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Columbia mom becomes baker after loss of job as principal

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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.

Williams threw herself into baking and learning how to start her own company. She took a ServSafe food handler certification class and enrolled in classes at a Baltimore nonprofit, where she learned how to craft a business plan.

"For her, it was a life change. Not just a career change," said Ann Mitchell-Sackey, Williams' instructor at Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore Inc.

About one-third of the people she mentors in entrepreneurship, Mitchell-Sackey said, are trying to launch food-related businesses. But Williams stood out, she said.

"She never went anywhere without having samples of her product," Mitchell-Sackey said. "She was her business."

Expanding recipe box

Last January, Williams decided to fast again, because she had "been so moved by how God led the business" during the prior year, she said.

"This particular time, on the fourth day again of my water fast — where I can't eat anything — I woke up in the middle of the night and every ingredient I needed to make this strawberry cheesecake cookie that I really, really had been trying to fathom in my head came to me," Williams said.

It was "almost a conversation," she said. Someone was telling her which ingredients she needed to achieve this cookie, she said. She wrote everything down, then headed to the grocery store the next morning to follow the instructions.

Not only did the recipe work, it spawned a whole new branch of cookies. She began drawing up cookie recipes that mimicked gourmet desserts: lemon custard, key lime pie and red velvet cake among them.

"She's putting her whole life into these cookies," said the Rev. Dave Whye, Williams' uncle and her pastor at Shepherd's Life Church of God in Ellicott City.

Williams doesn't have good credit, so she's had to forge her way without a small business loan. She relied on savings, friends and family for start-up costs and still is getting assistance from loved ones, she said.

"My lights are still on, my mortgage is still paid," Williams said. "I don't really need to do anything except what He says every day to do."

Her erratic income is a far cry from her principal's salary of 80 grand. This summer, before she started selling in a retail outlet, she made as little as $2,000 a month.

And everything she makes goes back into the business — for ingredients, for rent and to pay for utilities to keep the ovens going: "You literally turn around everything that comes in," she said.

Beginning in September, Williams started renting space at Cooks 'N Cakes in Ellicott City, where her brownies and cookies are featured alongside the owner's specialty cakes and gourmet cupcakes.

Williams also sells her batches through a website and sets up a booth at events to get her company's name out there.

To staff her vending booth at events she relies on volunteers — "church ladies." She pays them with cookies or brownies that were left in the oven a minute or two too long. She's a long way, she said, from having paid staff.

She has a timeline in her head for her business. She wants to give herself at least another 18 months to make it profitable. Her ultimate goal is to have her own bakery, where people can eat her cookies straight from the oven.

Williams doesn't know if any of that will come to fruition. Only about half of small businesses survive past five years, a figure that has remained steady since at least the mid-1990s, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

But she's not worried, she said: She can only try her hardest, follow her spiritual guide and get joy when she sees people eat her treats "and literally roll their eyes up into the back of their head at the taste."

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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