As more women start businesses of their own, enterprising women in Mississippi are proving that it’s never too early or too late to become entrepreneurs.
Downtown Newton in East Mississippi is being energized by 20-year-old Ashley Henley, owner of Dezignz by Nikki and the Coffee Cup Café. Many miles to the north in the Golden Triangle, Valeda Carmichael is breathing new life into downtown West Point with her rapidly-growing business, Culin-Arts, after she had a successful career with Bryan Foods.
Henley, who is also a student at East Central Mississippi Community College in Decatur, has learned multi tasking at a young age. It all began when this pet lover was only nine years old and got involved in pet therapy with her poodle Nikki. The poodle was also the inspiration for the online doggie boutique that she started with her mother’s sewing help.
“We made clothes for my poodle. People were interested in them and started asking us to make clothes for their dogs,” she says.
The business opened as a store front in Newton in 2007 with dog clothes, gifts, flowers and made-in-Mississippi food products. It soon expanded to include additional gift items, décor and T-shirts along with a full kitchen serving sandwiches, soup, salads and desserts.
Four businesses in one
“It’s four businesses all in one and everything is doing well,” Henley said. “We started in a small building and outgrew it in 10 months. That says a lot about business that we’re having to move into a larger place.”
There are four employees, plus Henley’s mom who’s there every day to keep the store running while her daughter attends classes. Henley credits her parents, Karen and Ken Henley, for instilling her with the value of hard work and business skills. Ken Henley has a bonding company in Newton.
“It can be very difficult to work and go to school,” Henley said. “I try to arrange my class time around work time. I’ve always been this busy and involved. I like not having free time, and I miss the store and people when I’m not there.”
Located on Main Street, the Coffee Cup Café is downtown Newton’s only restaurant. Local people love it and some patronize it every day. “We’re also drawing people from Meridian and Jackson,” Henley said. “It started out as community support, but now people come from everywhere to eat with us.”
Just to make sure she has no free time, Henley plays on the community college’s varsity tennis team and has a social life with her boyfriend. Next year, she plans to attend the University of Southern Mississippi where she will be an accounting major.
“I will have to go away, but I will come back,” she said. “I hope to expand the business and move into a larger place. I would love to own more businesses — maybe a variety of things. I’m not sure what but I will be open to opportunities.”
Henley, who received the Governor’s Initiative Volunteer in Excellence Award (GIVE), encourages other young people to go into business. To that end, she will begin next year supporting the local high school’s cooperative education/work program.
On her own
Valeda Carmichael is finding a second career as a retail business owner to be worthwhile and fulfilling. The Hattiesburg native worked for many years as a home economist with Bryan Foods after graduating from Mississippi University for Women. After Bryan Foods was acquired by the Sara Lee Corporation, the time was right to bring her entrepreneurial spirit to the forefront.
In November 2002, Carmichael opened Culin-Arts in a building that was only 10 feet wide in downtown West Point.
“It’s not just a shop with working kitchen stuff. It has pretty serving pieces, a lot of linens, a bar area, a full line of Viking Range products and much more,” she says. “There’s nothing like it in the state, even though there are other gourmet kitchen shops.”
Part of that uniqueness is because Culin-Arts sells artwork by local artists, and now has La-Ti-Da, an in-house coffee shop. Local artists on display include: Lee Gibson, oil paintings; Pat Gavin, pottery; and, Weldon Merchant, jewelry. Merchant has the distinction of having a necklace he created on permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum.
Only one year after opening, Carmichael moved the business into a space with 2,000 square feet. Then last October, she moved again; this time into two buildings that she purchased and renovated.
“Now, we have more room and can spread out,” she said. “My rent would have doubled if I had rented this much space. My dad taught me that it’s better to own than to rent.”
Step by step
Now, Carmichael has approximately 4,000 square feet for her business, two commercial rental spaces and residential space upstairs that consists of one large apartment and three furnished efficiency spaces that are ideal for corporate stay. Some of Culin-Arts’ space is not yet finished and will include a kitchen for cooking classes when complete.
“I’m doing it in stages and paying as I go,” Carmichael said. “If I can’t pay for it, I don’t get it. I think that’s what hurts a lot of businesses.”
This savvy businesswoman advises others contemplating starting a business to be prepared to work long hours and to start small, grow gradually and be unique.
“A lesson I’ve learned is how to say no. Everyone wants you to buy their ad, be on their radio/TV station, make donations to their events, charities and schools,” she said. “You do need to say yes to different things at different times, but you must be in control of what and when.”
That said, Carmichael stresses that she always tries to support local community activities.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.