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From Second Career To Just Starting Out, Local Women In Business Cultivate Success As Entrepreneurs

Articles by Business Journal Senior Writer Tiffany Rider;

Photographs by the Business Journal’s Thomas McConville

May 07, 2013 - As the number of women-owned businesses grows across the country, female entrepreneurs are opening up shop in Long Beach, expanding existing operations and focusing on growth.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Ownership Act, allowing women to get a loan without a male cosigner and full reporting of the economic impact of women-owned businesses. Today, in addition to U.S. Census data, the business division of American Express, American Express OPEN, is three years into its now annual State of Women-Owned Business Report.

The most recent report, released last month, offers a summary of trends happening across the nation since 1997. Two important factors are revealed: the number of women-owned firms continues to grow, particularly among women of color; and the economic contributions those businesses make to the country is on the rise.

As of 2013, there are approximately 8.6 million women-owned firms nationwide, employing above 7.8 million people and generating more than $1.3 trillion in revenues, according to the report. From 1997 to today, the number of women-owned businesses is growing at 1.5 times the national average. And one in three of these firms are owned by women of color, a significant increase from just 17 percent in 1997.

Industry trends highlighted by American Express OPEN reveal that the sectors with the highest concentration of women-owned firms are education services, administration and waste services, and healthcare and social assistance. These sectors are also experiencing the fastest growth in the number of women-owned firms over the past 11 years.

In an effort to better support women business owners, American Express OPEN partnered with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and Women Impacting Public Policy last month to launch ChallengeHER, a campaign leveraging the three entities’ resources to promote the nation’s women-owned small business federal contract program.

“A robust supply chain of innovative small businesses makes our country more globally competitive, encourages more corporations to bring production back to the U.S., and helps create jobs here at home,” Marie Johns, deputy administrator of the SBA, wrote in a blog post on the SBA website. “Our goal, and the goal of the ChallengeHER Campaign, is to ensure that women-owned small businesses across the country have the access and opportunity they need to succeed.”

While there may be a few women-owned small businesses in Long Beach seeking federal contracts – see Patricia Watts’ story below as an example – the fact is the government, non-profits and big business are taking the time to recognize and support women business owners. We at the Business Journal recognize the following women and their contributions to the greater Long Beach economy.

View All Ten Profiles:


Laura Gonzalez
Ambiance Skin Care Salon

3946 E. 4th St., Long Beach

Owner Laura Gonzalez took a leap of faith when she opened Ambiance Skin Care Salon in a vacant retail complex on 4th Street in December 2001. Her investment activated the space and Ambiance has become an anchor tenant in the recently fully occupied building.



Gonzalez wasn’t always in skin care. Her first career was in finance, working as an operations officer for a small, independent bank near where she grew up in Corona. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) shut down the bank, and so the company reopened under a new name. This happened several times during her employment, a sign to Gonzalez that it was time to move onto something else. So, in her thirties, Gonzalez quit her job and went to beauty school.

As soon as she earned her license, Gonzalez moved to Long Beach and began working at a spa. She moved up to management and soon realized it was time for her to go into business for herself. Finding a small, 600-square-foot store on 4th Street, she decided it was the place to start her salon. The business eventually outgrew the store, so when two spaces opened up next door, Gonzalez expanded the salon into what is today’s 2,000-square-foot location.

The retail complex is full and the neighborhood has grown. “Since I’ve moved in, it’s been great that our neighbors have come together as a group,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve even had neighbors thank me for moving in because we did such a good job [activating the space].”

Ambiance offers massage, airbrush tanning, body treatments, facials, manicures, pedicures and waxing for men and women. The spa carries its own makeup line as well as lotions, scrubs, slippers and gifts.

Gonzalez said the space is available to rent out for bachelorette parties and other events. Ambiance also gives back to the community, donating a percentage of what parents spend at the salon to the Belmont Heights Church Preschool.

“Our business grows on referrals,” Gonzalez said. “We give $20 gift cards out to referrals. We also do Facebook promotions daily. If we have openings, we give a discount. And each week we have one item on sale that is featured on Facebook.” Though the economic downtown was a challenge, Gonzalez said numbers are up this year. “We’re finally feeling like we’re getting ahead again,” she said.

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Hend Elarabi
ASHA Moroccan And The Greenhouse

149 Linden Ave., Suites C & E, Long Beach

Hend Elarabi always knew she wanted to be her own boss, and her experience in the restaurant industry helped her do just that.



Elarabi was born in Morocco. She moved with her family from North Africa to Studio City in 1990. From Studio City she went directly to Long Beach, moving here to go to Wilson High School 15 years ago. That’s when she got a job working for Open Sesame Mediterranean Grill. “I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 16, working as a bus girl to serving to making sandwiches,” Elarabi said. “I started from the bottom and worked my way up. It put me through high school and college.”

Elarabi attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and studied business marketing and fashion merchandising. At the time she graduated she moved into management, learning more about the inner workings and business flow of a restaurant operation. “Having been with them for so long, they gave me tons of experience to be where I am today,” Elarabi said.

Today she is the owner of two restaurants: The Greenhouse, a natural, organic coffeehouse opened in November 2011; and ASHA, a Moroccan restaurant in the same building, which she opened within six months of each other. Elarabi has about 15 people working at each restaurant and said managing 30 employees is a challenge.

“I deal with 30 different personalities, and it is a challenge to accommodate all 30 people,” Elarabi said. “I deal with everyone from the baristas to the servers,” Elarabi said. “It’s tough finding the right employees, getting them properly trained and then having to re-staff again.” The biggest challenge, however, is finding dedicated employees. “We are in a service-based industry, and they are part-time,” she said. “They give very little of themselves to their job.”

Looking forward, Elarabi is focused on growing and developing both restaurant brands in preparation for expansion in about two years. She hopes to go beyond Long Beach, preferably into Los Angeles.

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Cindy Atkinson
Coffee Cup Café

3734 E. 4th St., Long Beach

Cindy Atkinson is a foodie. While a waitress in her youth, she fell in love with the restaurant business.



“I love food and I always have,” Atkinson said. She worked at several different types of restaurants before realizing that she wanted to open her own breakfast and lunch eatery. “I felt like I could do it; it wasn’t a problem,” she said. Atkinson said she spent a good 10 years thinking about opening the restaurant, finally doing so at age 36.

She and her late husband, Tom, bought the property on 4th Street in Long Beach and opened Coffee Cup Café 18 years ago this month.

The idea behind Coffee Cup Café was to appeal to two markets – both meat eaters and vegetarians. Atkinson’s favorite dish on the menu is a vegetarian scramble. “We also have a lot of good Mexican food on the menu,” she said.

This was Atkinson and Tom’s first restaurant; they later opened O’Malley’s in Seal Beach and bought that building as well. Tom passed away seven years ago from a brain tumor, and Atkinson has since sold the Seal Beach property.

On any given morning, Coffee Cup Café has a line out the door. “It kind of surprises me how long people will wait to eat here,” she said. Because she owns the building for Coffee Cup Café, she was able to take over one of the stores next door and expand. She completed that project in one week last August. “That was a really big endeavor,” she said, noting the project included expanding seating capacity, adding new tables and chairs and new flooring.

Atkinson has 19 employees at Coffee Cup Café and is looking to hire another. “At different restaurants where I’ve worked, you go through peaks and valleys,” she said. “Mine hasn’t. . . . We are staying super busy and we get a lot of good ratings on Yelp and TripAdvisor and sites like those.” She has even had the opportunity to expand, opening Café Cup in Huntington Beach with two of her friends just last year. Atkinson said her focus now is understanding where the restaurant market is going and staying creative.

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Patricia Watts
FCI Management Consultants

3850 E. Gilman St., Long Beach

Patricia Watts’ passion for creating jobs comes working in a post-retirement career heading up an energy consulting firm in Long Beach.



After 22 years working for Southern California Edison (SCE), Watts took a voluntary retirement offer and began searching for something to do on her own as a consultant. “I started the company to bring back retirees to work at Southern California Edison,” she said. “It just sort of came to me as more of an epiphany that there was a need to bring some of those retirees back to work at Edison. So we did.”

Watts started FCI Management, Inc. in 1999, focusing the business in transmission distribution for SCE, hiring service planners and engineering consultants. Two years later, amidst a statewide energy crisis, Watts had the foresight to get involved in energy efficiency. The energy efficiency space continued to grow and offer opportunities for FCI to continue to do business, Watts said. “Our company growth spurt really happened when we built our competency in energy efficiency,” she said.

After the energy crisis, FCI started getting contracts to do energy audits, which led to contracts for turnkey energy efficiency work. “We do the energy audit, make a recommendation to the customer, actually install the energy efficient equipment and then go back and inspect it,” Watts said. FCI has held a contract with SCE as the company’s small business direct install contractor for the City of Long Beach since 2006.

In addition to SCE, FCI has done work for San Diego Gas & Electric, AEG and U.S. Bank. The business has an office in New York through which Watts has worked with contractors on programs for Con Edison. Fourteen years into her work for FCI, Watts said she is as passionate about creating jobs as ever. The company continues to develop new strategies for growth.

The company’s success is dependent on funding for projects and programs. FCI is currently working with national companies in banking and retail to do energy efficiency retrofits, and is preparing to get involved in federal contracting. Over the past three years, annual revenue has been roughly $15 million, Watts said. “Our goal is in five years to be a $100 million company.”

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Karen Widerynski
Foot Solutions

1811 Ximeno Ave., Long Beach

Karen Widerynski’s background in public health led her to start her own company and work with people in her community to keep them healthy.



Widerynski, who holds a bachelor’s degree in physiology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in public heath from the University of New Orleans Tulane School of Public Health, started out in business development and marketing for hospitals and health systems across the country. She moved to Long Beach in 1989 when she got married. Though she still traveled, Widerynski started a family and planted roots in Belmont Shore. But after 9/11, Widerynski decided she wanted to travel less.

“Every little trip was horrible,” she said. “I really did not want to do that anymore with a child.” In 2003, Widerynski decided to go into business for herself and started Foot Solutions. The company offers a “healthier approach to shoe fitting” using foot anatomy to find the right shoe for the right person. Widernyski has made strategic changes to her business over the years, including bolstering the retail side by offering more fashionable, comfortable men’s and women’s shoes.

Today Widerynski has two full-time employees and one part-time employee. Revenues have been down she said, and so the business has been just covering costs. “It has been a financial challenge,” Widerynski said. “The most difficult thing as a business owner is that there is not a lot of access to capital. It’s been hard to get the money we need to move forward. But we will muddle through. Certainly this year and next we will get the revenue that we lost.”

What keeps Widerynski motivated? “Every week we have someone come in and thank us,” she said. “That is really rewarding. The irony of having a public health degree and doing this is kind of fun. We are keeping people healthy and more active.

“With the ACA [Affordable Care Act], there will be more pressure on people to stay healthy. So some accountability for your own health and staying active will be increasingly emphasized as the new model comes into play. We are in the right place to be a part of that. We work with chiropractors and other physicians in Long Beach.”

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Wendy Hatch
Hatch and Associates

249 E. Ocean Blvd., Ste. 210, Long Beach

As a young girl, Wendy Hatch would go to homes with her father and go on “scavenger hunts,” looking for valuable property and money hidden in sock drawers, old books, trash bags and other obscure locations. These were homes of her father’s clients – homes of folks who had either died or were no longer able to manage their estates.



He had been in trust work with a bank, Hatch said, and upon retirement he began to help a neighbor who had dementia. Thus began Hatch and Associates, a fiduciary business established in 1984. Two years later, Hatch started doing relief work for her father as a fiduciary, or a person in position of trust working under the probate code. She moved to Long Beach in 1989.

“By the time most of our clients get to us, they are not in their right minds,” Hatch said. “We have to find out where everything is and understand them.” By 2007, Hatch had begun signing client leases and having her name added to the accounts. Her father retired in February this year.

Hatch has a staff of two, who have been with her for 10 and 15 years respectively. Each has completed a certificate program for fiduciary work and both will soon be certified with the state just like Hatch. She manages about 25 cases worth approximately $31 million. Fiduciaries are paid through a person’s estate or trust for management services.

Hatch’s favorite part of her job is that she gets to learn something new every day. “We need to know just about everything, from nursing homes to in-home health,” she said. “You can never stop learning in this position.”

The court system remains a challenge for the business as the state is closing up all of the district courts for probate. That means fiduciaries like Hatch must commute to Downtown Los Angeles. In addition, the courts are so backed up that it takes 60 to 90 days to get in front of a judge, Hatch said. “The number of cases is getting higher and the court days are lengthening,” she said. “It’s tough on our seniors because they are being victimized. The economy is tough and our seniors are the most vulnerable.”

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Valerie Johnson
NOVA Graphic Services

1426 E. 33rd St., Signal Hill

Like so many others who have started their own business, Valerie Johnson decided after years of working for other people it would be “fun” to go out on her own.



Johnson was born and raised in Long Beach. She moved away after graduating from Scripps University with a degree in fine art, specifically drawing and painting, and was soon operating a typesetting and graphics department in New Jersey. Johnson held that post for seven years before deciding to move back to Long Beach to be with her family and start her own business. She quickly launched Nova Graphic Services in January 1986.

“I wanted to offer some decent design options to smaller companies that, at least when I started the business, didn’t have those options,” Johnson said. Nova Graphic Services offers logo design, basic type setting and graphic design for printing presses for small- to mid-sized businesses. She does some in-house large format posters and tradeshow displays using in-office lamination and mounting equipment, and also brokers printing with partners in the area.

Technology has changed tremendously in the printing industry as more businesses today have desktop computers, laptops or tablets with built-in platforms for creating designs. People are using them to do their own, Johnson said. “The technology has been a challenge for us because a lot of times people are working in programs that are not conducive to a printed product,” she said. Nova designs are created using programs like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

Part of that challenge with technology is keeping up with social media, marketing the company through a Facebook page and other platforms. “Finding the time to learn it is a challenge,” Johnson said. “As long as I want to keep this business, I need to be playing the same game as everyone else.”

The slow economy and other factors led her to downsize the number of employess. Today she has one employee who has been with the company for 20 years, whom Johnson recently decided to split the business with. That’s great for Johnson, she said, because she gets to be more involved with design work than management. “Now I have the luxury to do the work that I love to do, and it’s fun,” she said.

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Michelle Baker
ProStaff Search

5030 E. 2nd St., Ste. 206, Long Beach

After a successful career working for a global staffing firm for a decade, Michelle Baker decided to open her own staffing agency in Long Beach focused on community and relationship building.



Baker holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and spent 10 years working for Ajilon Finance, considered one of the top global staffing agencies in the world. She worked her way up to become a senior account representative for two of the top offices in the company. Ajilon asked her to open a satellite office in Long Beach in 2007, which became one of the company’s most successful startup branches in the nation.

Over the next three years, Baker started transitioning toward owning her own business. She got a job with boutique staffing agency Pro-Tem Solutions as the company’s director of business development, a position that allowed her to train, hire new staff and head up marketing efforts. Merging her skills learned from both the global firm and the boutique agency, she and her business partner, Muna Nelke, started ProStaff Search LLC in January 2011.

“Coming from a large staffing firm, I found that it was impersonal,” Baker said. “We wanted to develop relationships and take the time to know what each client and each candidate is looking for. It’s really rewarding.” ProStaff offers full-time, contract and temporary job placement for companies located in the Long Beach – South Bay area. The agency focuses specifically in the accounting, finance, human resources and administrative fields, based on Baker’s background in finance and Nelke’s in human resources.

Though the economy seems to be rebounding, Baker said, business is still tough and lending is tight. “When we started, we put our own money in,” she said. “There weren’t options for lending.” Baker tapped California State University, Long Beach, for part-time workers and offered internship opportunities to help promote the business. “Our plan is to grow and have the additional resources to hire people,” she said.

Looking forward, Baker is optimistic about Long Beach and opportunities for business in the city. “I think people hear a lot of bad news on TV and newspapers, but we are seeing a change in the business environment,” she said. “We are optimistic that Long beach will continue to grow and businesses will continue to hire.”

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Tula Trigonis
Salon Soma

203 Glendora Ave., Long Beach

Tula Trigonis loved styling hair from a young age. With the encouragement of her immigrant parents to go into business, owning a hair salon was a natural fit.



As a little girl, Trigonis remembers her hair being “butchered” because she didn’t know how to manage her natural curls. “I would style all of my girlfriends’ hair since I couldn’t do my own,” she said. She would cut her own hair and recalls looking “like a poodle” on her first day of high school. As a resourceful teenager, Trigonis found a woman who worked as a hairstylist and specialized in curly hair. “She was the first person who could cut my hair and make it look cute,” Trigonis remembered.

While in college at California State University, Long Beach, she took the advice of her parents to be an entrepreneur. She took time off from college to attend beauty school. She became a licensed stylist and worked for six years before she was given the opportunity to open her own salon. Stylist friends of hers introduced her to Michael D’Aversa of D’Aversa hair salons. He was leaving 2nd Street, and worked with her and property owner Frank Colonna, to have Trigonis lease the space she is in today.

Trigonis celebrated 20 years in business last October. Her family has also invested in Long Beach, noting her younger brothers are Gus and Pete Sverkos of Kafé Neo on 4th Street. “My parents always told me that if you are honest and work hard, they will come,” Trigonis said.

Trigonis employs six stylists who work with all kinds of hair. The salon offers haircuts and styling, highlights and lowlights, full or coverage color, permanent relaxer, Brazilian blowout, perms, up-dos and more. As a business owner, Trigonis said it is difficult to market the brand for the future but it is always important to give back to the community.

“It’s not just about doing hair but it’s also about giving back where you can,” Trigonis said. In addition to participating in local charitable events, Trigonis is a mentor for her employees who have been with her on average 8 to 10 years. “I’ve got some of my girls to start a retirement investment plan,” she said. “We’re like a little family here.”

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Jacqueline Lawrence
TJL Enterprises

5353 E. 2nd St., Suite 208, Long Beach

The determination of former inner-city Los Angeles high school teacher Jacqueline Lawrence to help her son’s battle with colic as a baby has since helped an estimated one million babies across the U.S. to date.



Lawrence’s son was diagnosed with what a pediatrician called “the worst case of colic he had ever seen,” she said. Colic is typically excessive crying, likely due to digestive pains such as gas or reflux and/or stress. Lawrence said she couldn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time for months.

Taking from her study of homeopathy – an area of medicine based on the theory that the body has the ability to heal itself with the help of natural remedies and supplements – Lawrence began pulling together resources to find the right combination of plants and roots known to assist with digestive issues. She soon had an all-natural homeopathic “gripe water” that helped her son in a way that was so remarkable Lawrence was compelled to share it with other parents.

Lawrence said her husband put together a website in 2003, and the first batch of Colic Calm Gripe Water hit the market that November. The company, TJL Enterprises, has been profitable every quarter since it launched, Lawrence said. Approximately 20,000 retail stores carry Colic Calm, including Babies ‘R Us, Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy. Worldwide demand has grown as well; Colic Calm will be available in stores in five countries by the end of this year.

Colic Calm, specifically for babies in the first six months of life, is the original product. Launched last year is Tummy Calm, a product for kids with gas, bloating, upset stomach and/or stress. An adult product, GastroCalm, has been in development for five years and recently had a highly positive market test. “We’re hoping that will come out at the end of the year,” she said.

Lawrence said her biggest challenge is balancing family life and business, though she said she recognizes the importance of taking care of herself to be able to take care of everything else. “With very quick growth, it can get tricky,” she said. “But I’m very good at delegating and calling on other people’s expertise. I need to trust that other people will get it. You’ve got to work smart.”

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