Long Beach Women-Owned Businesses Reflect National Growth

October 24, 2016 | Samantha Mehlinger, Senior Writer

From 2007 to 2016, women-owned businesses grew at five times the average rate of all businesses in the United States, according to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report by Womenable and American Express OPEN. Women-owned firms increased by 9% in that time period and now comprise 38% of the country’s business population, according to the report.

Overall, there are now 11,313,900 women-owned businesses in the United States, the report’s findings show. These businesses employ almost 9 million people. Since the recession, employment in women-owned firms has increased by 18%.

Balboa Capital, an independent direct lender based in Costa Mesa, recently found that the top three reasons women go into business for themselves are “to implement a new business idea or vision, to enjoy the freedom of being an entrepreneur, or to solve a specific industry problem.”

The growth of women-owned businesses is reflected in the Long Beach area women business owners profiled in this section. Each of these women struck out on her own, driven by reasons quite similar to those outlined by Balboa Capital.

Whether fledgling enterprises (like The Pie Bar, ARCA World Logistics) or more established companies (like TGIS Catering, EcoCleaning Inc., Encore Awards and MMS Dance), all the women-owned businesses in this section have grown since their inception. They’ve added employees and clientele, and they continue to look to the future with the hopes of expanding further.

The women profiled in these pages cumulatively employ hundreds of locals and serve a wide variety of geographic areas, from Long Beach to Southern California and even countries overseas.

*All photographs by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan

Laurie Gray

The Pie Bar   

450 Pine Ave., Long Beach

562/444-8743 • www.thepiebarlongbeach.com

Laurie Gray has been baking pies since she was a little girl living on a farm in Washington, where she and her mother would gather ingredients for their pies from their own land. Now, she sells her sweet and savory creations at her own business, The Pie Bar, in Downtown Long Beach.

“She was a stay-at-home mom, so she taught me how to bake everything from scratch and how to make pie crust. And we would roll pies,” Gray said of her mother.

Gray eventually started a family and entered a career in corporate management. “That kind of took me away from my love of baking for about 30 years while I raised my kids and got them off to college,” she said.

After working in various jobs in marketing, finance and management, Gray started a pie shop with a friend in Seattle, which she ultimately sold. She returned to the corporate world for another 10 years or so, later ending up as a manager at a nonprofit. In 2014, she was laid off. “They did a round of layoffs, and I was one of those to go,” she recalled. “It was a big surprise to me, and I still had a teenager at home. So I said, ‘What can I do to make some money? It’s the holidays.’”

Gray began baking pies from her home and selling them to friends. “It just took off from there,” she said. “I realized . . . that this was my true love. And I wanted a pie shop where people could come and sit with friends and family and enjoy pie.”

The Pie Bar quickly took off. Gray opened a pop-up shop at MADE in Long Beach on Pine Avenue (now MADE by Millworks) and began selling wholesale to local shops like Berlin Bistro and Steelhead Coffee. She also catered events and meetings.

In June of this year, Gray opened her store at 450 Pine Ave., where she has nine employees. “It has been a lot of fun. We are way above what I projected we would be in sales,” she said.

Gray’s biggest challenge is contending with the unknown – figuring out how to get from point A to point B with her goals. “You have to just keep pushing forward, and when you get frustrated or scared or don’t know what to do, you just have to take a leap and keep moving,” she reflected.

In the future, Gray hopes to expand her business to other parts of the state, and perhaps beyond.

Denise Knight

MMS Dance

324 Redondo Ave., Long Beach

562/433-5753 • www.mmsdance.org

In the late 1950s, Long Beach resident Marrillyn McDowell began teaching dance classes in her home garage. Thirty years later, she and her family built a studio on Redondo Avenue in Belmont Heights, where MMS Dance has been located ever since. Her daughter, Denise Knight, has served as director of the company since 1981 and has continued to teach classes as well.

Now, Knight’s daughter is assistant director of MMS Dance, making it a third-generation family business. “It is family owned and run. My mother passed away about 11 years ago, but we have kept the legacy going,” Knight told the Business Journal. “It was her passion, and we needed to keep that passion alive.”

Knight began dancing at age two and started teaching dance classes at the company around the age of 19. “My dance education was with my mother and with some other studios years ago that were here in Long Beach,” she recalled. “And then I went to L.A. and did most of my training there.”

After high school, Knight got married and had a family. She went back to school in her late 40s and earned a bachelor’s degree in dance from California State University, Fullerton when she was 52.

MMS Dance offers a range of classes to students of all ages – the youngest are two years old and the oldest-ever student was in her 80s, Knight noted. Specialties include ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, contemporary and conditioning classes for dancers.

Growing competition in the Long Beach area has been the biggest challenge for MMS Dance in recent years, Knight said. “Over the years, there have been many studios open in our general vicinity. There is a lot to choose from, and I would say that is the biggest change – we’re not the only one any more,” she explained.

MMS Dance is a neighborhood-oriented, family-friendly business that puts on two major productions each year – a holiday show and a year-end recital. Many students walk from their homes or from school to their afternoon dance classes, Knight noted. Past students have gone on to perform in professional dance companies and abroad.

“My favorite part is watching the students grow and excel in this industry and being able to share my passion with them – and watching how they soak that all in and enjoy it just as much as I do,” Knight reflected.

In the future, Knight’s goals are to continue offering quality instruction and to grow the business.

Sofia Riley

TGIS (Thank Goodness It’s Sofia) Catering

2950 N. Airport Ln., Long Beach

562/492-9555; www.tgiscatering.com

For Sofia Riley, an endeavor that started as a catering business run out of her father’s restaurant 27 years ago has grown into a full-service event production company with a 25,000-square-foot operation near the Long Beach Airport.

“I come from a family of great cooks. My father was a formally trained chef, and I think it’s just part of our gene pool,” Riley said. While not a formally trained chef herself, when Riley started her business, TGIS (Thank Goodness It’s Sofia) Catering, she did the cooking, the food preparation, the event service – everything. About a year later, she was able to bring in a chef, she said.

Riley found event staff where she could – like in her father’s restaurant. “My dad would have waitresses working [at his restaurant]. I’d be like, ‘You want to make some extra money and come work this event with me?’” Now, she has 250 full-time and part-time employees.

A lot has changed since Riley started TGIS. “I have to tell you, when I started the company 27 years ago, there was no Internet,” she recalled. “It was all word of mouth. That’s how I built the company . . . people that had either been to one of my events or knew someone that had been to one of my events.”

TGIS serves all the way from San Diego to Santa Barbara and as far inland as the desert, according to Riley. “We literally do thousands of events every year,” she said.

People are often impressed when Riley tells them that the largest event her company ever put on was for 7,000 people. But with one crew and just one menu, that was not her biggest challenge, she said. “It’s on those days where we’ll do 40 events in one day, and . . . they’re all different [menus]. And they’re all going out with different trucks and crews, and my parking lot looks like a highway,” she said.

One of the most memorable events Riley has done to date was a wedding – for dogs. Not knowing whom the wedding was for, her event staff showed up and found the pooches getting hitched on the beach. “The doggy was pregnant, and it was a shotgun doggy wedding,” she said, laughing.

One of TGIS’s newest clients is the Los Angeles Rams. Their contact with the Rams has told Riley he knows she has everything under control. “I think that says a lot right there,” she said.

Riley’s partner in business is her brother, George Marinos. She is also excited to have her daughter, who began working for her a few months ago, join the company.

Jessica Somera

ARCA World Logistics

2600 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste 160, Long Beach

562/343-7600; www.arcaworld.com

For the past 12 years, Jessica Somera has worked in various sectors of the logistics industry, including freight forwarding, importing, exporting and shipping. Her start in the business proved too corporate for Somera, a Long Beach native who wasn’t too keen on the traditional, buttoned-up environment. So eventually, she leveraged her skillset to start her own business.

Somera first started working in logistics after she graduated from college, when she got a job at a Fortune 500 freight forwarding firm. “It was very much corporate America, and as a young girl from California – I was born and raised in Long Beach – I really wasn’t into that lifestyle,” she said.

She quit the business but, after a few years working in retail, ultimately decided to come back to it. “The good thing about this industry is that it’s consistent, and there is always work to be done,” she said.

In 2014, Somera and her husband were living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and decided they wanted to come back to Long Beach. Her employer at the time supported her decision to move and start her own business. “They supported me 100% of the way. And I actually move a lot of their cargo for them now,” she said.

“I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur, exactly,” Somera said. “But I know that I have the heart to do it, and I know that I have the hustle to do it.”

ARCA World Logistics opened its doors in January 2015, with the help of other investors who are primarily silent partners, Somera said. She handles the day-to-day operations of the business, which has three employees.

“We offer an array of different services, [including] ocean imports and exports, and air imports and exports,” Somera said. “We also do trucking, ground transportation, as well as warehousing and distribution . . . [and] customs brokerage.”

In working for large corporations, Somera saw that small and mid-size businesses were often not prioritized in lieu of doing business with big box retailers. Those businesses are now her focus. “I reached out to a lot of startup companies. . . . And I really hold their hands through the entire process,” she said.

Some of Somera’s biggest challenges in running a business include hiring employees that fit into the business’s culture, she said.

“This is only our second year of business, and I’m so excited because we’ve had so much growth over the past year and a half,” Somera said. In the future, she hopes to open another office on the East Coast or possibly in China.

Mu Zhang

Encore Awards

1344 Newport Ave., Long Beach

562/597-8100 • www.awardsbyencore.com

 A native of China with an engineering degree and a master’s in international business, Mu Zhang worked in the corporate world for many years but has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, she told the Business Journal. This drive is what led her to become owner of Encore Awards in 2009.

After arriving in the United States, Zhang lived in Marin County in Northern California for some time and eventually moved to Long Beach. “I started my corporation, called GWS International Inc., in 2005 when I was also working for a major U.S. cosmetic manufacturer,” she recalled. She started GWS International with the intention of eventually purchasing a company, she said.

“In the daytime I worked at my job, and [in the] evening I worked at my own corporation,” Zhang said, adding that she worked about 60 hours per week. “By the year 2009, I accumulated enough money and purchased my current company, Encore Awards.”

Encore Awards was founded in 1984. Three years later, Encore acquired Hollywood Trophy, a business founded in 1969 that supplied the Golden Globe Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards and other awards ceremonies. Al’s Rubber Stamp of Whittier was purchased by Encore in 1997. In 2001, Jensen’s Rubber Stamp, a historic Long Beach business founded in 1929, was acquired.

Encore’s fabrication services include a variety of award and trophy types, professional gifts, crystal products with etchings, rubber stamps, promotional products, signs and more. “We have quite a few major accounts,” Zhang said, listing the Air Quality Management District, Intel Capital Global Summit and the Student Academy Awards as examples. “We’ve grown very nicely.”

All products are custom-made at Encore’s 4,500-square-foot Long Beach facility by Zhang and her five employees. “We are from California, but in reality, we are shipping all over the place,” she said.

Zhang’s biggest challenge as a business owner is competing in the Internet age, she said. The Internet allows competitors to offer similar goods at cheaper prices and lower quality by essentially talking their products up, she explained. So Encore competes by focusing on the quality of its products, she said.

“All businesses are different. So the key is to find your own strength, what you’re good at the most, and compete in that particular area,” Zhang said. Some such strengths of Encore’s include crystal products with etchings and acrylic awards, she noted.

In the future, Zhang said her focus is “growing the business and continuing to provide prompt, efficient and knowledgeable customer service as well.”

Monika Zuzanska

EcoCleaning Solutions

10841 Noel St., #105, Los Alamitos

562/794-9789; www.ecoclean-inc.com

For Monika Zuzanska, what began as a way to put herself through school became a bustling business and a whole new career.

The Polish native immigrated to the United States in 2001 in pursuit of opportunities and a better life after earning a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the Wroclaw University of Technology. She began working for a Polish couple who ran a house cleaning business in 2002 to help pay for English and accounting classes.

“At that time, it was good money and a flexible schedule,” Zuzanska said. “It helped me to go to school and learn English in the evening, and during the day I was cleaning homes.”

She began preparing to enter an MBA program, but her life took a different course when she became a single mother. In addition to being inspired to work for herself, she felt the need to go into business to support herself and her son. So she bought out the couple she had been working for and started Monika’s House Cleaning with 15 clients. At first, Zuzanska ran the business on her own, but in 2005 she hired her first employees.

As the business began to grow, Zuzanska noticed a trend – people were looking for environmentally friendly and nontoxic cleaning solutions for their homes. She rebranded her company as EcoCleaning Solutions Inc. and shifted her focus to cleaning with eco-friendly supplies. “They are safe, especially for the kids and pets,” she said. Using these products is also safer for employees, who don’t have to breathe in toxic fumes, she noted.

EcoCleaning Solutions now has more than 100 clients and serves the Greater Long Beach area, including Seal Beach, Rossmoor and other local cities. This year, Zuzanska moved the business from North Long Beach to a larger location with a small warehouse in Los Alamitos. “Having a real office, that was kind of a big moment for me,” she said.

One of Zuzanska’s biggest challenges is finding employees. Many people who respond to her job postings don’t have drivers’ licenses and aren’t legal, she said. “I set up the business so that everyone I hire is legal,” she explained, adding that she sympathizes with those she can’t hire due to legal status.

Currently, EcoCleaning Solutions primarily services homes and vacation rentals, but in the future, Zuzanska hopes to expand to do more commercial cleaning. Her business plan, which she developed during her time in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, has the goal of reaching $1 million in revenue by 2018.

 Long Beach Business Journal

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