Category: Northern Virginia

Virginia Montessori Academy

Teaching to empower: Montessori education and independence

Secured a $275,000 loan; created seven jobs.

Early childhood education covers a number of basic skills, including the alphabet, shapes, and colors. For Hatsumi Mann, a Montessori teacher, instructing students to be independent is an important addition to this list.

“A lot of our materials are hands-on,” says Hatsumi. “At Montessori, the teacher isn’t hovering over the child. It’s a lot of positivity, letting the kids kind of make their own choices, and critical thinking.”

Hatsumi discovered Montessori education while teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) courses in Japan. Upon returning to the U.S., she became a Montessori lead teacher before opening her own Montessori day program, which she operated out of her home.

These successes inspired Hatsumi to open the Virginia Montessori Academy. When she was unsure of where to start, a colleague referred her to the Mason SBDC.

Bernard Ferret, Hatsumi’s advisor, had previous experience mentoring owners of daycares and preschools. Before opening her doors, she and Bernard met regularly to discuss budgets and locate funding. This was especially important to Hatsumi. “I just wanted to be able to offer Montessori to families who wanted it, who were interested, and can’t really pay that big-center price,” she says.

Hatsumi reflects that Bernard “kept her spirits up” and always checked in, even after the business’s official opening. “If I felt like I was in a bind, he helped me work out the situation to find alternatives,” she explains. “Working with him the whole time kind of helped relieve the stress.”

Since opening in September of 2021, Hatsumi has experienced the positive effects of working with the SBDC. She has received $275,000 in loans — used for instructional materials and equipment — and created seven jobs. The new hires ensure that each classroom has two teachers. The Academy also offers programs for Spanish enrichment and after-school care.

Hatsumi definitely recommends the SBDC to other small business owners. “I probably would’ve made lots of mistakes along the way if it wasn’t for them,” Hatsumi admits.

As the Virginia Montessori Academy expands, the SBDC will continue to help Hatsumi locate resources to provide a quality education for her students.

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Turning an artificial intelligence idea into a real small business success

Secured over $200,000 in EIDL and PPP loans.

Even a leading-edge artificial-intelligence tech company can sometimes require some human intelligence from the SBDC to help it operate successfully.

Just ask Jyotiska Biswas, who founded an AI-related small business called ThinkTrends in Northern Virginia in 2018. “Right now, we’re living in an age of artificial intelligence,” he says. “It’s all around us, whether we realize it or not — in our smartphones, our laptops, and the internet.”

Jyotiska describes ThinkTrends as a “data mining and AI workflow platform” that makes the power of artificial intelligence available to everyone, not just the big tech firms.

With his company now surging, it’s obvious that Jyotiska excels as a computer science innovator. But there have been times when he needed help with some of the non-tech aspects of running a small business. “In 2020, I was trying to get a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and was having a lot of trouble getting it to go through,” he says. “I reached out to the SBDC @ Community Business Partnership in Springfield. With their help and guidance, I got the loan.”

With that solved, Jyotiska found himself leaning on his advisor, SBDC Director Vijay Vaswani, for advertising and marketing counseling. Jyotiska explains. “Vijay has been giving me some really great marketing advice, which has been very helpful.”

Vijay’s assistance with loan applications and marketing allows Jyotiska to focus on his passion — artificial intelligence.

He describes his company’s niche in AI this way: “To use artificial intelligence, you need to do data science and machine learning, which require a very specialized skill set. ThinkTrends makes this process much simpler. Without writing any code and with just a little training from the platform, anyone can create artificial intelligence to analyze data in a robust way and essentially be able to do what a data scientist does.”

High tech is Jyotiska’s thing, but he feels that any small business could benefit from reaching out to their area SBDC.

“I really like working with them.” Jyotiska says. “We are excited to grow this relationship with the SDBC and see where it takes off!”

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Discover Next Step

Discover Next Step: Brain health and professional development

Increased sales and long-term contracts.

Barbara Gustavson always had a talent for coaching and mentoring, but her job as a financial analyst did not provide many opportunities for her to pursue this passion. After eleven years, she realized she needed a career change.

“The pay was great, the people were great, but I just felt something was missing,” she explains. Founding Discover Next Step, her coaching and consulting business, filled that empty space.

Barbara teaches clients simple strategies to help them determine the next steps in their personal and professional life. She also promotes holistic well-being and effective communication for teams. Her approach, which she developed through working with renowned psychologist Dr. Daniel Amen of the Amen Clinic, focuses largely on brain health. This research-informed method promotes creativity, fulfillment, and innovation, which all contribute to workplace productivity.

Working with the University of Mary Washington SBDC allowed Barbara to expand her business to mentor more people along their personal and professional journeys. Barbara reached out to the SBDC after receiving an email advertisement. At the time, she felt isolated from her local community and wanted a supportive team around her.

“It has been such a lifeline for me,” Barbara says, reflecting on her SBDC courses and one-on-one mentoring. “They’ve been so supportive of me in developing my mission statement, vision statement, and everything I’ve needed for my business.”

Her favorite SBDC offering is the women’s mentorship program organized by her advisor, Susan Ball, whom she calls an incredible connector. “If I was struggling in an area, she would immediately know who could help me,” says Barbara.

The pandemic posed new challenges for Barbara as businesses cut professional development budgets. To help Discover Next Step stay afloat, the SBDC helped her market her entrepreneur reset program to struggling businesses, as well as take on other new opportunities, including consulting for Dr. Daniel Amen as his new Brain Health Licensed Trainer Program Director. She also adopted a brain-based approach to executive coaching, which increased her sales.

“There’s such a need for mental-health support in the world,” Barbara says. “My vision is really just to grow a community of experts who want to make a difference.”

Barbara’s partnership with the SBDC has made her vision a reality. She recommends the SBDC to other small business owners, calling its advisors “socially responsible visionaries” with “amazing ideas about how to help people at a deeper level and make a social impact.”

As Barbara supports her clients, the SBDC will continue supporting her.

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Akiak Technology

The SBDC joins Akiak Technology to aid Alaska’s tribal communities.

Created three new businesses; increased revenue from $4,000 in 2020 to $1.5 million halfway through 2021.

2023 SBA Small Business Person of the Year*

When Kevin and Sharon Hamer went to visit family in remote Akiak, Alaska, in 2018, they hadn’t planned to come back with a business. But two years later, they launched Akiak Technology, LLC, and they had both a business and a purpose.

“We went to visit my wife’s Tribe in Akiak, Alaska,” says Akiak Technology President and CEO Kevin Hamer. “While we were there talking about our government careers and pending retirement plans, Sharon’s cousins in the Tribe asked us what we could do to bring much-needed revenue back to the village. We agreed to help but didn’t know how to start.”

To figure that out, Kevin and Sharon set up a meeting with Senior Business Counselors George Siragusa and Bernard Ferret at the Mason SBDC. Over the next year, George and Bernard regularly met with the Hamers to establish a solid business framework. “George and Bernard were invaluable to us and helped us take years off of the new business learning curve,” Sharon says. “They guided us through the steps of turning our business purpose into a successful business plan of action.”

After 34 years of federal service, Kevin retired in January 2020 to work full time on Akiak Technology. They had some success in 2020, ending the year with 8(a) certification as a tribal-owned business. Their business model was centered around providing IT services to government customers. Due to the pandemic, that model dramatically expanded in 2021 to include tribal broadband services in rural Alaska.

“We expected to help our Tribe through revenue generation in the Washington metro area, but in 2021 our Tribe needed help getting broadband internet in Akiak,” said Kevin. “Our Tribe is one of 56 ‘unserved’ by broadband.”

The Hamers again turned to Mason SBDC’s George and Bernard to help them through the pivot to broadband. “We needed to find a way to offer our wireless broadband solution to the other unserved tribes and use grant money to fund the infrastructure builds.” Kevin said. Creating a new 501(c)3 nonprofit Tribal Consortium was the answer. “We didn’t know how to create a nonprofit, but George and Bernard did!” Sharon notes. “George and Bernard have been with us every step of the way.”

The results have been fantastic. In just four months, Akiak Technology has the wireless satellite system ready to deliver broadband services to 100 percent of Akiak homes and businesses.

But they didn’t stop there. With the help of George and Bernard from the SBDC, the Hamers set up the Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Broadband Consortium, which has 17 tribes representing 9,000 people. In September 2021, they submitted a proposal to bring affordable broadband to all 17 tribes.

The for-profit side of the business has been booming as well. The services Akiak Technology offers include digital transformation, agile software development, DevSecOps, IT management support, hybrid cloud services, and, of course, broadband. “Our first year in 2020, we had several small contracts that brought in around $4,000 in revenue,” Kevin relates. “This year, our revenue is about $1.5 million through a combination of contracts and grants.”

Kevin believes an important first step for his business was a visit to the SBDC.

“The SBDC accelerated our business startup and helped us pivot quickly when we faced new challenges/opportunities,” he concludes. “The SBDC is amazing — it’s been one of the major keys to our success.”

*2023 SBA Small Business Person of the Year

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) announced the 2023 State Small Business Persons of the Year award winners on March 16, 2023. Akiak Technology LLC is proud to announce that Sharon Hamer, the first indigenous President of our tribally owned 8(a) business, was named Virginia’s Small Business Person of the Year.

Each year, SBA honors outstanding small business owners and entrepreneurs from each of the States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Virginia’s 2023 Small Business Person of the Year is Sharon Hamer, President and Co-founder of Akiak Technology, LLC.

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Air Treatment Company

Bigger and better: Air Treatment Company’s new chapter

Secured $1.5 million loan; increased sales by $1.3 million; created six jobs; retained 19 employees.

Air Treatment Company had been in business for years when Jim Griffin and Dan Simpson bought the company from Dan’s uncle in 2020. They both wanted to make a good thing even better. “When we bought it, I’d worked there for about seven years, and we saw an opportunity to make it bigger, better, and more profitable,” says Dan.

Air Treatment Company ( provides comprehensive maintenance, repairs, and replacements on air and heating units. Their goal is to keep customers’ homes comfortable and provide efficient, effective service.

Jim and Dan were not sure where to start when buying the company, so they reached out to the Mason SBDC. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Jim admits. He met with his advisor, Timm Johnson. “The first visit, I came in as a deer in the headlights and left there somewhat confident that we could do this,” Jim says.

Working with the SBDC helped Jim and Dan secure a $1.5 million loan, increase their sales by $1.3 million, create six jobs, and retain 19 employees. They plan to use their loan to purchase commercial real estate in the future.

Jim and Dan are proud of the company’s positive culture, both for employees and customers. “When a customer has a complaint or a concern, we fix it immediately, and we usually do a little more than what they ask,” says Dan. Regarding employees, he adds, “I can make the people around me feel appreciated by giving them the things they deserve and the things that make them feel important. So, when I walk through the door, I feel like it’s a work family.”

Jim explains that the SBDC “can help with a wide variety of different areas, not just the actual initial purchase or startup,” citing human resources and advertising as other supports provided.

“Somebody who’s thinking about going into business for themselves should know that they’re welcome [at the SBDC],” Dan adds. “They’ll be happily received and given good guidance.”

Jim and Dan have already referred other business owners to the SBDC and will continue to utilize its resources as Air Treatment Company grows.

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AWL Creative

Wedded together: Unique concept says “I do” with the SBDC

Received $2,000 in loans and $52,000 in equity investments.

When Barbara Kriss started AWL Creative in 2019, she was motivated more by the services she didn’t see than by those she did. A former stationery and graphic designer with close ties to the wedding industry, Barbara was struck by the lack of centralized resources for those who worked in wedding planning and production, as well as for those looking for wedding service providers.

“I began noticing all these gaps,” Barbara recalls, as she remembers the early days, prior to opening A Wedding Loft. “I observed the industry was missing resources, spaces, and education overall,” Barbara adds.

With AWL, Barbara and her business partner, Paul Tartaglioni, sought to fill these gaps. The downtown building contains studio space for event planners, photographers, makeup artists, and more. It also has rentable event space as well as coworking space. A membership option is also available to guests, which offers varying levels of access to the facilities.

Back in 2019, when Barbara and Paul were considering the idea of AWL Creative, Paul decided to attend a basic small business prep class at the local library, where he connected with Eric Byrd, Lead Business Advisor at the Loudoun SBDC. Eric would go on to be a mentor and advisor for Barbara and Paul as their project moved forward.

“We are so grateful to the SBDC for everything,” Barbara says. “They have been there for us for everything, every step of the way,” she adds.

Things were just taking off for AWL when the full impact of COVID-19 caused the fledgling business to close its doors. It wasn’t long before Barbara found a pandemic workaround, offering intimate marriage ceremonies in the event space, until distancing restrictions were lifted earlier this year and the space could reopen.

Now as things return to normal, Paul says that they continue to utilize the SBDC on a daily basis and even return the love whenever possible.

“We have grown so much through the SBDC,” Paul says. “We actually try to pay it forward. We refer people to the SBDC all the time as they try to find their path.”

The concept of finding one’s own path is special to Barbara and Paul, who are aware that their own concept is unique. All the more reason, Paul says, to feel grateful for the expertise and support of the SBDC.

“Eric was just here the other day,” says Paul. “You know he describes us as a blue-ocean concept, because we are trying something that hasn’t been done before. It’s been a difficult process overall. It’s been a strength and a comfort having the SBDC by our side throughout the process.”

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Saratoga Urgent Care

SBDC adds business know-how to Saratoga Urgent Care

70% growth; 3 new jobs.

During the pandemic, Sherwood and Rina Richers saw a need for medical care in Springfield. With help from the Community Business Partnership (CBP) SBDC, Saratoga Urgent Care opened in March 2021 to meet that need. “Our perspective has been to help others,” Sherwood says. “It’s not about money for us.”

Rina, who previously provided OB/GYN services in El Salvador, hoped to open a clinic in the United States. A retiring doctor in Springfield provided that opportunity. “My wife fits a critical niche here,” Sherwood says. “This area has a large Hispanic population with many uninsured.” Recently retired as a senior engineering manager for the Boeing Company, Sherwood turned to the SBDC to learn the ins and outs of operating a small business.

CBP SBDC Center Director Vijay Vaswani was happy to assist. Vijay connected Sherwood with a medical professional for advice on credentialing and other medical issues. He provided guidance on bookkeeping and QuickBooks. “I had the basic idea, but knowing the nuances were useful,” Sherwood adds.

Vijay worked with Sherwood to complete a business plan, and another SBDC advisor helped with the lease. “That SBDC advisor was a property manager and understood the [lease] situation from both sides,” Sherwood says.

SBDC’s marketing videos were an added boost. “Between working with Vijay and my own experience, I was 98 percent there on marketing, but it was good to watch the videos and make sure I wasn’t missing anything,” he says.

Sherwood built relationships with nearby industrial customers. “It was a matter of making phone calls,” he relates. “Local people who knew about the practice also came by, as did many Hispanic clients who followed my wife from a previous clinic in Woodbridge.”

Confidence grew as Sherwood worked with the SBDC, which was a major plus. “Confidence allows me to make better and faster decisions,” he says. “The SBDC gave me confidence to start a business in an unfamiliar field.” That confidence is already paying off, as demonstrated by Saratoga Urgent Care’s 60-to-70 percent growth since March 2020.

Sherwood readily recommends the SBDC. “I found a breadth of knowledge at the SBDC,” he concludes. “When you’re unsure about something, there’s always somebody at the SBDC who can help you. I find that very, very valuable.”

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Brewki’s Barkhaus

Bar plus dogs equals success for Brewski’s Barkhaus

Significant funding from private investors.

Alex Benbassat and Justin LeGore took an idea for a dog bar, that started when they were roommates at Virginia Tech, and turned it into a reality during a pandemic in October 2020. They succeeded with careful planning, hard work, and help from the Alexandria SBDC.

“We visited a dog bar in Charlotte, North Carolina, while we were at Tech,” Justin explains. “The idea sort of stuck with us.”

Justin, who majored in business management with a concentration in entrepreneurship, and Alex, who holds an architecture degree, connected again after graduation. “I was seeking a business partner,” Justin says. “Alex was working on his thesis for an architecture program, which, incidentally, was for a dog bar. It worked out.”

First and most important was gauging interest for a dog bar business in the Alexandria area. Alex and Justin contacted the Alexandria SBDC for help with planning a festival incorporating people, dogs, breweries, and live music. “One of my professors at Tech had told me about the SBDC,” Justin explains. “We started working with Business Advisor Jack Parker, and he helped us write our business plan and make the necessary connections for the festival — which, in turn, locked in our investors.”

“We organized the Old Town Beer and Dog Festival with 30 vendors,” Justin relates. “It was wildly successful.” With an attendance of 3,000 to 4,000 people and 400 dogs, the two entrepreneurs knew they were on the right track.

With investors onboard, Alex and Justin went to work establishing Brewski’s Barkhaus. Using his architectural skills, Alex put together a floor plan for Barkhaus in a former hamburger restaurant. “We did a facelift and remodeling and added a dog park outside,” Justin explains. “Then we had to apply for a variance to allow dogs inside a restaurant.”

In setting up their new business, Alex and Justin again took advantage of the SBDC’s connections. “The SBDC helped us align our finances in appropriate ways by connecting us with accountants and attorneys,” Justin says. “In a way, Jack was like a father. We knew we could call him at any point if we had questions — and we did that a lot.”

While the pandemic-forced downsizing on many businesses, Barkhaus actually expanded. “We made it through the COVID winter and did well enough in the spring of 2021 to double our outdoor area,” Justin states. “The SBDC was a huge help to us in planning our festival, which is what brought in the investors to get us started. If it hadn’t been for the SBDC connections, I doubt if we could have made it all happen.”

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My Car Service

Driving forward in a pandemic

$954,000 loan; expanded from five employees to 18

When businesses around the country were scrambling to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, CEO Tariq Alam and COO Tahid Alam of My Car Service had other plans.

“The owner of the commercial property for our business was planning to sell, and we knew we needed to buy it,” Tariq says. “We had been building My Car Service for five years, and we didn’t want to see all of our hard work disappear, in case a new owner wanted something different for the property. But in order to buy it, we needed guidance on how to put together a good company portfolio to submit to the lenders and the bank.”

Tariq’s first shot at pitching his company’s ambitious business plan — in the midst of a global pandemic in the spring of 2020, no less — didn’t take off. The bank and lenders didn’t bite, but Tariq and Tahid were undeterred. As longtime entrepreneurs and business partners — and brothers — they were confident in what they had built. They simply needed somebody to help them craft a pitch that would get others just as excited as they were.

Through the US Small Business Administration (SBA), they connected with the University of Mary Washington SBDC in Fredericksburg, and received the push they needed from Center Director Susan Ball and her team.

“We reached out to three different places, but the SBDC, especially Susan and the team she works with, showed us the path forward,” Tariq explains. “They helped me put together a business plan and an effective way to present it to the lenders. Right away, the reaction was very different. [The lenders] were wowed with the plan and our mission, and they really believed in us,” Tariq continues.

Tariq says that this shift made a critical difference for their business. “The funds became available, and we were able to purchase the property along with a construction loan and equipment loans. That has really helped propel us into the future,” Tariq explains.

The revamped proposal netted My Car Service a $954,000 loan that included not only funds to purchase the property, but also loans to expand their business. They have since added an eight-bay car-service center and grown their workforce from five employees to 18. “Our business grew about 300%,” Tariq says. “It helped us create a full-service dealership, as opposed to just reselling cars.”

Now, thanks to their own market awareness and preparation heading into the pandemic — and an assist from the SBDC — Tariq and Tahid have been able to make headway on the next phase of My Car Service’s expansion, which will include a franchise.

“One thing that was great to see was how much the SBA and the SBDC care about small businesses and how much they support them,” Tahid says. “Their level of concern is awesome. They’re advocates. I can’t thank the SBA and the SBDC enough. They’re making our dreams come true.”

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Ipsun Solar

Lights on: The Mason SBDC powers up solar installer

Grew from two employees to over 50; over 300 customers served; became one of the largest solar installers in the Northern VA area.

When Herve Billiet and Joe Marhamati founded Ipsun Solar, they had a singular vision: encourage all Americans to produce their own power using the clean, renewable energy of the sun. Today, that vision remains unchanged, and thanks to help from the Mason SBDC Ipsun Solar has grown to become one of the largest solar developers in Northern Virginia.

Unlike many industries, solar was unscathed by the recent pandemic. In fact, according to Herve, their business flourished as many customers looked to make the switch from gas, oil, and other types of fuel to solar power during the uncertain times of COVID-19. “We are definitely riding a wave,” Herve explains. “There is a huge increase in demand for what we have to offer.”

Herve is an electro-mechanical engineer who began developing solar projects in Alabama in the 2000s, while Joe is an environmental scientist who served as Energy Advisor to President Obama. Despite their extensive in-field knowledge, including Herve’s previous business experience, when it came to taking their two-man start-up from zero watts to megawatts, there was only one place to go.

“When I got started with Ipsun, I immediately went to the team at the Mason SBDC,” Herve explains, “because I knew they would provide the best advice on how to get us most quickly from a start-up to a real business.”

Herve connected with advisor and mentor, Timm Johnson. From the start of the relationship, Herve says Timm’s real-world experience and matter-of-fact advice have been crucial guide points for the solar company. Herve explains, “The continuity I experienced working with Timm the entire time has been so valuable to me — working with a person that has actually done mergers and acquisitions, has actually had experience running a business, and not just from a book, but someone who actually has the hands-on knowledge.”

As Ipsun Solar rapidly expanded, the business-related issues evolved from bottom line to people oriented. Again, Herve found that Timm had the experience and resources to provide incisive assistance. “As a business owner, you have many data-driven things coming at you, and the best thing that you can do is always be very analytical,” Herve says. “If I have questions about sales and marketing, legal, product development, or even hiring and firing, Timm is all about answering those questions in a very down-to-earth way,” Herve adds. “Timm was — and is — helpful for drilling down to the core issues and providing insight.”

Herve continues to meet with Timm regularly, as Ipsun Solar has spiked from two employees to over 50, and has served over 300 customers in the Virginia, D.C., and Maryland areas.

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