
To spark is to ignite, and for MaryBeth Hyland it’s her job to ignite organizations — to serve as the catalyst to inspire and connect others. As the owner of Sparkvision, Hyland spends her time connecting people based on their passions and what motivates them as individuals.
“That sounds really lofty and big, but when you are involved in creating a greater purpose in your life and in the world, it makes a difference,” she said.
Sparkvision is still in its infancy stage — with just a few months in business — but Hyland’s expertise is well known. As the former director the Emerging Leaders United young professionals group for United Way, Hyland’s job was to get young professionals excited about volunteering. Membership quadrupled in her first year in the position, and a year later, her work became a national best practice model.
“I found out that there was this secret sauce missing — that sense of community and connection,” she said. That secret sauce became the foundation for Sparkvision. Organizations tap into her expertise to invigorate their team, nail down their concept and goals, and map out plans to reach their collective vision.
“So many organizations have goals associated with very quantitative information. ‘We want to raise this much money, we want to have this many clients,’ for example. My goal is to help these organizations look at the qualitative experience of individuals. If you want to create lasting relationships and meaningful connections, you have to invest in people. The individual experience is just as important as the collective experience,” Hyland said.
Using her expansive network, in just a few short months, Sparkvision has grown to seven formal clients, with a long roster of others interested in working with Hyland. But she is taking her new endeavor one day at a time, ensuring she delivers quality work.
For other women who have the entrepreneurial itch, Hyland encourages them to trust themselves and take the leap.
“Women typically want to wait until everything is perfectly aligned. We want everything to be ready — but it’s impossible for everything to be ready,” she said. “That’s why it’s about trusting yourself and taking the leap. There’s never going to be the perfect time to do it, and it’s never going to happen if you don’t try. Own your own gifts — everyone’s super power is being themselves.
Owner, Mountain City Arts LLC
The saying to always trust your gut is something that most tend to ignore. Ignoring her gut was especially true for Coty Warn.
Warn grew up in the small town of Frostburg and couldn’t wait to leave after graduating college. She traveled the country and world perfecting her performing arts craft, working with some of the most well-known teachers in the industry, including Anthony Meindl in Los Angeles. It was when her work brought her to Pittsburgh where everything changed.
While working at the Richard E. Rauh Conservatory, a colleague needed coverage for a class they were teaching. Warn agreed to cover the class and also began teaching on her own. She stayed in Pittsburgh for another couple years. Teaching, she said, awakened something in her that she never thought she would enjoy.
Warn eventually moved to Los Angeles, but while there, she felt like something was missing.
“When I was in LA, I kept coming back to the happiest I was while teaching at the Conservatory,” she said.
After a visit with family back in her hometown, she finally listened to her gut. She was going to open her own studio, giving rural students the access to a formal education and training in the arts. Once Warn got the idea in her head, she was relentless. Luck was also on her side.
“There was a bank building for rent, so we checked it out and it had these gorgeous marble floors with a city vibe to it,” she said. “They offered us the opportunity to try it out for a year to see how we do. Most banks require at least five years.”
Warn pulled together her business proposal, all of the financial paperwork, and within a week, she was approved for a loan to start Mountain City Arts LLC.
When the center opened in 2013, Warn and her staff started with a roster of 50 students. Today, the studio’s roster has grown to 300. The growth hasn’t been easy. Warn faced a number of naysayers who didn’t think her studio would be successful. The biggest naysayer was Warn.
“I needed to get out of my own way. I had so many reasons why it wouldn’t work,” she said.
But ignoring her negative thoughts was what made Warn so successful.
“There were many times where I could have said this is too hard. I had to do a lot of soul searching, deep breathing and meditation to get through the process. Even now, I scratch my head at times wondering why I am doing this,” Warn said. “But then I see a student who never talked when they first came to us, who is now performing on stage.
This is absolutely worth every deep breath I needed to take.”
Her advice for other women looking to take the entrepreneurial leap: trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
“I have made more mistakes than anyone. At the time, they seemed detrimental, but you have to keep making mistakes to keep learning,” Warn said. “If you believe in something, you need to do it.”
Owner, KDA, K. Dixon Architecture
With a little planning, and hard work, anyone can succeed. That’s what Kathy Dixon believes, and that’s exactly what she did to start her own architecture firm, K. Dixon Architecture.
Dixon always knew she wanted to start her own architecture firm, and since college has been laying the groundwork to get there.
“It really was just a matter of when. I founded my company in 2003, but I was still working for other companies while doing my own work at night. It wasn’t until 2010 that I started working for myself,” she said.
Dixon also always knew she wanted to be an architect. As a kid, she enjoyed drawing and was good at math, and according to her, was very aware of space and environments.
“My father was also an architect. I didn’t fully understand what he did exactly, but we would visit model homes after church on the weekends, and I loved it,” she said.
Since working on her own, her project portfolio has steadily grown —even despite the recession, which made competition tough.
“The work that small firms typically go after were also being targeted by the larger firms. So that meant more competition for projects we’d typically win,” Dixon said.
Her hard work and talent won, however, and her company is even looking to grow. In addition to looking to expand beyond the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia market, Dixon hopes to tap into other markets and is in talks to acquire another firm.
As a woman succeeding in a male-dominated profession, Dixon hopes that she has helped open the doors for other women, and not just in the architecture industry.
“The architecture profession isn’t necessarily known for its equality. I try to do my part to help women navigate and be more successful in the workplace. I hope the conversation continues and that men continue to be a part of that conversation as well,” she said. “Having the confidence, and doing a little homework — establishing the things to help get you started — ensures that you can be successful.”
Owner, The Verve Partnership
Many companies don’t take their physical space into account when thinking about their image and brand. But physical space can invoke certain feelings, and can make or break relationships and the success of a company. That’s where Kelly Ennis, managing principal of The Verve Partnership comes in.
Ennis, a 20-year veteran in the architecture industry, founded Verve on the premise that harnessing space is a tool to support brand and culture.
“When I worked in Los Angeles, it was an amazing difference in how brands supported the culture of an organization, with a huge focus on space. When I moved back East, there wasn’t a focus on the space. I was cutting my teeth having these conversations. We see space as a business tool, not just aesthetics,” she said.
So in 2009, Ennis founded her company based on those principles and how design can help that. She and her staff of 12 (all women, with the exception of the recent hiring of her chief growth officer), serve as consultants for businesses looking to ensure their space matches their brand goals. Now, she is looking to determine how her own company should and could grow, including the addition of vertical markets.
Ennis and her company are responsible for some of the area’s coolest spaces, including one she is most proud: Betamore, Baltimore’s hub for technology and entrepreneurs. The space, located in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, embodies what the organization stands for: community, collaboration, innovation and relationships. Chalkboards align the office walls, while the space is open and airy with planted pots and a rustic feel. There’s also no shortage of places to have meetings.
“The Betamore project imbues everything that we stand for — how to design a space that is based around fostering community. It comes back to my heart and soul. The space aligns well with the mission of the organization,” Ennis said.
In an industry where men dominate, Ennis is changing the way in which businesses look at their space, and possibly changing the industry as a whole. She credits much of her success to her support network, including her husband, children and parents, and encourages other women to build a support network of their own.
“Women can do anything men can do. We are human beings. We just need to be given the opportunity and rise to the occasion and not falter,” she said. “It’s really about setting goals and achieving them.”
Gayle Economos, Owner
GVE Public Relations
Gayle Economos is a household name in the Baltimore broadcasting industry. For more than 20 years, Economos worked as a broadcaster in the area’s largest television and radio stations, including WBAL, WJZ, Maryland Public Television and WYPR public radio.
Looking for something new, she turned from hack to flack and became the communications director for Catholic Charities. But after a few years, the position was eliminated.
“That was the gift I needed to start my own thing,” Economos said. “I wanted a new challenge. I loved TV and radio, and I’ve been drawn to jobs where I have a lot of autonomy. I knew I always wanted to be my own boss.”
Economos started GVE, named after her initials and as a memento of good luck from her father who would leave her and her siblings notes with their initials on them.
Despite having more than 20 years of communications experience and a network of media at her fingertips, Economos still had setbacks along the way.
“I was all over the place — I didn’t have a real focus. So, I sat down with brainstorm facilitators to determine what that focus should be.”
Economos’ true business was born, and GVE served as the public relations, marketing and media relations resource for the nonprofit community.
Since starting in 1995, Economos has worked for a number of organizations. While she enjoys working with all of her clients, there are some that mean a lot to her, such as the Baltimore CASH campaign — a program that prepares taxes for low income families, for free.
“They help 10,000 families a year. It’s a joy to help get the word out for people who are preyed upon,” she said.
Economos also serves as chair to the Baltimore Public Relations Council and is an adjunct professor of communications at Goucher College, her alma mater. Networking is very important to her, and she believes it is a key factor to her success. For women entrepreneurs, Economos says, it’s important to work together and develop a network.
“Women need to stick together. Women have a lot of power and more importantly, power in numbers,” she said.
Ali von Paris
Founder & CEO, Route One Apparel
Ali von Paris was a first generation college student in 2010 working at a bar to pay her way through the University of Maryland, College Park. The bar, the Thirsty Turtle, closed abruptly due to underage drinking citations.
“I was completely devastated,” said von Paris, who was a junior at the time.
After the bar’s closure, von Paris noticed a following growing on Facebook of former patrons. Having a knack for design, she created and marketed a T-shirt with the text,
“Turtle Survivor. Barely Remembered. Never Forgotten.”
Unable to keep up with the orders for the shirt, she launched Route One Apparel and a website to keep track of what grew to 5,000 requests.
Overnight, she made $12,000 — and had a real business on her hands.
She then expanded into University of Maryland and Maryland-centric gear that now includes shirts, accessories, purses, bathing suits and even pet gear.
The product that she said really took her business to the next level was a Maryland flag bikini.
“Nobody ever saw a Maryland flag on anything, let alone a bikini,” von Paris said.
Collectively, she has launched more than 1,000 products, and her products are sold on her Route One Apparel website as well as in more than 40 wholesale locations.
The now 25-year-old said when she was a student, school was her No. 1 priority. After graduating in 2012, the business “exploded.”
She now has four full-time employees along with temporary staff that work during peak times. That does not include the designers, sales representatives and others who work on a freelance basis.
“We’ve never ever suffered a loss,” von Paris said. “That’s something that is crazy.”
In December alone she shipped more than 4,000 orders, with each order averaging between $30 and $60.
Still, she says, she has had her share of challenges.
“It’s crazy to me how much different it is for women in business, especially in the apparel industry,” von Paris said.
A T-shirt supplier for example, refused for a while to believe she was the company’s owner.
“He thought owner didn’t want to talk to him,” she said.
Despite those challenges, von Paris, has big plans for expansion.
She said in January she planned to begin launching products that are focused on states other than Maryland, with plans in the works eventually to expand along the East Coast.
“I’m staying super busy with just Maryland, but I know it’s time to spread our wings,” she said.