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Making a change.

Valerie James Abbott '93 is not your typical house painter. For one thing, she's a woman in a male-dominated field. And if you had seen her at her 20th Hollins reunion in June 2013, the straw hat wrapped with a black bow and black-and-white print dress with pearls would not have hinted that on most days Abbott wears painters' whites as co-owner of S&S Painting in Richmond.

And if you had asked Abbott 20 years ago if she would one day co-own a painting company, she may have laughed. After graduating from Hollins, she held a corporate post at Bank of America and was quite content. Once she became the mother of two daughters, the stresses and logistical juggling of parenthood began to set in.

In 2008 she was toying with the idea of making a change from banking, but she hadn’t taken any serious action. Her path to leading a painting company happened because of a family health crisis.

Her younger daughter, Bridie, two years old at the time, was speaking, but no one could understand what she was saying. After an evaluation, Bridie's preschool and then the county determined she had lost her hearing.

"When a child in Virginia is identified with hearing loss, the planet descends on you," Abbott said. "My planet turned upside down." Bridie adjusting to hearing aids—and family members readjusting to how they communicated with one another—along with numerous weekly doctor appointments pushed Abbott into thinking about her life in a different way. "A nanny could not do this," she said.

In 2008, S&S Painting was going through some changes itself. One of the original co-owners was moving and Stacey Spear, the owner who stayed, asked Abbott to lead the company with her.

With all the changes going on in her family life, Abbott remembers telling Spear she didn't know what her life was going to look like. Spear responded, "Let's mold this around the children." And that remains the model today.

Since Abbott became co-owner, she and Spear have grown the company on average 94 percent each year. There is no dearth of Richmond-area clients, and for every job vacancy S&S posts there are at least 70 applicants. Abbott and Spear pride themselves on running a company whose employees—mostly women with small children—can have a part-time job and time for their children. Their growth has been extensive enough to warrant inquiries about franchising. "It's not a perfect home-work balance but it's as close as anyone could ever get," Abbott said, describing her schedule as a "dream." And the event that sparked a change in her career also has sparked a new venture: Abbott has written a children's book about hearing loss to help fill the knowledge gap she experienced when her daughter was first diagnosed. She is currently looking for a publisher to give the book a home.

—Sindhu Hirani Blume '93