The impact of women-owned businesses on the Central New York region and nation is significant and continues to grow. Across the nation, about 36% of all businesses are women-owned, and they account for more than 12% of all sales and more than 15% of employment, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
There is an additional 2.5 million businesses that are owned equally by women and men.
Women-owned businesses appear in every industry group, but are more prevalent in the service sector.
Oswego County Business magazine recently spoke with six highly successful businesswomen in the area who have made a difference as valuable members of the community. It provides their insight on what motivated them to start their own business and keys to their success.
Producing and serving ice cream in Onondaga County for nearly 40 years
By Mary Beth Roach
This statement from Eileen Gannon, president of Gannon’s Isle Ice Cream stand, is an understatement, to be sure. For many Central New Yorkers, especially those in the Valley and Onondaga Hill neighborhoods, it’s not robins that signal spring, it’s the annual opening of the stand at Valley Drive and West Seneca Turnpike.
This spring, however, the coronavirus pandemic posed drastic challenges for the business, especially since “ice cream is a social thing,” as Gannon put it.
Opening in mid-March, they were forced to close for several weeks, but they reopened in early May, having streamlined their menu and put in measures in place to make sure their workers maintained proper social distancing.
Gannon and her brother, John, have been running the stand for 38 years now, ever since she graduated from York College and had trouble finding a job.
Their father, Bill, had owned a grocery store at that Valley location, along with an adjacent vacant custard stand, and he suggested that Eileen open it up. So they got a soft-serve machine and a freezer and got started.
As president of the company, Eileen Gannon does all the ordering, supervises the staff and handles the scheduling. And of course, she is a taste tester, which is the best part of the job, she said.
“I love ice cream. I try to take a walk every day so I can get away with eating ice cream,” she joked.
She’s not alone in her love of the treat. The business has become a destination for many people.
“It’s really neat to feel you’re making a product that people really are happy about. That’s probably the best part of the business. People come here if they’ve had a lousy day, something miserable happened or if they’re celebrating something,” she said.
Over the nearly four decades in business, the pair opened their second store about 20 years ago (in the Shady Brook shopping plaza on McDonald Road on Onondaga Hill), started a mobile cart operation, and started a catering business, which has proven to be very successful.
Gannon had had a shop in the Centennial Building (the former Dey’s store) in downtown Syracuse, but it closed after several years, Gannon said. Sundays are the biggest ice cream-buying day of the week, and there wasn’t a lot of business downtown on Sundays, she explained.
They have also started to be innovative in their menu. When Ben & Jerry’s started adding mix-in ingredients to their ice cream in the late 1980s, “we couldn’t just have vanilla, chocolate and strawberry,” Gannon said. So, they began started creating some funky flavors, as she said, and she has even attended the world-famous ice cream course at Penn State.
Their pumpkin flavor has become so popular that its sales have allowed the Gannon’s to stretch their season into December.
After all these years in the business, Gannon said it’s their customers and employees that fuels her passion. Currently, they have 57 part-time employees, mostly high school and college students, and one full-time staffer.
“I enjoy the customers. I enjoy the people coming in. I really like working with the younger kids. They’re a lot of fun. They keep you young. You get to teach them. I have kids come back all the time, all grown and say this is the best job they ever had. That’s a great compliment,” she said.
A busy mom of six continues to grow her flower business
By Mary Beth Roach
The business, located near the Kasson Road and West Seneca Turnpike intersection in Syracuse, consists of several greenhouses, outdoor displays and the Garden Café. It sits on the land that she and her husband, Glenn, a dairy farmer, own. Cox and her small team of workers, numbering about five, cultivate other parts of the property to produce the plants and herbs they sell. They also offer classes and workshops and create one-of-a-kind planters for their customers, in which they bring in their pots and Crazy Daisies makes the arrangements. In 2018, Cox opened her Garden Café on the property, which has become a destination.
“I don’t stop,” said the businessowner and mother of six.
Cox opened Crazy Daisies when she was 6 months pregnant with her youngest in order “to raise my kids,” she said. Because of the proximity of her house to the business, “the kids could stand on the back porch and yell for me.”
While she admits she doesn’t have a background in flowers, she has a great entrepreneurial spirit. Her in-laws own The Pumpkin Hollow, on West Seneca Turnpike, well-known as a pumpkin farm and a favorite attraction during the fall. She would bring a food truck she owned to the Pumpkin Hollow during the busy season, and it became the ice cream stand there. She then began purchasing plants wholesale and retailing them.
Now, she and her team cultivate 40,000 to 50,000 plants, she said. She had taken a master gardener course, but said she learns a lot more “just doing it.”
To be self-employed, “you have to believe in yourself. You have to be a self-starter,” she said.
“I’m so passionate about this business. I can sell the plants because I love them,” she said.
While she’s growing her plants, she’s been growing her business to be a more robust enterprise. The greenhouse stays busy, starting in mid-February, when she begins the planting. In April, she has hosted what she calls garden parties, when guests come to the greenhouse, put a planter together and return to pick it up in May. (They were not able to do the parties this spring due to the coronavirus.) She also helps to create the large planters outside some area businesses, including Pastabilities in Armory Square and Stack Veterinary Hospital on Velasko Road.
While the café is available for events all year long, it’s become very popular during the summer months, due in part to its outdoor seating and its farm-to-table menus. When they first opened the café, they did breakfasts on weekends only, but last year, they got their New York State Farm Winery license.
“We’re doing our best to take what we grow here and put it on a plate there,” she said, adding when possible they garnish their drinks with herbs from her gardens. They also will use local and regional vendors for products.
“We’re trying to keep it very simple, very fresh, very well-sourced,” she explained.
Being a seasonal-type enterprise can be challenging, but by expanding her brand and offering a variety of programs and services, like the Café and the workshops, for example, Cox is attempting to create a more robust business model that will provide income for more months during the course of the year.
“It is challenging,” she admitted, “but the busier we become, the more I can deal with the challenges.”
But there’s obviously perks for her. She is able to involve her family in the business and they’re able to be outside all the time. “I feel like we’re more connected with nature,” she said.
‘The Medicare Lady’ builds her own successful business while helping those eligible for Medicare plug into essential benefits
By Lou Sorendo
“The Medicare Lady” has mastered the art of connecting Medicare eligibles who have valuable government coverage — such as Medicare Part A and Part B — enhance their benefits with more coverage in their golden years.
Theresa Cangemi, CSA, CLTC, has certifications as a certified senior adviser and in long-term care. She educates those eligible for Medicare on how the system works and helps those eligible to find a plan that fits their health care needs and prescription drug requirements.
Cangemi resides in Brewerton, Onondaga County and is known as “The Medicare Lady,” her trademark that protects her identity and tagline.
“When I started my business, my clients started calling or referring to me as ‘The Medicare Lady’,” she said. “So one day, it occurred to me that I would use the term as my tagline and I trademarked ‘The Medicare Lady’ to protect my branding.”
In terms of her general duties and responsibilities, Cangemi helps the Medicare-eligible population understand what Medicare is all about, the various options, how to go about picking a Medicare health care plan, and she walks clients through enrollment paperwork.
She also teaches a “Medicare Principles” class at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Counties BOCES and occasionally at Natur-Tyme. Cangemi is paid a commission by the insurance company when her client enrolls in a plan.
“Various companies will reach out to me to request seminars for their Medicare-eligible employees to teach and educate how to get started with Medicare, when to enroll, when is the best time to leave employment, when should they sign up for benefits, and answer questions to help them navigate the system,” she said.
Cangemi owns and operates Medicare Made Simple, LLC.
“After college and during employment with various companies, I saw the opportunity to change the way business operates. I also wanted the freedom to create, have my own ideas, implement those ideas, succeed or fail on my own terms, and treat people the way I want to be treated: honestly and given options,” she said.
She started as a Medicare specialist in 2008 and incorporated the business several years later.
Her duties include marketing and advertising, meeting with clients to explain Medicare and enrollment options, walking clients through paperwork, ensuring that paperwork is submitted so a client has health insurance coverage on time, attending vendor events, putting on seminars, teaching, bookkeeping that includes tracking expenses, attending annual trainings, and working toward annual certifications.
Climb to the top: Cangemi previously worked for Northwestern Mutual, OneBeacon Insurance, and Paychex.
“From when I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to do my own thing. At that time, I just didn’t know what ‘my own thing’ was,” she said. “I knew that I would follow the path of college and employment and learn how business works. I have worked in the insurance field since college when I got the opportunity to work for Paychex, way back when Paychex started payroll deduct health insurance. Paychex licensed me and taught me group health care insurance.”
This is where she got the training that led her to where she is today.
“My driving force was really the passion that I could create a better ‘mouse trap’ or way of doing business. I didn’t want to be stifled by another’s ideas that did not make sense to me or that were not ethical,” said Cangemi, who noted she wanted to be in charge of her own time, success, and failures.
“And best of all, I wanted to have a business where I could contribute something meaningful
to help others,” she said. “A business where I could define or create what my business is all about, my brand, and how I can make a difference one client at a time.”
Cangemi got the inspiration and idea one day when she received a postcard that offered an opportunity to be an independent agent offering Medicare insurance plans to the Medicare-eligible population.
“So I called to get the information and at first was reluctant because I would no longer be an employee with a weekly paycheck but would be earning a commission based on enrollments,” she said. “I would have to depend on myself and my abilities to earn an income.
“After much thought, I dove in and learned quickly to get up and running.”
Cangemi said she did have rental income property to fall back on, but that would not be enough.
Cangemi states she put grass roots marketing ideas in place. “I reached out to my community,
family, and friends to let them know that I made a career change,” she said.
However, Cangemi said the decision wasn’t easy and she had many sleepless nights, especially with a mortgage and two small children at the time.
Cangemi started her business offering Medicare plans from one insurance company and as enrollments grew, her clients expressed that they wanted more choices to choose from than what she currently offered. After listening to her clients, Cangemi decided to become contracted with many insurance companies and their Medicare plans. She has since become affiliated with approximately 10 insurance carriers and now she is almost 100% referral based.
Cangemi said her educational background, work ethic, creativity, taking all calls, answering random questions, being a trusted adviser, offering guidance and facts and not simply selling, and “doing what you say you will do have led to my success.”
She said in order to be successful as a manager or owner, “it’s important to treat others as you
want to be treated, really listen, be trustworthy and honest, and be authentic.”
Adjusting to ‘New Normal’: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Cangemi said it changed the way all businesses operated.
The Medicare-eligible population who were previously reluctant to meet over the Internet became open to the idea, in March when COVID became a reality, and figured out quickly how to get on a Zoom video call and use the technology, she said.
“Those who did not have a computer or iPad, such as one client, used a spouse’s work computer. Another client had their child help get them online,” she said.
Insurance companies that included telemedicine this year (2020) in their health insurance plan(s) saw an increase in usage, Cangemi added. “Telemedicine (meeting with a doctor/nurse online) has become the ‘go-to’ way to communicate during COVID-19,” she noted.
“During this pandemic, people have been quarantined and don’t want to leave their home
or are reluctant to seek medical treatment,” she said.
Meanwhile, insurance companies are waiving co-pays for services that include doctor visits, COVID-19 testing, flu shots, and more.
“Telemedicine will be the ‘new norm’ along with no-contact drive-through testing and home testing kits,” said Cangemi, noting stores like Target/CVS and Walgreens have been getting more involved in health care.
Cangemi said her advice to students preparing for a career in business would be to get their “feet wet” first.
“As a student you may not always know what career field you want to get into. It’s OK not to know when you are young and starting out. You may change career fields many times. What you can do to prepare is to try a job shadow, while in school, in an industry or field of work that interests you,” she said. “First, learn how the world and business runs while earning a paycheck. Open a bank account, understand credit and how to use it responsibly. Set money aside and save for that rainy day.”
Cangemi said customer service, responsiveness and caring are lacking in today’s world.
“The better at customer service you are, the better your customers will respond to you, come back to you, and stick with you. You’ll earn their respect, and thereby grow your business,” she added.
Cangemi’s significant other is Dr. David Cifra, DC a spine specialist who helps those with debilitating back and neck pain heal non-surgically with a trademarked procedure called Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression.
She has two grown children and enjoys her work helping others, landscaping, traveling, and spending time with family and friends. Cangemi is a Le Moyne College graduate.
For more information, visit www.MyMedicareMadeSimple.com.
Entrepreneur juggles running three separate businesses
By Mary Beth Roach
This is how Nicole Samolis describes herself and what drives her in creating and running not one, but three businesses in downtown Syracuse.
She is president of The Events Company, SkyArmory and Epicuse, along with being the general manager for SkyArmory and the market manager for Epicuse.
She has 100% ownership of The Events Company, and 60% ownership of SkyArmory and Epicuse. Her husband, Kevin, joined the business as The Events Company marked its seventh year, and is the chief financial officer. Together, they rehabbed a large building in downtown Syracuse to house those companies.
The coronavirus pandemic has really been testing her resourceful spirit.
“You have to be creative and innovative and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
Because Epicuse is a market with some grocery staples and prepared foods, it has stayed open and has seen growth as a start-up, she said. But the SkyArmory side of the business, which hosts weddings, conferences and other such functions, has seen a significant loss.
For example, the facility was scheduled to do 80 weddings this year, and of those about 40 have booked for next year. Before the pandemic, she had about 45 employees, 25 of whom worked 30 or more hours, the balance being part-time. Today, the businesses have eight employees, who work between 20 and 40 hours a week.
Samolis started The Events Company about 20 years ago in downtown Syracuse, and worked with clients to develop full-scale festivals and private functions, such as weddings.
Her travels to other cities, she said, made her aware of amazing venues. She saw that Syracuse could benefit by offering more unique options. That was the genesis of SkyArmory, which opened in 2014 and boasts three ballrooms, along with a commercial kitchen. The Samolises were quick to realize that ordering for banquets often left them with surplus food, and having an outlet for it seemed like a good idea, she said.
As both residents and businessowners in downtown Syracuse, they knew that the neighborhood could use a place where they could purchase wholesome food products and prepared foods, Samolis said. So Epicuse was created and opened in mid-November. The storefront is in the 300 block of South Salina Street, and also includes space with several tables and chairs for those choosing to eat in.
Samolis grew up in Canton, a village in St. Lawrence County, and studied fashion design and business at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, with one year in Paris. She worked for two stores in Syracuse, including Lord & Taylor, when it opened in the Carousel Center, now Destiny USA. At that time, she had planned that she and her family would relocate when Lord & Taylor opened a store in Providence, but her husband didn’t want to move, and with her kids now in school all day, she was starting to look around for other career opportunities in the area.
“I bought a book about starting your own consulting company,” she said. Then she needed to decide what she could be an expert on. “So, I bought another book that talked about up-and-coming industries, and the event industry was in there. It fit my design, my creativity, the hospitality, the customers. It fit all the things I enjoyed doing and thought I was good at.”
She put a business plan together and secured two clients. “I said, ‘If I got two, I can probably get more,’ so I quit my job,” she said. She’s been adding to her client list and business profile ever since. They have produced more than 200 events per year, and their wedding bookings, which is a big part of their business, increased 47%between 2018 and 2019, she said. The businesses employ nearly 70 people.
“We’re highly optimistic people, but we also manage risk. We knew we had a good thing,” she noted.
However, that growth has had its challenges. “For me, the biggest challenge is growing teams, finding those key players to be on your team, to be able to let them do what they do best,” she said. “We have such an amazing team right now. We have people on our team that I see as my future leaders.”
With that team, she has created several public events at Sky, which have proven to be very successful. Being on Salina Street, the route for the annual St. Patrick’s Parade, they host a parade party and on a Saturday in November and May, they present “Night Market,” which Samolis described as a “shopping experience in a party atmosphere.” There are pop-up shops for local artisans and retailers, live music, cash bar and food for purchase.
The self-described doer isn’t done. She has more ideas she hopes to develop into businesses — finish part of their building into a bistro; develop a “glamping” site with her father and brother; and in retirement, to do consulting, traveling the world and “finding those diamonds in the rough that we would go in, submerge ourselves for six months to 12 months and help them transform and create.”
By Mary Beth Roach
Suzanne Kondra might only stand 4’10,” yet she’s cracked more than a few glass ceilings in her career as the head of a heating, plumbing and air conditioning mechanical contracting business, a field that is largely dominated by men.
“Some people would call me a spitifire, but in a good way,” she said, with a chuckle.
Kondra is the president and 100% owner of Potter Heating & Air Conditioning and Perrone Plumbing Services, located at 4004 New Court Ave. in Syracuse. When first entering the business nearly four decades ago, she found that she needed to prove herself in the industry, and she has been doing that ever since. According to her bio on the company’s website, in 1986, she was the only woman to complete a mentorship program in the Syracuse Builder’s Exchange for women and minorities, and she received her heating license in Central New York in 1993. She was the first woman elected president of the Syracuse Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors Association, and served four terms in that post. She is only the second woman elected as president of the Subcontractors Association of Central New York, and she was the first woman appointed by then-Mayor Stephanie Miner to the mechanical board for the city of Syracuse, and she has been appointed to the state workforce investment board. While she is very proud of all of these accomplishments, it’s her longevity in the industry that might just give her the most pride.
“When people hear that I’ve had a business for 39 years, that shocks people a lot,” she said.
Kondra and her then-husband, David Kondra, a plumber, had been friends with Homer and Betty Potter, owners of Potter Heating. Planning to retire, the Potters had asked the Kondras if they’d want to purchase their business, but David wasn’t interested initially. Suzanne finally persuaded David after three years that buying that business was worth the risk. Over time, they purchased smaller companies, like Perrone Plumbing, and about seven years ago, when David expressed his desire to give up his share of the business, Suzanne bought him out.
“I think sometimes women need to know ‘you can do it,’” she said — something she, herself, was told at a very young age.
Before she was even 10 years old, she said, she would sometimes accompany her father, Ernie Jaquin, to his job at the B&M Transport Company in Syracuse, where he worked as a dispatcher. The company, at the time, was being run by a woman, and Kondra recalls being very impressed by her. “I thought she was phenomenal,” she said. She would often tell the young Kondra, ‘Suzy, you can do anything if you put your mind to it.’
“I think that was a little seed that was planted way back then,” Kondra said.
While Kondra did not attend college, she has been gifted with a lot of common sense, which she believes has served her well over the years.
“I have so much common sense I think that has gotten me to where I’m at,” she noted.
And she plans to stay where she’s at for a while. She turned 73 in July and she said people keep asking about any retirement plans.
“I have no intentions of quitting or retiring because what would I do?” I like what I do. I love the people I have working for me,” she said. Currently, she has 21 employees.
For those who might be shocked that she’s had a business for 39 years, don’t be surprised if she makes it 40-plus years.
Sole proprietor does it all in her sign, promotion and print business
By Mary Beth Roach
As president, sole owner and sole employee of Plus Sign & Graphics, Parsons oversees the creation and fabrication of a vast array of signs and promotional materials, as well as the company’s marketing, inventory, sales and even some sign installation.
In addition, she can resource carved, 3-D, backlit and wayfinding signage for her clients. With some aspects of the business, such as accounting, she said she gets some assistance from husband, Mark Strodel.
Prior to launching her business in the winter of 2006-2007, Parsons had worked in advertising for the Syracuse Newspapers and in the family insurance company, Parsons & Cote. However, she decided that she wanted to find something that allowed her to be a little more creative, she said.
Her sign and graphics business, based at her Syracuse home, allows her the opportunity to bring her talents and experience together. As a native Syracusan who spent years in sales and service industry, she had been able to put together a network of contacts, which would help as she started the business and began to put together a client base. Today, she does work for Advance Media of New York (formerly known as The Syracuse Newspapers), Home HeadQuarter, New York State Parks and several nonprofits. She’s also an approved vendor for Syracuse University and is a NYS certified minority/woman-owned business enterprise (MWBE).
“I have a lot of resources and the industry is quite friendly. I have a lot of people in the industry that help me out,” she said.
Starting up her own home-based business came with a learning curve. With the industry becoming increasingly digital, Parsons has taught herself the necessary software and has come to learn how the application of her products and how the materials adapt to surfaces and environmental conditions. She also learned of the variety of resources in Syracuse for those wishing to start their own enterprise.
“I’ve been through a lot of training through Syracuse University to learn how to be an entrepreneur, and the resources that Syracuse University offers throughout the year have been tremendous,” she said. She found two projects of SU’s Whitman School of Management to be extremely helpful — the South Side Innovation Center and the WISE Program — Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship.
Like anyone in the business world today, she has found contending with the COVID-19 outbreak especially challenging. So many of her clients have had to shutter their businesses, and the days of doing business on a handshake may be over.
“I go with the old-fashioned way of just shaking hands, I can’t shake hands right now. This has been really hard for me,” she said.
Yet, she’s been able to adjust to some degree. Again, with her contacts and resources, she’s been able to secure sneeze guards, acrylic separators, and face masks for them.
The business is taking a different turn until things come back around, she said.
She continues to market every day and, as some of the businesses start to reopen, she’s seeing some signs of a promising return.