A glance at Susan Callison's outfit shows nothing out of the ordinary other than black sleeves that could easily be her style statement, and a sort of half-glove that wraps around her right thumb.
In fact, much of her body is wrapped in compression garments to manage swelling from a condition known as lymphedoma, a chronic fluid buildup resulting from breast cancer surgery Callison had in 2008.
She's proud of those garments and proud of how she came to wear them, for good reason. Callison's Hartford firm, founded in 2010, is the exclusive U.S. importer and distributor of a line of high-fashion, high-tech compression sleeves, shorts, leggings and other garb, designed and made near Milan, Italy.
Callison is Solidea's most fervent, evangelical pitchwoman, on a mission to save, or at least improve, the lives of lymphedema sufferers — as she builds a business that she hopes will have three dozen employees within a few years.
"After seeing what these garments did for myself and for other people, I'm driven to create change, really no matter what it takes," said Callison, who discovered Solidea after suffering with old-style compression sleeves.
Callison doesn't say those words about her mission lightly, and like a blues singer with true soul, she has paid the dues to utter them. On Thursday, she told her story to Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who visited LSC as part of a one-day tour of five women-owned companies that have participated in the state's Small Business Express assistance program.
For now, Callison's company — Imagine That Inc., doing business as LSC Distribution — has just herself, an employee who's been with her from the start and an intern who's about to join as an employee, working in a one-room warehouse-office-showroom at the rear of an industrial building.
Cancer has been the scourge of Callison's family, and when her older sister was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2008, Callison had a battery of tests that showed she, too, had the disease. The surgery and treatment worked, but left her with severe swelling in an arm where doctors had removed 32 lymph nodes.
"I put on the sleeves that were designed in the United States and it was devastating," because they were ugly, uncomfortable, and worst of all, not effective, the 41-year-old said. "The fluid started to accumulate above my sleeve."
She could hardly pick up her toddler. "It's almost more devastating than the cancer itself," she said.
"I decided instead of just using what was out there, I was going to find something better," Callison said, telling the story to an attentive Wyman, as a handful of us listened.
That's when she found Solidea, which had a line of medical compression garments made of nice, lighter fabric. That was good, but not ideal. She took a few sleeves to a conference for young breast cancer survivors in Florida, and started spreading the word.
Soon, she learned that Solidea, owned and operated by Enzo Pinelli and his family, also had a line of even lighter, fashionable compression-wear for cellulite and other health and beauty uses. And that line, Callison discovered, was the best product in the world for her lymphedema.
"He turned a medical garment into, I would frame it more as a work of art," she said. "Instead of looking at me with pity eyes, people would ask me where I got it."
Since then, her quest has been nothing short of a religion in which she is, as she puts it, "out to change the standard of care."
Lymphedema and other forms of severe swelling are not new, and you might think it would be hard for a startup firm to revolutionize the basic form of treatment, compression garments. The secret is a patented pattern of ridges that create a massaging effect, allowing the layers of the lymph system nearest to the skin to still function because the garment is not as heavy and tight.
It's a unique approach to compression treatment, said Dr. Philip Allmendinger, a retired thoracic and vascular surgeon, a family friend who has worked informally and voluntarily as Callison's medical director. "It's a huge market," Allmendinger said Thursday after Wyman's visit, but he said manufacturers never pushed toward much innovation because "they were doing just fine."
As any startup business owner will tell you, success requires a lot: money, timing, the kindness of others, a great product, some luck and an unshakable belief in a goal. Callison was able to line up a $150,000 loan from the state Department of Economic and Community Development one year ago, enabling her to move from her West Hartford basement and converted garage, at a time when no bank would lend her money.
"I didn't have any collateral," she said.
Many entrepreneurs put up their houses to back loans, but Callison, after a divorce and a recession, and with medical expenses, had too much mortgage debt.
As of this week, the state has assisted 657 companies in the Small Business Express program, which started in early 2012. That includes $52 million in loans and $34 million in matching grants, DECD spokesman Jim Watson said.
Many small businesses in the program should not receive aid at all because they don't bring new commerce into the state: Local stores, restaurants, bake shops and the like. Wyman and others in the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy disagree, saying — incorrectly — that a job is a job.
Callison's loans — a $75,000 renewable line of credit and a low-interest loan of $75,000 — require her to create just two jobs, a low barrier that she will soon meet. And her business, which collects about 90 percent of its revenue from outside of Connecticut, is exactly the sort that the program should assist.
Connecticut, in fact, has been a tough market for Callison, as retailers have mostly spurned her product — an exception being the boutique at the Helen and Harry Gray Cancer Center at Hartford Hospital. "You have to find people who are forward thinking and willing to take a risk on a new type of business," said Callison, who has six non-employee sales representatives around the country and an active web site, http://www.lscdistribution.com.
It would be hard to find a business owner who's a more passionate believer in her product, and I've met some extremely devoted entrepreneurs. "It's my third child," she said.
Her second child is the 15-year-old daughter of her sister, who did not survive her cancer. Callison also lost her father to cancer and her mother as well, just this past February.
The business is, for Callison, the latest twist in a career that has included horse training and interior decorating, always with an entrepreneurial bent.
"The financial gains don't mean a whole lot to me. If we do make it, it's all going to a charity," she said.
Wyman gasped when Callison told her about her charity idea, the "Wig-Out Hair Ball." No, it's not a dance to raise money for wigs for cancer survivors — it's a fundraiser for families, just to give them some money to get by, Callison said. "Crazy headdress, let your inhibitions down and you have a great time," she said. "These walks are great and all, but as a cancer survivor I would rather go to a party."
With Wyman, Callison did, in fact, plan to go to a few cancer fundraiser walks around the state. But as a single mother with two children and a growing business at a critical stage, Callison has her hands full.
It was a fun visit for Wyman, herself an x-ray technician by training, in no small part because she was able to spend much of the time holding 3 1/2-month-old Jovani, whose mother, Jennifer Nieves, works at LSC. Jovani, a regular at the firm, is a reminder for Nieves, employee Nancy Santini and Callison that all good businesses have a reason for being that's bigger than profits.