By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
As a wedding officiant during the COVID-19 pandemic, Raquel Solomon has seen her share of unconventional ceremony locales. The wildest: at the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, overlooking a 90-foot cliff.
“I didn’t have cell phone service because I was in a remote area,” Solomon recalls.
“I was so scared and when I got there, oh my gosh, it was almost like I had made it to heaven. It was amazing. In the wedding photos, the bride has on boots and a white wedding dress, and they literally look like they’re about to fall off.”
Solomon traveled several hours for the job and says it proves that she’ll literally go to the ends of the earth for her clients.
Marrying couples was just one of the careers the Bakersfield native took on during the pandemic. She’s also a notary and a loan signing agent.
Solomon is growing her resume after participating in the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell. The Ivy League program offers a certificate in women’s entrepreneurship at no cost and enables women entrepreneurs, specifically ones of color, to gain critical business acumen to drive their businesses forward.
“I used to work for the Secretary of State, so I knew how to do my corporation if I wanted to be an S corp, but I didn’t have the backing. I didn’t have the education, but when I took this Cornell program, it was what I needed,” Solomon said.
The 52-year-old is used to having a lot of things on her plate. She started her career with the State of California in 1985 as a sophomore in high school. After graduating, she became a single parent. At the recommendation of a department head, she took an exam and landed a job at Wasco State Prison.
“It was never really a career path that I picked for myself, it was more or less a career path that paid the bills,” she shared.
Over the years, Solomon has worked for a number of different departments, but admits she still didn’t have “that passion” for what she was doing.
The silver lining of the pandemic for her was a chance to reflect.
“It really gave me an opportunity to kind of reassess my happiness,” Solomon said. “Because with COVID, we were all forced to take a look at ourselves and be still and be happy.”
She learned about the women’s entrepreneurship institute from a Facebook post. With nothing to lose, she signed up.
“I took a leap. I took a nine month leave of absence and I pursued my passion,” Solomon said.
Even though she was on leave, her personal life was “like a 9 to 5.” Her sister had already been on a lung transplant list when she was diagnosed with breast cancer during the pandemic. Solomon traveled back and forth to Richmond to take her sister to chemotherapy appointments. Solomon is also looking after her elderly and homebound mother. She took her computer with her and completed assignments in between caring for her loved ones.
“If you are hungry, you’re going to do the work,” she said.
Thousands of people across the country have been waitlisted for coveted spots in the virtual program. “We had courses on female leadership, partnership, how to run your business, how to forecast your profit. I had never been taught how to become a legal operating entity. What does that mean? How to create a legal agreement, a binding agreement between you and someone else. I got all of that information and I didn’t just sit on it, I began to put it into action.”
Solomon performed 120 weddings in 12 months. She also developed an online course to teach others to be officiants. She completed the program in June 2021 and proudly shows off her certificate. Sometimes she does so to silence naysayers.
“As I was advertising my business as a loan signing agent and a notary, people were asking, ‘what qualifies you to do that?’ They were testing my intelligence and I think that comes with number one, being a woman and number two, being a Black woman. We always have to go an extra step to prove ourselves,” Solomon says. “I started posting my certificate because there were people that were challenging me, but I had the skill set. I had the tools, I had the knowledge because they prepare you for that in the program. I’m still busy to this day.”
She encourages others to sign up, but warns that it’s not easy.
“It’s really hard as an entrepreneur and when you find a program such as this that catapults you into the entrepreneurial community, it’s amazing,” she said.
Learning from actual Cornell professors and being able to network with other program participants has been a priceless experience for Solomon.
Solomon is very specific about where she sees herself and her business in the future.
“I call it my amazing plan,” she says. “December 27, 2024, I’m going to be officially retired. That’s the day after my birthday, I will be 55 years old and I will retire from the State of California.”
Solomon recently moved her businesses from Roseville to the Arden area. She’s looking to become a life insurance agent and hopes to add insurance, and even a real estate service, to her wedding offerings.
“I’m going to couple this into a package deal, so while I’m receiving my pension, I’ll also have this business. Weddings are not going out of style, people are always going to get married. People are always going to buy houses and people are going to always need life insurance. I’m working diligently to get all those things under my belt and I think right now is a really good time.”
With retirement in her sights, Solomon has also been making time for herself.
“At times I wanted to just give up. When you work and you don’t like what you’re doing, that adds to the stress,” she shared.
My daughters always say, ‘Mom, stop working and live your life’ and I finally took their advice on December 10. I flew to Africa by myself. I went to Nairobi, Kenya and I stayed there for a week and celebrated my birthday. I went on safari every day.”
Solomon’s previous travels saw her go to Egypt and Dubai. She’s also sharing the fun she has with her grandson in a series of children’s books, “The Adventures of Buttercup & Granny.”
Due to the success of the Cornell program, BofA is adding 50,000 seats, bringing the total enrollment of small business owners to 100,000. For more information, visit https://www.bofainstitute.cornell.edu.