Columbia mom becomes baker after loss of job as principal

Mother of three tries to survive on a quarter of her lost salary while starting new business

December 24, 2012|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

A Columbia educator turned entrepreneur says her strawberry cheesecake cookies truly are divine.

They're chewy and pink and tangy on the tongue. The right balance of sugar, flour and time in the mixer came to her during a week-long fast, a way for her to show her appreciation for God's blessings during a year of trials and triumphs.

Her name is Monica Williams. The 43-year-old single mother of three lost her job as a private school principal last year. With it she lost her $82,500 annual income and went on unemployment. With that came all of the cut-backs and late bill payments that have become common in post-Great Recession America.

Then she joined the growing ranks of people who, after a job loss, decided to try to be their own employer.

Six years ago, only about one in 10 people who started a company did so because they found themselves unemployed. But by 2011, when Williams began her cookie and brownie operation called From Momma's Kitchen, that number had nearly doubled, according to a survey of small-business owners conducted by Wave Accounting.

"When you're laying on the ground and you have seeds in your hand — of anything within you — that's when you plant them," Williams said.

Talent and drive have been the tools of her transition from educator to business owner. But even with her strong religious beliefs, Williams' evolution has been tough. Like nearly half of small-business owners, according to Wave Accounting's summer 2012 survey, she's barely making ends meet.

Still, Williams doesn't regret her decision to rely on her flair for baking and, more importantly, her faith.

Inspiration arrives

In January 2011, at the time of her first week-long, water-only fast, Williams, was about six months into a stint as principal of Celebration Christian Academy in Columbia.

"Every morning she was out shaking hands, meeting parents," said Paul Haley, director of operations for Celebration during Williams' time as principal. "The parents loved her. The teachers were empowered to be better."

She started at Celebration during difficult times, following an exodus of students caused by the prior principal's departure and tuition increases. When Williams arrived, only 17 students remained on the roster, well under a third of the school's target number, she said.

She launched an aggressive marketing campaign and, by the time school started, the administration had added 30 more youngsters to the rolls.

"It was just pretty amazing what she did for the academy," Haley said. She brought a new level of expertise to the school, he said, because of her prior 15 years in Howard County Public School classrooms.

It was in the midst of this challenging school year that Williams decided to try an extended fast. On the fourth day, an insistent voice became stuck in Williams' head.

"I got this recurring thought to get up and go make brownies," she said. "It became an urge that I couldn't control to the point where I had tears streaming down my face."

She fought it. She went to bed and tried to sleep away thoughts of brownies baking in the oven. But the urge became too great and Williams went down to the kitchen in the middle of the night.

She whipped up a batch of the chewy treats and packed them up.

She did not eat a crumb.

Opportunity arises

In April, Williams was let go. The academy did not have the money to keep paying her and several others.

The layoff came as a shock. So did her unexpected need to apply for unemployment.

As a single-income household — Williams divorced her children's father in 2004 and does not receive child support — Williams needed government assistance to stay afloat.

To make ends meet, she cut movie nights and dining out for her and her children. They spent more time around the dinner table.

"I learned how to live off a quarter of my salary," Williams said. "I realized I didn't need as much as I was buying or getting, even for my children. It made them feel less entitled to privileges. It taught them how to appreciate them."

After the shock wore off, Williams began seeing her situation differently. Her job loss was an opportunity. She decided to follow her calling; to plant her seeds while she was down.

Even before she was fired, Williams began pursuing her baking in a more serious way. In February, not long after her fast-induced, late-night brownie baking, she took part in the Chocolate Affair fundraiser, organized by Baltimore nonprofit Healthcare for the Homeless. She made 800 samples of her brownies for the event.

The next month, Williams baked for a church convention. On a day off from her full-time job, she worked from sun-up until midnight, baking furiously to ready all of the batches she would need.

"When I turned the oven off that night, I stood there and I said, 'I'm tired but, man, if I could just do this all day I would be so happy,'" Williams said.

It wasn't even two weeks later that she lost her job.

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