SALT LAKE CITY — Her childhood was formed by a deep connection with the ocean, mountains and exotic landscapes of Hawaii, but it was devoid of any true connection with her dysfunctional family and shrouded in misperception.
Now Shannon Simonelli is enjoying "being seen."
"People look at me and see my joy and excitement for life and they want it too, because it is in them, trying to awaken," Simonelli told the Deseret News Wednesday.
Because of efforts she's made to expand her beliefs and practices and successfully grow her therapy business, Simonelli is receiving the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award by the Salt Lake Chamber's Women's Business Center on Thursday.
Simonelli's approach on mental health issues is different — using expressive techniques to help people make sense of their lives. But it is backed by research.
Brain studies have shown that the creative arts — such as dance and movement, as well as using the imagination and connecting with others — are "powerhouse resources to create change," said Simonelli, co-founder of the NeuroImaginal Institute based in Salt Lake City.
Using those creative methods, she said, teaching people to be more resilient and confident, "really helps people awaken the truth of who they are."
And while it sounds a little quirky, it is resonating with people and changing lives.
"Transformation is a journey," Simonelli, 54, said. People seeking that journey, she said, are "people who want to feel better in their lives, more comfortable in their bodies, who struggle with anxiety and want to be free, are filled with self-doubt and self-judgment, or judge others because they are not confident and are always second-guessing themselves."
And while some people think her methods are a little strange, the self-discovery and permissive environment turns out to be safe and supported and a telling and transformative experience.
Simonelli is one of more than 230 people who sought no-cost business consultation through the Women's Business Center in the last year. More than 2,500 people received training at various events hosted by the nonprofit agency housed at the downtown Chamber offices.
She said it was a "pivotal choice" in her career path, resulting in increased exposure and revenue.
"She's accessed our services in many ways," said Deb Bilbao, business consultant at the center. She said that while Simonelli's services are "eclectic," they're obviously well-received.
The annual award is intended "to celebrate the women who are actually our clients," Bilbao said.
Utah is home to more than 73,000 women-owned businesses, ranging from online consulting, to brick-and-mortar locations offering a variety of products and services.
"We have some really successful and great things our clients achieve here," Bilbao said. The Women's Business Center provides free consulting services, as well as various trainings and access to networks and resources to help women develop and/or grow their businesses.
But for whatever reason, women don't typically see themselves as leaders, according to the center's research. Whether it is because of personal issues with work-life balance priorities or a lack of support, a slim network of contacts, lack of ambition, aversion to risk, or whatever the reason, Bilbao said it can be overcome.
Many women have inherent characteristics that help them flourish in business, as statistics show they often have better success improving finances, faster debt reduction, better dealings and stock growth and a higher market-to-book value.
To be successful, the center touts that women need technical knowledge, networking opportunities, support and examples of successful women in their lives.
That was severely lacking in Simonelli's upbringing, but it was restored for her daughter and granddaughter, after much therapy and consideration.
Unique therapies, such as what Simonelli offers through her practice, helped her transform her own life — even with a history of domestic violence and abuse, learning disabilities and distant familial relationships — just as it has done for hundreds of clients over the years.
But change isn't easy.
"I'm essentially selling change and change is a hard sell," Simonelli said.
She said people are generally resistant to change, afraid to be someone new, but, "I sell it in an unusual way, providing support for transformation using very unusual tools."
Her clients learn to overcome difficult challenges in life with support, love and connection through individual and group counseling and classes that use dance, movement and art to aid in self-expression and unleash fears and harmful past experiences. She helps them discover what she calls their "luminous life maps," which come about through intensive self-inquiry, building capacity and allaying limits, remedying vulnerabilities, crafting a new narrative, and living for the future and mastering the skills required to get there.
Our backstories "make us the best of who we are," Simonelli, who holds a doctoral degree in creative arts therapy, said. She is "totally appreciative" of the hard things she's lived through, accepting that they formed the person she is.
"The difficult things we've had happen in our lives are there by design," she said, adding that she believes everyone can be their best version and have more happiness and more joy in life.
"The process to find it can be fun," she said. "Healing happens and things change. As you change, things in your life change. It feels like magic and it is pretty remarkable."
More information can be found online at shannonsimonelli.com.
The Women's Business Center will award Simonelli at its annual Summer Social and main fundraising/entertaining event Thursday at the Falls Event Center, 580 S. 600 East, at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
Donations and grant money earned by the center, Bilbao said, are used to help women entrepreneurs create opportunities, build confidence and experience success.
"Our emphasis is on helping women create and accomplish their dreams," she said.