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Marissa Whitley Tago: The Whitley Co.

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“My principles: striving to learn, becoming better and exceeding expectations.”

“Time is relative,” said Marissa Whitley Tago, interior designer and founder of The Whitley Co. “Going back to school at 32 and graduating before my 35th birthday showed me that everything works when it is supposed to. I wasn’t ready to start a business at 25 or 30. I was living and learning and cultivating who I was until I started The Whitley Co. in 2016.”

Marissa was a student at MU at 19, in 2001 and 2002 and withdrew from school after landing a job with MTV as a VJ for their college television network. She moved to Chicago, expanding her resume while modeling and acting, then to Los Angeles in 2009, returning to Springfield, Missouri, two years later. “I never thought that I would come back to Columbia or Missouri, but after my husband, Nick, was stationed here as a Navy recruiter and subsequently retired from the Navy, we decided that Columbia was an ideal place to call home, raise a family and embark on the next chapter of our lives after his service career came to completion. It’s been an incredible place to live and start my business!”

It was in Springfield that she met Nick, and their lives transformed. “My love of being of service introduced me to my husband,” she recalled. “I offered to help organize a garage sale for my childhood next-door neighbor, Pat, as she prepared to move. At that garage sale, I met a woman who lived in the neighborhood. We soon found ourselves living and working in the same neighborhood and would enjoy a morning cup of coffee together. One morning, I had run out of coffee. We chose Starbucks at the mall from our options, and at 9:30 a.m. we were walking around the mall with our coffee when she spotted Nick, a familiar face she hadn’t seen since high school, on leave from the Navy. As he caught up with my new friend, he shared how difficult it was to be in a relationship with someone in the military, spoke of his family, and instantly made me feel like I had known him for longer than a few minutes. Five months later, I packed up my house and drove a U-Haul across the country to Virginia with my Honda on a hitch, pregnant, sealing the deal! 

“My husband would go under way on an aircraft carrier and I was a busy Navy wife, giving birth to and raising three kids from 2012 to 2016. Today, our daughters, Kalea and Atalia, are seven and six, and Kalel, our son, is four. In 2013, after having Kalea and Atalia, I had an aha moment of wanting to re-enter the workforce on my own terms,” Marissa asserted. “I had always loved to re-arrange, decorate and furnish places and did that as a hobby for those I worked with. I realized I could do what I loved and make a living, and that I had to love my job to make the time away from my family worth it. It was obvious that interior design would make me feel fulfilled, of service and give me a sense of purpose in lives around me.” 

She enrolled at the Art Institute and was able, with Nick’s military career, to simultaneously be a full-time student and stay-at-home mom to their two girls under the age of three. At 32, her goal was to graduate with her degree no matter what life threw at their family. “It was a juggling act, but I loved it! From that point and as a Navy wife, we knew that crazy schedules, long absences and tough times would be a certainty, but I knew that when I entered the workforce again, I wanted it to be on my own terms with the flexibility to be present for my children and have the creative power as an interior designer and CEO of my own business and brand,” she asserted. “Having children has only created a greater need to never give up on things, causes and work that I feel are necessary and beneficial to others. I love that my kids have seen me work to graduate college while taking care of a house and young family; I have shown them the example of starting a business and the reality of that daily process. They come to construction sites with me and meet my clients, who always turn into friends. I want to always be there for them in their lives and with my job, I can be present and feel like I get the best of both worlds.” 

Marissa’s work as an interior designer provides the freshness and challenges that she craves. “I feel fortunate to have the chance to live every day fully, never knowing who I will meet or what I will get the chance to embark on,” she shared. “I meet new people, which I find fascinating in itself, along with having to meet and troubleshoot various unforeseen issues and challenges that keep me on my toes, sharp to the possibilities and opportunities of each day. I rely on others; despite seeming like a one-person show, interior design is highly collaborative and with each new project, no matter the size or scope, there is a strong desire to keep my circle of vendors, tradespeople and resources as current, forward-thinking and knowledgeable as I can possibly can make them. My clients get a wide range of resources when they hire me as their designer for this reason.”

As a child, she would sell products as fundraisers, door to door, and that became the foundation for how she navigates the world. “I genuinely love engaging with people, learning more about them and what makes them happy and then working to contribute to their lives in some fashion,” she said. “My favorite part of being a business owner and entrepreneur is based on the same principle of always striving to learn, become better and exceed expectations. I love that the reward for me can actually be measured and makes the time and energy 110 percent worth it! I love that I get to visually see the fruits of my labor of love as a client begins to make decisions and then, in the end, when a project is completed.”

Life is difficult to navigate regardless of the pursuit, single or married, on a solo mission or raising a family. “It’s hard. Period. That being said, I am proud of finding my way through life despite hardships, losses and unforeseeable situations that always led me to the path that I am on now,” Marissa affirmed. “I am proud of the fact that I have endured various obstacles, learning lessons from each of them, and using those times of hardship as energy that I need to achieve goals that I have set for myself. Resilience and persistence are the two things that create the positive energy that fuels my day-to-day. As a person, I am proud of always working to get better, learn and make things and people around me better. As a mother, I am proud of being an example for my kids to never stop learning or pursuing goals that make life more meaningful.

“I strive to be that person in your life who builds you up, makes you smile, gives you strength and helps create a more beautiful life for you. Interior design allows me to meet new people, discover new things each day and keeps me loving the ride. Isn’t that what it’s about? Making an impression on people’s lives in some way while living a genuine, purpose-driven life, is all we should hope for. I can do that every day of my life and have a wonderful family to watch grow and flourish in the process.” 

To women yearning to be entrepreneurs, Marissa advised, “Do. It. There is no reason aside from fear not to simply go for it. Absolutely give it everything you have and know that with each day, there will certainly be new challenges, but if you’re doing what you are meant to be doing, the world opens up to you in pretty cool ways. It takes courage but without risk there really is no reward. Be the catalyst in your own life. No one can do it for you, no one can detour you, and no one knows what you feel deep within yourself as to what you are truly meant to do with your life but you.”  

For the future, Marissa plans to expand her staging, organization, liquidation and moving assistance along with the actual interior design side of the business. “I would love to reach a broader audience who truly needs and appreciates the clarifying design service that helps their overall well-being and improves how they live. That’s why I am so passionate about what I do! I take immense personal pride in the fact that I can effect change in how people live their lives, their productivity and their mindsets through interiors and making them work more efficiently in order to be more effective,” she asserted.

“Additionally, I have always loved to write and take photographs so creating a coffee table book of projects with tips for personal de-cluttering, plus to expand with tutorials and other social media-driven aspects of The Whitley Co. would be amazing to see come to fruition. I have found the most incredible clients, events and projects that have enriched my life and made me a better person.”