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Jacqueline Thomas

Three Women Business Owners in Small Town America Follow Their Hearts

When I arrived to interview Lorena Lara for this article, the owner of Bath and Biscuits was filling doggie treat bags as Christmas presents for her customers.  ‘You have to spend money to earn money,” Lara told me.  “You have to keep your customers happy.”  Customers of Lara’s pet grooming service in Portland, Texas were also to receive a 2019 calendar with, you guessed it, cute photos of dogs.  But making them even happier, was Lara’s idea of taking a Christmas portrait photo of the customer’s pet, which she then emails to them.

Customer appreciation and networking were Lara’s principle pieces of advice for running a business. She took over the enterprise almost 9 years ago when she realized that working for Valero was not fulfilling, and that she needed a change of pace.  Lara took over some of the previous owner’s customers then gradually expanded her base through networking and “hustling” (for example, calling owners to remind them of her services when business is slow).   Community involvement is part of networking and crucial to a successful business, perhaps especially in a small town.  Lara is a friend to Animal Control, donates her time for free microchipping campaigns at the dog park, and assists with pet adoption at Portland Market Days.

Lara’s biggest accomplishment is having stayed successfully in business her first year!  As a woman in business, her biggest challenge is not being able to do repairs like plumbing and woodworking that are typically done by men. But Lara’s eyes light up when she says that her love of animals inspired her to get into this business, and she clearly feels lucky that she earns her living doing what she loves.  She finds herself exclaiming “And I get paid to do this!” Her advice to women wanting to set themselves up in business is to research the opportunity thoroughly and make sure you will be able to keep the business going.

When asked who she admires, Lara did not hesitate to name Mary Smith, owner of The Hair Company, a successful hair salon in Portland.  Lara was 9 years old when Smith set up her business in a building now jointly owned with her husband (who runs a carpet store in his half).  Lara babysat Smith’s children and watched her grow her successful business through hard work and customer satisfaction while raising her family at the same time.  “I want to be like her when I grow up,” she said to herself: an independent, successful woman.

Another independent, successful businesswoman in Portland is Jennifer Hay, who owns and runs BooksINK, a used bookstore.  No stranger to networking and community involvement herself, Hay hosts local author book signings, book discussion groups, poetry nights, and weekly events such as Scrabble Club.  She also can be seen donating her time to the annual Portland Library book sale, and she collects money each month to give to a different local or international charity, such as The Mystery of the Blue Rose, which provides scholarships to older women for higher education, or the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia.

Whereas love of animals inspired Lara to set herself up in business, love of books inspired Hay: “Every book lover dreams of owning a bookstore,” she told me.  When she “retired” from the military, Hay had the opportunity almost 15 years ago of buying the bookstore in Portland and has turned it into a successful business through the networking and customer satisfaction already mentioned.  Rather than paying for advertising on television, Hay relies on word-of-mouth and community involvement to entice readers to buy books from her. Children who come to the store are given a free book if they answer her question (though the question is never about the books as Hay wants to nurture reading for pleasure).  Like Lara giving out dog treats, Hay is cultivating future customers, because “kids who love reading become life-long readers,” she says.

Hay is especially proud that her store is a community place.  She even hosts a yoga class when the usual room is unavailable (and when she does, she must move tables and chairs that are covered with stacks of books to make space). While she says she will never be able to afford to buy a Porche, she is satisfied being surrounded by people who love books. She is very much appreciated by her customers: not only does she have time to talk to them, but if they ask her about a certain book or author, she knows exactly where to find the book, has probably read it herself and can discuss its merits.

Her advice for women who plan to work in the business realm is to research the business, talk to people with experience, and then “go for it!” The freedom that comes with not working in a “male-centric world” and not having a boss who is telling you what to do, giving you a hard time, or stealing your ideas is worth it, according to Hay. And the flexibility of her schedule allows her to take care of her aging parents.  Her biggest challenge has not been as a woman, though, she confides in me, but the color of her skin. At one official event, she was mistaken for “the help”! The person she admires most is her mother, who emigrated from Jamaica when she was in her 40’s and had to find the strength to deal with a change in status in a new country.

Dinah Bowman, artist and owner of Bowman Design and Framing in Portland also identifies her mother as the person she admires most.  Independent, strong, and resilient, her mother invested in real estate while married to a US Air Force pilot.  When she and her husband “retired” to Texas, she owned sixteen houses that she had bought and renovated.  Growing up Dinah and her brother were involved in these transactions and earned a commission if they answered a phone call that ended in a house getting leased. Family members were also frequently involved at home in arts and crafts in a variety of media.  Bowman credits her mother with both her business sense and her love of creating art that she combines to run her gallery, which she opened in 1979.

Bowman was always interested in creating art while she worked as a marine biologist but didn’t realize she could earn a living in art until she created 130 illustrations for a book about the fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. She earned a master’s degree from Texas A&I with a double major in terrestrial biology and art, combining the study of animals with techniques of biological illustrations. She says that if she does not paint, she feels incomplete, and gets “crabby” if she hasn’t been creative for a while.

Asked to name her biggest accomplishment, Bowman designates her daughter, who owns South Coast Real Estate in Corpus Christi. Like Bowman herself, her daughter was raised in an entrepreneurial and artistic atmosphere as Bowman exhibited her art in natural history museums, including the Smithsonian, and she encouraged the girl to decorate bags and sell them when she was in grade school. Moreover, Bowman’s mother nurtured the real estate side of the equation by having her granddaughter choose houses with her to buy and help her renovate them. (Picture: Dinah Bowman’s daughter is selling the property next to Bowman’s gallery).

The biggest challenge for this member of the three generations of businesswomen is marketing and selling her art and services, “given the way people shop today.”  Instead of advertising on television, radio and through the phone book, Bowman promotes her business and services through social media

community outreach, such as picture framing workshops, for instance. Her advice to would-be businesswomen is to “be passionate about what you pursue and be prepared for change.”

I asked each entrepreneur why it is essential for a woman to work in the business realm.  Lara believes that it is the best way to give a woman independence whereas Hay sees the advantage of creating a well-rounded woman based on the variety of experiences gathered.  Bowman is more philosophical. She rephrased a question she had heard at a World Economic Forum that discussed women leaders: are successful businesswomen born or are they made through circumstances?  Lara, Hay, and Bowman are all pursuing the love of their life: love of animals, love of books, or love of art. They compete with men to run successful businesses in a small Texas town.  What makes them successful is a solid belief that there is no better job for them.  They are doing what they love, and they love what they are doing.

About the Author

Dr. Jacqueline Thomas (Texas A&M University-Kingsville) teaches French to speakers of Spanish, teaching French culture, sponsoring the French Club, and arranging field trips and study abroad experiences. She was named Regents Professor by the Regents of the Texas A&M University System. She was named "chevalier" (a knight) in the Order of Academic Palmes, an honor given by the French government to those who have excelled in promoting the French language and culture around the world. Her current projects includes marketing classroom activities to accompany Christine Albert's CD's of French music.

Selected Works by Dr. Jacqueline Thomas:

  • Etudiants Sans Frontières (Students Without Borders): Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in French. (American Association of Teachers of French, 2012)

  • "An Investment in New Tenure-track Faculty: A Two-year Development Program" The Journal of Faculty Development, 27.1 January 2013

  • "Showing the Relevance of French through Service-Learning" French Review 86.6. May 2013

  • "Exercices pour accompagner Le Ballon rouge, le livre par Albert Lamorisse." [www.frenchteachers.org]

  • "Studying Le Ballon rouge with False Beginners" Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2006

  •  "Changing Eating Habits in France: Are Transformations in French Society Threatening Traditional Culinary Values?" In France in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Marie-Christine Weidman-Koop (Summa Publications, 2009)