Stella Barbuto Penizotto’s affiliation with Onondaga Community College started with her first class in the fall 1988 semester and has grown stronger in the 25 years since she graduated. “The things I learned at OCC laid such a strong foundation for me,” said Penizotto. “The constant help I’ve received from OCC’s Small Business Development Center has helped me build what we have today.”
What Stella and her business partner and husband John have built is “Shining Stars Daycare,” a group of locally owned day care centers in Onondaga County that employ 70 people and serve 330 families.
Penizotto graduated from Syracuse’s Henninger High School in 1987 with plans to go into nursing. When she decided she preferred to become a teacher she enrolled in OCC’s Human Services major. “It was perfect for me. The teachers and everyone within the major were great, and I loved what I was learning.”
After graduating in 1990, Penizotto continued on to SUNY Oswego, where she would earn her bachelor’s in elementary education two years later. “I was ready to become a teacher but there were no teaching jobs.” She took a job as a nanny then worked at three different child care centers.
It was 1994 and Penizotto was combing the classifieds searching for a new job when she stumbled upon an ad which caught her attention. “It was for space at Medical Center East in East Syracuse. We looked at each other and realized it was the perfect opportunity to open our own day care center.”
With her husband’s marketing expertise and her day care experience, the Penizotto’s opened their first Shining Stars Daycare in July 1994. By the fall it was filled to capacity. Seven years later they opened their second center in Manlius. In 2009 they opened their third facility in Liverpool.
The Shining Stars in Liverpool is a brand new building built to the Penizotto’s specifications. The entire design is based on everything Stella learned from spending time in other day care centers and seeing what did and didn’t work. Each classroom in the 14,500 square foot facility is larger than state regulations call for. Outside are three playgrounds specifically designed to accommodate children in three different groups: toddler, pre-K and school-aged. The center also has a 3,000 square foot gym where children can burn off their seemingly endless amount of energy. “Having a gym in this climate is invaluable. There are only so many days out of the year children can play outside. With our gym we always have a place for children to play.”
As Shining Stars has continued to grow, Penizotto has leaned on OCC’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC). “We call them all the time. In the beginning it was about business plans and projections. Every time we opened a new center we would work with them again on financing and any grants that might be available.”
Penizotto’s point person at the SBDC is Joan Powers, who is its director. “Joan just has so much knowledge. There are things you need to know to get through the process and Joan and the SBDC are great to work with. I always tell people they are so worth looking up. Their services are free.”
In 2010 Powers was so impressed with what Penizotto had accomplished she nominated her for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s “Small Business Person of the Year” award. The judges agreed and Penizotto won both the Syracuse district and New York State awards. She then solely represented New York State in the running for National Small Business Person of the Year awards in Washington, DC during National Small Business Week. Attendees were recognized at a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House and Penizotto was photographed with President Barack Obama. “When we met the President it was very brief. I got to shake his hand because I happened to be right up front.”
In 2014 OCC named Penizotto an “Alumni Face” in recognition of her professional achievements and contributions to the College and the community. A plaque highlighting her accomplishments is on-display in the Academic II building. “It’s a tremendous feeling to be honored by OCC. I loved my time there and value the relationship I continue to have with the College.”
Penizotto will continue her relationship with OCC’s Small Business Development Center as she plans her next major project. “We’re going to rebuild our Manlius center. Any other expansion plans will be up to our daughter.” The Penizotto’s 15-year-old daughter Alyssa is a sophomore at Liverpool High School who plans to get her teaching degree before fully joining the family business. The Penizotto’s also have a son, 11-year-old Peter.
Penizotto has been in business long enough to see children return to her centers as employees. “We have several 18-year-olds working for us now who started with us as children. It’s rewarding to see how well they are doing. In many ways it’s a testament to the hard work we’ve put in and the success we’ve experienced. We’ve been fortunate to be in business for 21 years.”