STORY BY Libby Zay

12 Local Businesses

According to the latest round of Census Bureau statistics, the District of Columbia and Maryland have the highest percentages of women-owned businesses in the nation. In Howard County, there is no shortage of businesses — big and small — being started and staffed by creative, enterprising women.

What follows is a selection of 12 women who have recently launched their own businesses. Some were looking for change, and in other cases an opportunity found them. From designers to store owners to business coaching and childcare, we present 12 movers and shakers to watch in 2012.

1. Rachel C. Baliff

Rachel Baliff had always dreamed of opening her own retail store. “I had been working in human resources and recruiting for more than 15 years and longing to step out of the corporate world,” she says. When the recession hit and hiring slowed, she worried that her own job might be in jeopardy, so began to plan her next move. Baliff, the mother of two young children, enjoyed the fun – and bargains – of consignment shopping and realized there were few such places in Columbia. It took her about a year to write a business plan and open the doors of Greenberries, the upscale, eco-chic children’s and maternity consignment boutique.

“It made sense that this type of business would do well when times are tough and funds are tight,” she explains. “Consigners are looking to make a little extra cash and consumers are searching for a bargain.” The store, which opened in 2009 in the Kings Contrivance Village Center, doubled sales following a move to Oakland Mills Road. With the goal of becoming a community resource, Greenberries now offers an array of workshops, classes and support groups, most of which are free of charge. Monthly classes on such topics as cloth diapering, baby sign language, yoga and make-your-own baby food are also offered.

2. Nora Bellows
    Noni Designs

When Nora Bellows began creating knitted and felted flower bags, she posted them on the Internet, thinking she’d sell a few. To her surprise, the handcrafted items were practically an overnight success. Within two seasons, her name became known in the online knitting world and in 2005 she launched a line of eight bag patterns and embellishment kits for knitters. “I had no intention of starting and running a business,” says Bellows, who now has a studio in Historic Savage Mill.

With more than 16 years of teaching experience in literature and composition at the University of Maryland (where she also earned a master’s in creative writing and a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature), Bellows now devotes all her time to Noni Designs and offers knitting workshops. “I am always looking around for inspiration, sourcing fabulous hardware, looking forward to new designs and projects,” says Bellows, who sometimes collaborates with her twin sister, Laura, on handles and hardware for bags. Bellows’ first book, “Noni Flowers,” which features 40 botanically inspired knitted projects and more, will be published in April by Potter Craft, part of Random House.

3. Joanne Aken
    Liquid Blue

taking_care_two_womenJoanne Aken has never been much of a wearer of skirts. But she does have a passion for jeans and loved to shop for denim in New York, Los Angeles and London. So when she began looking for a new business opportunity in 2009 after a career in corporate marketing, she decided to open a boutique to sell premium denim for women. She lives in Fulton, but grew up in London and wanted to bring the urban shopping experience to Howard County. She opened Liquid Blue in Maple Lawn in 2010.

“Buying a pair of well fitting jeans can be daunting for most women,” says Akin. “It takes personal service and a knowledge of the different products by a salesperson to help you find the perfect fit.” Because Akin believes the sales staff is crucial to success, she brought her niece, Sarah Jones-Hybdzinski, also a Londoner, who had worked in the fashion industry and trained as a stylist at Harrod’s department store, on board.

The two found the Liquid Blue clientele to be largely as expected: 30-70 years of age, and looking for jeans more suitable for the average adult woman’s figure. “So much denim advertising is focused on the under-30 crowd, with low rise, distressed and embellished looks,” Akin says. “These tend to be more the domain of cheaper mall brands.” Rather, Liquid Blue carries top U.S. brands like Citizens of Humanity, Hudson and Joe’s Jeans – better made, with higher waist rises and newer fabrics, some softer and some with more give, she says.

This spring, the store is planning its first annual fashion show, called Jeans & Jewels, to raise funds for local children’s causes. Liquid Blue also plans to open an online store in 2012.

4. Carla David
    Say Cheese! Paper Props

Graphic designer and creative director Carla David is no stranger to owning a business. In 2003, she began specializing in custom couture invitations and other special event details under Carla David Design, and then in 2011 she expanded to offer graphic design and branding services to small businesses through the Black Bench Design Boutique. When David realized her clients were looking for fun, creative props and colorful, quality banners for weddings, kid’s parties and other events, she decided to give another venture a go. The result is Say Cheese! Paper Props, a boutique located in Historic Savage Mill that specializes in items such as message banners and paper lips and moustaches adhered to wooden sticks that make for playful photo opportunities.

Orders for Say Cheese! products have been pouring in from as far away as Australia, Mexico and Canada. David, who worked as an art director for an international organization before starting her own businesses, says managing the three businesses and her home life can be a challenge, but she has learned to “be in the moment” and stay optimistic. “I got into the entrepreneurial world knowing it would be tough. Hard work has paid off and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says.

5. Susan Paden
    ShutterBooth Maryland

After an 18-year career in information technology, Susan Paden had been struggling to find work for more than a year. While in Chicago at her nephew’s wedding in May 2010, her life instantly changed when she and her husband, Jeff, stepped into a photo booth to get their pictures taken. “This seemed the absolute perfect fit for me,” says Paden, who recognized that operating her own booth would combine her interests in photography and scrapbooking, while at the same time fulfill her desire to work directly with people. She rushed back to Maryland and within a month had successfully applied to ShutterBooth to run Maryland’s branch of operations through her own umbrella business, Tried & True Enterprises, LLC.

Setting up photo booths at weddings and other events has been Paden’s full-time job ever since. She has carted her equipment to more than 200 events throughout Maryland, and her husband is concentrating on building the service in Northern Virginia. Although photobooths are now a dime a dozen at weddings, Paden’s personal involvement and attention to detail set her apart.

Along with the strips of photos for guests, Shutterbooth offers a memory book option that collects the photos as well as comments from guests. Paden also provides ShutterBooth services to community events and fundraisers. “We try to do at least one benefit a month when our schedule allows,” she says.

Paden credits her network of family and friends with the success of her new business: “They’re always willing to lend a hand or give advice.”

6. Christina Speiden & Jessica Barwick
    Little Builders Learning Center

While working for ProBuilt Construction, their father’s home improvement businesses in Highland, sisters Christina Speiden and Jessica Barwick were musing to the landlord how nice it would be if there was a child care center next door to their workplace for their small children. Speiden had a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old at the time, while Barwick had a 3-year-old and was pregnant with her second child. When the landlord asked why the sisters didn’t just open a center themselves, the pair initially laughed the suggestion off. But the idea nevertheless resonated with them. “I bet if we have a need for child care, then our community might need it as well,” Speiden recalls thinking at the time.

From there, things seemed to fall into place. Speiden had her master’s degree in education and Barwick had been a babysitter much in demand when she was younger. In addition, Cyndi Hanna — who had owned three centers over the course of 20 years, but was currently doing odd jobs, heard about the sisters’ plans through the grapevine. She gave them a call, and the doors to Little Builder’s Learning Center opened in August 2010 —the same weekend Barwick’s son was born. Today the center employs 15 staff members and has the capacity to accept 55 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years. The goal was to reach 50 percent enrollment within the first year, says Speiden. “And to our surprise and delight, when we celebrated our first anniversary, we were at 72 percent.” Speiden and Barwick still maintain full-time jobs at their father’s business, where Speiden manages sales while Barwick helps with interior design and bookkeeping.

7. Dana O’Sullivan
    DellaBlooms and Gifts

taking_care_rosesDana O’Sullivan has business ownership in her genes. Her parents owned Daniels Photography Studio, a staple for school portraits and family pictures in Howard County for more than 26 years. And O’Sullivan says she fell in love with floral design while working at Belisimo Flowers in Maple Lawn. When the store closed in March 2009, she decided to start her own company, and, a month later, she started DellaBlooms and Gifts out of her garage.

In her first year, O’Sullivan provided floral design for a dozen weddings. “Everything is custom, not just the standard arrangements you see everywhere,” says one happy customer. O’Sullivan is more than happy to create small arrangements for your table or for a special event, accommodating budget and color requirements. Wholesalers deliver flowers directly to her home and she has several part-time helpers – including her 21-year-old daughter, Clancy, and her mother, Mary Jane Daniels.

8. Kristin Groenke

Kristin Groenke received a quirky gift from her aunt: a soap mold in the shape of a vintage pin-up girl. And not long after, she awoke in the middle of the night to find herself semi-consciously rattling off clever names and flavors for soaps: Citrus Mistress, Cheeky Chai. The dream took hold, and in her waking life, Groenke began making soap. “Faster than you can take a shower, I was knee deep in suds, soaps and sassiness,” she laughs. Now, her full-figured soaps are sold online and in boutiques, while Groenke works full time in marketing and advertising.

“The ability to bring a creative idea to real life is the biggest milestone, I believe, for anyone,” says Groenke, who added that her female sensibilities influenced the unconventional product. “Women have been my best audience for Bathrodisiac–until they take it home.”

9. Allison Moran
    The Growth Coach

Allison Moran has made mentoring small companies her business. After a career working in higher education administration, and as a business analyst for corporations, she made the switch to business coaching. Her father, she says, suggested the move. “He knew someone who did group coaching and thought it would be a good business for me,” says Moran. Her father turned out to be right. “I know what works in business, having seen it on the front lines,” she says. “It felt like the natural course.”

Moran specializes in working with women-owned businesses. “Women are willing to look at what they’re doing and challenge themselves to do it better,” she says. “My goal is to help them go even further. That kind of empowerment is huge.”

10. Brittney Posternock
      b.pos jewelry

When Brittney Posternock worked at a bead boutique while attending West Virginia University, she began to notice that customers were drawn to the jewelry that she made for the shop. And after graduation, she realized that jewelry making was something she could do on her own. Posternock soon began attending craft shows and selling her wares at events such as Wine in the Woods. In 2010, she decided to go back to school for a Certificate in Jewelry at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) to further her craft.

Today, Posternock continues to sell her jewelry at Mason and Friends Hair Salon in Columbia as well as on Facebook. Her most recent line, “Casual Elegance,” is made up of braided rope bracelets and crocheted necklaces, a hybrid between a scarf and a necklace. “I really enjoy it when I see someone wearing my jewelry,” Posternock says. Along with jewelry making, classes at MICA and a job as a personal stylist at Nordstrom, Posternock has the wheels in motion to start a clothing line.

11. Martha Rhoades-Spivey
      MRS Photography, LLC

taking_care_bride_groomLaurel resident Martha Rhoades-Spivey has always loved photography. After a career path that included public relations, marketing, training and workforce development, she decided to embrace her true passion in 2009. She says her husband encouraged her to launch her photography business and even suggested the name – MRS Photography, LLC. “I always signed my work with my initials — MRS — and that’s how it began,” she says. Rhoades-Spivey, who studied photojournalism at University of Maryland in College Park, now works fulltime photographing weddings and other special events as well as taking portraits and stock photos.

“Success stories to me are the heartfelt, delighted responses from clients after seeing their photos,” said Rhoades-Spivey. In 2011, her work was also published in two books: “Written in the Margins” by Alma Margaret Permar and “Believing in Horses” by Valerie Ormond. Rhoades-Spivey enjoys training and teaching people about photography through group and private classes, which she teaches at the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.

12. Camellia Blackwell, Ph.D
      Fine Artist/Art Conservator

Camellia Blackwell first learned about the art of conservation and restoration while working at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History as a museum specialist and later as director of publications. Later, as a professor at the University of the District of Columbia, she taught classes in computer graphics and desktop publishing, becoming an expert in Adobe Photoshop.

Blackwell’s interests in genealogy, photography and fine arts led her to restore several ancestral photos and family heirlooms. Her own family members’ response to the restored pieces inspired Blackwell to offer her services to the public – first working from home and then at a studio at Historic Savage Mill .

“Restoring family heirlooms to share brings families closer together,” said Blackwell. Blackwell is also co-founder of the International Center for Artistic Development, Inc. (ICAD), a 20-year-old nonprofit, fine arts education organization devoted to promoting the arts through public programs. In 2010, she launched a new division of ICAD — named Camp Camellia Tree Farm, Art, Nature, and Wildlife Center in Fauquier County, Virginia, on a farm that has been in Blackwell family for 118 years.

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