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Success Stories

success-mirela.pngThe New Old School of Music is Hitting a High Note

It should come as no surprise that Mirela Panaitisor’s West Hartford music school is successful. The study of music has been central in her life since she was a small child in Romania. At the beginning of 2020, this success led to a new, larger location.

Just as everything was falling into place, the world was upended. The same week as the ribbon cutting, most in-person businesses shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’d made this huge investment, and I still had a ten-year lease on the space,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a choice. I had to figure out how to make it work.” 

The New Old School of Music is Hitting a High Note


With guidance from the Women’s Business Center, owner Mirela Panaitisor dream became a reality in spite of a pandemic

It should come as no surprise that Mirela Panaitisor’s West Hartford music school is successful. The study of music has been central in her life since she was a small child in Romania. She started studying violin when she was just five years old, and her entire schooling experience included intensive musical training. “By the time I was in middle school, I was teaching my dolls how to play this song or that, all day long,” she laughed. “That was the first hint that I was probably going to be a teacher.”

While she deeply values the music education she received in her native country, she says there are some methods that she doesn’t think were particularly effective. The pressure, for one thing, is intense. “The training was severe and very competitive,” she said. “That is tough on a growing child.” So when she decided to open her own music school, she chose a special name to reflect her individual way of teaching. “I called it the New Old School of Music. I am ‘old-school’ because I was taught these wonderful, traditional methods that I can pass on, but it’s also ‘new.’ I put a new spin on things to make learning accessible to everyone.” According to Mirela, her goal is to be the kind of teacher she always wished she had—demanding but kind.

Mirela moved to the United States in 2003, and in 2006 she had her first child. She continued to teach private lessons, but family was her focus for nearly a decade. Finally, in 2015, she and her husband decided that they were ready for a change. “It was time to move the business out of the house. I wanted a more professional environment for my students,” she recalled.

It was a big step, but she found a space that worked for her needs—at least for a few years. She was adding students as well as other instructors to teach different instruments, and they were quickly outgrowing the space. But Mirela still had years left on her lease—so what was she to do? At the end of 2018, she sat down at the computer to search for solutions, and she found one: The University of Hartford's Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center.

“I will never forget. My first email to them was on December 31, 2018, and on January 2, 2019, they replied,” she said.

Mirela credits Milena Erwin, Program Manager of the Women’s Business Center, with guiding her toward the right solution. “She was wonderful. She came down to see the space, and I told her about my plan. She reassured me at every bump in the road,” Mirela recalled.

Making the space work for her needs was no small task. Because she had multiple teachers who needed to be teaching different instruments simultaneously, it wasn’t just a matter of breaking up the space and putting up drywall. Mirela also needed proper soundproofing, which added significantly more cost. The Center connected her with a low-interest business loan through HEDCO, and by summer she had secured the funding. In September of 2018, she was able to begin construction.

The full project took a little over a year to complete. “The contractor and the landlord had to work with the architect to get everything right, which took some time,” she said. “And we had to figure out a way to do it so I could still run my business during construction.”

The renovation was completed at the beginning of 2020, with an official ribbon cutting in March. Just as everything was falling into place, Mirela’s world was upended again.

The same week as the ribbon cutting, most in-person businesses shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’d made this huge investment, and I still had a ten-year lease on the space,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a choice. I had to figure out how to make it work.”

Mirela took a few days to familiarize herself with online platforms for teaching, so she could continue to serve students and parents who didn’t want to drop their lessons. She says she lost a few teachers who weren’t comfortable with the virtual format, but she’s been able to hire others. “We plowed through it,” she said.

A bright spot in switching so much of her teaching to Zoom is that she has connected with music students from all over the world. She generously offered lessons free of charge each Saturday for several months at the start of the pandemic so she could serve the community that had come to count on her—but she ended up reaching a lot of other people, too. “I had students from Norway, Romania, France, people from all over the world were joining these classes. It pushed me out of my comfort zone,” she added.

In mid-summer, she began to return to the space she’d worked so hard to create—with some big changes. She had to reconfigure the space again, only working in the front and back rooms so there is separation, with each side having its own entrance. She has two pianos in the larger space, six feet apart, so students are able to interact with their teachers from a safe distance. And they are limiting their instruction to piano, percussion, and stringed instruments—no horns or woodwinds—and all group lessons are virtual.

“We are open for about 50 percent of students in-person right now,” she said. “We are very careful and are not taking any chances. We’ve adapted, and I think we are doing very well.”

Considering the challenge this has presented, Mirela says she is not at all unhappy with where her business is. “We haven’t had a major loss. We didn’t get to grow the business, of course, but we have kept it going. As long as I maintain my positive attitude, I feel like I can find a way around any obstacles.”

success-comeaux.jpgBuilding a Practice Focused on Families

In her work, Shanda Comeaux has seen some of the negative effects of the pandemic first-hand. She says that more people are presenting with anxiety and fear of the unknown, and she’s particularly noticed an uptick in the number of men seeking help for depression and anxiety.

A counselor found guidance for business growth the moment she saw the sign

Drawing inspiration from her role models, Shanda Comeaux is building a therapy practice focused on families.

Connecting with the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center was a happy twist of fate for Shanda Comeaux, LCSW. About a year ago, she was meeting with a counseling client on the university campus, and she happened to see a sign promoting the Center. At the time, she was working to build her therapy practice and had some big plans, so she stopped in to find out more about the organization. “They told me I could go to East Hartford for all sorts of classes and support,” she recalled. “Finding them was an accident, but it was a great accident!”

Shanda provides both individual and family counseling, and her focus is on helping families in the inner city. She is based in the north end of Hartford and works closely with DCF (Department of Children and Families), providing counseling services to their clients and expert witness services for attorneys with child welfare cases. “If there is a case of child abuse or a custody dispute, I can review case files to give my opinion on where a child should go or whether the child might be in danger,” she said.

A native of Hartford, Shanda has been interested in a career in social work for almost her whole life. She started out as a child in foster care herself, with a DCF worker who played a pivotal role in her life. This worker, Daphne Serrano, was assigned to Shanda’s case for her entire time in foster care, and this allowed her to build the kind of relationship that is rare within the system. “She worked so hard and had such a good heart for helping kids,” Shanda said. “By the time I got to high school, I knew I wanted to do social work. That never changed.” Choosing to stay close to home, she went on to study social work at St. Joseph’s College for her bachelor’s degree and UConn for her master’s.

When she started her business, she chose to honor another inspirational woman with the name. Catherine’s Heart Counseling Services is named for her late mother. “After her passing, I found a journal writing about her desire to inspire others through recovery and strengthening their relationships with family,” she said.

Shanda has been successful as a solo practitioner, but her real desire is to expand Catherine’s Heart to include more providers and different kinds of counseling services. She knew she had a lot to learn about running a business, so finding the Center when she did was fortuitous. She said she knew right away she’d made the right decision by connecting with them. “I started by taking a few courses, and then I did one-on-one business consultation with Lacey Banks McGill. Through that, I was able to get a better picture of what I wanted my company to be.”

In order to achieve her vision of a broad-ranging practice with different specialties, Shanda knew she needed the guidance. She says it’s easy to fall into bad habits with things like managing finances when you are on your own, but you have to keep proper books in order to do things like apply for funding. “There is a correct way of doing things. I had a structure that was working for me, but it was good enough just for me,” she said. “It wasn’t good enough for where I saw myself going.”

With Lacey’s help, Shanda was able to acquire EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) funding through the SBA, and also the State of Connecticut DSS (Department of Social Services) Coronavirus Relief Fund grant. With this financing, she is hoping to bring on at least two more practitioners. The challenge will be to find fully licensed therapists, a requirement because of more stringent standards for businesses like Shanda’s that are not certified clinics.

In her work, she has seen some of the negative effects of the pandemic first-hand. She says that more people are presenting with anxiety and fear of the unknown, and she’s particularly noticed an uptick in the number of men seeking help for depression and anxiety. “This has been hard on families. They are challenged with kids not returning to school, and they have to provide those meals that kids would normally have in school. Families are losing money dealing with these household needs, and they are working less. The shortage of resources is causing anxiety and depression.”

With the guidance she received from the Center, Shanda is confident she can successfully grow her business and provide more resources to help meet the mental and emotional health needs of her community—as she continues to fulfill the vision she set when she was just a teenager. She encourages other entrepreneurs, especially solo practitioners, to seek assistance, too. “Learn to do business the right way from the beginning. Don’t wait until there is an audit or something goes wrong to get help,” she advised. “Come to the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center so the foundation can be laid correctly from the beginning. There are some things you can’t undo!”

success-watson-wolcott.jpg Redefining “the personal touch” during a pandemic

Latoya Watson of Evolve Behavioral Health has devoted her career to helping people get through some of life’s roughest patches, from overcoming feelings of low self-worth to combating anxiety and depression. Cynthia Wolcott of Joyah had been teaching yoga classes in studios for well over a decade. When COVID-19 struck, both had to find ways to thrive while helping their clients from a safe distance.

Redefining “the personal touch” during a pandemic

Latoya Watson and Cynthia Wolcott have found ways to thrive while helping their clients from a safe distance.

Life can be challenging sometimes. As a licensed clinical social worker, Latoya Watson has devoted her career to helping people get through some of life’s roughest patches, from overcoming feelings of low self-worth to combating anxiety and depression. Her business, Evolve Behavioral Health, has been helping clients to improve all facets of their emotional well-being since it was founded six years ago.

When she decided she wanted to change her business model and expand her reach a couple of years ago, she connected with the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center, working closely with Lacey Banks McGill and Shelli McMillen Soto. “Shelli is great with accountability and follow-up,” she said. “She always made sure I was aware of the different services that were available. And Lacey provided a lot of specific business expertise and knowledge. Business is not an area I’m strong in.” The Center not only helped her flesh out her business plan, but also put her in touch with funding sources and assisted her in securing financing for her business.

Most of what Latoya does in her counseling practice involves meeting with clients face-to-face, so when the COVID-19 restrictions hit, she had to rethink just about every facet of her work. “I immediately had to pivot to offering telehealth, and I had to set up a small office in my home where I could have privacy and still offer the healing experience my clients needed,” she said.

Just like therapy has almost always involved in-person sessions with clients, yoga instruction has certainly focused on sharing physical space. Cynthia Wolcott of Joyah had been teaching yoga classes in studios for well over a decade, but when COVID-19 struck, she had to redefine a business that had been focused on live instruction. Her students encouraged her to keep teaching by taking her classes online, and within just a few days, she had switched her whole yoga program to the Zoom platform. Her students not only adapted quickly to this new way of learning, they also spread the word. At a time when a business such as Cynthia’s could have easily suffered big losses, she was actually able to reach more students. Some classes almost doubled in size! And because she decided to offer the classes on a donation-only basis, students are paying what they can afford. This has allowed students that might be experiencing tough financial times right now to keep up their yoga practice.

Cynthia originally became a yoga teacher after experiencing the vital support it had offered her during a long-ago health crisis, so she knows how valuable it can be, especially at a time like this. One of her students commented, “This is the first time in a week I haven’t felt anxious.” Knowing that students are leaving class with greater peace of mind, reduced anxiety, as well as greater strength and flexibility, is rewarding.

In addition to taking her yoga classes online, Cynthia has also resumed her Life Coaching practice via Zoom, offering support for clients in crafting lives they can love during these challenging times and beyond. Her Alignment Coaching practice has also taken off during these times of being more homebound and moving less. Turns out folks need the alignment support even more than usual, learning healthier ways to sit, stand, and move to reduce or eliminate pain. Cynthia believes for each person whose life is improved, the world becomes a better place for all of us.

Latoya has been able to find a positive side to the recent challenges, as well. She has been able to use this time to move forward on an aspect of her business that was in the planning stages—an online coaching model. “I’ve been able to maintain my business pretty well with telehealth, and now I’m looking to accelerate even faster,” she said. “The timing is right for online coaching.”

Latoya says that the support she gets from the Center hasn’t just helped her in tangible ways like getting her website developed or directing her to funding sources. The emotional support has been important, too. “We all can be our own worst critics,” she said. “Lacey was always there to tell me, ‘You’re doing better than you think you are.’ She built up my confidence.”

Latoya encourages other entrepreneurs to check out the Center for resources and support. As a counselor, she understands that it’s natural for people to doubt themselves when they are taking a risk like starting a new business—and the resources and knowledge available can help alleviate those uncertainties. “I would encourage everyone to get on their mailing list to learn about everything that’s available. Most things are free, and the technical services are available at such a small fee in comparison to what you get elsewhere. Their expertise and one-on-one support are so valuable, and it’s always appreciated.”

Gursu Samancioglu's classDiscovering Resources to Light the Way

A fitness professional throughout his entire career, Gursu Samancioglu has seen a lot of different strategies for encouraging health and wellness—and he’s found some to be more effective than others. It was his desire to synthesize the best tactics into one holistic health solution that led him to open Chandelier, a women-only boutique fitness studio, at the beginning of 2019.

Chandelier Founder Discovered Business Resources to Light the Way

Advisors from the Women’s Business Center offer strength to health and fitness startup

A fitness professional throughout his entire career, Gursu Samancioglu has seen a lot of different strategies for encouraging health and wellness—and he’s found some to be more effective than others. It was his desire to synthesize the best tactics into one holistic health solution that led him to open Chandelier, a women-only boutique fitness studio, at the beginning of 2019.

Samancioglu developed what he dubbed the “Chandelier” model when he was working as an exercise physiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the research hospital of the Harvard Medical School. His model incorporates five components of fitness: strength training, cardiovascular training, flexibility, nutrition, and motivation. The name was inspired by his relationship with his mother, whom he sees as a supportive guiding light in his mission. He wants his business to serve as that kind of guiding light for his clients.

When he and his wife moved to the Hartford area from Boston about two years ago, he knew he wanted to incorporate the Chandelier approach into a business—and he felt like he had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted that business to be. However, his background was fitness, not business.

“I started doing some research, and I found the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center. I actually found them on Google,” he said with a laugh. “I really liked them from the beginning. It was so nice to speak with experienced advisors who knew the possible obstacles and what to look out for.”

As an entrepreneur, Samancioglu had a lot of questions, and he said that his Center advisors had the answers he needed. “Jack Antonich and Elaine Thomas Williams read through my entire business plan. We talked about marketing and about what criteria I should use to find a location. It was a really nice, open conversation.” After examining the business’s target population, including demographics and psychographics, and looking at the possible sites within his price range, Samancioglu decided that the best place for Chandelier would be the Glen Lochen shopping center in Glastonbury. He opened his doors in January of 2019.

Samancioglu says that one of the most valuable services provided by the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center was assistance in applying for a business loan. “Having a sound business plan is a very important part of that,” he said. “Jack made suggestions in terms of financial projections and helped me to understand how to predict revenue.”

After the business plan was solidified, business advisor Jack Antonich continued to assist and was vital to the actual launching of Chandelier. “Once I got into the execution phase, Jack stayed in touch. He would text me and email me to see how things were going, and he came to the grand opening. He still stops by just to check on things and see if I have any questions. It’s nice to have that ongoing support,” he said.

According to Samancioglu, the key differentiator at Chandelier is the focus on small group dynamics. In his previous jobs as an exercise physiologist, he saw that this was the most effective structure for support and encouragement. “In small groups, with four to five participants, people can interact with each other, create relationships, and motivate each other. That’s the kind of environment I wanted to create in my business.” Rather than focusing strictly on weight loss, Chandelier’s five-component model supports overall health and wellness with customized plans and tools for women. He has already compiled many client success stories, and he says that word-of-mouth is becoming his strongest marketing tool.

Samancioglu emphasized that, as an entrepreneur, it’s important to understand that business expertise is above and beyond individual expertise. While you probably know a lot about the product or service you are going to sell, you need resources and support to get a business off the ground. “I think the Center is genuinely there to help you,” he said. “You might have a question about a business loan application or a question about marketing. It could be anything! They either know the answer, or they will find the resources to help you. The Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center is always there to support you. That’s what I really like. I highly recommend them.”
Natalie and Hermann of Lifecare Design

Creating Built Environments & Sustaining Communities

Natalie and Hermann of Lifecare Design help define and sustain communities. They specialize in designing Net-Zero buildings where the energy produced is equal to or less than the energy needed, keeping these structures off the power grid and saving money.

A Hartford architectural firm weathered a tough economy with tools and training from the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center


Natalie Sweeney is an artist at heart. A native of Connecticut, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the University of Houston and then moved to southwest France to work as an architectural archivist and illustrator. She spent eight years there illustrating historical Romanesque architecture—a somewhat unusual foundation for the more conventional architecture career she would pursue later on.

She returned to Connecticut in 2000, where she met Hermann Cortes-Barrios, owner of the architectural firm Lifecare Design. Lifecare Design focuses on creating built environments that define and sustain communities. The firm completed major projects in the healthcare space for clients including Danbury Hospital before transitioning to focus on restoration. Recently, they designed the Parkville Market in Hartford, a former transit hub now under restoration to become a public gathering hall with shops, restaurants, and more. It is slated to open later this year. In addition to exciting projects like Parkville Market, they specialize in designing Net-Zero buildings. In these sustainably-built structures (including single/multi-family homes and municipal/commercial buildings), the energy produced is equal to or less than the energy needed, keeping these structures off the power grid and saving money. Natalie and Hermann incorporate solar panels into the designs to produce energy while reducing overall power needs by implementing energy-efficient building materials/techniques.

When they first met, Hermann wanted Natalie to come to work for him as a project manager. Although she didn’t really have much experience in traditional construction at that point, she decided to give it a shot. “I worked really hard,” she recalled. “I put in the effort and the time and eventually I earned a partnership in the firm.”

Lifecare Design did well in the early 2000’s. They had a steady stream of new business, experiencing enviable growth, and they were even selected to serve as “on-call” architects for the state of Connecticut. At the time, the company was headquartered in Ridgefield, but as their work with the state continued to increase, they considered making a move. When they were given the opportunity in 2006 to work as on-call architects for the city of Hartford as well, they decided that the capital city was where they needed to be. A client suggested a space on Park Street that turned out to be exactly what they were looking for and Hartford has been the home of Lifecare Design ever since.

Their new space helped them secure even more projects and the business was solid. Then came the economic downturn of 2008. “We grew and grew until the recession hit,” Natalie said. “Then we abruptly stopped growing.”

Given the economic challenges at the time, particularly in real estate development, the partners knew they needed to get the word out about their firm in order to build their business. “We were always chasing projects and working on projects. We didn’t have time to market the business and we were behind with all the technological forms of marketing,” Natalie said.

She learned about the programs offered by the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center and thought it sounded like a great way to become well-versed in new methods of business management. She took a business overview seminar and was immediately impressed with all the information and resources that were available to her at a low cost.

She then went on to participate in the Hartford Small Business Technical Assistance Program (HSBTAP), which she says helped her see her business from a different perspective. “We were trained to design projects and we approach our work as artists,” she said, “The workshops helped us see the business as a business and gave us the tools to work ‘on’ the business and not just ‘in’ it. You don’t learn that at architecture school!”

Natalie learned a range of skills in HSBTAP. “They covered financing, legal and marketing, including things like Google analytics and social media,” she recalled, “They even came out to our site to meet with us personally.”

Natalie is quick to credit the Center staff with helping Lifecare Design solidify its marketing plan. “Our small business advisor, Lacey Banks McGill was great at counseling us and a number of other people came to the office to help us with specific tasks,” she said, “I took part in the Women’s Business Roundtable monthly meetings, which is a great way to discuss different issues and network with other women business owners.”

Natalie encourages all entrepreneurs, particularly those who are in artistic fields, to seek out resources like the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center. “When you have a passion for something and you love what you do, you don’t always have all the information you need to turn that into a business,” she emphasized, “Find these workshops and learn about all the things you need to do.”

The Center provided Lifecare Design with valuable knowledge and tools at a critical point in the firm’s history. They needed to master business skills and get a firm marketing plan in place in order to make it through the rough economic times and the Center provided those tools. “I learned important information from day one—legal, financial, marketing, social, all of it. It’s an amazing resource for anyone who wants to start or grow a business.”

Alix HryniewickiMaking the Cut as Her Own Boss

After ten years working in top salons across the area, Alix decided it was time to take all that knowledge and break out on her own. She trusted her vision and she was confident that she had developed a roadmap for success.

This stylist learned from experience—and then found the support she needed to be her own boss

From the time she first started working in hair salons, Alix Hryniewicki had a gut feeling that she was destined to have her own salon. She had studied criminal justice, but in her heart, she really wanted to do hair. So she returned to school, this time to study cosmetology, and for the next decade gained experience working for salons, always observing how the business aspect worked. She found herself learning not only from the successes, but from the challenges she witnessed.

Early on, she worked with a salon owner who seemed to struggle with the day-to-day duties involved in running a business. “Honestly, she seemed kind of miserable,” she recalled. Alix also worked for big corporate salons, but they had many of the same obstacles. “Seeing how other people ran salons really opened my eyes and I learned a lot,” she said.

After ten years working in top salons across the area, Alix decided it was time to take all that knowledge and break out on her own. She trusted her vision and she was confident that she had developed a roadmap for success. She had seen things done well and she had seen some mistakes. Through that experience, Alix learned that building lasting relationships would be the foundation of her new venture.

A friend told Alix that she could find the resources she needed to get her new salon off the ground at the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center. She was matched with small business advisor Elaine Thomas Williams, who helped her start off on the right foot. “Elaine was amazing,” Alix said, “She guided me through creating a business plan and she helped me research locations to figure out the best place for my salon.”

Elaine also assisted Alix in getting the funding she needed through HEDCO’s small business loan program. With the financial backing to go with her solid business plan, Alix officially opened InK Hair Bar in Farmington in the summer of 2018.

The name of her salon has particular significance for Alix. “InK” (with a capital “K”) is named for her two daughters, Iliana and K’leigh. The salon is located right in the center of Farmington, which Alix says has been ideal both for serving her existing clientele and for developing her new business.

“For a first year, I really couldn’t have asked for much more,” she said happily. Alix reports that she has stayed busy with building a new clientele and positive word-of-mouth has been her biggest asset. Her ultimate goal would be to add stylists to her Farmington location and possibly even expand to a bigger space.

While Alix came to this business with a lot of knowledge of salons, both the upside and the downside, the nitty gritty of launching a business was not something she had studied. That’s why she is so grateful to have had the resources of the Center available to her, right from the first free business workshop she attended. “I was not a money person,” she emphasized, “Elaine was so helpful and she showed me how to understand profit and loss. I had so many questions!”

Alix says she is now a cheerleader for the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center, often referring friends and colleagues and encouraging them to take advantage of the free and low-cost support services. “I think it’s great. I talk about it all the time,” she said, “They’re available whenever you need to talk to them, and that’s been so important for InK. I couldn’t do it without them!”

Sistah Anyango Yaa Asantewaa FLYY-ing High with Wellness and Positivity

Sistah Anyango Yaa Asantewaa, as her traditional African name suggests, is both a healer and a warrior. She brings a unique combination of personal energies to her work and the result is an enterprise that has helped hundreds of women on their journey towards self-care.

A one-time dancer combines her love of music and movement with a message of empowerment


Sistah Anyango Yaa Asantewaa, as her traditional African name suggests, is both a healer and a warrior. She brings a unique combination of personal energies to her work and the result is an enterprise that has helped hundreds of women on their journey towards self-care. “My commitment is to help people heal body, mind, heart, and spirit,” she said about her business, FLYY Fitness Healing and the Arts. “Women are so busy today. I don’t say we have a lot on our plate. We don’t have a plate—we have a platter!”

“FLYY” is an acronym for “Freedom to Love the You in You,” and it encompasses a style of holistic healing that is rooted in Sistah Anyango’s love of dance and movement. She had the spirit of a dancer from birth and in her youth she studied and performed a variety of dance styles, including ballet, jazz, and traditional African and Caribbean folk dancing.

In 2007, she began teaching Zumba, an exercise fitness program based on Colombian dancing and within a year she knew she wanted to open her own traveling studio. That studio became FLYY Fitness, which grew steadily over the ensuing years as Sistah Anyango’s personal mission evolved.

“Self-care is an energy that is a requirement for holistic health,” she explained, “I wanted FLYY Fitness to be a place where women could hold an energy of self-care, to make their body, mind, heart, and spirit whole.” She began to refer to the people in her classes as “self-healers,” not clients or customers.

As she made the shift from a fitness business to a more all-encompassing holistic health enterprise, she knew she needed to re-brand and rethink her business model. That is what prompted her to reach out to the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center.

“Elaine Thomas Williams was doing a small business workshop at the Center and I had heard such great things about them,” Sistah Anyango said, “I’m a life-long student anyway. I’m always interested in learning.”

Through Elaine and her workshop, Sistah Anyango was referred to small business advisor Lacey Banks McGill and the Women’s Business Roundtable program. Over the course of a year, she met with women who were building all types of businesses and she learned about the many resources available for entrepreneurs who want to grow and expand. She developed a business plan for her new “FLYY Fitness Healing and the Arts” concept and re-brand, and in 2018 she qualified for financing through Hartford’s HEDCO program.

With that financing, Sistah Anyango has been able to bring her new brand to market with a vibrant Facebook presence and marketing videos. “I learned the difference between micro- and macro-marketing and I created both kinds of videos,” she said. “I’ve already gotten more than 7,000 views! It’s phenomenal. So much more than I expected.”

Her next step will be building out a website to match the vision she has for her business. She is working with Shelli McMillen at the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center to help pull together the resources to make that happen. “I want my website to be experiential. I want to be able to offer a lot of the same experiences virtually that people have in my classes,” she said.

Right now, there are two aspects to Sistah Anyango’s practice. On Saturday mornings, she gathers a group of “self-healers” for an in-person class in West Hartford, which includes a session of Zumba fitness, bookended by affirmation circles, where the participants connect and share in a supportive and accepting atmosphere. During the week, she takes her talents on the road to places like health centers, community centers, and public schools, where she conducts “power hours” with instruction in movement and mindfulness.

Sistah Anyango believes that the Center has played a key part in her evolving business. “Oh my goodness, it is such a wealth of information, insight, and support,” she said enthusiastically, “I have referred several small businesses to them. We don’t often receive that kind of support.”

She had particular praise for the staff at the Center who helped her along the way. “They are 100 percent committed to helping you. They just work and work and work with you until you reach your goal. Elaine was not going to stop until I got funding!”

Sistah Anyango has created two vision boards to help her set FLYY Fitness Healing and the Arts on the right path. She said the process helped her see that this year is going to be about pursuing her passion, getting out of her comfort zone, and manifesting her dreams—some of the same things she helps other women do.

“I know I’m still emerging with FLYY and it’s been an awesome ride. I’ll be manifesting magic!”

Kara Melody at workRight Help + Right Time = Booming Accounting Business

Melody’s family came to the United States from Vietnam when she was nine years old, so she has a special appreciation for the opportunities available in this country. Her parents fled the oppressive communist regime of the early 1980s, and although she was just a child, she remembers what a frightening time it was.

A Hartford tax accountant has increased her number of clients many times over, thanks to help from the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center

When you think of tax accountants, you might think of people who are steady, fixed, and predictable. But Melody Do, founder and owner of Kara Enterprise LLC, is more of a restless spirit. “I’m the type of person who kept changing her major in college,” she said with a laugh. “I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Even after college, Melody said there was one year in which she changed jobs six times. Nothing was resonating with her. Nothing seemed to fit.

She always had an affinity for numbers and, as a result, she often worked in finance in one capacity or another. She remembers the day when her future started to become clear. “I was in my thirties and I was driving,” she recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘What is it that I want to do with my life?’ Then I saw a sign advertising a Jackson Hewitt tax class.” She decided to sign up to learn more about tax accounting and found that it was a great fit for her interests and talents. She even went back to college to earn a degree in accounting. That was 15 years ago and it put her on the path she is still on today: as an entrepreneur and independent tax advisor with a booming consultancy of her own.

Melody’s family came to the United States from Vietnam when she was nine years old, so she has a special appreciation for the opportunities available in this country. Her parents fled the oppressive communist regime of the early 1980s, and although she was just a child, she remembers what a frightening time it was. “That was a terrible place to be, a terrible place,” she recalled. Because her parents took the risk and brought the family out of those perilous circumstances, Melody has had the chance to follow her dreams ever since.

As an independent accountant, Melody has focused her practice on small businesses like restaurants, salons, and automotive repair shops. For business owners like these, who rarely can afford to keep a full-time bookkeeper on staff, she is able to provide a full range of accounting, reporting, and tax preparation services. Her portfolio of clients (called her “book”) was steady for several years, but like any other business owner, she wanted to see it grow. Thanks to a grant from the city of Hartford, she was able to take part in a business development program with the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center, a program that she credits with more than tripling her book.

Melody emphasized that it was the marketing lessons she learned that helped more than anything. “Before the program, I had done a lot of mail pieces for advertising. It just didn’t work,” she said. To bring her marketing to the next level, the Center suggested that she focus on online channels like Facebook and Google Ads.

“They sent people to my office to help me one-on-one,” she said. “They took pictures, and even helped me set up a website. It was the right place, the right time, and the right people to build my business.”

Melody credits getting “out there” in front of people with taking Kara Enterprise to an entirely new stage of success. Her online marketing has opened her up to a whole new client base and a steady stream of referrals has built up her book even more. She expects to double her business again this year on top of the 300 percent growth she has already experienced. “You have to fight for it and work really hard,” she said. “but the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center is there for you when you need partners to help.”

It’s the partnership with the Center that Melody feels is most important and that partnership is still ongoing. She says Shelli McMillen, Program Manager for the Hartford Small Business Technical Assistance Program, has been especially helpful in steering her in the right direction. “Shelli made me feel so special,” she emphasized, “She sent me the help I needed to get me on Facebook and build my website and she still sends me referrals.”

When asked to give advice to other entrepreneurs like herself, Melody emphasized the importance of education. “I thought I knew everything, but I didn’t,” she laughed. No matter what an entrepreneur needs, from business planning to marketing support to help with securing financing, Melody says that the Center provides the kind of partnership that business owners need in order to be successful—and much of it is available free of charge.

“I’m still so excited!” she said about working with the Center. “They are such wonderful partners, and I’m so glad I found them!”

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