In Conversation With a Co-Founder of Westchester Angels
Westchester Angels’ Sandford Wollman discusses his new career aiding the county’s burgeoning startup businesses.
photograph by stefan radtke
Sitting before a metal table at Koi Creative Space, a hip, new coworking venue in downtown White Plains, Rye resident Sandford “Sandy” Wollman, 58, is sporting shoulder-length hair, jeans, and a skull ring modeled after the one owned by Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards. Clearly, Wollman is not the poster child for business-as-usual in Westchester County.
In fact, as co-founder of Westchester Angels, a member-based angel investment group, Wollman is dedicated to funding innovative new startup companies in and around Westchester that are “disrupting,” or shaking up, current markets.
A former product-development engineer, textile-company partner, and financial planner, Wollman knows firsthand about what can make a company succeed or fail, and he enjoys sharing his expertise with the next generation of local entrepreneurs.
Wollman was born in Mount Vernon and moved with his parents and younger brother to Larchmont when he was in 11th grade. He attributes his keen sense for business and tireless work ethic to his father, who owned Carna Mills, a textile-converting company in New York City.
“My dad was a large part of my life and a huge inspiration. He was completely blind by the time he was young man, due to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Yet he started his own business and became extremely well respected in the industry,” says Wollman.
Wollman started working for his father at Carna Mills the summer after he finished 8th grade. “I began by delivering samples and literally sweeping the floors,” he says. “And I knew from the time I started working there that I wanted to succeed my dad in the business.”
While attending Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, Wollman continued working at Carna Mills during his time off. Not happy doing paperwork, he kept pressuring his dad to let him sell the company’s products. He says, “Finally, during the summer after my junior year, my dad said to me, ‘Wear your suit to work tomorrow.’ The next day he gave me samples and a price list and said, ‘I’ll see you at 5 p.m.’”
When he pressed his dad for more direction, Wollman recalls him saying, “Start at the top of the Empire State Building and work your way down.” At the time, the Empire State Building was home to numerous showrooms and offices for clothing manufacturers.
“I loved it, with a capital L-O-V-E,” says Wollman. He still remembers his first big sale, with Oxford Industries, one of the nation’s largest shirt manufacturers. “I completed a deal with them for 250,000 yards of fabric, a half-million-dollar order,” he shares. “I was getting commission checks throughout my entire senior year.” After graduating in 1980, Wollman took a job as a product-development engineer for 3M at their corporate headquarters in St. Paul, MN.
Wollman excelled there, even receiving a US patent for a Velcro product he invented. However, after four years he decided it was time to return home and resume working for his father. By age 28, Wollman was overseeing the company’s Indian Madras division and traveling to India four times a year on business. Under his supervision, Carna Mills became one of the largest suppliers of Indian Madras fabrics in the country.
Wollman was living in Harrison when he began dating his wife, Lisa, an account executive with Calvin Klein (she now works at Walin & Wolff women’s clothing boutique in Rye). Lisa explains that a dear friend who rode the Metro-North 5:58 train with her initially brokered the match with the help of guy who usually sat with Wollman on the same train. Their first date, in 1989, was at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, where Sandy figured he could make a quick exit if they didn’t click. Instead, they were married the following year.
The marriage would prove to be a source of great strength for Wollman when Carna Mills began to decline in the early 2000s. It was at this time that the industry changed dramatically because, he explains, customers began buying ready-made garments from overseas. The business was continuing to deteriorate when Wollman’s mother passed away in 2003, followed by his father passing six months later. “My lifelong dream of succeeding my dad lasted two and a half weeks,” he says. “It was determined that the company couldn’t be saved and that we had to go out of business.”
Wollman credits his wife for being there to support him through the dark times that followed. In turn, Lisa says, “I was so inspired by the strength I saw in Sandy. It was just incredible how he reinvented himself so brilliantly.” She adds, “Because he’s so motivated, confident, and blessed with a great head for business, it enabled him to brush himself off and try something new.”
From 2004 through 2009, Wollman managed his own portfolio of investments by trading stocks and options. Then, in 2010, after getting his financial-planning degree, he opened up Channel Financial Planning LLC. Soon after, Wollman became the director of pro bono for the Financial Planning Association of Greater Hudson Valley. Looking for additional ways to use his financial expertise to give back to the community, he started the Small Business Advisory Alliance (SBAA) a nonprofit organization that offered free one-on-one business consultations, in 2013.
It was there that Wollman, along with Angel partners Loehr and Rosen, began discovering local companies with scalable business models suitable for angel investing. After a bit of research, the trio discovered there were no such investment groups in the county to fund these startups. As Wollman says, “A few beers later, the Westchester Angels was born.”
Since it began a year ago, the Angels has expanded to 20 members, mostly Westchester residents, who’ve made several investments totaling $200,000. Wollman says his day-to-day focus is on finding accredited investors, discovering compelling business stories for members to consider and establishing collaborations with other area angel groups.
Since the Angels like to be involved in their investments, they have a preference for companies within 100 miles of Westchester County. “We can meet with our startups and be home in time for dinner,” Wollman explains.
As part of his search for local startups, Wollman has been on more than 20 pitch panels in the past six months. “We’ve heard pitches for everything from rocket ships and medical marijuana to platforms for economic development and apps unlimited,” he says.
Asked how he has the energy to do all this, Wollman says he only has one mode: “I’m all in, or I don’t play at all. I have a burning desire to succeed.” And it’s not only in business. Wollman completed three Ironman Triathlons in the 1980s, swam around Manhattan in 1989 and across the English Channel in 1995. He’s also been a certified scuba diver for more than 40 years, with over 1,000 dives around the globe.
These days, you’re more likely to find Wollman running or working out with his trainer at the Equinox Gym in Mamaroneck. He also plays guitar in a local band, the Westchester Derelicts.
His daughter, Sydney, 24, is an assistant event planner for Henri Bendel in Manhattan. Son Zach, 21, attends the College of Charleston and, according to Wollman, already has a knack for investing in publicly traded companies. “My children are by far the best accomplishments of my life; everything else is a distant second,” he says.
Wollman doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. “I’d like to see the Westchester Angels play a significant role in funding local startups,” he says. “I’d like to see the growth of local shared workspaces, incubators, and accelerators. At the end of the day, I’d like to see startup companies move here and create an entrepreneurial spirit in Westchester.”
Laura Joseph Mogil is a freelance writer residing in Briarcliff Manor. She is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and Westchester Home.