Profiles of leadership
Women of color at the helm of thriving area businesses
By Ann Piccininni
An entrepreneurial spirit is thriving among women of color in the San Fernando Valley. We profile four women who built businesses, contributing their energies, business acumen and commitment to the valley’s overall success.
16104 Covello Street, Van Nuys
Luxury hotels, Las Vegas casinos and Hollywood stars’ homes are among the clients served by MJ Atelier, a custom-design wall covering company based in Van Nuys.
“We do a lot of celebrity homes and a lot of corporate,” said Maria Apelo Cruz, who founded the company with her husband Mike Jovanovic in 2012.
“We were recently featured in Architectural Digest in Kendra Scott’s home in Austin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s home in Montecito, California,” Cruz said, adding that projects are currently underway at Walt Disney Tokyo, Walt Disney Orlando, Wynn Resorts and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
Cruz describes the company’s specialized wall coverings as customized art.
“It emulates bas relief. It’s hand-sculpted on canvas,” she said. “It comes in large rolls so there are no seams when it is installed on walls. It works with the existing architecture.
“We have a proprietary process and product. Our wall coverings and verre eglomise glass are completely handmade in our studio.”
Cruz has been an artist for 35 years, initially working in the interior design trade.
“I started my career as an artist,” she said.
When she and her husband launched MJ Atelier, the business was small.
“We started as a small mom-and-pop, out of a double garage in Sherman Oaks,” she said.
The company employs about eight people, including full-time staff and independent contractors.
“We employ other local artists in the area. We’re providing a ‘Made in America’ version of these products,” Cruz said. “Recently, we did a hiring spree. Many artists graduate in their field and are unable to find work. Ours is a small business but its aim is to hire more local talent.”
Even during the pandemic, MJ Atelier was able to continue serving its clientele, which Cruz said is partially responsible for the business’ continued success.
“We’re one of the few businesses that didn’t have to close,” she said. “It’s more about performance and being able to deliver in a timely manner. We are proud to be creating jobs in an underfunded and ethnically diverse community and have plans of expanding and hiring again soon.”
2500 Villa Cabrillo Way
Suite 200-A2, San Pedro
With video camera in hand, Erin Sujan is in her element.
“That’s my first love,” Sujan said, explaining that she works with a team of editors and graphic designers to create visuals that put her company’s marketing clients in the limelight.
“A lot of what we do is starting with videos. Storytelling marketing is what we call it.”
A skilled writer, editor, and videographer, she founded Sujan Creative in 2017 when she noticed a rise in the number of solo entrepreneurs offering marketing services.
At the outset, as a female business owner, Sujan said she felt the need to prove herself in a male-dominated industry.
“In many ways, I do think people in business look at you differently, being a woman,” she said.
That challenge has lessened in recent years, she said, as women in business are more readily accepted by the business community and the public. On the positive side, she said those experiences made her a tougher and more resilient business owner.
Sujan’s mother is white and her father is Asian, a second-generation Korean American.
“The minority I am is called Hapa,” she said, referring to a term meaning a person who is half Asian and half white. “We’re less than 1% of the population. What’s cool about it, is these are two different cultures. It informs your work. It informs your thinking. My father was a writer and actor. My mom was a painter and graphic artist. My parents kind of paved the way for me.”
These days, the San Pedro-based company continues to focus on video, photos, graphics, and social media platforms.
“We do a lot of different types of verticals – food, travel, hospitality, education, and larger corporations,” she said.
Sujan Creative not only creates content, but handles overall marketing efforts and distribution to target audiences. The team includes about a half dozen people, along with several freelance contributors.
“The best people who bring the most to the job are working on multiple projects. Creative people generally work better that way,” she said.
She attributes the company’s success to building a strong network of advocates and satisfied clients.
“Relationships can be a hard thing to master, but that’s what business is about. For a marketing company, we don’t do a lot of marketing ourselves. Almost everything we get is word of mouth and referrals,” she said.
6203 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood
Adrianna Cruz-Ocampo knew she wanted to go into business for herself, and she went after that goal whole-heartedly.
Since 1987, she has owned and operated U-Frame-It Gallery, a custom frame shop in North Hollywood.
“I had my store before I got married,” she said. “I took over the store when I was 23 years old. I worked there as a teenager.”
The original owner was ready to sell, so Cruz-Ocampo got a loan and a second mortgage to come up with the capital needed to buy it. She even sold her car.
“That’s how I started,” she said.
For a while, she didn’t issue herself a paycheck, as she was intent on paying off her debts. But the struggle was worth it. She has a staff that assists with the day-to-day store operations and business is brisk.
“Most of my business is word of mouth. I do a lot of houses. I work with a lot of nonprofits. I work with corporations and I do entertainment framing,” she said.
Her company has provided framing services for many Hollywood movie sets and she also serves the sports industry.
“I did Dodgers Stadium in 2008,” she said.
The frames are all custom made.
“We start from scratch, the wood, the matte and the glass,” she said. “We do everything in house. We do everything custom.”
The store was originally located in Van Nuys. In 1994, a strong earthquake damaged the area. Despite the disruption, Cruz-Ocampo said the business flourished by helping to repair and reframe artwork damaged in the quake.
The shop relocated to 6203 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood eight years ago. Cruz-Ocampo’s husband, Francisco, operates a second U-Frame-It Gallery in Tarzana.
Cruz-Ocampo, who attended Pierce College in Woodland Hills before plunging into the business world, said she is thankful that she made the right choice to become a business owner.
“I wanted to be my own boss,” she said.
Executive on the Go
19849 Nordhoff Street, #305, Northridge
Marshaling wide-ranging business skills she honed through her early career, AnGele Cade built a company aimed at helping like-minded people successfully navigate entrepreneurship.
“We’ve served about 20,000 clients over the past 20 years,” said Cade, founder and CEO of Executive on the Go.
The company helps clients with creating corporations, limited liability companies, nonprofit corporations and partnerships, and handling mergers, acquisitions, and dissolutions.
Headquartered in Northridge, Executive on the Go can streamline the process and reduce reliance on other professionals, such as lawyers and accountants, thereby reducing its clients expenses.
Clients include people interested in turning a side hustle into a full-time career, retirees looking for a fresh path to pursuing their passions and people learning how to grow a burgeoning enterprise.
The necessary preparation for completing such business operations can seem intimidating because there is so much at stake.
“Our mission is to help people start their businesses in the right way,” she said. “Our superpower is to make it palatable. It doesn’t have to be so daunting.”
The companies served by Executive on the Go are mostly small businesses.
“Small doesn’t mean insignificant. It just denotes size,” Cade said.
Many of the entrepreneurs on the company’s client list are women.
“I do a lot of work with women-owned businesses,” said Cade.
In fact, Cade currently serves as vice chair of the Global Society for Female Entrepreneurs.
She started Executive on the Go in 2002 in an extra bedroom of her mother-in-law’s home after she lost her full-time job. Approached by a former business associate who needed her help, she decided to fill that niche.
“I realized for the first time that I had value in the marketplace,” she said.
Success is rooted in commitment and consistency, in her view.
“It’s more than just making smart moves,” Cade said. “It’s also a commitment to the integrity of the product. It’s also a commitment to the success of our clients.”