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Local women entrepreneurs talk about believing in themselves, getting paid last

The 'Risky Business-Woman Entrepreneurs' panel discussion at the WOW- Women of the World Festival Baltimore at Notre Dame University of Maryland. From left, Michele Tsucalas, owner and founder of Michele's Granola; Donna Stevenson, president and CEO, Early Morning Software Inc.; Zuly Gonzalez, CEO and co-founder, Light Point Security; Rosalind Holsey, owner and lead designer, Studio 7 The Salon LLC; and moderator Deborah Tillett, president and executive director, Emerging Technology Centers. (The Daily Record/ Maximilian Franz).

The ‘Risky Business-Woman Entrepreneurs’ panel discussion at the WOW- Women of the World Festival Baltimore at Notre Dame University of Maryland. From left, Michele Tsucalas, owner and founder of Michele’s Granola; Donna Stevenson, president and CEO, Early Morning Software Inc.; Zuly Gonzalez, CEO and co-founder, Light Point Security; Rosalind Holsey, owner and lead designer, Studio 7 The Salon LLC; and moderator Deborah Tillett, president and executive director, Emerging Technology Centers. (The Daily Record/ Maximilian Franz).

Local female entrepreneurs shared their experiences turning an idea into a profitable business, handling failures and staying positive during a panel discuss Friday during the Women of the World Festival at Notre Dame of Maryland University, an event dedicated to celebrating women of Baltimore.

The panelists included Zuly Gonzalez, CEO and co-founder of Light Point Security, a cybersecurity company; Rosalind Holsey, owner and lead designer at Studio 7 The Salon LLC in Baltimore; Michele Tsucalas, owner and founder of Michele’s Granola; and Donna Stevenson, president and CEO of Early Morning Software Inc. The discussion was moderated by Deb Tillett, president and executive director of Emerging Technology Centers.

Taking the plunge

Deciding when to open a business is a complex decision, between knowing when the time is right for the idea to go into the market and assessing costs and family needs. But for Holsey, the idea to open her own salon was a straightforward decision.

After becoming a mother at age 18 and with no hope for financial help from her family, Holsey used her passion for hair styling to feed her family.

“It was about survival,” she said.

Tsucalas opened her own business by turning her hobby, making granola, into a local phenomenon. It started when a friend said Tsucalas’ granola was really tasty and worth selling. Tsucalas made six bags to sell at a farmers’ market; they were purchased immediately. A decade later, Michele’s Granola sells 12,000 pounds a week.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Tsucalas. “I proceeded with caution.”

About 20 years ago, Stevenson pushed her fiance to quit his job so the two of them could launch a software company together. As an African-American woman running a software company, Stevenson is a pioneer in her field, and she hopes Early Morning Software will serve as a role model for other tech companies in the Baltimore market.

“If you follow your dream, there’s no failure in it,” she said.

For Gonzalez, it was a question of whether she was ready to leave her secure job at the National Security Agency to take on the uncertainties of starting a new business. But she also wanted to make a difference and create something on her own.

“I realized, I’m going to regret if I don’t do it,” said Gonzalez.

The first paycheck

Gonzalez and Stevenson didn’t get their first paychecks for the first two years they were in business on their own. Stevenson and her husband managed on one income for three-and-a-half years, while Gonzalez’s first checks were just to cover bills.

“When you say pay yourself, that’s a joke,” said Holsey.

“You’re the last one to get paid,” said Tillett. “Money is a satisfier, not a motivator.”

Developing relationships

“Never take an introduction for granted,” said Stevenson. Her company got its office space through a personal connection.

But networking goes deeper than that initial introduction, panelists said. It’s about maintaining those relationships.

“I sell relationships. Hair is just a bonus for you,” said Holsey.

Access to capital

Statistics show women have more difficulty getting access to capital than. When Tillett asked the panelists about their experiences, Holsey answered immediately.

“Very, very, very hard,” she said. “I had to prove to (the bank) that this is a solid business.”

Getting capital is especially difficult for a software company because it doesn’t have inventory that can be put up for collateral. In Stevenson’s case, she got a loan though Wachovia Bank backed by the Small Business Administration.

Tsucalas self-funded her granola business until she got a loan, five years in, through a microlending program at Whole Foods.

Working for free

When starting a business, or testing a product, entrepreneurs often fall into the trap of offering a product or service for free to loved ones.

Not the WOW panelists.

“Even my mom pays full price for my granola,” said Tsucalas.

Holsey doesn’t cut her family’s hair, reasoning that if friends or family expect free stuff, they don’t value your commitment to your business.

‘What I needed to hear’

Naomi Reetz of Mt. Washington decided to spend her birthday at the WOW festival. As a budding real estate agent, the panelists’ advice was just what she needed to keep perspective.

“It’s not just about the money,” she said, “That’s what I needed to hear today.”

April Smith of Towson came to the panel to learn about the challenges entrepreneurs face. Her dream is to stop her day job and pursue her own business in arts and crafts.

“It was great to see women of color up there,” she said.


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