SBA Awards 2024: Living the American Dream

Small Business

The strength and humility of Connecticut small businesses outshone the greens at TPC River Highlands May 2 when hundreds of business leaders gathered to celebrate small employers. 

“There are incredible stories all around us,” SBA Connecticut district administrator Catherine Marx said ahead of presenting 11 business owners with recognition. 

“All of our winners excelled in innovation, job creation, revenue growth, and commitment to community,” Marx said.

From entrepreneurs who are writing the opening chapters to owners who are carrying out long-time family legacies, behind each small business is a story of passion and perseverance. 

As the awardees shared their stories and messages, each thanked their communities and the organizations that provided them resources and financial support. 

Connecticut’s 2024 SBA awardees are: 

Exporter of the Year: Anthony DeFeo, Xcalliber/DeFeo Manufacturing Inc.

DeFeo’s father started the company 40 years ago. Operations at the time were inside his New York home. 

“He came from Italy at 18 years old as an engineer,” DeFeo said about his father. “His dream was fulfilled. He lived the American dream.” 

Anthony DeFeo, Xcalliber
Xcalliber owner and CEO Anthony DeFeo accepted his award May 2.

Today, the independent transmission replacement parts manufacturer and supplier occupies three buildings in Brookfield, Connecticut and exports to 100 countries around the globe.

“We’re extremely proud to be innovative, growing jobs in Brookfield, and more importantly keeping jobs in America.” 

Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year: Dr. Dori Gatter, West Hartford Holistic Counseling

With over 25 years of experience, and 10 years in business, Dr. Dori Gatter and her team offer an integrated approach to healing. 

The center helps patients with mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. 

West Hartford Holistic Counseling clinical director Samantha Bebrin
West Hartford Holistic Counseling clinical director Samantha Bebrin accepted the award on behalf of the organization.

“Dori is a really kind, compassionate, loving person who brings that into every layer and level of this business and this work,” clinical director Samantha Bebrin said. 

“You feel that whether you’re working for the company, or if you are a client meeting with a therapist in our group.” 

Minority Owned Small Business of the Year: Ting Luo, The Green TeaHouse

Ting Luo’s brothers flew to the U.S. from China to help her open her first tea shop in Blue Back Square in West Hartford in 2009.

A master loose leaf tea blender and Chinese tea ceremony performer, Luo had her work cut out for her. She worked seven days a week, 365 days a year. 

Ting Luo, The Green Teahouse
Ting Luo is a master loose leaf tea blender and Chinese tea ceremony performer.

“I was so desperate and helpless, and felt exhausted,” Luo said. 

Luo said it was support from friends, as well as the SBA and Connecticut Small Business Development Center, that got her through those difficult times.

Now in the WestFarms mall, she continues to offer customers a unique experience and specialized custom loose leaf tea blends. 

Manufacturer of the Year: Neviana Zhgaba and Ardian Llomi, Aquila’s Nest Vineyard

The journey for Aquila’s Nest Vineyard began when two engineers bought a piece of land they thought had potential for a home and small vineyard. 

They opened for business during the midst of the pandemic and have since grown to be a premiere vineyard and destination in Sandy Hook, employing nearly 50 people seasonally. 

Neviana Zhgaba and Ardian Llomi, Aquila's Nest Vineyard
Neviana Zhgaba and Ardian Llomi opened Aquila’s Nest Vineyard in the midst of the pandemic.

“We don’t just bottle wine, we bottle experiences, and we are proud to be a place for the community to come together and experience the joy the vineyard brings to our family,” Zhgaba said.

The business has kept sustainability in mind from day one and has made it a mission to support women entrepreneurs . 

Young Entrepreneur of the Year: Scott and Brigid Allen, Water-Flo Inc. and Radon Solutions

Water-Flo’s owners are pushing the boundaries of innovation and entrepreneurship. 

The husband and wife duo where employees of the 33-year-old water treatment company when they decided to buy the company in 2019. 

Scott & Brigid Allen, Water-Flo Inc.
Scott and Brigid Allen have grown Water-Flo since taking over in 2019.

At the time Water-Flo primarily serviced Clinton residents. They have since expanded, taking commercial clients and service contracts for water treatment statewide. 

“This achievement is not just ours, but a testament to the collective effort of everyone who has been part of this journey,” Scott Allen said. 

Jeffrey Butland Family-Owned Small Business of the Year: Tyson Francis Belanger, Shady Oaks Assisted Living LLC 

Located in the heart of Bristol, the licensed assisted living facility serves disabled seniors and those nearing the end of their life.

The Belanger family has been helping seniors since 1964, but officially established a business in 1976. In 1995, Shady Oaks became the second assisted living facility in the state of Connecticut. 

Tyson Belanger, Shady Oaks Assisted Living
It was an emotional day for Tyson Belanger and his family as they celebrated the accomplishments of Shady Oaks Assisted Living.

“My parents were brave, compassionate and innovative. In our little home, they helped pioneer a whole new way of helping seniors,” Tyson Francis Belanger said.

Today, the family has 46 employees and averages 42 patients. During the pandemic, Shady Oaks defied the odds, with no COVID-19 cases. 

“These last four years have been really hard, but the Small Business Administration helped us make it through and do it humanely for our residents, our families and all of our staff,” Belanger said. 

“All of our successes today would not have been possible without the pioneering effort, toil, tears, and compassion of my mom and my brother.”

Microenterprise Business of the Year: Christopher DeMartine, Programmatic B2B, LLC

DeMartine’s journey began in 2019 when he was laid off from a company with six weeks of severance pay and no healthcare. 

It was the day before he was going to buy a dream home for his family. But those plans were put on hold as he decided to take a chance on a business plan he believed in. 

“I saw all of this inertia in the advertising space for digital advertising and everything going on in tech, but it was all being driven towards consumers.”

Christopher DeMartine, Programmatic B2B
Christopher DeMartine took a risk opening his own firm, but he knew his experiences would guide him.

He said there were opportunities in the space for big businesses, but no affordable options for small businesses. 

Today, his marketing agency builds custom audiences, delivers interactive content, and facilitates cost effective B2B marketing communications with cross channel consistency and transparency.

While he’s a one-man-show right now, he hopes to hire a small team of employees in the future. 

Women’s Business Center of the Year: WBDC Southwestern Women’s Business Center 

The Women’s Business Development Council opened the doors to the Southwest Women’s Business Center in 1997. 

Since then, the team has provided consistent, innovative, and relevant entrepreneurial training and counseling women entrepreneurs. 

Touching over 18,000 clients, the WBDC has granted over $9.6 million to businesses in every county of Connecticut. 

Erin Mercedes, WBDC/Southwest Women's Business Center
WBDC’s Erin Mercede is the program manager for the Southwest Women’s Business Center.

Nearly 80% of Ignite grant program recipients have increased revenues thanks to the grant, 65% have increased profits and 50% have hired employees. 

“It has been my privilege as program manager of the region to contribute to the legacy of empowering women across Connecticut to be financially independent through entrepreneurship,” said Southwest Women’s Business Center program manager Erin Mercede.

“With the powerhouse team at WBDC, led by our founder Fran Pastore, I am so proud that we create a safe space for women of all backgrounds to learn the skills to run profitable businesses, and more importantly, that we help build their confidence in entrepreneurship.”

Veteran-Owned Small Business of the Year: Eric Lopez, Arrowhead Leadership Consulting, LLC 

Eric Lopez’s story is full circle. Born and raised in New Haven, he left for West Point at 17. 

Thirty years, seven combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and four bronze star medals later, the retired Colonel opened Arrowhead Leadership Consulting to help people improve their cultures. 

“I, like many veterans, struggled with this post-Army, post-military career,” Lopez said. 

Eric Lopez, Arrowhead Leadership Consulting
Eric Lopez founded Arrowhead Leadership Consulting after retiring as a U.S. Army Colonel.

“Founding Arrowhead Leadership really helped me get my feet underneath me and get back to doing what I’m really passionate about.”

Arrowhead Leadership provides keynote speaking and workshops, one-on-one leadership coaching, and culture change business counseling.

Lopez said it was the help of his family, his sister, who is a small business owner herself, and organizations like the Small Business Development Center that he was able to embark on this new journey.

National Small Business Investment Company Emerging Manager: Mizzen Capital, Elizabeth “Liddy” Karter

For the second year in a row, a Connecticut company won this prestigious national award. 

A certified woman-owned, minority-owned firm Mizzen embraces diverse perspectives and seeks to foster a collaborative culture based on trust, respect, and integrity. 

The company helps expand capital access to small businesses, especially in underserved and often undercapitalized markets, across the country but Connecticut businesses pull on managing partner Liddy Karter’s heart strings. 

Liddy Karter, Mizzen Capital
Liddy Karter is managing partner of the woman-owned, minority-owned firm.

Born and raised in the state, she says she’s a product of the community in Connecticut. She said the unique strength of the community is what helps the state stand out for business owners. 

“It’s the community here in Connecticut that has brought us here,” Karter said. 

Since 2020, Mizzen has invested in 36 companies, helping to create more than 1,700 jobs. Roughly 44% of the companies are located in low-income areas and 64% are smaller enterprises. 

Connecticut Small Business Person of the Year: Maria Miranda, Miranda Creative, Inc.

Starting in the spare bedroom of a two bedroom apartment, Maria Miranda created Miranda Creative 35 years ago

The thriving brand management firm now employs 30 people, doubling the size of her company between 2020 and 2023.

“Miranda Creative has excelled at every metric, innovation, job creation, growth, and community,” Marx said.

In addition to serving on countless boards and community positions, Miranda’s company provides over 1,000 pro bono hours per year to help nonprofits that need her services. 

Maria Miranda founded Miranda Creative 35 years ago.

During her visit to Washington D.C. to accept her award, Miranda said she had time to reflect on the meaning of the crystal imprinted with the recognition. 

“As small business owners, or those that support us, we know that so much of what we do is meaningful, but often not visible,” Miranda said. 

“These awards are for those quiet conversations that we have to encourage support or change the outcomes for so many.

“For me, when I see this acolyte, I also see the many moments that I’ve been transparently supported by my colleagues, and community.”


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