Donna Galassi—the only woman inside her engineering department—straightened her posture, took a deep breath, and once again headed inside her boss’s office to inquire about her missing paycheck. It was long past the standard two weeks since she’d last been paid, and she was growing concerned when they still wouldn’t provide her with any solid answers.
Donna had never considered herself to be an argumentative person, but she has always prided herself on being someone who sticks to her values. Throughout her entire career, she was often the only woman on the numerous software, engineering, or technology teams she’d been a part of. As such, she’d learned there were times when she needed to speak up for herself.
Weeks of missing paychecks, an entire department going unpaid, months of empty promises—this was one of those times.
Throughout her entire career, she was often the only woman on the numerous software, engineering, or technology teams she’d been a part of. As such, she’d learned there were times when she needed to speak up for herself.
Each day over the next couple of weeks, Donna would find the time to step into her boss’s office and ask yet again, “Have the paychecks come in yet?” And each day, the answer was “Not today.”
In the eyes of her male colleagues, she had implicitly been chosen to be the department’s representative in this matter. It was a tiresome game, but it had become a tedious battle for Donna. As easygoing and optimistic as she typically was, she knew she had to stand her ground.
After not receiving a paycheck for over 2 months, she took matters into her own hands. If they didn’t pay her, she wasn’t going to go to work. She simply stopped going to the office.
The company was more than 8 weeks behind in paying Donna. With no hope in site of ever seeing that money, she had decided to cut her losses. Having two teenagers and a family at home, she had plenty of other things to do with her time—rather than giving away more of it to a company that didn’t respect her.
If they didn’t pay her, she wasn’t going to go to work. Donna simply stopped going to the office.
It wasn’t long before HR reached out to her. “You’ve breached your contract,” the higher-ups had tried to convince her.
“Excuse me? Who breached the contract?” Donna asked them in return. HR attempted to get her to come back into the office, but Donna stood strong. Without full back pay, she wasn’t going back into the office.
It took the company more than 4 weeks to organize themselves and call her back in to pick up her last paycheck. But at last—they finally paid her the wages they owed her. “I felt so relieved,” Donna reveals. She has always prided herself on being someone who tries to do the right thing, despite facing a difficult situation.
The company called her in to review her tasks with the project manager. She did her best to live up to their expectations and complete all of the remaining tasks they assigned to her. Her performance never faltered; she went above and beyond to help her company prepare for her departure.
Then, there was an announcement: the entire engineering department—Donna included—was being laid off.
It was the summer of 2007, and the world was about to take a turn for the worse.
The Great Recession of 2007 and 2008
The company Donna had been working at—a company that worked with real estate investors, agents, and investment properties—had been struggling for a long time. When the Great Recession came, they were one of the businesses to get hit hard.
The layoff didn’t come as a surprise to Donna. She had spent the last few months feeling unseen, unheard, unappreciated, and taken advantage of. “I felt [that] the layoff was coming,” she later admits, “They stopped paying the tech department first.”
Indeed, when the hard times surfaced, the technology team was the first department to get cut. Why would they still need their engineering team—they reasoned—if they already had all of the technology and advancements they needed?
Why would they still need the engineering team—they reasoned—if they already had all the technology and advancements they needed?
As Donna packed up the things in her cubicle, her mind began racing. Being a middle-aged woman and a mother, would she be able to land a job in corporate again? Would she have to endure similar injustices in her future roles?
Donna quickly realized that she was not ready to return to the corporate world. Her previous experiences had left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Even though she had been anticipating it, the layoff still unsettled her. Her eldest daughter would be heading off to college that fall, which is well-known for costing a pretty penny in the United States. Donna had expectations that she would be able to contribute towards her daughter’s higher education. This became an extremely stressful, anxious time for her.
However, her experiences didn’t leave her wallowing. She knew she had to find the silver lining in this—for her family as well as herself. “I saw so many people getting laid off,” she recalls, “I knew that there had to be something more out there than just corporate… I just needed the courage to reinvent myself.”
“I knew that there had to be something more out there than just corporate… I just needed the courage to reinvent myself.”
Part of that courage came from a necessity to provide for her family. Her silver lining emerged as she got to spend quality time with her daughter before moving away to begin college. “It was a gift in hindsight,” Donna recollects with a fond smile, “Being able to focus on family helped me re-shift my life.”
Years of working in the corporate world had often meant little work-life balance for Donna. Now, after the recession layoffs, she had the quality time to think, to plan, to act.
Did You Know?
Small to medium-sized businesses make up 99.9% of the US economy.
Building Her Business from the Ground Up
Donna had always figured that she would start her own business someday. Both of her parents were entrepreneurs who came from rather humble beginnings. She spent her childhood growing up in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, in the small town of Paul Smiths, NY. Her father had a home improvement business that flourished during the summer but typically struggled through winter and spring. Success was seasonal, never guaranteed.
When Donna was in high school, her family made the move to warm, sunny Florida. Her mother started her own seamstress business, and her parents began to flourish from there.
“I’ve always been someone who likes to do things my own way,” Donna reminisces, “I would describe myself as a non-typical person, who [just] happens to be a woman in love with technology…When I get something in my head, I just do it. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the common thing to do.”
“When I get something in my head, I just do it. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the common thing to do.”
Despite her family’s history with small businesses, Donna didn’t have an easy time starting her journey.
After she met and married her husband, she wanted a work-life balance where she could both support her family and be a mother involved with raising her children. She struggled with finding positions that offered her the type of work-life balance she desired. More often than not, she worked a corporate job, yet asked to work part-time, which at the time, was unheard of in the technology industry.
Throughout most of her career, Donna’s job interviews were conducted in a room full of men, who were often shocked by Donna’s request for a part-time position. A woman who wanted to have it all—motherhood, work-life balance, and a thriving career? At the time, that was—for lack of better terms—unheard of in both the corporate world and the budding technology sector. Yet, Donna stuck to her values.
“[Everything] was happening on a bigger scale than I realized at the time. When I recognized that I wasn’t the only one needing to reinvent myself, when I knew that I wasn’t alone…that kind of gave me some comfort,” Donna later reflects. “What I was doing would help others who were in the same situation…others with [passion and] a need to start their own business.”
After decades of long hours, little work-life balance, and meager appreciation, Donna Galassi decided to leave the corporate world for good. She started her own business—a business that would later come to be known as Blue Zenith Design + Strategy—during the height of the Great Recession.
“What I was doing would help others who were in the same situation—other small to medium businesses…others with [passion and] a need to start their own business.”
Today, Blue Zenith has become a successful, award-winning web and digital marketing agency that remotely serves small to mid-sized businesses.
Did You Know?
Over the past two decades, we have witnessed an astonishing 114% growth in women-owned businesses.
Empowering Women Through Technology
Historically, women have often struggled to be respected in the tech industry.
In spite of our recent cultural shifts, many women recall having to go above and beyond to prove themselves, even when they saw no such expectations for their male counterparts with similar backgrounds. Quite a few women still struggle with a deeply internalized societal pressure to choose between starting a family or developing a career.
“Girls weren’t always encouraged to go into those fields,” Donna recalls, “But I think it’s becoming more and more okay with society. People and individuals [today] are more readily accepted for their differences. On social media, we can see people being celebrated for their differences.”
“On social media, we can see people being celebrated for their differences.”
This blog article was not written to be politically or socioeconomically charged, nor was it written to evoke divisive counterarguments or unpleasant emotions. Instead, its purpose is to validate the personal and professional challenges many middle-aged and mature women have faced throughout their careers, especially within the technology industry. This writing endeavors to humanize their experiences and ignite thought-provoking, meaningful conversations.
This writing endeavors to humanize their experiences and ignite thought-provoking, meaningful conversations.
As our world grapples with the economic and cultural shifts brought on by a global pandemic ( as well as other momentous events), Donna’s story is intended to provide a beacon of inspiration for small and medium-sized business owners everywhere.
Did You Know?
As of 2023, women-owned businesses make up around 40% of all US businesses.
Should I Start a Business During a Recession?
Contrary to what many believe, an economic recession can provide incredible new opportunities for business. This is because new problems and issues tend to arise during recessions or other times of socioeconomic decline, creating market gaps and untapped niches for you to develop new business resolutions.
Regardless of a recession or the current state of affairs—take the plunge and begin building your business whenever you feel ready.
Regardless of a recession, pandemic, or the current state of affairs—take the plunge and begin building your business whenever you feel ready.
In times of recession, it is no secret that small and medium-sized businesses face hardships. Traditionally, women-owned businesses and industries dominated by women have been especially vulnerable during economic downturns. However, the recent pandemic and cultural shift have provided a unique silver lining.
From traditional corporate roles to small business ventures or more unconventional alternatives, modern men and women of all ages have the opportunity to explore a multitude of different choices, careers, and potentials. Thanks to the rise of remote work and continued technological advancements, we now have more opportunities than ever before to pursue our passions—and engage in meaningful work that will create extraordinary impacts throughout our lives.
Did You Know?
The most common reasons people want to start their own business do not revolve around income, revenue, or money; instead, most people are driven by their passion and a desire for flexibility, independence, and personal growth and development.