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Leah Fallon with a list of Book Clubs

Featured Article

Women Rock Small Business Awards

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

It’s the nature of journalism to state the obvious, so forgive us if we point out that this year’s Loudoun Chamber of Commerce selection of outstanding small businesses resulted in the vast majority of winners being female. Bear Chase, represented on our cover by GM Chris Suarez, was of course the “big winner” this year, making off with Best Destination Site, People’s Choice and Small Business of the Year. We only recently profiled them in October, so we’re going to take a closer look at how women are transforming the small business landscape in Loudoun County, all the way to the top.

Angela Mitchell, Loudoun Chamber of Commerce Board Chair

At that virtual “top” for 2024 stands Angela Mitchell, Board Chair, Loudoun Chamber of Commerce and CEO of ARM Consulting, a nationally recognized Healthcare, Human Resources, and Information Technology Solutions consulting company. The company’s success in Loudoun spotlights the extent to which the area has become a center for not just data centers and IT expertise, but leadership in pharmaceutical, biotech, medical devices, telehealth, cybersecurity and systems engineering.

She is the third woman in a row to hold the role, and the first African American woman. If Angela has anything to do with it, she won’t be the last. “You know, I don't think we set out to make history in that way, by me being the first African American woman and only the third woman in the last few years to chair the Board of Directors, but it is happening. I want to make sure that, while I may be the first, that I'm not the last. Representation matters. I hope that when people can see others like themselves in this role that they can visualize themselves in it. This is a great county and I want to make sure people understand the impact they can make for others” as business leaders.

She adds, “I really want to keep our focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. We've been able to really make some impact by having an annual summit to bring together thought leaders and experts in the DEI space and we're able to help educate our membership,” she added. The goal: “so DEIA becomes part of the DNA of organizations and their businesses and not an afterthought.”

She models what she preaches as well: is the immediate past chair of the Coalition on Women & Girls, and the founder of a non-profit, Women and Girls Inspiring STEM Excellence, or WISE. Its goal is to mentor and tutor girls of color who are considering entering the STEM or IT workforce. “We want to make sure that we can continue to provide any comprehensive support that we can for them, because we need that talent.”

Last Fall she was named Changemaker of the Year by the Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties, and plans to turn the $10,000 award that accompanied the award into the Angela Stephens Mitchell Family Fund to award grants that help others change the world for the better.

Ferri Riar, Coalition on Women & Girls Chair

Ferri Riar, the current chair of The Coalition on Women & Girls, is a research scientist and biophysicist who’s spent much of her career on women’s health policy, but currently runs Orblynx Academy focusing on STEM education. It’s the coalition that received the Chamber’s Non-Profit of the Year award, and what a year it’s been!

The group focuses on how to serve women and girls in the community and has become best known for its Girl emPower Summit, which is largely organized by young female students in the community to help build leadership skills. In its second year of meeting in person, the summit tripled attendance and 95 percent of those who came said they felt very confident of their future goals. Mentorship and internship opportunities to come alongside other local businesswomen are a key component of the group’s networking, as is its new Loudoun Women’s Hall of Fame.

The latter, in its first year, honored artist Kris Loya, entrepreneur Kindra Dionne, Nest4Us founders Shreyaa and Esha Venkat, LCPS Principal Katie Johnson, medical ethicist Sigrid Fry-Revere, Interim Chief of Police Vanessa Grigsby, philanthropist Karen Schaufeld and Pastor Michelle C. Thomas, who all were heralded as “hidden heroes” with community impact in their respective fields. “You know, as women, when we climb a mountain, we don’t just say, ‘Why should we climb a mountain?’ We look for the next one, right?” Ferri said.

Nominations for this year’s awards will be solicited soon (see And, this month also should see the release of its 2024 Voices of Loudoun Women Pulse Survey, intended to identify and monitor the important community issues that impact local women. More than 800 responses, hailing from every ZIP code in the county were tallied for last year’s report which found the top three challenges women face are child care support, workforce connections such as educational or vocational skill training and certifications, and access to health care (including mental health). “The mental health stress on women in Loudoun County is higher than the national average,” Ferri commented, “perhaps because they are overachievers.”

Just listing the group’s accomplishments doesn’t really convey its cohesiveness; when the award was announced, dozens of board members and volunteers lept to the stage, tears in their eyes.

Natalie Ramos, Owner Fleur de Cuisine

Succeeding in the face of challenges was a recurring theme for many of this year’s winners, but none so much as Natalie Ramos, owner of Fleur de Cuisine Catering, Superior Service Business of the Year.

Natalie grew up rough bouncing between relatives in Florida and East New York, Brooklyn where she witnessed street shootings in her “ghetto” neighborhood and struggled for acceptance as the “darker skinned” daughter of an African American mother and Caribbean father. She traces her mother’s ancestry to her great-great grandmother, an enslaved Virginia woman who bore a daughter to the slave master’s son, and then fled North. Her grandmother was orphaned at a young age and became the single mother of three children. She felt her father’s family rejected her and struggled with self-acceptance throughout her life.

A dysfunctional marriage finally ended with a severe incident of spousal abuse that sent her to the hospital. Facing eviction with the younger of two daughters, she agreed not to testify against her husband if he would pay the back rent. Then he was gone, and she spent her first Christmas alone unable to either buy or light a Christmas tree because her electricity had been terminated. She relates how local groups like LAWS and Loudoun Cares rescued her when things were at their worst, and she now gives back with a passion. Just recently, we attended a special brunch she threw for shelter families with children who are being supported by The Good Shepherd of Northern Virginia (see story, p. x.)

She details the whole unvarnished, emotional story in a new book called Recipe for Life, coming soon from 846 Global Publishing. While it’s a tough read at times, it’s a page-turner infused with a lyrical, poetic sensibility. In it she and her daughter and business partner Tiana record their trials and triumphs, stopping just short of relating her more recent, meteoric success with not just Fleur de Cuisine but her new restaurant and ballroom / dining room in Lansdowne Woods of Virginia, a 55+ condominium community.

Of course, there are culinary recipes – singular ones that recall a lifetime of love and family togetherness – but also one that she credits for her current serenity and security in God’s love. The ingredients she lists are: 1 Mindset of Faith, ½ Cup of Family, ½ Cup of Finance, ½ Cup of Food, ¼ Cup of Fitness, and 1 Full Cup of Focus. “Start by stirring your mindset thoroughly until well-blended. Sprinkling a generous serving of family, a dash of finance, a pinch of food, and bit fitness and combine until smooth. Pour in a cup of focus over it all. Bake for a lifetime. Then consume.”

She’s always held the conviction that, “the miracles of my life, as well as the hardships, were merely God’s way of showing me that there was a purpose for my being. The difficulties and even traumas I experienced were not sent to destroy. They were sent to squeeze the greatness out of my like oil flowing from an olive.”

Still, what would bring a 45-year-old to write a memoir? This too, she did for others. “I hope that in those moments when your heart is particularly open, as you journey through those processes, taking those steps, somewhere, somehow, you are influenced and introduced to God. Knowing God helps you rationalize, change and, more importantly, hope. Here I am as an adult, and my life is filled with hope. It is filled with miracles and purpose. These are the greatest gifts.”

Shannon Curvey, Owner, Function-N-Fitness

Shannon Curvey, upon winning top Health and Wellness business honors, said, “First and foremost, I am eternally grateful to God,” adding, “It is super validating to know that others get what you're trying to do in this world. It is validating to know that my customers need and appreciate the services that are offered. This award today is tangible proof that I'm walking in my purpose.”

That purpose? Providing a bridge between healthcare like physical therapy and rehab, and fitness, when her customers are truly ready to return to their normal workouts and activities. She also is a gifted massage therapist and can accurately pinpoint and relax muscles that are causing pain – even if they’re far from where clients might assume the problem lies. It’s simple, she explains: “I help people to heal, recover and get back to the lives they enjoy.”

She, like many successful business women, have coped with adversity. “Let’s start with COVID,” she says wryly. “I started the business in 2015 and a few years later there’s a worldwide pandemic. The work that I do can’t be done six feet away!” She credits her success in attracting and retaining clients to the many relationships she has built in the community and the testimonials of her grateful fans. Her Spring training to prepare golfers for the links after a long winter have become virtually mandatory. (See And, just to make things interesting, she has also served as team trainer of the Virginia Hearts of the semi-pro Women’s American Basketball Association.

On the website,, you’ll find more information on individual training, Yoga classes and three of her books on fitness psychology, heart health, and the right nutrition for losing weight, all available for free download. So, if you’ve overdone your January fitness resolutions, February should begin here.

Christine Gacharná,

You met Christine Gacharná in Leesburg Lifestyle’s August issue (, but can now point to her as Loudoun’s Best Home-Based Business.

She created and built, which helps High School students craft their all-important college essays, virtually during the pandemic. Now she offers in-person seminars and one-to-one coaching sessions that not only help her clients become better writers, but the leaders on whom Loudoun will depend in future.

As important as her proven essay-writing methods are in winning her students serious consideration by college admission boards, her true gift may be in helping them evaluate what kind of college experience can help them become who they want to be. It’s a dose of reality many high-achieving seniors need at exactly the right time in their lives.

“To begin with, when they use the word ‘passion,’ I cut them off and I say, ‘I don't want to sound insensitive here, but I don't care what you hope for. I don't care what you dream. I don't care what you want. I don't care what your passions are. What I care about is what did that lead you to do?’ Because if it didn't lead you to do anything, a) you don't have a college application essay and b) we need for those interests that you're involved in to become academic interests.” The process of writing a successful essay thus becomes a process by which seniors’ priorities and goals solidify.

Christine tells each student that their mission is to “find a major that you're going to be able to graduate with and do something with. Just to go to college to get a ‘Mrs.’ degree or something that you're never going to use – I just don't see that as a good investment.”

Students who have life-tested their aspirations and can articulate what they expect from their education are “those that will come behind us and open businesses, and employ people and practice law or medicine or brew beer or open an HVAC company. They’ll do all the things that we are all doing in the business community, and be good at it because it’s what they were meant to do.”

That said, there’s only so much that planning can do to chart students’ future courses. Christine observes that, “These are students who are entering college and the jobs that they're going to do when they graduate, we haven't even heard of yet. That's how fast things are changing for them. They're flexing and pivoting and rolling with it. And they can do things that the generations before them can't. They’re pretty impressive.”

Regardless of what parents think, she adds that the right college for their student isn’t always the one with a “name brand.... There are a lot of really great things about a lot of great schools out there that people don't know about.” A person shouldn’t be judged by the school they get into: “Who you become has nothing to do with where you go. The contacts you make, the people you meet and the opportunities you take advantage of – that’s what fuels the fire that's in you.”

Leah Fallon, Birch Tree Bookstore

No fewer than 13 book clubs meet at Birch Tree Bookstore at 11 West Market Street, each with their own leader and genre to stimulate conversation and community. It was in fact community that drove Leah Fallon, a former teacher, to open the business in 2021, “because I thought downtown Leesburg needed a bookstore and a place to congregate to talk about books.” Meetings are free, and anyone can attend; there’s even a web page that lets members know what the book of the month is in every genre, in case they’re interested in broadening their horizons (see

She’d never run her own business, and she’d never been associated with bookstores, but her love of reading, and willingness to be vulnerable and ask for help when she needed it, helped Leah build her “Main Street Business” into a best of breed. The bookstore community, what remains of it in competition with Amazon, is “very connected and very supportive,” she says. But what makes the store truly compelling is a combination of its coziness and old-fashioned curation. Just inside the door is a shelf of employee and owner “favorites,” culled from the seemingly endless variety of recent releases. (It’s not the same, but you can browse the list online at

Like a good wine store, having someone to recommend something you might like in consideration of other books you’ve enjoyed offers a special layer of service to the reading experience that AI has yet to master. Because it’s so prominent and the bookstore is so popular locally, that shelf alone is worth a visit for its insight into the zeitgeist of local page-turners. Also in imitation of a good wine club, the shop has 200 members who each pay $49/year for a list of insider treats including $10 off with every $100 spent, exclusive access and discounts to special events, a free paperback of your choice on your birthday, advanced copies of books before they’re published and a guaranteed seat at the store’s most popular book clubs. There’s even a plant club to accompany the plant store the shop incorporates. Getting a book or a plant on your birthday is altogether nicer than a smiley face emoji on Facebook; it just has a greater sense of anticipation and belonging about it, Leah asserts.

Local authors also are celebrated, with their own special section as well as on Birch Tree’s Local Author Showcase on Independent Bookstore Day, Saturday, April 27th. Leah herself steps into the limelight Friday, February 23rd at 6:30 p.m. with a Shop Talk presentation she calls: “How to Protect Bookstores and Why,” based on the book of the same name by Danny Caine. (RSVPs are recommended.) Our take-away even without an advance on Leah’s speech is that a visit to Birch Tree is like a mental vacation, where you can relax and lose yourself in browsing your next great read in the company of others who love the experience – and now likely the place where you’re apt to find copies of Leesburg Lifestyle if you don’t already get it at home, or want to share a copy with a friend.

Melissa Hinton, Serenity House

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Melissa Hinton, our cover story last March (, of Loudoun Serenity House ( was the Chamber’s choice for Entrepreneur of the Year in acknowledgment of her dogged determination to marshal not just sober housing for men and women in Loudoun to support their recovery, but also a wealth of other educational, counseling, training and support services with the help of local donors and businesses.

New to their calendar is the Coffee Connections Café to help people in recovery in all aspects of their lives at the Recovery Community Center in Old Town Leesburg (29 N. King St. – check the organization’s events page.)

Melissa rounds out a group of truly extraordinary business leaders that make Loudoun a great place to live. 

  • Leah Fallon, Ferri Riar, Shannon Curvey, Christine Gacharná, Chris Suarez, Angela Mitchell, Melissa Hinton
  • Ferri Riar and Angela Mitchell
  • Natalie Ramos with Tina Johnson at a Sisterhood event she catered
  • Shannon Curvey at Small Business Awards
  • Christine Gacharná Displays her Award
  • Leah Fallon with a list of Book Clubs
  • Melissa Hinton flanked by Erika Rowe and Tony Howard

Businesses featured in this article