CSI alumna Elena Solitario has had a long journey to her present-day career as co-owner and president of Pilo Arts Day Spa in Brooklyn. She came to the United States from Italy in 1955 and studied cosmetology at Clara Barton High School. Because she had a good grasp of the English language, Solitario recalls that she wanted to pursue a college degree, but she accepted an offer to become a partner in a salon, instead. While she ran the salon during the day, Solitario eventually enrolled at the College of Staten Island to study economics, part-time. Remembering her experience at CSI, Solitario says, “I was extremely happy with [my education at CSI]. Most of my professors were people in the business world and they did this at night and they came with richness and experience in the topic…So, majoring in economics, it gave me an idea of how the monetary world works…I feel very fortunate because my professors gave me an understanding of how everything affects the economy and how you can battle it or reinvent yourself. It gives you a tremendous understanding of the business world, which is so needed in business, especially small business.”
Solitario used that knowledge to open the Pilo Arts Day Spa in 1978, along with her partner from her first salon, Paul Pastore. Since that time, Pilo Arts has gained admission into a number of prestigious associations, such as the International Spa Association; Intercoiffure, a world-renowned spa organization; and Salon Today 200, receiving recognition as one of the top 200 North American spas.
One of her goals in opening this full-service day spa, according to Solitario, was to help women, who, at that time, were increasingly finding themselves in the workplace, as families had to rely on two incomes to maintain their standard of living. “When we opened women were going back to the workforce and they had many jobs—their job, the rearing of their children, taking care of the household, and even though the husbands contribute somewhat to taking care of those things, it [still mostly falls to the women]. I wanted to create a place where, for one or two hours, someone could say, ‘Would you like a glass of water or a cup of coffee?’ and someone is doing something for you to relax and de-stress. When we opened, that was the beginning of women really going into the workforce and I felt that. I felt that it was a change and it was something that we could do for them. Of course, later, it became men and women, but it was predominately to give women the feeling of someone doing something for them.”
Beyond helping women to relax and feel pampered, Solitario has been extremely charitable through her business, donating services, such as a day of beauty (including a massage and make-over) and hair stylings, to area charities so that they may raise funds by offering the services as door or raffle prizes. A personal experience when she was young, helped to reinforce the importance of giving back. “When I first came from Italy, I got a phone call from the [American] Cancer Society to go around on my block and ask for donations. It was such a humiliating experience because people look at you and say ‘Okay, who is this girl who could hardly speak English?’ and I’m asking for money for this organization. I remember that I collected $17.50,” she says with a chuckle. “I realized,” Solitario continues, “that this was a good cause, but people are skeptical about giving. So when we opened our doors, because all of our clients are involved in different organizations, I couldn’t give them money because I just couldn’t afford it, I decided to give them a service so that it could be affordable. Also because I realize the importance of it and how they get doors closed right in front of their eyes when they go asking. I promised myself that I would never turn anybody away. I would never give them the feeling that I had when people didn’t give me anything.”
The College of Staten Island has been one of the many beneficiaries of Solitario’s good works, as she has donated numerous days of beauty to the College over the years, including to last spring’s Nursing Reunion, and gift certificates for services, as she did for this year’s CSI Foundation Golf Outing, and as graduation gifts to students who are receiving diplomas from CSI. She has also partnered with the CSI Alumni Association over the last three years to host “Spring into Beauty” spa events that treat attendees to a night of pampering. In recognition of her generous support of the College, CSI recognized Solitario with a College Award in 2005.
Going beyond her experience with the American Cancer Society, Solitario discusses a revelation about what is really important about giving back. “I realized the importance of what a community really is. How could you tell one of your clients who’s doing such fabulous work that you’re not going to donate? I realize the importance of what they’re doing because a neighborhood is as good as its people. If all these people are involved in charitable work and doing good things for the neighborhood, that means the neighborhood is going to stay sound and people are taking care of each other.”