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Six women entrepreneurs explain what it took to launch their business.
Kerrie Kelly was raised in a custom-built Sacramento suburban home with plenty of love and not much excitement. Even the decor colors chosen by her parents were bland. “The house was neutral,” Kelly says, politely.
Then there was young Kelly’s room, a universe beyond neutrality. “I painted the walls electric blue,” she says.
From that imaginative palette blossomed a career devoted to making other people’s homes beautiful, not in an Architectural Digest knockoff sense, but organically, reflecting the tastes and lifestyles of the occupants.
Design strategies unfold at Kelly’s Design Lab, a space with whitewashed walls, exposed-beam ceilings and impossibly bright skylights tucked into a retail junction on Elvas Avenue at H Street.
“Clients come to the Lab and see furniture, lighting, floor coverings and fabric,” Kelly says. “We sit down and figure out what’s going to work.”
Kelly and her Design Lab team appear to have been born perfect, but the truth is more complex. The Lab’s backstory is filled with high-risk, nervous introductions and deep plunges into the unknown.
After college, Kelly decorated for Nordstrom, Macy’s and Ralph Lauren. She was hired to create model home presentations for mega-developer Del Webb. It was a dream job. “We were doing 1,000 homes per year,” she says. “I learned every aspect of the business, from architecture to electrical.”
When the company was sold, Kelly knew it was time to quit and start her own business. “It was a huge risk. For a while, we said yes to everything. But it paid off,” she says.
She has authored a home decor book for Sunset, based on her motto, “Everyone deserves great design.” When not attending design events around the world, she greets clients at the Lab—even neutral ones.
“Warm contemporary is popular now,” she says. “We de- Tuscan and de-oak a lot of homes.”
COMMUNITY MARKETING PROFESSIONAL AND ORGANIZER
For Anna Vue, the dream was a fresh start and law school. But sometimes, dreams get sidetracked.
The year was 2008. Vue was enjoying a career in public relations and marketing with Runyon Saltzman Einhorn, a renowned Sacramento communications company.
“Everything was fine. I had a great life with my husband and son, who was in the fourth grade,” Vue says. “But I felt it was time for a change. I really wanted to go to law school. I quit RSE and got ready to start my legal studies.”
Between Vue’s leaving the agency and hitting the law books, a friend asked Vue to help state officials with outreach in Sacramento’s Asian communities. Law school was soon forgotten.
“It was one project, then another and another, mostly about making mental health care more accessible to our underserved communities,” she says. “The next thing I knew, I was starting a business.”
She named the firm Solsken Public Relations & Marketing. While she handles some Silicon Valley tech clients, her main focus is Asian communities in Sacramento, from Chinese families who have been in town for generations to relative newcomers from Laos.
“It’s a true niche,” Vue says. “Our communities tend to be insular, relying on their ethnic media, not following traditional media. We’re the only firm I know of that does marketing outreach in those communities.”
Vue’s organizing skills were demonstrated when she built a parental grass-roots movement to create the new International Baccalaureate program at Inderkum High School, where her son is a junior. “Lots of work, but worth it,” she says.
A serendipitous approach to life is reflected in her company’s name, Solsken. It’s Swedish for “sunshine” or “new day,” explains Vue, who doesn’t speak Swedish. “I just like what it represents,” she says. “All I did was Google it.”
Cris Santa Croce
WOMEN’S FITNESS TRAINER
Cris Santa Croce motivates, instructs and celebrates her clients as they sweat away on rubber mats in a former tile warehouse near Sleep Train Arena. Through it all, she is guided by the ultimate validation: the memory of having been there herself.
“I know what it’s like to feel not very good about myself, to want to improve,” Santa Croce says. “That’s why I can work with a woman who can’t do one pull-up, right next to another girl who’s training for an ultramarathon.”
Santa Croce owns three Kaia Fit workout studios: one in Natomas, another in West Sacramento and a third coming to Fair Oaks. Kaia is a booming collection of Nevada-based franchised fitness centers exclusively for women.
Six years ago, the idea of running hundreds of women through fitness drills would have seemed absurd to Santa Croce. She had lost her job at a large personnel-placement firm and was unemployed. She was in the midst of a divorce. She was out of shape, overweight and miserable.
“I was selling stuff out of my house to pay the electric bill,” she says. “I’d wiped out my savings and was down to my last $2,000 when I decided the moment had come to do something about it.”
She began running, swimming and biking. She signed up for her first Ironman triathlon. (This past summer, she trained for her fifth.) She earned a certificate as a personal trainer. Finally, she bought a Kaia franchise, getting in early as the concept was heating up.
Her fitness empire demands long days, but Santa Croce still works the early shift at the Natomas warehouse, dealing hands-on with clients. She says, “I love being around women who are trying to make their lives better. Women are always at the center of things. When we feel good, the whole world benefits.”
Suzanne Peabody Ashworth “Never put your eggs in one basket.” —Suzanne Peabody Ashworth
Suzanne Peabody Ashworth appears at her farm’s driveway riding a blue electric golf cart, a 1940s contraption of heavy-gauge metal welded together like a tank. “We’ve got three of these,” she says. “You don’t want to get your car in the way of one.”
Putting aside a plastic tray of tomatoes, she steers the cart into the heart of Del Rio Botanical, a clearing between the Peabody homestead and the 200 acres that make up her organic farm.
“Over there are grapes, then we’ve got tomatoes, peppers, Ali Baba watermelon, basil, summer squash, long pod beans, okra, gourds, sesame seeds and a whole bunch of salad stuff,” she says. “Organic is messy. It never stops, except for a couple of weeks in January. You eat your crop rotations.”
The urge to become a full-time organic farmer struck Peabody Ashworth while she was teaching agriculture to students at UC Davis two decades ago. Students would not pay attention. They ignored the knowledge their instructor had acquired since her earliest days on her grandfather’s farm along Old River Road in Yolo County. The farm has been in the Peabody family for about 90 years.
“I’m a small person, small in stature. They wouldn’t take me seriously,” says Peabody Ashworth, who is maybe 5 feet tall. “I got tired of them falling asleep. I decided I’d rather do it than talk about it.”
The business evolved when Jim Mills of Produce Express told Peabody Ashworth that local chefs would pay for her organic vegetables. She branched into community supported ag boxes for homegrown gourmets. And there’s her first love, seed production for commercial growers.
“Never put your eggs in one basket,” she says. “For us, it’s seeds, produce for chefs, CSA boxes and a few goats for milk.”
Five women and one man work the farm alongside Peabody Ashworth. She says, “I hire women because we pick better.”
Jennifer Hartman King
LAW FIRM MANAGING PARTNER
Jennifer Hartman King absorbed much wisdom at UCLA School of Law. She chose to ignore the most pragmatic lesson of all, the advice that encourages graduates to leap into the supportive arms of big, fancy law firms.
“They really push that from a career perspective,” she says. “I did it, went to a mega-firm in L.A., met some wonderful people, but realized it wasn’t the best place for me.”
Introspection and entrepreneurial spirit define Hartman King. How else to explain her eagerness to accept a college internship that dropped her into a war-ravaged Bosnian village, where she encouraged displaced farmers to vote? How else to appreciate her tenacity to apply for a senior legal adviser’s job with Gov. Gray Davis barely two years after law school?
She survived the Balkans, landed the job at the governor’s office (“I was on my honeymoon the day he was recalled,” she says), worked for two large Sacramento law firms (Downey Brand and McDonough Holland & Allen), and quit this year to open her own partnership, King Williams & Gleason, a 10-attorney shop specializing in environmental, real estate and business law.
“We did not want a traditional law firm,” Hartman King says. “We tailor every aspect to the individual client.
There’s no standard for setting rates and billable hours at six-minute intervals. Each client is unique. And no job is above or beneath anyone.”
When Hartman King and partners moved to their new offices on Capitol Mall, they knocked out walls, tore away paneling and unblocked windows to bring in sunlight. They created a bullpen to promote collegiality. Now the challenge is too much business and daunting workloads.
“I’m not complaining,” she says. “We’re growing, but not too big. The lesson in life is don’t be intimidated. There’s never a reason not to go for it.”
REAL ESTATE BROKER
Like any successful real estate broker, Zoritha Thompson can recite statistics about mortgage rate resets, housing inventories and foreclosure trends. Then there’s the pink Harley-Davidson. The bike sets Thompson apart, literally.
“Let’s just say it’s fast,” she says. “I’ve got two Harleys, one for long distance, with a full sound system, and the pink one, when I really want to get somewhere. I’ll put it this way: Don’t try to beat me off a line.”
Motorcycles are just one method of propulsion for Thompson, who has been gaining ground since opening Goree & Thompson Real Estate with her friend and mentor, Carolyn Jean Goree, in 1996.
The partnership was based on a friendship established while the women sold Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac government foreclosure properties for Century 21 in the mid-1990s. Within two years after the women started Goree & Thompson, Zoritha Thompson was alone. Her business partner was dead from cancer.
“I had to ask myself if I could do it without her,” Thompson says. “The truth is, I didn’t even have my broker’s license. Just before she died, she told me I had to get my license. She said she would hang on, and that’s what she did.”
From the death of her mentor through the travails of a volatile economy, Thompson kept moving. Now she attends conferences each month, studying trends, and expanding her expertise and opportunities.
Goree & Thompson (“I will always keep the name in honor of Carolyn,” Thompson says) is a full-service brokerage, with a focus on government foreclosures. The firm is expanding into auctions. “It’s the new wave. It’s changing real estate. Auctions are a huge business, not just for investors, but the average consumer,” she says.
Given her expertise in foreclosures, Thompson is busy when the economy struggles. “We’ve succeeded because we treat people with respect and try to help,” she says. “When I hear someone is paying $3,000 or $4,000 for a refinance, I really get mad. I tell them, ‘Don’t you know HUD counselors do it for free?’”