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I was at the lowest point of my life in 1983. After I had worked my way up to vice president of Colorado’s largest bank, my manager called me into his office. Avoiding eye contact and reading from notes he had scratched on the back of an envelope, he told me I was fired. I was the highest- ranking black woman in the entire bank, and the word was I had pushed too hard, talked too much, and rubbed too many of my white colleagues “the wrong way.”
That night, as I cried myself to sleep, I wondered, at age fifty- two, what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Like many women, I had bumped hard against the glass ceiling. My personality was too big for the confines of corporate America. But in the cold light of day, I also had to admit that I had grown as tired of working “for the man” as he had with me. The very traits that had irked my colleagues— being a pushy, assertive, independent thinker, fast on my feet, with a tendency to stir things up— were the qualities of which I was most proud. And I soon learned that these were the very traits that make a successful entrepreneur. These gifts had been passed down from my own mother, a dynamic self- starter who had run several businesses out of our home on the south side of Chicago in the thirties, forties, and fifties.
So I brushed back those bitter tears, and by the following year I had regrouped and launched what was to become one of the country’s best-known independent specialty bookstores. Even though I had never sold a book in my life, my store, Hue-Man, became a small-business success story.
My entrepreneurial flame burned bright, but in 2000, after nearly two decades in the business, I was burnt out. I had served as the first black person on the board of the American Booksellers Association and had become a major player in the publishing industry. I was the African-American go-to girl for agents and editors and had hosted some of the hottest black authors, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, E. Lynn Harris, Maya Angelou, Walter Mosley, and Colin Powell. But I was tired. So I sold the store in Denver; I planned to move to New York to be close to my daughters and grandchildren, and coast into retirement.
But before I could book that Caribbean cruise, entrepreneurship again came calling. I was presented with the opportunity to open a bookstore in the rapidly changing hot and happening neighborhood of Harlem. So I got my second wind and opened another Hue-Man Bookstore. It boasted four thousand square feet of floor space and a café, and this bigger and better New York City Hue-Man became the world’s largest African- American bookstore. The Harlem store enjoyed the same brand recognition but on an even larger scale, and became a mandatory stop for an author’s New York book tour. In 2003, Hillary Clinton chose our bookstore to host a signing for her book Living History.
One year later came my crowning achievement. Hue-Man was selected as one of only two stores in the country to mount an in-store event on the release day of President Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life. On that warm June evening, the store was mobbed and the signing was covered by local, national, and international media news outlets, including CNN, Access Hollywood, and Entertainment Tonight. At the end of the day, I had orchestrated the successful signing of 2,119 books.
The Clinton signing marked the complete realization of my vision, to create a million- dollar small business. Now it was time to retire for real, and pursue a new challenge: to teach other women to realize their own entrepreneurial dreams. I now work as a business coach with a variety of clients, including realtors, restaurateurs, retailers, real estate developers, a veterinary hospital, art galleries, and a media production company. I also conduct workshops titled “First Steps to Starting Your Business” around the country to educate, support, and inspire entrepreneurs at all stages of business ownership. It is this urge to give back and use the knowledge that I have acquired that’s been my inspiration to write Down to Business.
Running a business is full of highs and lows, and somewhere between the fantasies and the ideal— and Cinderellaesque drudgery— lies the reality. The difference between succeeding, breaking even, or being broke is how rigorously you’ve planned for your prosperity.
Down to Business will draw on numerous sources and existing information that is available but to date has not been compiled and made more user- friendly. I’ll take you step by step through the entrepreneurial strategies needed to realize your dream and help you avoid some of the missteps that other entrepreneurs and I have made along the way. This book is full of stories of real women, not so different from you whose examples and information can inspire and pave the way to your success. According to Joy Ott, national spokesperson for Wells Fargo Women’s Business Service Program, “ women-owned firms are growing and increasing their employment faster than the general market. These firms are driving growth in the American workplace while generating revenues at a similar rate to all firms. This is a powerful statement about the fastest- growing segment of American small business owners.” Women own everything from couture boutiques to veterinary offi ces, wine stores, radio stations, health spas, and ad agencies. We catch the entrepreneurial bug more often but tend to be small, struggle with undercapitalization, realize low revenues, and often employ only ourselves, all of which can hinder potential growth. We often have less personal wealth and lack the contacts to help overcome the hurdles to get the business off the ground. For these reasons, having a good business plan is imperative for creating a successful future.
The businesses I have selected to discuss in this book were not chosen by chance. As you will see, many of them are in Harlem, which is a hot and vital community in the midst of shifting demographics. I had a remarkable opportunity to have access to a group of amazing female entrepreneurs in a place that was an incubator for entrepreneurship. This vital community was a microcosm of what was happening in cities, suburbs, and small towns all over the country. This is where I live, am entertained, and shop, so these are dynamic women from my community with whom I have done business. Because I know them and they know me, I was able to sit and talk intimately about their businesses. They were all small businesses and had revenues of less than $1 million and some with less than $100,000. But I also talk about businesses in other parts of the country. Regardless of the location, each one is a success for having taken the plunge and followed their dream.
Down to Business tackles issues and asks questions to help you with preemptive problem solving that will get your business started and maintained on a solid footing.
My purpose in writing this book is fourfold:
Above all, I want to give you the opportunity to benefit from the years I have spent figuring out the steps in starting and maintaining a successful business. You should never stop dreaming and working toward making your dream a reality.
This book is for you and thousands of other women like you who want to know where to begin. I hope you can identify with the female entrepreneurs in the book, see yourself as a success, and someday let me hear your story.