Phil Strazzulla – Founder, SelectSoftware

Phil Strazzulla is the founder of SelectSoftware, which helps HR buy the right software through free online guides.

Tell us about one of the toughest days of our life.

I graduated from college in 2008. It wasn’t the best time, but I was still able to get a job at a small finance company that I was very excited to work for. I’ve always been a finance geek, and thought that working in a boutique firm would allow me to get more exposure to decision-making and strategy.

Fast-forward a year later, and I had lost my job. It was the peak of the recession, and those in the media were saying that I would be part of a “lost generation” who’s career would probably never launch due to a lack of opportunity. The next year would be one of the hardest in my life and there were many times I thought that I would never get another good job.

I spent those twelve months subletting a room in NYC from an older couple who wanted a bit of extra cash. I worked at two startups for basically nothing in order to keep building my skills and network. I applied to hundreds of jobs, and went on well over 50 interviews. Most of these companies never hired anyone, let alone me, and the rejection started to take its toll on my confidence.

I finally broke through and got a job offer for a small consulting firm. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was enough spark to give me hope. I actually didn’t take the job, and in what was probably a very dumb decision, I instead rolled the dice to see if I could get my dream job working in venture capital. I’d been interviewing with a firm for a few months at that point, and they were close to making a decision on me.

I ended up getting the job, after being rejected by them twice in the previous months, but finding new ways into the interview process. From there, I went to Harvard to get my MBA (they liked the comeback story I guess), and then started my own business.

It was a very trying time, but the experience shaped me for the better. It started to build a muscle that allows me to fight through the various adversities inherent in starting a business, and gives me confidence that I can get through whatever comes my way.

Christy Velasquez – Founder & President, Orangewood Lane

I’m a chef from Los Angeles, California and moved to Lyon, France and started Orangewood Lane, which focuses on sustainable food tours and corporate events for international tourists and businesses.

Tell us about one of the toughest periods of your life.

It was about two years ago when I lost my boyfriend of twelve years. We met when we were both young. I was 19 and he was 23 and we shared a life together along with our two adopted dogs. When he passed, my world was turned upside down and everything I knew disappeared in an instant. It was a traumatic, debilitating, and life-changing event to experience at 31 years old.

The first year of his passing was the hardest. The milestones, as I like to call them, were the toughest to get through: birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. They’re all events I was hoping to sleep through and just waiting for the clock to strike midnight. That first year was also a wave of sadness, depression, confusion, and just a downward spiral of my life. I knew I needed to change things drastically to get out of this negative space I was digging myself into. I decided to take a chance and travel to France. I quit my professional job, packed my things, and traveled. I had my eat, pray, love moment and it changed my life. I slowly started to see what my life could be after such a great loss. I started seeing myself as my own person. There was my life before the loss of my partner and then there was my life after. I had the opportunity to change and recreate my life as I saw it. It was a blank canvas and I had the paintbrush. After a year of being on the road, I decided to settle in Lyon, France and started my own food tour business. I think about the past two years and how my life has changed. I think about what my life would have been if I didn’t lose my partner, but I also look at my life now and appreciate so much more of what I have and what I’m building.

Grief is a journey we experience after a great loss and it’s a different journey for everyone who experiences it. I know my grief will never truly disappear and I don’t want it to disappear. It’s a part of me. It’s a reminder of who I am and what my journey has been.

Deeanne Akerson – Co-Founder & CEO, Kindred Bravely

Deeanne Akerson is the co-founder and CEO of Kindred Bravely. As a mathematician and former teacher, Deeanne has always loved numbers and problem-solving, but she didn’t begin her journey as a business owner and entrepreneur until after she became a mother. A year after the birth of her second son, when she became frustrated with the lack of options in nursing wear, Deeanne started designing her own clothing. Soon after, Deeanne and her husband launched Kindred Bravely, which they lovingly refer to as their third child. Creating stylish, comfortable, and functional clothing is only one part of Deeanne’s vision; she wants to inspire a community of moms who support and empower each other, helping them to recognize their inherent value and beauty. When she isn’t busy with her boys or business, Deeanne loves running, hiking, backpacking, and traveling. She and her family are often found spending time at one of their favorite beaches in San Diego County.

Talk to me about the early days of Kindred Bravely.

Kindred Bravely started almost five years ago when my youngest son was one and still breastfeeding frequently. I was on the hunt for a comfortable pair of nursing pajamas, and they were on both my Christmas and birthday lists that year. After searching in all the stores close to me, I turned to online. While I found a few sets that were passable, nothing was exactly what I was looking for: they had to be comfortable, cute, and actually functional!

One night, late after our two boys were finally asleep, I found myself in the office with my husband (a serial entrepreneur). He was actively looking for his next business idea when I was trying on the nursing PJs I had ordered online. As I sorted the options, nothing was quite right. I liked the top of one set, the bottoms of another, the fabric of a third, but none of them had the drape I was looking for. I casually asked him if he would consider making breastfeeding/maternity clothing, as I knew exactly what a nursing mom was looking for. Well, he did a bit of research, and within a few weeks, we had decided on our first joint business venture together – creating comfort for new and expecting moms!

I started with exactly the product I was looking for, my perfect pair of nursing pajamas. They would be exquisitely soft, feminine, and stylish enough to wear all day even if company came by to meet the new baby. Soon, we were driving to Los Angeles every weekend to meet with a pattern maker and visit the fabric markets. After a few rounds of samples, we were ready to go into production. It took $7,000 of our savings to fund the first production, and we spent our nights getting ready to launch our brand with our first product, the Davy Pajamas in black.

It took a ton of work to do everything; mostly, because we were doing it ourselves or waiting for contractors to help at odd hours. Since we were still working day jobs, most of the work happened after we put our kids to bed. Of the first 500 sets ordered, I probably gave about 200 of them to friends, relatives, and neighbors – anyone who might possibly enjoy them and give some helpful feedback online. Then one day, someone placed an order, and neither my husband nor I had given them a promo code. Our first sale! What an incredible feeling that someone who didn’t know me personally wanted to buy what I had created!

Customers raved about how comfortable my first product was and they quickly gave feedback that they also needed comfort for their changing breasts – so the second product I developed was our bestselling French Terry Nursing Bra. That’s when we really gained traction, and when I realized that Kindred Bravely was going to be a success. Since that day, we have grown our team, which has allowed us to continue growing our product line. Over the next few years, our products were nominated for (and won) several awards that recognized our efforts to make moms’ lives easier and more comfortable. One of the products I’m most proud (and which took 2.5 years to get right from design, to concept, to patent) of is a hands-free pumping and breastfeeding bra.

Two years after launching, we were named one of Shopify’s fastest-growing online retailers, and we were chosen as one of the eight winners for the “Shopify Build a Bigger Business” award. We were honored to ring in the NYSE opening bell and receive mentoring for a week. In 2019, just four years after launching, we were honored to be named #20 on Inc.‘s list of the 5000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the USA! We’ve been recognized for our unique remote workforce of amazing mostly work-at-home moms who are committed to our vision and desire a place where they don’t have to choose between work and family. I’m committed to bringing mom’s comfort and community through Kindred Bravely, and I can’t wait to see where we go in the next few years.

Adria Gross – CEO, Medwise Insurance Advocacy

Medwise Insurance Advocacy CEO Adria Goldman Gross is a renowned figure in the New York area and across the country as a result of her extensive referral network of well-satisfied clients. Her clients are thrilled to refer friends and relatives in need of her unique talent as a Medical Claim Advocate, dealing with complex medical billing put forth by the interface of the healthcare delivery system and insurance marketplace.

Adria has over 20 years of experience in the insurance and advocacy field. She uncovers discrepancies in diagnostic or procedure coding, finds loopholes through which insurance companies attempt to deny claims, and helps attorneys, individuals, and families resolve medical claim matters usually reducing medical bills and liens. She is a hero to her clients and she makes lawyers “Superheros” to theirs.

With her background in the insurance industry, Adria brings to her work a depth of knowledge that few others have. She started her own business in 2007, and in spite of her own health issues, has grown that business and helped many clients who have been overwhelmed by their healthcare issues. She is considered to be someone who has great strength of character and who brings empathy and concern to her clients’ needs. She does not give up and truly goes the extra mile for her clients. Her colleagues can attest to her integrity and support she provides to them when they call upon her for help.

Ms. Gross worked for two insurance companies and now she used that knowledge to save clients big money. She has achieved extraordinary results for her clients by working out highly-beneficial arrangements for those that have exhausted all other options. Ms. Gross is the co-author of Solved! Curing Your Medical Insurance Problems and Multi-Payer Medicine Nightmare Made in the USA, endorsed by Ralph Nader.

With healthcare costs skyrocketing and the health insurance industry becoming increasingly complicated, Adria is an asset to our communities. She has saved her clients in excess of millions of dollars annually and received well-deserved accolades for her professional accomplishments, community leadership, and passion for service, ranging from the 2008 Insurance Professional of the Year Award (Insurance Professionals of Orange County, NY), to the 2009 Pinnacle Leadership Orange Award, to the 2011 Volunteer of the Year Award (Mental Health Association of Orange County), to being recognized as a “Woman of Achievement” in 2013 by New York’s WCBS Newsradio 880 and in 2016, and named The Advocate by Good Housekeeping.

Tell us about one of the toughest periods of your life.

The most difficult time of my life was losing my job due to having so many seizures and being overdosed with medication. The seizures were occurring due to brain damage from encephalitis which caused me to live with epilepsy, averaging 18 seizures a month, from the age of 11 until 35. Towards the end, doctors had me on 32 pills a day. I was able to get to the office but incapable of working until the medication wore off.

While all of this was going on, my ex-husband left me for another woman two weeks after I lost my job. Here I was, alone, out of work for 14 months, on disability and was provided $10 a month for food stamps. I worked so hard to try and change my life for the better.

After having the brain surgery, a left temporal lobe lobectomy, and successful recovery, I knew I would be seizure-free and could do anything that I wanted except becoming an airline pilot due to a minor loss of sight in both eyes. I remember taking a walk with my dad and telling him I can prove to be as successful as him.

As people would say to me that I was not able to do certain things in my life, I proved them all to be wrong. I’ve taught my children when someone puts you down, show them that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I experienced being degraded and criticized for many years of my life and worked as hard as possible turning lemons into lemonade.

Almost four years ago, I co-authored Solved! Curing Your Medical Insurance Problems and Multi-Payer Medicine Nightmare Made in the USA, both of which were endorsed by Ralph Nader. This book is a guide to help people with medical bill issues, the major reason for bankruptcy in the USA.

Laura Hatt – Founder, Dolphin Wood Soaps

Laura Hatt, creator of Dolphin Wood Soaps, found solace and strength when she discovered soap making and has infused her love of the ocean in one incredibly nostalgic collection.

Tell us about one of the toughest periods of your life.

Years ago, I was in an abusive relationship that stole my confidence, my ability to feel free, and put me into an ever-persistent jail that I still haven’t escaped. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my abusive ex-husband. I have nightmares and my memories are filled with terror day after day, night after night. As I reflect on my life now, I realized that what I needed most was something that would allow me to believe in myself and my abilities. It would allow me to focus on the things that matter and not my fear or trauma, because if I didn’t then I would stay lost. I needed to find that thing that would allow me to connect, to relax, to release, and to renew.

It just so happens that I found that in the most ironic of places – in making soap. You see, my current husband, one of the bright lights in my life now, wanted to help me and got me a soap making kit one day. I tried it, and lo and behold, I was able to throw myself into it. That night I didn’t have nightmares. I woke up having something to look forward to, wanting to make more soap. So my husband got me another kit and another and another and every day I had something to look forward to. Something that allowed me to relax, to release, to renew, and to feel connected and alive again. As I made these soaps, I ran out of places to put them. Friends and family started to ask me about them and the scrubs that I was making. Others then began to ask for them and, before long, I was selling my hobby.

What I realized was that making soap was my therapy. Not only do I get to make something that makes me feel alive, but when I used those products, when I took a shower, I felt connected to myself. I realized I was able to relax finally, to release the day, and to feel renewed. For many women, that was their story as well. That their life is full of all of these challenges, worry, fear, and anxiety. With being a busy mom, they don’t have time for themselves to find that space to relax, to release, and to renew. With my soaps and scrubs, it is that one time of day that they can close the door, take a shower, relax in a bath, and find themselves. They were getting the same things out of my soaps and I was like WOW. They were able to relax, to release, and to renew.

Along the way, I found my mission in life now: it is to continue to make these soaps and scrubs. Not just for my own therapy and to help me cope with my past trauma, but to also give other women out there, those busy women running households, working 9 to 5, to give them just a moment to relax, to release, and to renew. Because when we take back just that moment, it can change every aspect of our life. So whatever you are dealing with in your life, whatever you are going through, I want you to understand this: you will continue to be traumatized by the past and what you have gone through, you will continue to feel stressed and worried as if you are on a never-ending treadmill if you don’t stop to own a bit of your world. Whatever that may be, it may be that shower, that bath, but whatever that moment is, please understand it needs to do three things for you: 1) it needs to help you to relax so that you can let go of what has been happening or of the day, 2) it needs to allow you to release to truly just let go for just a moment, forget about all of those things, and to bring you into the now, and 3) it also has to renew you so that you feel a connection to yourself and to what it is all for. If you can do those three things, you will not only overcome your past fears, your past trauma, and the anxiety of the day, but you will feel whole. You will feel above the fray.

I found that in my soaps and that is what Dolphin Wood House, the company, is all about. Helping women to Relax, to Release, and to Renew.