Editor’s Note: This post is part of a project on LGBT women business owners. Read more here.
Deb Di Gregorio did not enter the entrepreneurial world in style. She wore “awful stockings and fluffy shirts,” she says, and set up her first base of operations in a space that was tantamount to “a living room with two filing cabinets.”
But from those humble beginnings grew Camarès Communications, an enduring, successful marketing and business-strategy firm based in Maplewood, N.J., that helps up-and-coming tech companies and others develop web presences and fuel their growth.
She founded Camarès in 1982, when she was, as she put it, “young and stupid — which is a good time to start a company.”
She had earned a Bachelor’s in contemporary arts from Ramapo College in 1978, then honed her communication skills writing for The Record of Bergen County and American Health Magazine.
Ever solutions-oriented, Di Gregorio began to spot opportunities to use emerging technologies to fix workflow problems at publications. First, she created a database that made double-booked assignments and other production snags a thing of the past. Then she set about educating herself on how tech could be used for everything else, from better office management to more efficient wedding planning.
Soon after Di Gregorio left journalism to write for AT&T and other large corporations, she found herself in need of staff to help with the workload — thus Camarès was born.
However, the road to growth for her company was bumpy and hard-traveled. She weathered financial woes, including bankruptcy, and was forcibly outed as a lesbian by former employees. “There was such a crowd mentality back then; there was such fear-mongering in the media” about gay people, she says. “It was a very disconcerting time.”
But Di Gregorio’s resilience and humor saw her through shaky economic times and a tough period when society was far less accepting of LGBT women and men. She also found more business success by shifting Camarès’ focus to incorporate more early-stage tech companies.
And while it wasn’t easy — “Do you know what it’s like to try and convince a geek that he should advertise?” she jokes — she succeeded in helping numerous companies thrive, enough to expand her operations to Brazil. She even garnered a spot in the NJ Ad Club‘s Advertising Hall of Fame back in 2003 for her work.
Now, Di Gregorio is embarking upon a new chapter in life as author and publisher of “Triumph Over Toothpicks,” a visually dynamic book for small business owners on best digital practices that is the flagship offering of Grace & Sage Press (which she herself founded in June of this year).
Di Gregorio may have been uneasy earlier on in her career about bringing her true self to work, and feels she showed her lapses in confidence by wearing those much-loathed stockings and shirts. But those days are over. “I never spoke about my private life, ever,” she recalls. “And I still didn’t after being outed — but I did start to loosen up a bit. Then I adopted my children, and, at that point, I had no reason not to talk about my family.”
Her family has, indeed, brought her happiness. Today, she is married to Marilyn Savoia, her partner of 33 years, with whom she is raising two daughters, 17-year-old Grace and 15-year-old Sage.
Looking ahead, she hopes to continue growing the client base at Camarès while also publishing additional visually appealing, biz-focused books. But no matter what may come, Di Gregorio is confident she’ll land on her feet.
After surviving as an entrepreneur through so many ups and down, she says with a laugh, “I’m either a genius or a cockroach.”