Trials are a universal human condition. In the Agamemnon, Aeschylus writes that “we must suffer, suffer into truth.” The Bible speaks of strength that is made perfect in weakness, and of our ability to comfort others coming from the comfort we receive from God in our own afflictions. And, completely anecdotally, I was always taught that the strongest trees grow in the most exposed places. (Turns out not to be true... apparently, it matters a lot what the tree is MADE of to start with!)
Whatever the principle, we know that it takes an uncommon strength to succeed as a woman in business. That’s what inspired Mary Lanaghan of MJL Studios (mjlstudios.com) to plan a “Strong & Beautiful” portrait series that she will unveil as gallery-sized art at the combined Business Women of Loudoun / CEO Consulting Group summer social at Oatlands Historic Home & Gardens June 7th (see loudounchamber.org/events for details on how to attend.)
Always a fan of strong women, and as a way of celebrating our own 5th Annual Women’s Issue, we decided to tag along on Mary’s photo shoots and ask each of these inspiring women about the challenges they’ve faced and what’s given them the strength to not only survive but thrive.
Special thanks go to Loudoun Medical Group (lmgdoctors.com) for donating portraits to two recent breast cancer survivors we singled out for their courage and the great work of breast surgeon Virginia Chiantella, MD at LMG’s Comprehensive Breast Center (vcbreastsurgery.com), and Mei-Hwa Firestone at LMG Cancer & Infusion Center who treated them. So first, meet Margot and Malissa.
Margo Fallon first noticed a lump in her breast in August of 2020 when no one was going anywhere because of COVID. Margo’s first thought was, “Other people get cancer. I don’t get cancer,” so she first had to overcome that sentiment to exit her “bubble” and seek treatment. Following a mastectomy, she learned that her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. On Dec. 21st – her birthday – Margo made a comment that it was her worst birthday ever, Dr. Chiantella remarked that it was her birthday as well.
For their birthdays the following year, post chemo and radiation, Margo celebrated by raising more than $2300 for the Loudoun Breast Health Network (https://lbhn.org/) which Dr. Chiantella helped to found. Then she decided, “I can do more,” so she joined the board of the organization “to start giving back to other women going through the same horrible thing.” She explains that the charity has two programs: the Pink Assistance Fund, providing financial assistance to Loudoun County residents who have been diagnosed with or are undergoing active treatment for breast cancer in the past 12 months, and the New Beginnings program which provides physical and emotional support to anyone undergoing breast cancer treatment. “I'm not going to sugarcoat it. When you hear that word, ‘cancer,’ it's horrible. It took a lot out of me. But when people tell you, ‘You can get through this,’ it helps.”
Frankly, she said, “I think I'm a better person now than I was before the diagnosis because I now understand more of what other people are going through.... I mean, I'm terrified of it coming back and I think everyone always is. But I'm trying not to let that fear hold me back, and I'm trying to be a person who can be there for others.”
Malissa Sexton’s family runs the Sexton Christmas Tree lot on Georgetown Pike in Great Falls behind the post office (sextontrees.com) The trees themselves are grown on Whitetop Mountain in Southwest Virginia, one of the largest Frasier fir-producing areas in the Mid-Atantic. They have been in business for almost forty years and enjoy being able to hire local residents for the holiday season. She’s always been a “giver,” so “being on the receiving end was challenging at first,” she admits. When she finally shared that she needed help on her Caring Bridge website (caringbridge.org), her community responded. “It was really important for me to lean in and ask for help because otherwise, it’s very lonely. I’m thankful that I did that.”
You met Lisa Adams in our profile of the Loudoun County Social Collective (citylifestyle.com/washington-dc/articles/life-and-culture/first-we-banish-the-trolls) But would you be surprised to learn that finding people who can use a hand and tapping into the small business community that cares enough to help isn’t all a bed of roses? “I feel very blessed to be able to see who needs help and see who can help and bring them together.” Although it can be challenging and take a personal toll, it's what my vision for the Collectives has always been -- to make a difference where it matters, she explained. It's hard for Lisa to relax even on a beach. So, where does she get her strength? “It’s 100% from God, absolutely. I may have a million other things going on but when I get back into the Bible, and I pray- it doesn't take a minute to get fully recharged and refocused. That's what keeps me going.” (Note that her next fundraiser, "Bubbles and Bling" is May 5th at Waterford Pearl. Check LoCoSoCo on Facebook for details.)
Lisa has help from friends like Aleena Gardezi. When they met, Aleena was a marketer for a nonprofit called Brain Injury Services (braininjurysvcs.org) which helps people after brain injuries. After meeting Aleena at an event, Lisa proposed raising money for the non-profit, but later confessed she was a bit overwhelmed with the rapid growth of the collective and needed help. Aleena offered to manage the more technical aspects of the Facebook group. With a third friend named Mercedes Taylor, they put together the first Christmas tea fundraiser. Along the way, Aleena was offered the opportunity to buy an escape room in Manassas (manassasvirtualescaperoom.com) and jumped at the chance. “I remember Lisa saying, ‘Great! Now the Collective has an escape room!” Translation: whatever you need, we’re all in it together. Aleena and her husband had been raising a 5-year-old son named Aaliyan they adopted from Pakistan, who has already offered to help answer the phones and take bookings when he grows up. We guess that is just the natural response for someone whose mom believes she can do anything with a little help from her friends.
Olga Johnson named her financial services firm Vessels and Johnson Financial Services (vesselsandjohnson.com) in honor of her grandfather Robert Vessels who succeeded in the lumber business through the Great Depression and her father Herbert Johnson Sr. who started a transportation business while a federal government worker and was always helping other families during tough economic times. Her own toughest time was losing her youngest son who died in a motorcycle accident. “When he passed, the bottom kind of fell out for me,” she admitted. They had worked together to found a nonprofit called The Empowerment Institute to help disadvantaged youth learn life skills and start businesses. After she moved to Ashburn to be with her oldest son and his family, she helped a domestic violence shelter called Bethany House of Northern Virginia, which helped restore her joy.
“I went through years of saying today I will enjoy today. I'm going to have fun today... I love people and I love being able to help people. I know what it's like to suffer loss, and how to pick yourself up and say, I'm still going to enjoy life as opposed to just exist.” She loves to laugh and often before going to bed will stream an online comic on her phone and just laugh out loud, “because laughter is healing.” She’s passionate about educating people about financial possibilities and ways to increase their bottom line. “I want to take the fear of discussing finances away. I want to offer a judgment-free zone.”
Jennifer Todling’s joy is dancing. She started with ballet, but now is a ballroom and Latin dancer. It’s how she met her current husband who was for a time her competitive dance partner. By day, she’s an audit partner at Ernst & Young, and an author working on her first book, tentatively called “Freedom Dance.” In it, she details her journey from age 20 to 35 in and out of relationships, including one that turned abusive. “The message of the book is really about figuring out what you want in life and going after it. I had to figure out how to leave [her abusive relationship] and start over and dance was a part of that.” Briefly, she stopped dancing when she married at 20. “Once I found the courage to leave, ballroom dancing was the way I could learn about people in a safe way and learn to trust again... I learned to reconnect with the things that bring me joy.” She now supports Women Giving Back and is on the board of Youthcast Media Group (youthcastmediagroup.org), an organization that trains high school students from under-resourced communities to report, write and broadcast stories that highlight solutions to the health, wealth, and social disparities where they live. She’s also working to “find the right groove” with a four-year-old daughter so both she and her husband can find time to dance.
Asked where she’s from, Ion International Training Center (ionitc.com) co-owner Mitra Setayesh says, “I’m Iranian. I grew up in Switzerland. I lived four years in Paris and I moved here 26 years ago so I’m from wherever you want me to be.” It’s the usual self-effacing comment from a woman who’s done far more than you might imagine. She speaks seven languages and considers herself a linguist, not solely for that proficiency, but because she also studied psychology and can interpret what people are trying to communicate on many different levels. She started three successful businesses before Ion, including a marketing strategy consulting agency. Having considered living in half a dozen places in the U.S. she actually chose Washington, D.C., as her home, and it’s where she met her husband, Romanian Olympic figure skater Luiz Taifas. While Luiz is often the “front man” for all on-ice events, it’s Mitra who wrote the business plan, lined up the investors; met with Leesburg and Loudoun County officials to win their support, and now manages some 13 departments with around 13 different business models. “Luiz dreamed it and I did it,” she says without a hint of hubris. Ion opened its doors in June of 2019 and then weathered the most taxing business disaster in modern memory, in part because of a highly detailed and well-crafted business model. “Usually, investors look for somebody who understands the business, right? And, of course, we have the best of both. We have Luiz who understands the industry and me who understands the business. The two of us work well together because where one’s expertise begins, the other one ends and vice versa. We never step on each other's toes. He never tells me how to run the business and I never tell him how to run the coaches and the teams.” Together, they open their doors to more than 850,000 people a year – a jaw-dropping number until you realize it includes nearly thirty hockey teams and their fans, a tournament that draws upwards of 4,000, 50 pairs of ice dancers, holiday performances and a robust concert series. (Get ready for Kool & the Gang on May 20!) “It’s a very heavy load,” Mitra admits.”It requires focus; you can’t look away at all, but it’s very rewarding.” At the depths of the pandemic when things got really rough I had to get away from all the talking so I would go through the back and go to the top of the bleachers and just watch the hockey kids practice. Their belly laughs and all the fun they were having would just feed me all that positive energy and remind me why I was doing what I was doing. It wasn’t Luiz’s dreams or ‘oh what will happen if the business goes under.’ It was all these people who would lose so much if we were to close. We have 128 employees, and I kept everyone on payroll through all the shutdowns. If it were just about yourself it wouldn’t be worth it. It becomes about them. You become irrelevant and that feeds you. That gives you a reason to push and to just not think twice about it,”
Since we last featured Donna Fortier, Mobile Hope (mobile-hope.org) has served more than 400,000 meals to family members through COVID, opened its Graffiti & Silk thrift store in Purcellville – and is preparing to open a second in Leesburg – soft-launched its trade school at its new digs at 302 Parker Court in downtown Leesburg and is preparing a capital campaign to finally purchase the building. “It will be a one-stop shop that incorporates training and empowerment for the homeless youth who come here. Here we impart life skills and do peer-to-peer training” to help otherwise homeless kids live independent and productive lives, she said. For now, she’s grateful to have signed a 15-year lease on Parker Court because the critically important charity has moved a dozen times in less than a dozen years. “My daughter eloquently reminded me that I’ll be 71 by the time our lease runs out and I said, ‘Thank you, honey. Thank you for bursting my bubble!’”
When fully constructed, the youth will have access to a Wellness Center and a gym with a boxing ring to offer therapeutic ways for kids to deal with stress. Mobile Hope now boasts a fleet of five vehicles including refrigerated trucks that help deliver food. And, of course, there’s the recognizable AirStream trailer which will house the trade school until renovation is complete. The nonprofit generally maintains a caseload of 50 to 60 kids for whom it provides housing and other services, but as many as 30 more might walk through the door in various degrees of being “precariously housed.” Donna explains, they’re either completely homeless, they just got kicked out or are about to be kicked out. Current staff is now around 12 or 13, down from a high of 22 during COVID. “We made the decision that some needed to be kicked out of our nest so they could get a true sense of what life is all about.” Many are “rockstars,” and they’ll be fine, but she’s always prepared for disappointment.
The work is emotionally draining, she says, so the process of hiring trainers is proceeding slowly to give potential employees a true sense of what it’s like to work there day in and day out. Wagner Grier, the former principal of Monroe Tech, currently heads the trade school, which operates less as an on-site training course and more like an apprenticeship program with partners in the trades. “The lifestyles our kids lead don’t often allow them to complete a formalized program. We embrace whatever is going on with them, whether they have no transportation, or have mental health issues, whatever that looks like, and we work with our partners to give them paid apprenticeships.” Either the business partner pays, or Mobile Hope provides a scholarship. Whether it affords youth the opportunity to see “what’s out there” or become serious about an industry, they at least experience the consistency of making money and being responsible. Each kid also receives at least two mentors – folks they can trust and rely on because most of our kids have been let down by the adults in their world.”
Donna says 12 years into the job of running Mobile Hope, “I still love it. I still love seeing when kids move forward and when they genuinely smile because now they're in a happy, safe place. As corny as that sounds that's truly what keeps me going – when these kids start to see their worth, and that happens a lot. Seeing that they come here during their darkest time and trust us to help move them forward is what keeps me going.”
Pam Jones and her husband Dave have together sold nearly 1,200 houses in and around Loudoun County through their company Extraordinary Transitions. She says she’s “incredibly shy,” yet manages to both call 25 or more people a day, and to steward the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce’s lead-share Groups as (self-described) “Poo-Bah.” She says she’s able to help homeowners through the toughest of circumstances by controlling her emotions – something she learned from her longtime business coach. Among the other things he taught her: never watch the news and surround yourself with positive people and ideas. “I figured out that shy does not pay the rent. I have an amiable personality. I care deeply about people. And after I learned how to control my emotions and stay focused on those things that are most productive, I can find the people who need my help.” She calls it grit. We call it “heart” – the kind of heart that drew her to serve as chair for three years on the board of Oatlands, Inc. And, we’ll add that, while she credits her business coach with helping her prioritize, her mother may have had something to do with her always seeing her glass as half full. She relates that back in 2009, when her mom was diagnosed with lung cancer, she’d get pneumonia on a regular basis and have asthma attacks. Regardless of the setback, she would always ask her doctor, “So how soon can I play golf?”
Then there’s Angela Espinoza, a Realtor at Berkshire Hathaway, not only supports small businesses by hosting networking events, but helps immigrants apply for citizenship. The latter work began back in 2001 when she established a multi-service insurance agency called Centro de Negocios working with the DMV to help Spanish-speaking motorists with their insurance needs. When she pivoted into Real Estate, her efforts to help people become independent made her the perfect person to call when a client is trying to find a nice place her kids can afford when it’s time they moved out! She prays for all her clients and recently graduated with an associate's degree in biblical theology. “So, I get my strength from the Lord. I really do. I depend on him wholeheartedly... If you remind yourself why you're doing something, you'll fight harder for it. You will make it happen.”
Our final trio of businesswomen have a range of experience but have all made community a linchpin of their success. Donna Thomas, or “Momma Donna” as her friends call her, established her own webpage (https://linktr.ee/mountainsidegals) to share all she has to offer her community, who adore her, so we feel like we’d fail a bit in shortening her story to just a few graphs. Briefly, after a cruelly harsh life of being passed around as a child following her parent’s divorce, she rose to become a VP at Xerox and now runs a LuLaRoe clothing boutique. She’s lost more than 400 pounds and now hosts a Facebook group called “Healthy Choices with Momma Donna from the Mountainside” to help others lose weight and is an internationally bestselling author. Donna Gilpin, is taking a break from being a therapist to help foster a taste for “clean crafted” wine and coffee from Scout & Cellar (see https://bit.ly/DonnaGilpin). And, maybe that’s its own form of therapy, right? And Leslie Kay has opened the Leesburg Beads and Studio (leesburgbeads.com) which is more than a bead store, but rather a place to come and explore your creativity in classes, or maybe just have fun with friends. Leslie enjoyed beading with her mother whom she was happy to consider a close friend before she passed. Having decided to turn her hobby into a business, she still hears her say, “Leslie, you've got this. You're strong, you're beautiful. You can do anything,”
As a portrait photographer in Loudoun County, Mary’s craft usually honors family in legacy portraits. Herself a member of Business Women of Loudoun, she more recently embarked on a campaign to capture the Strength & Beauty of local businesswomen, many of whom juggle home, family and philanthropy as well as careers. We’re grateful that she asked us along.