Women entrepreneurs share ideas for successful business startup


Courtesy of the Entrepreneurial Studies Institute

Panelists Thomisha Duru, Johnelka Staff and Winnie Shabazz says hobbies, life experiences and interests outside of work can spur an idea for a successful business startup.

Audrey Wais, Advertising Manager

Three Anne Arundel County entrepreneurs told AACC students in October that they never expected to start the kinds of businesses they own. 

During a virtual panel discussion sponsored by the Entrepreneurial Studies Institute, the women said hobbies, life experiences and interests outside of work can spur an idea for a successful business startup. 

“I didn’t choose the non-profit industry,” Dr. Thomisha Duru, who owns a mental health care business called The Wise Organization, said. “I didn’t choose to go into business to help others. I know that may sound a bit cold, but I didn’t. I didn’t choose it. It chose me.” 

When Duru’s father passed away, her grief led her to turn to journaling, and she later published a book, “I Suffered in Silence.” Female readers encouraged her to start her organization to support other women.  

The Wise Organization is a non-profit business that offers free mental health support to women. 

“Start with the power of one,” Duru advised 25 audience members. “What that is, just go after one person. If you have one new client, one new prospect, one new something, whatever it is … let the goal be to get that one.” 

Panelist Johnelka Staff started her business from a hobby. 

“Baking has always been a hobby for me,” said Stafford, who owns an Annapolis-based business called Destination Desert. “I began in the kitchen with my mom, so things like cakes and sweet potato pies … [I] never even considered the artistic component when it comes to baking.” 

One day in 2015, Stafford received a random request for a cake that looked like a pizza. She gave it a try, and from there she started getting requests for unique desserts until that became the focus of her business, which fills orders for desserts for any occasion. 

“It’s not something that I actually set out to do,” she said. “It’s something that actually came to me as a request and it just grew kind of organically from there.”  

“I had to learn a lot,” Stafford shared. “Depending on your industry and where you do your business, there are laws and things that you have to abide by, so it’s definitely been a learning process.”  

Winnie Shabazz, another speaker, said she turned her love of planning events into a business. 

“First, I was actually thinking about just the economic legacy and just building like an economic future for myself and my family,” said Shabazz, who owns an event planning company called Win At Weddings & Events. “So before I started the business, event planning was something that I did as, like, a hobby. I didn’t notice I was actually doing a job until I realized, ‘Hey, I can do this for a living.”   

Shabazz often hosted extravagant parties to celebrate her birthday and helped others organize their events for free.   

“After years and years of planning people’s parties I said, OK, no, really I need to make this a business and start charging people for my ideas,” Shabazz said.  

Her Baltimore-based business plans all types of celebration.  

The three panelists said their businesses have changed during the pandemic. 

Shabazz said the pandemic has complicated the event planning industry. 

“A lot of events have still been taking place; we just made them smaller,” Shabazz said.  

But the other two panelists said their businesses have picked up since the start of the pandemic. 

“COVID equals cake,” Stafford said. “People have been ordering desserts, and I think the primary reason is because a lot of people … have had to cancel events; they’ve had to cancel their plans. And so, what they decide to do, and often at the last minute, is to order a cake to have at home with family.”  

Likewise, Duru said the pandemic has created more of a demand for mental health services. 

“COVID created more opportunity,” she said. “If it hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would be where I am.” 

 he three entrepreneurs agreed that putting themselves first has been a factor for success.  

“You have to take care of yourself in order to give 100%, and that goes for your business,” Stafford said.  

 Duru agreed. “Put yourself first and [just] develop a plan,” she said. “If that’s not something you’re used to doing, get in the habit of doing something new.”  

 Shabazz added: “Set realistic timelines for yourself and just really give yourself some grace. Getting out of your own way [is also important]. Just try to do it, because you can learn a lot from failing.”