Six OC Women on What It Takes to Start and Run a Successful Business
The six Orange County entrepreneurs featured here own a variety of companies — from a private equity firm to an online clothing store. But all share a common passion, balancing business and the even more important job of being a mom.
Photo by Alex Robles
“Healthy children start with healthy parents.”
Photography has always been important to Ana Brandt. She believes that visual histories help people better understand their pasts while informing them of what they may look like in the future. For a long time, Brandt treated her love of photography as a hobby. Now it is the core of her very successful business.
Brandt was adopted and never saw a photo of her birth mother or of herself as a baby. But her adoptive family took lots of pictures. Her adoptive father had emigrated from Argentina to New York; he wanted to ensure that all his relatives could see his children as they grew up. Brandt’s maternal grandmother was the family photographer. When she passed away, Brandt took over. She especially loved taking pictures of her nieces and nephews when they were babies.
Brandt eventually recognized that photography could be more than a hobby for her. She decided to specialize in pregnancy and newborn shots. It wasn’t easy. With her portfolio and infant in tow, she set out to make contacts, going door-to-door to almost every business in SoCal that sold clothes or gear for baby or children.
A few years later, in 2003, she opened a tiny studio. By that time, she had another new baby. She equipped the studio with a playpen and other baby gear. Her business continued to grow. In 2005, she had her third baby and moved to a bigger studio in Tustin. Since 20ll, she has taken the cover photos for almost every issue of Parenting OC Magazine and shot over 4,500 clients.
Brandt’s photography business spawned several other successful businesses. Her maternity gowns and diaper covers are sold worldwide via her online store bellybabywear.com (The Art of Pregnancy and Newborn). She began developing videos and has three YouTube channels, one with over 3.4 million views. She teaches maternity and newborn photography around the globe, this past year in Australia, Italy and New York, and often brings her family with her.
Juggling the needs of her businesses with her desire to spend lots of time with her husband and three children hasn’t been easy. Now that her children are older—10, 12, and 14—they are more independent. She takes every Sunday off work to be with her family and every Monday for personal downtime. She believes balancing work, home life and your own needs as an individual helps her entire family, stating: “Healthy children start with healthy parents.”
“Be observant about what other people are enthusiastic about.”
Natasha Nelson spreads her talents among several ventures. She created a frozen yogurt store franchise with her sister, co-owns a large public relations firm, and recently bought a toy company.
Nelson has spent the majority of her career in public relations, first interning with large public relations agencies as a student at Vanguard University. After getting her degree, she worked in the PR industry fulltime, forming her own company, NN Public Relations, in 2002. Three years ago, she merged with friend and colleague Michael Caudill’s agency to form DRIVEN Public Relations (www.drivenpublicrelations.com). DRIVEN employs 17 people in offices in Costa Mesa, Temecula, New York City, and Tempe, Arizona and serves numerous businesses and nonprofits in a variety of fields.
Nelson’s career has always gone well, but she has faced tough personal challenges. After her mother was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Nelson and her sister started spending a lot of time in Arizona, where their mother lived. It was very difficult to witness the hardships of ALS, but Nelson wanted to be there for her. At the time, Nelson owned her own agency, but was able to delegate some of her management responsibilities to her employees.
While in Arizona, Nelson noticed that there were no self-serve frozen yogurt stores. Knowing how popular they were in Orange County, Nelson and her sister discussed opening their own store in Arizona. Their mother, who had been an entrepreneur herself, was enthusiastic about the idea. Building a business together helped the women keep their minds on something other than ALS. They opened Yogurtini in Arizona in 2008. It quickly became very popular. Nelson and her sister franchised their new business, opening 35 Yogurtini stores within a few years. They sold the business to Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company in 2013.
Nelson has a great relationship with her stepchildren, ages 7 and 11. Nelson loves attending their baseball games, cheerleading events, dance recitals, and spending quality time with the kids. One reason she has the time to do so while running her companies is that her husband helps out a lot at home.
Nelson doesn’t rest on her laurels. She noticed how enthusiastic her stepson and other children were about Kauzbots, which are handmade stuffed robot toys. So she invested in the Kauzbots company. Kauzbots are more than a quirky stuffed animal, 10 percent of the retail price of each toy goes to a charitable cause. There are ten different robots, each of which corresponds to a nonprofit organization. Children can choose a Kauzbot that helps the environment, supports refugees, helps children with cancer, or contributes to other great causes. The toys are sold in stores all over the country and at www.Kauzbots.com
“Be observant about what other people are enthusiastic about,” advises Nelson to aspiring entrepreneurs. She and her sister started Yogurtini because she recognized how much people liked self-serve frozen yogurt; she bought Kauzbots after seeing children’s strong reactions to them. She also tells people with an entrepreneurial bent to resist getting stuck in a career working for others. After running PR agencies, frozen yogurt stores, and toy companies, it will be interesting to see what Nelson does next.
“When children see their mother’s accomplishments, they can aspire to have their own.”
Twila True has risen far from her humble beginnings. Born to a 16-year-old mother, True was the first person in her family to graduate high school. She eventually became the president of a large company and then the owner of many other companies. True has lived all over the world and is the mother of four children, all of whom she expects to graduate from college.
True’s mother grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, leaving for California when she was pregnant with True. True learned to be very independent from a young age, as her mother struggled with alcohol addiction and poverty. True was raised mostly by her grandmother and aunts and uncles, whom True lovingly calls her “tribe.”
After high school, True supported herself financially, working at a private investment company during the day and taking accounting classes at night. She says she worked “seven days a week, morning to night.” She spent time in different departments of the company and was rewarded for her efforts with numerous promotions. Eventually, she became president of a computer manufacturing company owned by private investors, leading 300 employees.
In 1998, she met her husband and moved with him to Asia to help run and grow his furniture company. They lived in Hong Kong and China before selling their company and moving to Newport Beach in 2012. Their company was a huge success. They used these profits in 2012 to fund True Investments, a private equity firm. True’s responsibilities include the firm’s overall strategy, finances, real estate portfolio, and beauty salon investments including True’s nail salon, Polished Perfect, in Costa Mesa. In the next few months, True will open five more Polished Perfect salons in California, Arizona, and Texas.
True is a dedicated philanthropist. She and her husband have established foundations to help orphaned children and residents of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, which True says is the poorest reservation in the United States.
True and her husband have four children, ages 2, 8, 12, and 14. They balance time with their family and business endeavors by giving their children a lot of responsibility. Though True took on responsibility as a child out of necessity, she believes affluent children should also be given responsibilities in order to give them a strong sense of self-worth and independence. She expects her older children to wake themselves up in the morning and get ready for school on their own, including packing their lunches. She also has them do chores and some cooking after school.
True has great respect for mothers who don’t work outside the home, but also feels that women shouldn’t feel guilty about working. As a working mom, True enjoys having things to share at the dinner table that aren’t always focused on her home or family. “When children see their mother’s accomplishments,” True says, “they can aspire to have their own.” True is proud of her contributions in raising four children, but is also proud of her contributions to charity and to the business world.
Alexia Alvear and Gina Cretikos
“Don’t let fear hold you back… Close your eyes and jump.”
Alexia Alvear and Gina Cretikos just started their first company on—no fooling—April 1st of this year. But the two sisters have always wanted to own a business together.
Their father, Nicholas, taught them a great deal about entrepreneurship through his own example. He owned a company that sold motorcycle apparel and accessories. Alvear and Cretikos say he and their mother, Stella, showed them something much more important than business acumen: loving support for each other and for their children. Nicholas and Stella had an “amazing relationship” lasting 40 years, until Nicholas passed away two years ago. Alvear and Cretikos still have trouble talking about their father’s death. They say, through tears, that it was one of the hardest things they ever had to go through.
The family still finds great support in each other. Alvear, Cretikos, their two brothers, and mother all live in Orange County. They describe themselves as a “big, loud, Greek family.” Alvear lives in Irvine with her husband and 16-month-old daughter. Cretikos resides in Westminster with her husband and six-year-old son.
The sisters have fun together, but also share a strong work ethic. Cretikos, six years older than Alvear, has a lot of experience in management. She spent 11 years at her father’s company as his assistant and eventually, office manager. Alvear spent 15 years at Wet Seal, a girls clothing retailer that originated in Orange County. She worked her way up to become a buyer for the company.
The sisters found an ideal way to combine Cretikos’s experience in business management and Alvear’s experience as an apparel buyer: They decided to open an online store selling children’s clothing and accessories. Last December, Cretikos and Alvear quit their jobs to prepare to launch the company. They named it NICKY + STELLA, after their beloved parents. As they worked to get their business started, they felt the comforting presence of their father guiding them.
The sisters set out to create “a fun and easy shopping experience for busy moms.” NICKY + STELLA is a curated site. Cretikos and Alvear search the Internet for cute, good quality, unique items to sell to their customers. They also make clothes to sell for the NICKY + STELLA brand. The website makes it simple for shoppers to order a variety of brands at one online site, with one flat rate shipping fee. A popular option on the website is “Shop the Look,” in which a cute themed outfit such as “Pumpkin Princess” or “Little Bo Chic” is pictured. Customers can order the whole ensemble, from hat to shirt to pants to shoes, by clicking on the picture and choosing the sizes for their children. Though NICKY + STELLA is new, it’s already popular on social media, with over 8,000 Instagram followers. www.NickyandStella.com
So far, Cretikos and Alvear do everything themselves, from curating clothes and marketing their company to shipping their products. Cretikos says, “I’ve never been so tired and I’ve never had so much fun.” She advises aspiring entrepreneurs, “Don’t let fear hold you back. The scariest things can be the most rewarding. Close your eyes and jump. As long as you have a good support system and your business idea is feasible, go for it.” Alvear echoes her sister’s advice, adding: “If you believe in something and are excited by it, do it.”
“Do something you love. You should be excited about your job.”
Mona Shah-Anderson fell into entrepreneurship. She had been happily working for other people, as the Media Relations Director for an Orange County public relations company. But after her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, Shah-Anderson quit her job in order to spend more time with him. She took on a few public relations clients as a freelancer, which gave her the income and flexibility she needed. Soon it made sense to establish a company for her growing freelance business. At her father’s bedside, Shah-Anderson set up her own public relations firm.
Shah-Anderson’s father was an inspiration. An orthopedic surgeon with an MBA, he had always enjoyed taking on new challenges. Shah-Anderson has lived all over the country, spending her first decade in New York, moving to Southern California at age 10, going to school at the University of Michigan, and then returning to California. She served as Public Relations Director for the Miss Universe Organization, coordinated projects in Africa with the Harvard Aids Institute, and worked on the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
Her company, Moxxe Public Relations, mainly promotes independent, chef-driven restaurants. Currently, Moxxe has two employees and two dozen clients. That suits Shah-Anderson well. Her goal is not to grow Moxxe into a big firm, but rather to run the best small firm of its type. She loves her clients, whom she considers friends and extensions of her family. Many of them came to her wedding and baby shower. She describes her clients as “good people running great restaurants,” and is happy to help them get the attention they deserve. www.MoxxePR.com
Shah-Anderson, who has 16-month-old twins, quips, “Every day is its own adventure.” She is grateful for her husband, who has a nine-to-five job, but spends a lot of time with the twins when he’s home. He gets them ready most mornings and puts them to bed most nights.
Shah-Anderson is very humble, saying, “I’ve made so many mistakes.” But she views mistakes as valuable learning experiences and believes that the rewards of owning a business are greater than the risks. Her advice for aspiring business owners is to smart small and make sure you have a great idea for your company. “Do something you love. You should be excited about your job.”
Written by Debra Garfinkle
Photography by Ana Brandt