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Devastating diagnosis prompts entrepreneur to change course

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(from right) Melanie Alexander, owner of Greensburg's Moon Glow Yoga and Graphitti Design, and her daughter and Studio Manager Cassandra Pfaff, stand for a portrait inside Pfaff's office at their Greensburg location on West Otterman Street on Wednesday, September 12, 2012. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
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Yoga equipment can be purchased at Moonglow Yoga, a studio owned by Melanie Alexander on West Otterman Street in Greensburg as well as their studio in Pittsburgh. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
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Jasmine Goldband
Melanie Alexander teaches a yoga class at her studio Moonglow Yoga in the Strip District Thursday, September 6, 2012. Alexander is the owner of two local yoga studios, in addition to owning her own graphic design company. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
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Jasmine Goldband
Melanie Alexander teaches a yoga class at her studio Moonglow Yoga in the Strip District Thursday, September 6, 2012. Alexander is the owner of two local yoga studios, in addition to owning her own graphic design company. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Melanie Alexander recently added another venture to her list of businesses, but she’s never felt more calm.

In April, Alexander opened a second location of Moonglow Yoga, in the Strip District, after several years of success at her Greensburg site. That building is home to Alexander’s first company, Graphitti Design Inc., which started in 1984 and specializes in design and marketing.

Yet Alexander of Greensburg seems almost immune to the stress that can accompany a growing enterprise.

“When I teach yoga all day, everything calms down,” she said, sitting in her second-floor Penn Avenue studio.

Alexander began her career in the graphic design field in the early 1980s, but after working for others, realized she could do it on her own. She started her own company out of her home and soon found herself in need of a staff. She rented space in Irwin, which she eventually outgrew, and in 1992 moved the office to New Stanton, then to Greensburg in 2008.

It was a devastating diagnosis that led to her life-altering decision to pursue yoga as a career.

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I decided to become a yoga instructor,” she said. “As a graphic designer, I was a 24/7 workaholic. I asked myself if this was worth my health.”

The answer was no, and though she admits the idea was scary, Alexander pursued her passion. She cut back on graphic design work and took classes to become a certified yoga teacher at the same time she underwent treatment for cancer. She wore a wig to classes, and did not tell classmates about her disease.

“I don’t know how I would have gotten through that without yoga,” she said.

Alexander is among a growing number of women entrepreneurs, both nationally and locally. A study by American Express Open, a branch of the financial and travel services company, showed that while the total number of businesses in the country grew 37 percent from 1997 to 2012, the number of women-owned businesses grew 54 percent.

Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the nation for the number of female-owned businesses with 293,300. The state experienced 44.5 percent growth in women-owned businesses from 1997 to 2012.

The yoga industry is experiencing similar growth. According to a study by consumer-research firm IBISWorld, revenue for the yoga and Pilates industry rose an estimated average of 9.5 percent every year during 2006-2011.

Since 2008, Moonglow has grown from two instructors to 12. The Strip District studio renovations took four months and resulted in soothing blue-green walls and shining hardwood floors. The space can fit up to 50 students. Alexander said most classes attract 15 to 20. Alexander has 14 employees working at her three businesses, two dedicated entirely to Graphitti Design. That company’s clients have included Kennametal, GNC, Seton Hill and St. Vincent universities and Consol Energy.

She does work for Pittcon, an annual conference and exposition on laboratory science held in various cities.

With her cancer in remission, Alexander encourages other women interested in exploring their entrepreneurial potentialto look into programs for business owners at local colleges. She cautions that starting a company — including a yoga studio — is not as easy as people expect.

“It’s a lot of regulations, loans, bankers, attorneys,” she said.

Alexander said the key to juggling work and family is striking a balance. She admits that her daughter probablybecame more self-sufficient than other children because her mother worked.

“She became a really good cook,” Alexander said with a laugh.

Today, her daughter, Cassandra Pfaff, is involved in all aspects of her mother’s businesses, working as a photographer, illustrator, designer and yoga teacher.

“We have a good intuition of what the other one wants,” said Pfaff, 38, of Greensburg.

While the two share a business sense, Pfaff admits she’d like to be more like her mother.

“I wish I inherited some of her get-up-and-go,” she said. “She gets an idea, and she goes after it.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].

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