Turning an Idea Into a Career: Mary Nittolo of Studio NYC Tells Young Entrepreneurs How To Make It Happen


From her vantage point, Mary Nittolo has been somewhat of an accidental entrepreneur. “When I started my business,” – that’s Studio NYC, a premier visual arts firm in New York City – “I thought it would be something I’d do for a year or so until I went to graduate school.” And now, 26 years later, Nittolo has found a rewarding career on the front lines of branding, advertising, art and technology—working with the likes of MTV and National Geographic, not to mention dozens of up-and-coming artists.

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Mary Nittolo. Photographed by Corey Hayes. Clothing: Models own.

From our vantage point, watching the current generation of entrepreneurial young women like Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal give the fashion world a literal run for its money and seeing writer/director/actress wunderkind Lena Dunham get nominated for four Emmy’s during the first seasons of her HBO show Girls, we think Nittolo is instead a bit of a visionary…and definitely an inspiration.

Even Nittolo’s admittedly “accidental” path into owning her own business seems to be one that Nasty Gal CEO Amoruso has followed. In her best-selling book, #GIRLBOSS, Amoruso confesses that she basically stumbled into her own line of work after several missteps. Eventually, her love of vintage clothing translated to eBay sales, which boomed so dramatically it forced her to build her own e-
commerce site…and an actual business, which is doing quite well these days, thank-you-very-much.

“After a few years,” Nittolo tells us, “it became obvious that this was going to be my career.”

Start Small, Dream Big

So how does a young woman starting from scratch get started? Did she need to take on a partner with clients? What about securing an office space?

She regales us with the story of starting up her studio in 1980s New York. “I started my business 25 years ago and so a physical space—an office—was an essential part of being perceived as a reputable business. But now, with the democratization of tools, one could easily work with virtually no overhead until they are ready to scale.”

Of course, in 1988, the internet wasn’t around to automatically lend credibility to a small business in the form of a website, social media presence and e-commerce space. Nittolo tells us that these days, securing a space isn’t quite as important, but back then it was quite literally EVERYTHING. Imagine trying to secure an office space in the circus that is NYC’s current real estate market. Nittolo laughs and advises, “Now? I’d put my efforts into the learning process, figuring out what clients want and how to refine the offering.”

ABC: Always Be Changing

Of course, every good business owner knows the only constant thing is change. It’s why Nittolo has been able to build Studio NYC into what it is today.

In fact, when it comes to the practice of branding, something that Studio NYC excels in, Nittolo has some pretty cutting-edge views. “Technology has allowed people to have a more intimate relationship with brands. It has allowed brands to not only target us specifically, but to communicate more openly and more often. It allows us to see how our peers perceive brands and for us to find the brands whose messages resonate with us beyond their product offering. It allows us to choose brands that share our values.”

She’s watched New Media become Old Media time and time again, and has adapted her business to suit what her clients want and need with each radical new shift.

“In the late 90s, I saw the potential for animation in digital communications and figured we should start moving in that direction. I quickly saw the flexibility digital would give us and was amazed by its creative possibilities. I would say about half my staff were early adapters—and the other half had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age.”

Look for the Right Opportunity

As a leader in her industry, Nittolo also sits on several boards as a volunteer. This expands her reach—and opportunities for new and exciting work.

At the Academy of Innovative Technology, Nittolo has worked on the internship committee conducting faux interviews with the students in preparation of their job searches. “I’ve also had high school interns at the studio pretty much every year since I’ve been on the board. Interacting with the students has been great because it keeps me on the pulse of everything new that is happening.”

She adds, “I’ve been in this wonderful industry for over 25 years, but it has not been without noticing that our community does not reflect the diversity of the world outside and subsequently is missing an enormous opportunity for intellectual inquiry, dialogue and knowledge that would come from more mingling of multiple cultures and perspectives.” It’s why she’s a very active mediator, speaker and participant in New York’s annual diversity panels, and encourages young students of all creeds and colors to collaborate.

So, where does she see the best opportunities for these young people she mentors? “I think corporate America and academia is leading the charge on inclusion and the link between diversity and innovation,” she tells us. Take charge of your career path, she insists!

“Fortunately, for current grads, we have institutionalized unpaid or low paying internships into our business life. I encourage young people to take ones where there is opportunity for learning and then to treat it as a job. Show up on time, practice professionalism and become an apprentice—leave with a marketable skill and the potential for a great letter of recommendation. Do it during the school year if you can, because you may need to get a better paying summer job, but with some experience under your belt, you will be more marketable.”

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This article was written by Jaime Groth-Searle

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