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Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has continued to invest in programs that support teachers, students, job training and academic research.

What do a highly skilled workforce, higher wages, decreased income inequality, stronger family-friendly communities and increased public safety have in common? All are associated with the presence of strong educational institutions.

Maryland’s education system—from preschool to Ph.D. programs, both public and private—plays an important role in preserving the State’s high quality of life.

Recognizing the importance of fostering excellence in education in Maryland, Governor Martin O’Malley has continued to invest in programs that support teachers, students, job training and academic research.

For example, despite overall budget cuts, the FY 2015 budget includes a record $6.05 billion in K-12 education, $4.3 million in pre-kindergarten opportunities and $275 million in school construction. The budget also includes an initiative to cap or freeze tuition increases at a number of public universities.

During the most recent legislative session, Governor O’Malley approved expanded pre-kindergarten services to 1,600 more children across Maryland and laid the groundwork for further expansion. In addition, the State invested $1.4 million for the Early College Innovation Fund to help create and expand early college access programs and $3.5 million for the Digital Learning Innovation Fund to help accelerate digital learning.

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The next time you’re filtering through airport security, consider that the equipment scanning you and your luggage was likely produced right here in Maryland.

Smiths Detection, with its U.S. headquarters in Edgewood, is the world’s leading supplier of an array of tools used to detect weapons, explosives and chemical threats.

“Talk to any of our employees, we take great pride in keeping people safe,” said Mike Castek, site head of the Edgewood plant. Smiths Detection employs roughly 230 Marylanders, about 10 percent of the global division’s workforce, operating within United Kingdom-based Smiths Group.

While the majority of Americans will interact with a Smiths Detection scanner or x-ray machine at an airport, products also cater to elite security groups like the United Nations’ Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Weapons inspectors used Smith Detection products during their most recent investigation of chemical warfare in Syria. The group’s mission helped secure them the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

The focus on chemical weapons detection is part of the rationale behind its Edgewood location. Aberdeen Proving Ground, just a stone’s throw from the plant, houses the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, which uses several Smiths Detection products. Military and first responders to chemical threats have utilized the company’s unique Chemical Biological Protective Shelters.

“It’s crucial to be close to our customers and to be able to get the products to the right place as quickly as possible,” said Brian Boso, chief scientist at the plant.

Leadership at the Maryland location also take advantage of their proximity to Washington, D.C.

“We talk to the CIA, TSA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals and the Department of Defense on a constant basis, trying to work with them to figure out what the future threats are and to develop new techniques,” Boso said.

“Unfortunate events” have contributed to Smiths Detection’s rapid growth in recent years, company leadership said.

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, threat detection equipment represented a very small portion of Smiths Group’s global operation. Through acquisition of another company, it then produced 100-150 desktop explosive detectors per year. Three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, the Transportation Security Administration placed an order for 6,000 desktop explosive detectors to be issued at airports across the nation.

“It’s a very event-driven industry. As the terrorists change their mode of operation, we have to adapt,” Boso said.

Increased demand for security equipment caused Smiths Group to name Smiths Detection a separate division in 2003. In recent years, the Edgewood plant’s footprint and workforce has doubled.

Smiths Detection was at the forefront of developing on-site detection tools for “white powder incidents,” often suspected of involving anthrax, he said. More recently, the company has developed a scanner for liquid, which will enable TSA to restrict only threatening liquids carried on by passengers, clearing harmless ones.

The Edgewood plant’s workforce reflects the changing face of new-age manufacturing, where the laboratory is as important as the factory floor.

A large number of employees are electronic test technicians, who typically have a two-year associates degree with an electrical engineering focus. Members of the research and development staff tend to have advanced degrees.

“It can be a challenge sometimes to find highly technical scientists, but we’ve been able to take advantage of Maryland’s educated workforce and also attract people here,” Castek said.

As opposed to historic perceptions of a dangerous factory, Smiths Detection’s next-generation manufacturing methods focus on protecting the employee.

“The workplace is designed around the people as much as it’s designed around the equipment, which was not the case years ago,” Boso said.  “We pride ourselves that our products help keep people safe, so we certainly don’t want anyone getting hurt building our products.”

Smiths Detection is poised for growth in Maryland. Already, its technology is used at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, BWI Fire & Rescue Department and fire departments in Harford County, Cecil County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Multiple courthouses and federal buildings in Maryland also use Smiths Detection weapons scanners.

Boso said the company is well integrated with governmental and public safety institutions across the country, but there are new opportunities emerging in commercial and critical infrastructure markets.

Corporate headquarters, schools, mass transit stations and prisons are becoming customers for threat detection equipment, including x-ray machines, metal detectors, scanners used to secure checkpoints.

“We see a fair amount of expansion in those areas, for sure. Smiths is optimistic about the future market,” Boso said.

 

November 14, 2013 (Baltimore, MD) – Governor Martin O’Malley announced today that EnerTech Capital Partners and Foundation Medical Partners (FMP) have been selected to receive funds through the State’s $84 million InvestMaryland program. The venture capital firms will invest $10 and $7 million each in young, innovative Maryland companies. As part of the agreement, the firms will return to the State’s general fund 100 percent of the principal and 80 percent of the proceeds from successful investments. Created by Governor O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly in 2011, InvestMaryland is a historic initiative to fuel Maryland’s Innovation Economy, support entrepreneurs and stimulate job creation.

“Maryland is committed to investing in the entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses that will soon become the leaders of our growing Innovation Economy and we are excited to have EnerTech and FMP join us in that effort,” Governor O’Malley said. “InvestMaryland leverages the capital and expertise of the private sector to support young Maryland businesses as they grow and create family-sustaining jobs for the people of our State.”

“Venture capital and knowledgeable investors can mean the difference between success and failure for young companies, even those built around promising ideas and innovative technologies,” Business and Economic Development Secretary Dominick E. Murray said. “InvestMaryland is just one more advantage Maryland has in the life sciences, social media, cybersecurity, big data, green energy and other high-tech fields. We look forward to working with EnerTech and FMP as they make their investments.”

“EnerTech has been investing in Maryland since shortly after our founding in 1996. We are delighted to be selected by the InvestMaryland team and welcome their participation in our final close of EnerTech Capital Partners IV,” said Tucker Twitmyer, Managing Director of EnerTech. “The State has an impressive track record in our sector and we look forward to helping Maryland’s workforce create the next generation of real energy solutions — for Maryland and for the world.”

EnerTech invests in early to growth-stage companies that offer products or services that make energy production and consumption more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective. The firm has managed about $500 million since its founding in 1996. Its current fund, in which InvestMaryland is a participant, is approximately $120 million. EnerTech’s portfolio ranges from Tangent Energy Solutions, a company that makes industrial sites more energy efficient, to n-Dimension Solutions, a cybersecurity firm focused on critical infrastructure.

FMP invests in the healthcare technology sector, focusing on transformational technologies and services that enable value-based healthcare and leverage wireless, data and analytics technologies. Its portfolio includes a diverse set of companies specializing in healthcare informatics, medical device development and innovative diagnostic technologies. FMP is still in its fundraising phase and could not comment on its new fund.

InvestMaryland is the largest venture capital investment in history by the State. Last year, $84 million was raised for the program through an online auction of tax credits. Of that funding, two-thirds will be managed by private venture firms like EnerTech and FMP. So far, $48 million has been committed to seven firms. The remaining third is being invested by the state-run Maryland Venture Fund (MVF).

The MVF was seeded with $25 million and over its 17-year existence invested in hundreds of start-up and early stage technology and life sciences companies, generating a $67 million return, 2000 jobs and more than $1 billion in private investment. Returns from MVF investments are reinvested in the program.

InvestMaryland ChallengeNovember 13, 2013 (Baltimore, MD) – As the deadline draws near for applications for the second annual InvestMaryland Challenge, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) announced today that the national business competition has already secured more than $600,000 in awards for its winners. Companies will compete in four categories to win top prizes of $100,000 each as well as smaller prizes that include grants, incubator space, and business and legal services. Applications are due Dec. 6 and winners will be announced in April after two rounds of judging. For an application, or more information, click here.

“It is no accident the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has named Maryland the #1, top-ranked state for innovation and entrepreneurship for two years in a row,” DBED Secretary Dominick Murray said. “The InvestMaryland Challenge is a central part of our commitment to supporting our entrepreneurs and small business owners as they innovate, grow and create good, family-sustaining jobs for their friends and neighbors. We look forward to working with the judges and the applicants as the competition moves forward and crowning very worthy winners in April.”

The Challenge will award top prizes in four categories — General Industry, IT, Life Sciences and, new this year, Cybersecurity. Recent additions to the list of special awards are two Army Research Lab packages that will provide office space in Adelphi and Aberdeen incubators, an opportunity to collaborate with Army scientists and engineers and exposure to potential government and military customers. Other special awards include space at the TowsonGlobal incubator, consulting services from BioHealth Innovation Inc., a software package from Microsoft BizSpark, and a $10,000 grant for a rural Maryland entrepreneur provided by the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Council and the Rural Maryland Council. One of the first Challenge winners, i-Lighting of North East, is also contributing a $2,500 cash prize. For a full list of awards, click here.

After businesses turn in their entries, including a business plan, by Dec. 6, they will be evaluated in January by panels of judges. The top companies in each category will move on to face-to-face interviews with judging panels in March. Winners of each category and the special awards and prizes will be announced at the InvestMaryland Challenge Finale in April.

The benefits of the Challenge stretch far beyond the cash prizes and other awards, as competing companies will have the opportunity  to have their business plans evaluated by teams of expert judges comprised of successful entrepreneurs, angel investors, venture capitalists, high-tech and scientific researchers, top-level executives and others who work with startups. Connections forged with judges and fellow contestants can pave the way for partnerships, new customer relationships and further investment.

The inaugural Challenge awarded more than $425,000 in cash prizes and services and drew 259 contestants from 10 states and Washington D.C., with companies applying from as far away as California, Georgia and Massachusetts. As required last year, out-of-state companies are eligible to apply in the General Category but would have to establish an office in Maryland and spend a majority of the funding here if they claim the top prize. The Life Sciences, IT and Cybersecurity categories are open only to Maryland companies. Every category is limited to companies with fewer than 25 employees and less than $1 million in annual revenue.

Executive Director of the Regional Economic and Studies Institute Dr. Daraius Irani shared his economic outlook.

Executive Director of the Regional Economic and Studies Institute Dr. Daraius Irani shared his economic outlook.

With a projected increase in holiday shopping and a recovering housing market, Maryland’s economic outlook has multiple positive highlights, according to Regional Economic Studies Institute Executive Director Dr. Daraius Irani.

Irani presented RESI’s findings during the 2013 Economic Outlook Conference, the organization’s premier event, held at Towson University last week.

Maryland reached a milestone in August, regaining 100 percent of the jobs lost during the recession—one of only 16 states to do so. Over the last year, statewide employment expanded 1.7 percent, the largest year-over-year growth rate since the start of the economic downturn five years ago. The professional and business services industry added 16,300 jobs to the economy over the last year, making it the state’s largest employment contributor, according to RESI.

Irani praised recent developments, including the planned Amazon facility in Southeast Baltimore, expected to create more than 1,000 full-time jobs, with wages at up to 30 percent more than the average retail job. “Not all of the jobs we create in our economy should require a Ph.D. or a masters degree. This presents some opportunities across the economic spectrum, as well as an excellent tuition reimbursement program to help workers pursue higher education,” he said.

Irani described the state’s housing market as “generally upbeat,” with home prices increasing by about $16,000 since the last year. Maryland building permits, which represent new construction, rose 12.9 percent between July and August, up 9.3 percent from the previous year.

He emphasized that recovery is ongoing nationally and at the state level and that overall consumer confidence historically remains low. He attributes much of the “lurch” in consumer confidence to party gridlock in Congress and the recent shutdown of the federal government. Still, RESI projects an increase in national holiday retail sales by 4 percent this year, welcome news for Maryland businesses that depend on a boost between November and December.

Irani light-heartedly added, “I encourage you all to go out and shop.”

Find a video of the presentation with additional data below:

Actor Kevin Kilner spoke during the 2013 Regional Economic Studies Institute’s Economic Outlook Conference, held at Towson University on Nov. 6.

Actor Kevin Kilner spoke during the 2013 Regional Economic Studies Institute’s Economic Outlook Conference, held at Towson University on Nov. 6.

Maryland’s economic future is bright, thanks in part to a recent resurgence in the state’s film industry and the attraction of some blockbuster television series.

The 2013 Regional Economic Studies Institute’s Economic Outlook Conference, held at Towson University on Nov. 6, showcased industry developments and presented a solid case for the benefits of Maryland’s film production tax credits, approved by legislators through 2016.

Experts shared their passion for keeping film production in the state. The following are 10 takeaways from their remarks and panel discussions.

  1. The industry represents a major employer in the state, employing 6,893 people directly who were paid $592.4 million in wages last year, according to Regional Economic Studies Institute economist and executive director Dr. Daraius Irani.
  2. The return on investment for every dollar in tax credit granted to the film industry is projected at over a dollar, representing significant potential gains as the industry grows, Irani said.
  3. Film productions, made possible through Maryland tax credits, offer a huge boon to small businesses. “House of Cards,” which utilized 1,814 Maryland businesses in its first season, most recently helped prevent layoffs at National Lumber and helped to open a new product line at ABC Box Company—both companies are based in Baltimore City. According to Angela Miele, vice president of state tax policy for the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc., “It’s not the Brad Pitts of the world who are the face of these incentives, it’s small businesses.”
  4. Maryland has the same potential as any state to draw film projects. Determining a film’s location is simply a matter of “cost, creativity and convenience,” Miele said, and tax credits significantly reduce cost.
  5. Without tax credits of up to $25 million in fiscal year 2014, and up to $7.5 million in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, continuing seasons of the critically acclaimed television series “House of Cards” and “VEEP” would not be filmed in Maryland, according to Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office within the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.
  6. Maryland’s film tax credits come in the form of refunds to productions that have a minimum of at least $500,000 in qualified expenditures. Productions that Maryland secured because of the tax credits include “House of Cards,” “VEEP” and the indie films “Ping Pong Summer,” “Jamesy Boy” and “Better Living Through Chemistry.”
  7. Experts agreed that Maryland offers some of the most diverse scenery available in the United States, from Ocean City to the Appalachian Mountains. They also discussed the state’s ability to camouflage into nearly any location in the world, whether Baltimore is playing Paris, France or Washington County is playing a Belgium battlefield.
  8. In the past, Maryland film workers were forced to leave the state to work on film productions. But today, thanks to projects like “House of Cards” and “VEEP,” they’re finding work much closer to their homes and families. According to Wade Tyree, a union leader with extensive filmography experience and a mentor to film students at Towson University, “One of my favorite things to tell my students is that they don’t have to leave, they can work right here. They can keep working and continuing their lives here in the state,” he said.
  9. Despite sometimes-controversial subject matter, successful films and series nearly always yield positive results for the state, according to Kevin Kilner, a Maryland native and accomplished actor, who most recently appeared on “House of Cards.” Kilner pointed to social programs and even tourism that benefitted from production of “The Wire.” “It’s one of the greatest television series ever made, in the world. It’s a piece of literature. … David Simon and all of the great writers, directors and artists who come out of Maryland—we should fight to keep them here,” he said.
  10. Kilner confirmed that a third season of “House of Cards” is already being planned for filming. A show with multiple seasons and reliable support from state legislators provides an environment that fosters up-and-coming talent, including students and interns. “They can train young people over seasons, and that is a multiplier effect that we cannot measure,” Kilner said.  
Expert panelists spoke during the 2013 Regional Economic Studies Institute’s Economic Outlook Conference, held at Towson University on Nov. 6.

Expert panelists spoke during the 2013 Regional Economic Studies Institute’s Economic Outlook Conference, held at Towson University on Nov. 6.

Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office within the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development spoke about tax credit opportunities for film projects.

Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office within the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development spoke about tax credit opportunities for film projects.

When it comes to finding a job, military veterans fare better in Maryland than in most states.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 435,000 veterans make their home in Maryland and a total of 21.1 million in the United States. The veteran population in Maryland is 89 percent male and 11 percent female with an average age that is older than the general population. Nearly 70 percent of the veteran working-age population is over 55; meanwhile, 30 percent of the overall veteran population is over 55.

The economic situation of veterans varies by state, however, the overall rate of unemployed veterans remains lower than that of the general population. Veteran unemployment across the country ranges from a low of 2.1 percent in North Dakota to 10 percent in New Jersey. Maryland, along with a handful of other states, has one of the lowest rates of unemployed veterans at 5.3 percent (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1 Veteran unemployment rate among U.S. states

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Note: BLS does not publish unemployment data for veterans by state due to the small sample size; however, such data is available upon request.

As the veteran labor market mirrors overall economic conditions, it is unsurprising that the largest spikes in the veteran unemployment rate happened in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, the unemployment rate has declined as the economy recovers.

In 2012, Maryland’s unemployment rate stood at 5.3 percent for veterans and 6.8 percent for the general population (see Figure 2 below). Unemployment numbers have been relatively low compared to the general unemployment rate 2003 through 2008. The rate then increased for another year before starting to fall again. This recent positive trend underlines the story of Maryland’s overall economic recovery and improving job market, which by August of 2013 had recovered 100 percent of the jobs lost during the recession period.

Figure 2 Unemployment rate among veteran and Non-veteran population in Maryland, 2008-2012. (Not seasonally adjusted)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Targeting policies that ease some the barriers to employment for veterans have become increasingly important for federal and state governments alike. Growing evidence suggests that perhaps the most challenging aspect for veterans seeking jobs is the transition into the civilian labor market. In a survey conducted by Prudential Financial in 2012, 70 percent of veterans regard the experience of finding employment as a civilian as the most challenging transition from their active duty life.

In response to these challenges, Governor Martin O’Malley set a goal to reduce Maryland’s veteran unemployment rate to 3 percent by the end of 2014 through the deployment targeted resources and assistance.

The governor also signed the Veterans Full Employment Act of 2013, which accomplished the following:

Dominick Murray

Secretary of the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development Dominick Murray

A maze of often-inconsistent business rankings and statistics can make it difficult to gain a clear picture of Maryland’s business climate.

To cut through the fog, longtime commentator Dan Rodricks of Midday on WYPR turned to Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development Secretary Dominick Murray and president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee Donald Fry.

Murray emphasized Maryland’s high quality of life and how it is helping to drive new business creation.

“Quality of life is the No. 1 thing that people come to Maryland looking for. When you’ve created so many more new businesses in Maryland than in surrounding states, including our neighbors to the south, that’s what we hear about. When people are asking us about what it’s like to be in Maryland … it’s the quality of life and the quality of the workforce,” he said.

Murray also commented on the state’s business friendliness and ongoing efforts to streamline the regulatory system through direct interaction with business owners.

“We’ve eliminated or streamlined about 127 [regulations]. This came about by our looking out to businesses. We’ve had about 300 businesses involved in different commissions and we’ve listened to these commissions … we try to incorporate the suggestions from these commissions so we can make it even more business friendly,” he said.

Find the full interview on WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR affiliate.

Military construction projects in Maryland have amounted to over $1.5 billion in spending over the past three fiscal years—but not all of those projects were awarded to in-state companies. In fact, in fiscal year 2013, only 34 percent of the contracts went to Maryland-based companies, officials said on Tuesday, during the state’s kick-off of a new initiative to train contractors in competing for lucrative federal contracts.

Secretary Dominick Murray of the Department of Business and Economic Development and Secretary Leonard Howie of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, speaking outside Baltimore City’s historic P. Flanigan & Sons, vowed to help swing the contracting awards process back in Maryland’s favor. “We want to see a super-majority. We want to see more than 75 percent, at least, of these contracts going to Maryland-based firms,” Howie said.

The initiative centers around a series of upcoming workshops and events, free and open to all Maryland contractors.

The workshops will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 29, from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Camden Yards Warehouse in Baltimore, and on Thursday, Oct. 31, from 8:30 a.m. to noon at the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp. Registration is available online here . Additionally, a session on Army Corps of Engineers procurement plans will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5, from 8 a.m. to noon at the Sheraton Baltimore City Center. The second event, “Contract Connections for Military Construction Contracting,” will include 200 companies and feature specific contracting and sub-contracting opportunities and one-on-one meetings with procurement officers. It will be held on Monday, Nov. 18, from 8 a.m. to noon at the BWI Hilton in Linthicum Heights.

James Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association said he’s encouraging contractors across the state to get involved. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the businesses, a great opportunity for the working people who work for these businesses, and a great opportunity for Maryland because the dollars internally will be spent in Maryland, as opposed to folks coming from out of the area, that are enjoying these contracts today,” Russ said.

 

Doing business in Africa Now is the time for Maryland companies to consider doing business in Africa.

Just ask Jessica Reynolds, an international investment and trade specialist with the Maryland Department of the Business and Economic Development, who is now working with several state agencies, county governments and companies to foster increased exports to Africa.

“In the past, it may have seemed like a scary or risky place for companies, but we now have dedicated resources to help businesses identify the countries and regions best for their market,” she said. “Everything is coming together. President Obama recently visited Africa and Maryland recently opened up a state office in Nigeria.”

A team of experts and industry leaders plan to detail recent developments and resources during a state-sponsored Global Trade Forum, entitled “Doing Business in Africa.” It will be held 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 18., in Gilchrist Hall of Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus, located at 9601 Medical Center Dr. in Rockville. Registration is available online at a fee of $45 per person.

The event will feature one-on-one meetings with multiple African embassies, expected to include Angola, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon, Benin, Lesotho, Senegal and others. Expert panelists will present on specific growth sectors and financing resources. The event will also allow companies to network with others who are already involved in African trade.

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Maryland-based Barefoot Tess offers women's shoes sizes 10-15.

Maryland-based Barefoot Tess offers women’s shoes sizes 10-15.

Women’s feet are getting bigger, big enough that it’s rocking the American shoe industry.

But that’s not why Karen Williamson, back in 2005, started her online shoe company. She started the company because her teenage daughter, Tess, was wearing flip-flops in six inches of snow outside her Boston boarding school.

“There’s never been a person who wanted to wear flip flops in the snow. That’s when I realized that for her, shoe shopping was like bathing suit shopping for girls who don’t fit into anything. They avoid it because it’s embarrassing,” Williamson said.

Her daughter’s shoe size, an 11, wasn’t unusual for an athletic woman over six feet tall, yet most buyers and retailers had few incentives to stock anything over a size 10.

Williamson, a former attorney and legal recruiter, felt an immediate need to help others who felt powerless to find stylish shoes in their size. She soon launched Barefoot Tess, which exclusively sells shoes between sizes 10 and 15. Eight years into the business, she’s now ahead of the curve of the changing shoe industry.

Time magazine, last year, sought to answer why women’s feet seemed to be growing. Experts aren’t sure about the cause, whether it’s the result of evolution, eating habits or hormones, although average foot sizes increase in tandem with a growing average height. At the turn of the century, American women wore a size 3.5 or size 4 shoe. Today, the average size is between an 8.5 and a 9.

Williamson, who is a size 9, said her perception of the customer has changed since starting the company. She first assumed that women with larger feet would primarily want styles that minimized their appearance. This largely remains true for younger teens, but tends to change as women begin to “own their bodies,” she said.

“I thought that if you were over six feet tall, maybe you wouldn’t want the high heels or the pointy shoes, but I was wrong. The bottom line is, our girls like exactly what everyone else does, which makes perfect sense,” she said. “When they’re younger, they might want flats more, but boy, when they get into their 20s and 30s, they can’t rock those heels enough. People say, ‘I want to wear what I want to wear.’ They’re tall and proud.”

Barefoot Tess began as a buyer and seller of major shoe brands, including Steve Madden and Nine West, but about five years ago, began carrying the exclusive Barefoot Tess line.

“Currently, we sell about 50/50, our brand and others brands, but our goal is to reach 60/40 in the near future. It gives us so much more flexibility in our shoes and we get to tailor them to the customer,” she said.

The business has gone through several transitions, occasionally managing storefronts to complement the online store. Shoppers making special orders have always been welcome to make appointments to visit company headquarters and try on shoes at the source. The company is currently exclusively online, but Williamson envisions that they will soon maintain a small store attached to their warehouse, where women can choose their shoes from a kiosk connected to the warehouse and try them on before purchasing.

The evolving business model has been a learning experience for Williamson. Her former legal recruiting business was entirely service based. Selling shoes, on the other hand, demands a massive inventory and ongoing capital investment.

“You have to know what you’re willing to invest upfront, or else it’s like quicksand, you have to tell yourself where to stop and stick to it,” she said. “You have to start with a really solid business plan and stay within your budget. That’s really important.”

Barefoot Tess

Maryland-based Barefoot Tess now offers its own brand of larger-sized shoes.

Selling shoes also requires constant interaction with customers to assess their changing tastes, she said. Much of this is conducted on Facebook, where fans of the company offer direct feedback on new styles and color selections.

“Our customers are very tight knit because they share something. The shared experience of struggling to find shoes that fit that they actual like brings them together. They’re very loyal,” she said.

Despite a recent sales slump as result of the recession, business is improving and Williamson is planning future investment. Added publicity and celebrity endorsements are playing a role in the company’s success.

Talk show host Steve Harvey recently named Barefoot Tess the best place to get women’s shoes between sizes 11 and 15. The company has also been featured in O Magazine, InStyle magazine, Lucky magazine and dozens of others. The company has become a go-to for top female athletes, sometimes meeting with entire WMBA teams at a time. One of Cal Ripken’s daughters and the mother and sister of Shaquille O’Neal—who all happen to be above average in height—are among the company’s customers.

“I just love these girls. They’re all very impressive,” she said.

In a somewhat unexpected opportunity, Barefoot Tess recently donated shoes for a Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, where men raise money to combat rape, sexual assault and gender violence by walking a full mile in high heels. Williamson said she was thrilled to see even men wearing the product.

The biggest reward of running her own business is the lives it’s changed, she said.

“Many of our customers were bullied over their larger feet when they were younger. A lot of the runway models out there are six-foot-one, but when they were younger, they towered over the boys. It sometimes takes years for them to feel comfortable with themselves. That added sense of self esteem from wearing a shoe that actually fits is probably the best thing we have to offer our customers,” she said.

Williamson said she watched her own daughter go through that transition. She’s proud to say that, Tess, now a successful marketing manager, will never have to walk through the snow in flip-flops again.

Tax relief is coming to Maryland employers—beginning on Jan. 1, 2014, the state’s unemployment insurance tax is being reduced by up to 70 percent, Governor Martin O’Malley announced Wednesday.

“Progress doesn’t happen by chance, but by the choices we’re making together to build a strong, growing and resilient economy,” O’Malley said in a statement. “As a result of our efforts together with Maryland employers to recover the jobs lost during the recession, Maryland businesses will see a significant cut in their unemployment insurance rate—many as much as 70 percent.”

Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Leonard J. Howie III, Maryland Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kathy Snyder joined the governor in the announcement.

The state currently manages an unemployment insurance trust fund valued at $934,896,062, the eighth highest in the country. With unemployment payouts peaking in 2009, the recession strained the trust fund and additional contributions from employers were required. The improved economy, however, has allowed the government to lower contribution rates.

According to figures released by the state:

Unemployment insurance tax rate ranges on the first $8,500 in annual wages
2012 2.2% – 13.5%
2013 1.0% – 10.5%
2014 0.3% – 7.5 %

For many Maryland businesses, the rate reduction will represent an 86 percent drop in unemployment insurance costs since 2012. An employer at the lowest end of the tax rates, who paid $85 per employee in 2013, will pay less than half as much, $25.50, in 2014, the state announced.

“By working together when times are tight, we’re now seeing significantly reduced unemployment insurance taxes for Maryland’s employers, adding further fuel to our economic recovery,” Howie said. “Thanks to the leadership of Governor O’Malley and the work of our partners in the General Assembly, and the hard work and fortitude of Maryland businesses, we are far ahead of most states in this area.”

The secretary added that unlike 15 other states, Maryland does not depend on federal loans to pay unemployment insurance benefits.