Virginia Girolami will always remember that afternoon a few weeks ago when she saw the three-ring binder of licensed businesses at her lawyer's office. There, officially listed for the first time, was her own business, Upper Cusp Equine Dentistry.
"There it was, in print," she said. "I was thrilled!"
As the name of her business suggests, Girolami, a petite, energetic, 21-year-old, is going to be a horse dentist.
The very physical practice of equine dentistry, in which a person must handle large tools to file teeth the size of half a man's thumb in the mouth of a 1,000-plus-pound animal, does not attract many young women who weigh 110 pounds.
But that doesn't seem to make Girolami think twice. On a recent afternoon, she was busy hoisting feed and large buckets of water and throwing around wheelbarrows of manure. She said she just hopes that potential clients won't look at her and say, "But look at you! You're just a half-pint!"
Not to mention that she just graduated from Northern Virginia Community College in Sterling in May with a degree as a veterinary technician. But her prospects seem exciting and possible, not strange, to Girolami, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs.
Her mother, Jeanne, has owned Creature Comforts, an animal-sitting business, for about 14 years, and her father, Louis, has his own masonry business, Blue Ridge Tile. "I had to learn the ropes as I went," Jeanne said. "Fortunately, I'm able to share that with her."
Girolami's parents gave her the confidence to start her business in equine dentistry, something in which she has been interested for years. But she has had to overcome obstacles related to her age.
She was denied a small-business loan by First Union bank in Purcellville because she had not established much credit, and she didn't want her parents to co-sign a loan. "Who starts a business with a loan co-signed by their parents?" she said. The bank could offer only a few thousand dollars.
So she did something she wouldn't recommend for most people: applied for, and received, two zero percent interest credit cards, both with $10,000 limits. She plans to pay $500 toward each card monthly until the debt is paid.
She used the cards to buy $10,000 worth of equipment, pay $5,000 for dental school tuition and allotted about $3,000 for advertising. The idea is to set up everything before she leaves for dentistry school in February and then start the business when she returns in April.
Girolami will attend the American School of Equine Dentistry, run by veterinarian Raymond Hyde of Purcellville. The four-week course is being offered in New Zealand because there are so many New Zealanders interested, Hyde said.
Many people who practice equine dentistry do so without schooling. It is legal, but some practitioners prefer the schooling in addition to an apprenticeship. Girolami has apprenticed with Hyde and Leslie Houston, another equine dentist in the area.
Hyde, who has practiced equine dentistry for 21 years, said that more qualified equine dentists are needed in the area and that he thinks Girolami will succeed.
Although Hyde recently suffered a broken nose and eye socket while working on a horse, he said he doesn't think that Girolami's stature will hinder her, although she will have to do some things differently. She may, for instance, have to sedate larger horses more often or use a halter or martingale, which eases a horse's head down, Hyde said.
"She is very interested in doing it and is very good with animals," he said. "She has a history of working with large and small animals, she has worked with vets and is very enthusiastic."
While looking for a job as a veterinary technician after graduation, Girolami realized that there was little opportunity for growth. Many farmers and vets often handle the same work she would be hired to do, such as giving vaccines.
So she decided to specialize. When she was in high school, she clipped an article about Hyde and the dentistry school. She remembered it a few months ago. After much market research, she applied to his program, was accepted and started toward business ownership.
To supplement her business credit cards, Girolami is busier than most people. She works at a barn seven days a week, waits tables at Giovanni's in Leesburg in the evenings, works at Great Country Farms in season and works for her mother almost every day. Girolami, who grew up in Bluemont, said she hopes to find clients through her years of making friends and contacts in Loudoun.
She said word of mouth among horse owners counts more than advertising.
"If one person gives you a chance in Loudoun County, you're set," she said. "I'm scared that people are going to say, 'But she's only 21.' But I went to school and worked my butt off. That has to be worth something."
Now she just has to do what she considers the fun part: learn more. She will dive right into her business as soon as the program, and a few weeks of what she thinks might be one of her last vacations, are finished.
"At first, I was so scared, but now it's just exciting," she said, as she massaged the gums of Weltkind, a large Hanovarian at the barn where she works. "By May of next year, I might be the happiest woman in the world."