RSSAll Entries in the "Small Business Administration" Category

Young Entrepreneur of the Year

“I wanted to create a healthcare system that I would be happy to be not only a provider but a patient in”


A lifetime of education led Dr. Johnny Luo to the graduation stage of Brown Medical School, clinical training in North Smithfield, and into the lives of his patients. Dr. Luo was prepared to treat their illnesses and injuries but he was certainly not prepared to explain health insurance. More often than not, Dr. Luo found himself helping Medicare eligible patients understand the various plans as part of his daily routine especially as the Affordable Care Act was being implemented.

Frustrated with the lack of clear education about these plans, Dr. Luo made the decision to no longer pursue clinical medicine but start educating people on how to make the best decision for their healthcare. Doctor’s Choice was born as a resource to help individuals make an educated decision regarding Medicare health plan coverage.

“It was never about the degree or the pride of being a doctor it was really about healing healthcare,” said Dr. Luo, “I’m really passionate about healthcare but more selfishly I wanted to create a healthcare system that I would be happy to be not only a provider but a patient in,” he added.

Doctor’s Choice operates as a “choice model” brokerage, meaning they’re not tied to any particular insurance company. Their mission being to offer as many competitive Medicare health plan options as possible while providing the guidance to help individuals decide which option is most suitable for them. Doctor’s Choice is paid a fee from the insurance companies they work with to help their customers with enrollment, this model allows their consultations to be free of charge.

As a testament to how difficult these healthcare plans can be to maneuver, Dr. Luo has seen tremendous growth, tripling the size of his Warwick office, expanding his services to 23 states, and hiring six new employees in the last year. He has also published a book, “The Retiree’s Guide to Medicare”, as well as expanded his services to work with some of the largest employers to help educate retirees as well as family members of employees.

“There is no lack of information out there, the government gives you a giant book every single year called “Medicare and you”, it’s very comprehensive,” said Luo, “the problem is that people are not looking for more information, what people are really looking for is actual guidance. What we do that’s different from anywhere else is that we do a full analysis of each market that we’re in, we take a look at who’s enrolling in what, and also the experience they are having –whether they’re happy with their plan or not- and we end up being able to recommend plans based on a person’s specific medical conditions, what drugs they take, how comfortable they are with risk, as well as what their lifestyle looks like.”

While Dr. Luo’s age may dictate youth, his wisdom and understanding of both business and life is anything but, “Savor the journey that gets you to the next level,” he said. “The journey is what makes everything you work for, worth it. Never settle because you can always do more, give more and accomplish more, and in the end enjoy more. This is the distinguishing factor between the life you want to live and the life you deserve to live.”

For his demonstrated success and potential for future growth, the U.S. Small Business Administration is pleased to honor Dr. Johnny Luo, President of Doctor’s Choice, as the 2018 Rhode Island Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

New England Woman Small Business Owner of the Year

Carol Dancer and Absorbent Specialty Products continues to transform barriers into opportunity


Adversity is a fact of life for small business owners, never has a business opened its doors without obstacles immediately baring their teeth; Carol Dancer’s small business journey is no exception. Prior to Absorbent Specialty Products becoming a reality, Carol and her father, Perry, were in business as manufacturers of industrial absorbent materials made from paper mill sludge and landfill waste. In 2001, they lost the business to a devastating fire.

Hurt but determined, Carol and her father began again by seeking out financial partners for a new venture. They soon founded the new company and before long realized their partners had other than honorable motivations. Over the next three years the partners drove the business into disarray, causing Carol and Perry to leave the company.

Undeterred, Carol branched off on her own, taking the knowledge she had gained over years of entrepreneurship and opened the doors to Absorbent Specialty Products. Dancer began Absorbent Specialty Products modestly, focusing on the niche of mortuary reconstruction products. Before long they began receiving requests from customers of the business Carol had left. They were looking for someone who could supply acid and base neutralizers now that the supplier had closed. Carol began manufacturing these neutralizer products for liquid chemical spills immediately, building her customer base.

As Absorbent Specialty Products began to grow so did the scope of what the business produced. Dancer began focusing on her next offering, working on the early stages of what would become the Quick Dam product line. Quick Dam products offer homeowners, hospitals, and hotels the opportunity to stop flooding before it happens. Too often water damage is a reactive issue, demanding hefty restoration prices that may or may not be covered by insurance. Quick Dam offers multiple protective
options from potential disastrous damage.

Dancer’s new line had a dramatic effect on Absorbent Specialty Products, skyrocketing sales over 500% from 2012 to 2017. Carol continues to focus on her three most successful areas of mortuary reconstruction, neutralizers, and Quick Dam products. It is fitting that Dancer’s success comes from the creation of barriers; while she has created barriers to protect homes from disaster, she has faced so many barriers and adversity in her professional life and continued to come out the other side even
stronger. “It gives you a drive; I’m going to do it with or without you,” said Dancer, “When people are thinking you can’t do it, or they’re taking the opportunities away from you, you kind of turn it around and say I can do it, I know we can make it fly,” she added.


For her demonstrated success and potential for future growth, the U.S. Small Business Administration is pleased to honor Carol Dancer, President of Absorbent Specialty Products, as the 2018 New England Woman Small Business Owner of the Year.

New England Veteran Small Business Owner of the Year

For John Shepard and Veterans Assembled electronics, ensuring veterans succeed is their full time job Founder and CEO, John Shepard (Center) flanked on his left by COO, Matt Vargas, and on his right by CFO, Michael Videira. John Shepard’s journey and eventual creation of Veterans Assembled electronics began as a prime contractor for a Naval Undersea Warfare Center where he worked on the modernization legacy weapons systems. During this contract Shepard found difficulty in identifying technicians with the skills necessary to fill the demanding role. At the same time Shepard began hearing the concerns of other
prime contractors about the skills-gap in the employment pool – the consistent theme being that traditional academics were failing to fill the industry specific skillset.

Shepard, a veteran himself, asked, “Why don’t we train service-disabled veterans to do this work?” Being an industry professional he knew what skills were needed and was in a unique position to build a curriculum geared towards the direct demands of the hiring companies. John began building the VAe curriculum from the perspective of building value into the veteran, that value being a skillset and practical education that is desperately sought out by employers. Shepard investigated the manufacturing aspect of electronics as well as the electronics technician perspective, integrating the two fields to create a unique and practical academic experience.

VAe began seeking accreditation, and with the support of the Veterans Affairs office, were soon
approved by both the international standard bodies for electronics manufacturing and electronics
technicians. In 2010, VAe hosted their first crop of service-disabled veteran students in a five month
program. Students were immersed in classes for 40 hours per week for 20 weeks, totaling 800 hours of
in-depth, highly personalized education. Students graduate the program with 12 industry recognized

Since VAe’s inception they have grown from offering classes in Rhode Island and Florida, to Massachusetts, Connecticut, and North Carolina. By using an SBA line of credit they are able to opening these locations and ensure the proper equipment and services are available to all their students. While VAe continues to grow they are adamant that growth must not come at the expense of the veteran’s experience. “Each location is a small, tactical location,” said Shepard. “There are two advocates and two instructors, and the second part of our success really is through the advocacy role,” he affirmed.

Before onboarding begins each veteran is matched with an advocate to aid them in the educational process. In many instances the obstacle these service-disabled veterans face are more than just educational. “Chances are if a veteran is having a major transportation issue than the there’s something else,” said Matt Vargas, COO. “A lot of times veterans are dealing with three or four issues so we can treat symptoms or we can solve problems. We really try to get to the bottom of what the issues are and try to resolve them so once they get to that career, they see the light and they just take off,” he added.

VAe’s unique pairing of education, advocacy, and placement has produced unarguable results; 90% of veterans who enter their program graduate; of those graduates 80% find employment, of that 80%, 90% stay in that career for a sustained basis. For his demonstrated success, potential for future growth, and dedication to the veteran community, the U.S. Small Business Administration is pleased to honor John L. Shepard, CEO of Veterans Assembled electronics, as the 2018 New England Veteran Small Business Owner of the Year.

Small Business Person of the Year

Kelly Mendell: Leading the way for RI Small Business

Kelly Mendell is the president and majority owner of MIKEL, a woman-owned, leading undersea warfare technology company in Middletown. Kelly joined MIKEL in 2002, three years after her father, Brian Guimond, founded the defense technology start-up and by 2008 was the President.

Kelly’s journey began at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she majored in engineering and began interning in a machine shop gaining hands-on experience in manufacturing, planning, materials, and quality control. Kelly graduated from UMASS with her BS in Industrial Engineering and from Babson College with an MBA and would go to work for companies including Polaroid, Gillette, and Raytheon working as both an industrial engineer and manufacturing manager.

In 2002, after the birth of her daughter Laura, Kelly joined MIKEL as the Managing Director. Kelly was responsible for managing all aspects of the business including billing, payroll, contracts, accounting, benefits, financial tracking, sales, and marketing. A few years later, after her second child, Max was born, the work-life balance became even more demanding and included many trips and long evenings of work after her children went to bed. Mendell, persevered, making strategic personnel decisions during a time of economic downturn and was moved into the role of President.

Kelly reflected on the difficult decisions she had to make in 2008, “We had to do layoffs and that’s what really motivated me to grow because we have a family atmosphere here and I feel a sense of obligation to these people I’m hiring.” She continued, “I want to make sure they have jobs for a long time that are challenging, interesting, and good paying. It’s not pleasant to lay off people that you care for and are good workers, so I decided that I didn’t want to ever be in that situation again.”

To ensure her company’s future would be stable Mendell reached out to SBA resource partners, SCORE and The Center for Women & Enterprise. She began working with SCORE on how to win government contracts while using her CWE counseling to focus on presentation, speaking, marketing, documentation, and professionalism.

These essential educational and personnel decisions allowed MIKEL to garner crucial government contracts that would keep them in the black from 2008 through today. “I was really motivated to grow,” said Mendell, “I wanted our company to rise and I wanted to bring stability to our business at a time when defense was not stable and we had a lot of uncertainty with our programs,” she added. Due to Kelly’s leadership MIKEL was able to stay successful during one of the most difficult economic periods in national history and by the time 2015 had come MIKEL had grown to 110 employees.

Today the company employs over 175 engineers, logisticians, technicians and developers and hopes to continue to provide even more challenging jobs in the future. “The key to growth is to do a really great job on your current work.” In conjunction with this philosophy, MIKEL is on the lookout to work in other high growth areas in the DoD like the unmanned domain and cyber security because companies have to keep up with the market demands to stay alive and viable.

In Kelly’s spare time she holds a leadership role on the executive board for SENEDIA, which promotes the defense business in Southeast New England, STEM in schools, and increases the visibility and education for those in the defense sector. Kelly has also sat on panels for the National Conference on Women-Owned Businesses discussing her Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) success story, and Small Businesses Association of New England (SBANE).

For her demonstrated success and potential for future growth, the U.S. Small Business Administration is pleased to honor Kelly B. Mendell, President of MIKEL, as the 2018 Rhode Island Small
Business Person of the Year.

previous arrow
next arrow