Alana Andrews, director, and Taji Kelly, owner, of Vent Suite Massage and Spa
Photo Credit: Katie V. Jones

After years of working in the restaurant business, Taji Kelly needed a break.

“As a general manager of a restaurant, it was 24/7 go go go,” Kelly said. “It was hard to come down. I needed to let go.”

So, she quit her job and enrolled in a school in Vienna, Va., to learn how to do massage.

“The restaurant business paid the bills, and I’m a big people person,” Kelly said.  “The pandemic made me think, do something you enjoy. Health and wellness was always a passion.”

Her Laurel-based business, Vent Suite Massage and Spa, is a “one stop shop for all things goodness,” she said, and it wouldn’t exist without her friend, Alana Andrews, as its director. Kelly also underscored the importance of the help she received from FSC First and its Level Up program.

“I needed everything from that place,” Kelly said. “They push you and challenge you.”

FSC First was founded in Prince George’s County, in 1978, to support small businesses through financial counseling and a range of programs. During the pandemic, the nonprofit helped businesses secure special grants funding. They also discovered that “many, many businesses were not able to provide basic documents,” like past tax returns, and were therefore “not able to take advantage of these funds,” according to Dawn R. Medley, president and CEO of FSC First.

Seeing a need, FSC First started the Level Up program, which offers technical assistance, training, coaching, mentoring and networking opportunities at no cost to businesses enrolled in the program, whether they are start-ups or established enterprises.

“The hope is that the business will be able to level up to a loan,” Medley said. “Their financial documents will be in order, and they can get bank favor.”

Kelly said the Level Up program helped her change the way she thought about some things and prompted her to review troubled areas.

“Look at your business plan. Tackle these things and get good at it,” Kelly said. “If you get discouraged, go talk to someone.”

The program, she said, offers all the tools she needed to succeed.

“There are no excuses,” Kelly said. “This is a challenge. Face it, go to it and get through it.”

A successful business plan, Medley said, “thinks long term.”

“Prepare, prepare, prepare,” she added. “Many times, why small businesses get in trouble is they didn’t develop a comprehensive business plan.”

Level Up is hosting a Business Launch Camp, an interactive workshop on revenue modeling, target customers, business modeling and more on March 25  at the FSC First office in Upper Marlboro.

“We do a lot,” Medley said, noting that FSC First offers 14 different loan programs, each with a different mission in order “to fill that need, that gap” that prevents some small businesses from being considered bankable.

Kelly and Andrews work hard to offer upscale spa services to their clients. And while she dreams of having her own, standalone spa offering a full range of services and a variety of classes, Kelly knows it will take time.

“We’ll have our own space soon. You have to be patient,” Kelly said. She launched her spa as a mobile business before opening in a room under the umbrella  of  Perfect Office Solutions, which offers parking, a receptionist, a conference room and bathrooms. Her next move, she hopes, will be to a small storefront in Laurel and eventually, to a bigger space with room for classes.

“We’re gearing up, very soon, April soon, to apply for funding and we’re out of here,” Kelly said. “It’s very exciting. I am so grateful.”