Out On Top
by Laurel Fantauzzo With Research by Nicole DeGennaro
July 10, 2008

Inspired by near-death experience, powerful mothers, chocolate chip cookies, vibrant colors and the Welsh military, the out women behind ten successful businesses are proving that entrepreneurship is a combination of savvy, coincidence, and inexhaustible passion. Presenting the power of ten lesbian-run businesses out on top and rising.

Brainworks: Erin Adams

If you’ve leafed through a celebrity magazine, watched network television, gone to Las Vegas or visited a well-heeled California home, you’ve seen the work of Erin Adams. She may be the most ubiquitous installation artist in the United States and the most unknown. Her 20-year-old firm, Brainworks, doesn’t bear her name, and there is no bio on her website.

“It isn’t about me being famous,” says Adams, 47. “It’s about this work being out there and sort of surrounding you.”

Building on an early-childhood art education led by nuns—“they were very helpful,” Adams laughs —Adams specialized in installation work at Otis Art Institute. It never felt inevitable to her that she would starve for her art, as so many of her peers assumed (and did themselves). Now, with her commercial art company Brainworks, she works for prominent clients who want her backdrops, decorative paintings, and original sets featured in their photography shoots, restaurants, television shows and homes. ABC, Vince Vaughn, Lily Tomlin and Kathy Najimy have all asked Adams for her work, and Caesar’s Palace hotel mall in Las Vegas bears Adams’s stately, ancient Roman designs.

“It’s been really fun not having a boring job. It’s different every day,” Adams says. A recent client was Dolly Parton, who wanted her home “…very southwest looking. A lot of bright colors. She likes it all pink and cute. It’s fun.”

In Los Angeles, a place Adams credits for “constantly remaking itself,” Brainworks is never at a loss for high-profile clients. It also leaves her time for some large-scale hobbies. Adams restored a cathedral in Los Angeles’ historic Adams District, and the city keeps her on the historic landmark list for future projects.

The New Capitalist: Melissa Bradley

When Melissa Bradley announced in grade school that she would like to be president, her single African American mother came home from her third job housecleaning with a reference book of American presidents. Together they leafed through the pages and discussed exactly what had to be done to reach the position. Despite the practical encouragement, Bradley noticed a few distinct differences between her and the American heads of state; “Just a few,” she says wryly, now thirty-eight years old.

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time thinking about the causes of inequality in America. It caused a constant question: how do you really level the playing field, so to speak?”

But her pursuit of social justice was always coupled with her deep faith in the capitalist system; “[I wasn’t really] looking for communism or socialism,” she said. “I truly believe in the free market system, provided that no one is marginalized.” Which led to her second major question: What would a new capitalism bring?

So Bradley founded her firm The New Capitalist, an organization that supports low-income and minority entrepreneurs. People may doubt how profit seeking might be compatible with the high ideals of social and economic justice, but Bradley is business-savvy to the core, right down to her disciple-like zeal for the game of golf.

“Within confined and defined social communities, golf is where the power resides,” she says. “I wanted to be part of that power. It’s a sport that’s bridged the gap between my world and the world of white male power brokers.”

Bradley recently became a Soros Justice Fellow and the founder and president of Re-entry Strategies Institute, a non-profit establishing national and local approaches for helping prisoners re-enter society for good. At present, 80% are incarcerated again. With Bradley’s power drive, maybe the presidency isn’t too far off.

Liv’n Out Loud!: Alyson Bruu and Kristine Fichera

There is cultish appreciation shared by the customers of Liv’n Out Loud! clothing. In their free time, they go to the website to share their own personal "Liv’n Out Loud" stories—escaping from abuse, overcoming a disease, taking a spontaneous trip and more. It's a phenomenon the co-founders and partners, Alyson Bruu and Kristine Fichera, both marvel at and welcome as they run the company from their 218-year-old renovated farmhouse in New Hampshire.

"There's this very palpable heartbeat in Liv’n Out Loud that you don't really find in any other line," says Fichera, 47.

The intense feeling surrounding Livn' Out Loud! can be attributed to its founding. In 2004, Bruu, a former Madison Avenue ad exec, suffered hemorrhaging during routine surgery. After several hours and five blood transfusions, doctors nearly accepted that Bruu would die. Finally, after moving Bruu to a standing position, doctors found the source of the bleeding, saving her life.

"Kristine and I just went back and forth for three months—why did I go through this? What is the meaning of life?" Bruu says.

In 2005, still reeling from Alyson’s near death experience, the couple went on vacation in New Hamphire’s stunning White Mountains. Once there, they came upon a comfortable piece of clothing, made of simple cotton.

"I said, Kris, you know, maybe we should start a company using this clothing, because this clothing is outrageous!" Bruu explains. Fichera responded immediately with a company name: Livn' Out Loud, and the two brainstormed a business plan. "The whole thing culminated inside of an hour," says Bruu. "We knew exactly what we were going to do within one hour."

Since that hour, Livn' Out Loud has gained thousands of customers, spots on talk shows and magazines, and an endorsement from Alec Baldwin.

"If you can just really enjoy your life and live it for you—respectfully—you feel lighter. The world doesn't seem so heavy,” Bruu says.

Women and Children First: Linda Bubon and Anne Cristopherson

Linda Bubon and Anne Cristopherson were graduate students at the University of Illinois in 1979 bound by two loves: feminism and literature. In the common predicament of cultured, activist book-lovers surveying their futures, they knew they wanted a professional life that would sustain their passions as well as their wallets.

“We wanted to do work that we thought there was a real point and purpose to,” Cristopherson explains. “To make a contribution to the political and cultural life.”

So in 1979 Chicago, they opened Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago. The cozy space carried publications of women writers as well as children’s books that featured diverse, nontraditional plots and female protagonists. But, even then, the bookstore was more than just a bookstore. Customers and workers soon recognized it as a community center for progressive, grassroots causes. Linda Bubon, a professional storyteller outside her duties as co-owner of WCF, runs a weekly children’s story hour.

“Our focus was on the feminist community and underserved populations; like women of color, the lesbian community, and children,” Christopherson says. “We help to strengthen our communities.”

Now, three decades and two moves later, in a 1600 square foot store, Women and Children First is a mainstay of the Chicago community. It’s a necessary stop on the lists of major writers on United States reading tours; Alison Bechdel, Andrea Dworkin, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are among WCF’s visiting literary heavyweights. And politicians have more than just taken notice of WCF’s role in the community; when Ohio Democrat Barack Obama decided to run for the United States Senate in 2003, he chose WCF as the site to make his announcement.

Despite the pressures of rising rent, taxes and bookselling chains constantly muscling business away from independents, Women and Children First provides health care for all of their full-time staff and chooses one grassroots community organization each month to benefit from 10% of WCF’s total profits. When you put the community first, it responds in kind.

The Learning Advantage: Judith Carter and Kathryn Norcop

Judith Carter was one of the most popular teachers serving special-needs elementary students in her Santa Clarita, California school when she learned that summer school, an essential service for her students, was being cut by the state in 1980. Carter was used to challenges; as a Peace Corps volunteer a few years earlier, she’d arrived in Sierra Leone at the time of a major coup. Carter knew how to turn setbacks into opportunities.

Her partner, Kathryn Norcop, was earning her MBA and eyeing a start on her own business. “We just said, ‘Hey, let’s dive in.’” Norcop says. A student’s parent lent them the use of her downstairs home, and the business partners launched The Learning Advantage, a tutoring center that would build an individualized plan for each student. It was a first for the community; a mom and mom operation that focused on education before profit and operated as an extended classroom, not a franchise. Carter was a teacher known for her compassion, going so far as to seek out sympathetic doctors and orthodontists when her low-income students needed medical care or braces, and her reputation complemented Norcop’s shrewd eye as a business manager.

“There are a whole variety of learning styles,” Norcop says. “A surprisingly small amount of people function well in the school system as it’s designed now. The rest of us kind of fumble our way through it. But we carry the model of ourselves as learners throughout that experience. If you’re ‘ADD’ then you don’t get a sense of yourself as a learner because the environment is not set up where you can learn.”

Now, the business partners oversee a staff of fifteen teachers and 150 students. “We have a very high success rate,” Norcop says. With Carter’s uncanny sense as a diagnostician—constructing what a child needs out of a learning program—their reputation continues to grow; ninety-five percent of the parents who contact The Learning Advantage end up as clients. And Carter and Norcop offer scholarships and sliding-scale rates for willing low-income learners.

Citizen Cake: Elizabeth Faulkner

As a child, Elizabeth Faulkner wasn’t satisfied with the state of her chocolate chip cookies. “I got really obsessed,” she said. “I started making my own recipes. I was always trying to tweak it a little, make it better every time.” When she began creating cakes as a professional chef, she was as unsatisfied with the round, traditional look of them as she was with her original chocolate chip cookies. “I was always transforming the cakes into more sculptural pieces. At some point I thought, this is crazy, somebody’s gotta’ open a pastry shop in San Francisco.”

So Faulkner did: Citizen Cake. In the nine years it’s been open, Citizen Cake’s artistic, modern approach to old classics has garnered the attention of the Food Network, Gourmet, and the James Beard Foundation. One food critic wrote, “please, let me stop raving about this place, it’s embarrassing.”

 “Making food and building restaurants is kind of like creating scenes,” Faulkner said. One mouth-watering restaurant event featured half-naked women dipped in chocolate from the waist-up. “I love eating in a place where from the first course to the last course, I don’t feel like a pig, I feel like I’ve had a symphony of ideas.” Faulkner laughs. “I’m much more of a rock band musician than the conductor of a symphony.”

Last year, Faulkner’s traditional HRC auction item—cooking dinner for 20 guests—went for $26,000, earning her the Charles M. Holmes award. Delicious.

Materville Studios: Lisa Hernandez, Katie Jacobson, Martie Maro

The members of the band Stewed Tomatoes discovered what many musicians discover in their college years; they needed to live music, professionally and personally. Kathryn Jacobson, Martie Marro and Lisa Hernandez played the requisite open-mic nights, set up a website for their group, and faced the daunting schedules of gouging recording studios who rent out space to struggling musicians.

“We went through several band members over the years and we realized that what we needed was what we already had: each other,” Jacobson says of their professional beginnings. “We decided to do it on our own, by ourselves.”

So, eschewing any musical assumptions about the impossibility of a non-combative, successful trio, the three friends founded Materville studios in the early Nineties (“mater” being an affectionate nickname for “Tomato”). The studios offered reasonable spaces in which musicians could practice, as well as video and web production for clients. Since then, the trio’s struggles and successes in the music industry have garnered them eclectic, high-profile clients like Francis Ford Coppola, Margaret Cho, Cydi Lauper and Ilene Chaiken.

“Our ability to adapt and learn is one of our unique aspects,” says Jacobson. “Another unique aspect is that we all live together and make music together … a lot of times people see us as one person.”

It’s a friendly synchronicity that’s kept the friends both professionally and artistically successful over the years, even in a male-dominated industry full of challenges. “We don’t look like your typical businesswomen. A lot of people tend to judge you right away from what you’re wearing and how you look. A lot of them see a shaved head and think, ‘oh, lesbian.’ I think that’s less and less of an issue. I think one person at a time we’re knocking those issues down.”

Zona Designs: Zoa Martinez

When Zoa Martinez jumped into a wheezing pickup truck to move to New York City with a friend a few decades ago, she didn’t fear the monstrous challenge the city usually represents to young artists who leave college early. “Obstacles? That’s not a word that’s in my vocabulary,” Martinez says. “I didn’t see any obstacles. I just kept going.”

What stayed with her throughout her fast-paced life was a constant sensitivity to color and environment and a desire to channel it into creation. And companies noticed. NBC hired Martinez as a designer and soon Martinez joined ABC, where she remained for ten years, while also doing projects for VH1 and MTV. The inherently restless, courageous artistic spirit Martinez exhibited years ago as a college dropout thrives now with Zona Designs, the firm she co-founded in 1999, targeted at the youth, Hispanic, and general populations. Its tagline is, appropriately, “Design Made to Move.”

“We’re bold and we get right to the point,” Zoa says, laughing. “I wonder where that comes from?”

As in Martinez’s history, movement is infused in each of the Zona Designs. The opening credits of the History Channel, HBO, ESPN and BBC (all by Zona) are startlingly colorful, sharp, fast-flowing and diverse—functioning as multimedia installations in themselves. It’s the kind of vision that won the firm an Emmy as well as high-profile clients like A&E, AOL/Time Warner, and the Discovery Channel. Beyond the accolades, Martinez remains in love with the process of artistic creation. Even during this interview, she wonders out loud about writing a book and perhaps starring in a movie. You go, girl!

A Lesbian’s Life: Donna Mete

For Donna Mete, establishing A Lesbian’s Life was not so much a business venture as it was a spiritual conversion. There was no need, materially, for Mete’s career change; as a conference and tradeshow owner, she was wealthy enough to be the member of a yacht club. But she was troubled as a woman and a lesbian by what she observed in popular culture.

“We still only see a fraction of who really makes up this enormously varied lesbian community,” Mete says. “I became tired of feeling alone in my experience as a woman and as a lesbian.”

So Mete made her life A Lesbian’s Life, a media portal that begins as an Internet community for lesbians and will eventually grow into a television show, a social meeting place and published books. Mete uses a blend of spirituality, psychological guidance, and professional advice to communicate with her audience of women. The website calls for interviews with lesbians who wish to participate in the filming of a television show—Mete will pitch the show to cable networks—a certified therapist provides essays on dealing with breakups and myths about lesbian physicality. A discussion board provides a forum for lesbians who want to touch base with each other.

“Most of the world believes we lack money, beauty, interest or sophistication,” Mete says. “Sometimes I feel like we are just a yawn away from extinction. But in the end, it is because we have very little visible presence in the world. A Lesbians’ Life is trying to change this in several different ways and obviously the first is in becoming visible, having a voice and being out and in the world where we belong.”

If all goes as planned, Mete may soon be the lesbian answer to Dr. Phil, albeit a more attractive and all-inclusive version—which is just fine with us.

eenamaria: Sarah Morgan

Design company eenamaria caters to the stylishly spare notion that no matter how nomadic you are, there’s no excuse for not looking good. As a child who divided her time between boarding schools in Wales and summers in Canada before settling in Brooklyn, Sarah Morgan is living proof.

“We’re not a cutting-edge fashion house,” says Morgan. “We have our own aesthetic. We’re not chasing what Paris Hilton is wearing.” Instead, women like Margaret Cho and Lori Michaels are chasing what Morgan is making—lines of uniquely crafted home and fashion accessories named in homage to the equally singular neighborhoods of Brooklyn. They’ve taken notice of Morgan’s signature Sterling Belt Bags. These low-slung leather belts with pockets that recall century old Welsh military uniforms are the perfect accessory for fast moving urbanites. Morgan says her customers are “modern nomads” who require beautiful but lightweight fashion accessories in their maneuverings of constant travel and international identity.

Morgan began her professional career in television and music, working on her father’s Canadian television show and for David Byrne. But she remembered what inspired her when she was young; at 14 she won her first design award for a wall relief constructed out of a conch shell, resin, tissue paper and copper wire.

“The main thing I realized working in the arts,” Morgan says, “was that I enjoyed it as a hobby, but not as an industry. When you have a craft, you have to love it. Otherwise it’s pretty vacuous.”

Morgan went on to win a coveted spot in the Pratt Institute Industrial Design Business Incubator. With the support of Pratt staff and students, Morgan established eenamaria with her Brooklyn apartment as a design workshop. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, eenamaria is sold in 9 places and boutiques in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Japan and Colombia are right behind. As community conscious, as she is business-minded, Morgan donates 10% of her profits to the Surfrider foundation and working with local kids to teach them about design.

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