How one entrepreneur left Pepsi to join the circus

It’s not often that a woman leaves her job to join the circus.

For Hilary Sweeney, a former flavor chemist at PepsiCo, the prospect of dangling from dizzying heights and engaging in death-defying antics proved too thrilling to ignore.

Hilary Sweeney, owner of Westchester Circus Arts in Ardsley, shows off some of the equipment that she teaches students on Feb. 26, 2018. 

Hilary Sweeney, owner of Westchester Circus Arts in Ardsley, shows off some of the equipment that she teaches students on Feb. 26, 2018. 


After having studied ballet throughout high school in Massachusetts, Sweeney had to give up her dream of pursuing it as a career due to knee and hip issues.

She said she decided to do the “reasonable” thing and pursue academics, obtaining a degree in chemistry from Manhattanville College and embarking on a career in science.

But not being able to fulfill her desire to perform professionally left her unsatisfied.

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“I had retired the idea of a career in the performing arts even before I had started. It was sad,” said Sweeney, the founder of Westchester Circus Arts, an Ardsley-based school and summer camp.

In 2003, soon after graduation, Sweeney caught Cirque du Soleil’s touring production of “Varekai” for the first time.

She was besotted by the aerial performers.

“To me, it was ballet in the air. I was so inspired,” Sweeney said. “Right away, I was pretty obsessed with how to learn that.”

Hilary Sweeney, owner of Westchester Circus Arts in Ardsely shows off some to the equipment that she teaches students on Feb. 26, 2018. 


Let go of fears

She soon found a mix of trainers, mostly traveling performers who would teach classes at warehouse spaces in New York City. Eventually, she started using most of her vacation time to train intensively in Montreal and San Francisco.

Working with aerial silks became her passion. While it was hard, it was also a confidence-building exercise.

“You have to let go of so many fears to accomplish this, you are constantly battling your insecurities. You have to get over your fear of heights and get physically strong,”  Sweeney said. “The combination of all of that is an empowering process, particularly for females. It’s only you up there and you have to trust yourself and your skill.”

In about three years, at age 25, she was performing professionally, including fashion shows at Cipriani as an aerialist on the runway and with off-Broadway productions. Eventually, it got to a point where she could no longer manage all the gigs she was booking with her full-time job at PepsiCo.

Hilary Sweeney, owner of Westchester Circus Arts in Ardsley shows off some of the equipment that she teaches students on Feb. 26, 2018. 


It was time for her to choose.

“Pepsi was a very stable job and performing is not. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my life. At that time, I was just offered a promotion. It was like having golden handcuffs,” Sweeney said. “I only had six weeks of performances lined up and then I had to figure it out. But in my heart I knew I just had to explore this path.”

She hasn’t looked back since.

Starting out

To fill gaps between performances, she started teaching classes at the Tarrytown YMCA, also using the space to train for her own shows.

“The program grew and grew and grew, so that’s when I decided to start the Westchester Circus Arts in 2012,” Sweeney said. “I also had to move spaces because the Y had so many programs going on, it was hard to schedule so many classes.”

Westchester Circus Arts now operates out of LIFE, an event space in Ardsley. It offers summer camps and after-school lessons for kids 5-18. It also has a range of aerial arts for adults including aerial silks, lyra (a suspended hoop that spins), and static trapeze.

Following her passion not only gave her a new career, it also brought her love.

Sweeney met her future husband Carlo Pellegrini, a veteran circus performer who has traveled the world with Lichtenstein Circus, Big Apple Circus, and Nikolais Dance Theater, while training for a production the two were performing in. 

Lohud’s Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy climbs up an aerial hoop — known as lyra — under the watchful eyes of Hilary Sweeney, owner of Westchester Circus Arts in Ardsley on Feb. 26, 2018. 


“It’s an aerialist and juggler love story,” Sweeney said. “For us, circus is a way of life, not just a job.”

The couple lives in Nyack. Pellegrini, who serves as a director for Westchester Circus Arts, is also the founder of Amazing Grace Circus, a community circus nonprofit which works with at-risk youth. This summer, the duo plans to conduct their summer camp under a big one-ring circus tent at the Harvey School in Bedford. The weekends will feature professional acts.

Sharing the love

Sweeney said a lot of her students have never been to the circus.

“I think it’s the screen culture. They have seen it on YouTube so they think they don’t need to go see the show,” Sweeney said, adding that the tent and professional acts was their way of bringing the circus to the kids. “I can’t stress enough to my kids how different it is to see a live performer in front of you, no strings attached, no CGI (computer-generated imagery).”

On Monday, Caileigh Doyle, 10, of Dobbs Ferry was warming up at LIFE in Ardsley before heading to her afterschool class.

“I like circus arts because it makes you feel stronger just by doing all these different moves,” Caileigh said. “It makes you feel good and fearless.”

What advice does Sweeney have for women looking to strike out on their own?

  • “You don’t need to have to have all the answers going into it. You learn a lot by talking to people and having business mentors.
  • “Surround yourself with people smarter than you and ask questions.
  • “Learning accounting is important. As an artist, I tend to do a lot by instinct but I learned the hard way that in business you have visit your books every day, even if numbers aren’t your thing.
  • “Immersing yourself in all the aspects early on, you become more empowered and you are not just delegating without knowing what’s going on.”

Lohud’s Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy completes her first tightrope walk with some help from Hilary Sweeney, owner of Westchester Circus Arts in Ardsley on Feb. 26, 2018.


Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the new audience strategist and a member of the Editorial Board for The Journal News/lohud, part of the USA Today Network.

Help us tell stories

This is part of a series of stories focusing on women entrepreneurs.

If you would like to suggest someone to be spotlighted by this series, please contact Swapna at:


Phone: 914-696-8229

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