Try as you might, you’d be hard pressed to find more enthusiastic, hardworking, community-minded women than Mountain BizWorks’ three 2011 Entrepreneur of the Year winners.
“Those are really … people we’ve seen grow and work their business in a successful way,” says Sharon Oxendine, director of the nonprofit’s Women’s Business Center. And given the rocky economy the last couple of years, that’s no mean feat.
This year’s winners run the gamut of local small businesses.
Attitude and vision
In the tiny Transylvania County town of Rosman, Maximina Lopez is slowly but steadily expanding her business.
Friendly and soft-spoken, Lopez has owned and operated La Mexicana, a tidy, Mexican-flavored convenience store on Main Street, for the past eight years. Besides the standard grab-and-go merchandise, the tienda is filled with items designed to appeal to the area’s Latino population: colorful piñatas (some reflecting Disney Princess and Cars themes), Mexican spices, candy and other foodstuffs, plus an extensive selection of rosary beads.
Lopez, who’s originally from Veracruz, Mexico, moved to Rosman from Texas and went to work at La Mexicana. She started taking Spanish-language business classes through Mountain BizWorks, and a few months later, she bought the store. In 2008, she purchased the K&A Laundromat next door and the building housing both businesses.
“I’m happy because I have many opportunities here,” notes Lopez.
That cheerful, can-do attitude is a key reason she was chosen for the award, says Jamie Beasley, director of Mountain BizWorks’ Latino program. “More than anything, I think it comes down to her positive attitude and vision she has for her business.”
According to the latest census, 2.9 percent of Transylvania County’s 33,000 residents are Latino, and that number is growing. To further extend her business, Lopez says her next venture will be outfitting a taco truck.
And while winning the award is nice, Lopez gets much more animated discussing her desire to inspire others to succeed amid difficult circumstances.
“It’s possible to have a business and a good job,” she emphasizes. “But first, we need to work hard.”
Have your cake and sell it too
Five years ago, Jodi Rhoden was whipping up her signature Southern-style cakes to generate some extra cash while staying home to care for her young son, Jasper.
But the popularity of her all-natural confections prompted her to expand, first by renting space at Blue Ridge Food Ventures on A-B Tech’s Enka campus, then in her very own cake shop on Haywood Road in West Asheville.
This winter marked Short Street Cakes’ second anniversary as a retail store, where seven workers turn out such made-from-scratch delights as daffodil cake — a delicate, marbled confection with a flavor burst of lemon-curd filling, crowned with lemon-buttercream frosting.
“We’ve worked hard to keep a lean budget and do things as simply as we can in order to keep our costs down and our cakes affordable,” Rhoden explains. “I feel like we’ve had a huge success in this location.”
Her journey to entrepreneurship has been roundabout. A longtime community activist with a degree in social work from the University of Georgia, Rhoden learned to bake professionally at Haley House, a Catholic Worker community in Boston, where she was hired to train people to work in the community’s bakery.
After she and her husband, Duncan Macfarlane, moved to Asheville in 2001, Rhoden worked in bakeries and as a waitress while continuing her community activism. But 2005 brought a life-altering event: Her son was born.
“It really changed my perspective on work and livelihood,” says Rhoden. “And I realized I needed to do something to build a better foundation for myself and for my family.”
To help her manage the fledgling business, Rhoden turned to Mountain BizWorks, which offers lending, consulting and training programs in 12 Western North Carolina counties. The nonprofit’s Foundations Business Planning Program covers many fundamentals, and its coaching program provides one-on-one guidance, as well as a sense of community support.
“Just to have someone believe in you is a gift when you’re starting out,” notes Rhoden.
She’s also keen to help other small businesses by renting out the bakery’s kitchen at night.
“I just have a desire to use anything that lifts our business up to lift other folks up,” she reveals.
Wrangling monkeys and more
You can tell a lot about a person from their excuses. In this case, a phone conversation with Haywood County toy store owner Denise Teague took a momentary detour with this memorable line: “I’ve got to shoot a flying monkey.”
The toy primate in question — which the shop’s employees regularly shoot, slingshot-style, through hoops hung from the ceiling — is one of the more unusual finds at Fun Things Etc., a specialty toy store on North Main Street in Waynesville.
Teague launched the business in 2006 after she and her husband, Mark, noticed that a retail storefront was vacant. They’d been kicking around the idea of opening a toy store as a steppingstone to a children’s museum.
“It just seemed to be the right thing to do — which is not the Mountain BizWorks way to do things, because there was no written business plan,” confesses Teague.
It was her first for-profit venture, having spent her entire professional career working with children and families for various nonprofits. But the mother of three young children plunged ahead, renting the storefront, livening up the muted interior with 17 colors of paint, and outfitting her employees with rainbow tie-dyed T-shirts.
“It’s been very rewarding and beneficial in a lot of ways,” she says. It’s also been challenging. The only way she’s stayed in business, Teague reveals, is with a little help from friends: Her landlord renegotiated her rent; vendors have been willing to accept payment plans and smaller orders; and customers are making an effort to shop locally.
Teague makes a point of giving back to the community, however, sponsoring a library reading program and eliminating the fee to rent the Fun Things Etc. party room.
She’s also benefited from Mountain BizWorks’ Foundations Business Planning Program — but instead of assembling a business plan for the toy store, she wrote one for the children’s museum she was dreaming of.
The Entrepreneur of the Year award, says Teague, came in response to her prayer for some kind of direction concerning the museum. And the answer?
“You need to move forward,” she says.
— Freelance writer and editor Tracy Rose lives in Asheville.