January 24, 2014
Every entrepreneur, whether working as a solopreneur or part of a founding team, has people in their lives who have inspired them. For me, one such person was my grandmother, Margred Lewis, who became an entrepreneur in a time when fewer than a third of all women worked outside the home. She passed away last weekend at the age of 91.
My grandmother had a stubborn streak a mile wide. There’s simply no other way of saying it. But that stubborn streak is probably one reason she, the daughter of a widowed immigrant, balked at marrying a ‘nice Armenian boy’ like she was expected to and instead married my grandfather who was as all-American as you could get.
That stubborn streak can also be credited with why my grandmother, with no actual business training and nothing more than a high school degree, decided to start her own business in 1961. The reason, she once told me, was that she was sick of constantly moving as part of my grandfather’s naval career and she figured if she put down roots in the form of a business then the navy would have to let them stay. Even the Navy knew better than to argue with my grandmother and she passed away in that same Pennsylvania town where she had successfully run her business for more than 30 years.
Keep in mind, in 1961 women-owned businesses were far from the norm. The National Women’s History Museum reminds us that banks were wary to loan start-up capital to women so it was an uphill battle to say the least. My grandmother had more than one story of a businessman or vendor not wanting to deal with her and asking instead to speak to ‘a man.’ Vendors like that didn’t last long with my grandmother! And over the years, my grandmother was able to transform a small cosmetics business into a large retail location selling bridal dresses, prom, and formal wear that was the anchor of Main Street. I even remember at one point they branched out to offer limo service with my now-retired-from-the-military grandfather acting as chauffeur.
Through that store, which was located in a small semi-rural community, my grandmother watched 2 generations of women grow up. She provided them with their first fancy dresses when they were excited bridesmaids, to decking them out for prom, to marrying them off. On more than one occasion, the grown-up daughter of a former wedding dress client would also buy her wedding dress from my grandmother.
One story that I remember well is that one day a woman came by the store to try on wedding dresses. She fell in love with one particular dress but was hemming and hawing over the decision. My grandmother happened to overhear the woman say that she loved that dress but couldn’t afford it. A little later in the appointment, not letting the client know that she had been overheard, my grandmother casually mentioned that the beloved dress was actually on sale – at a price that just happened to match what the client could afford.
It’s also worth mentioning, that this entire time my grandmother was also balancing raising a family. I believe she probably struggled with the concept of ‘balance’ as much as any entrepreneur does. As I grew older, she shared with me stories of the guilt she’d feel having to work in the store while the other mothers were all at PTA meetings and about the times when the business was lean on cash so she’d pay her employees but there wouldn’t be anything left for her.
I can still remember swelling with pride and excitement when we’d go to visit her and pull into the store parking lot. I felt special being able to walk in through the back door that was reserved only for employees and hang out in the back rooms where normal customers didn’t get to go. I even loved being given the task of cleaning the giant front windows (which I now realize was probably how she got me out from underfoot while dealing with customers) because I was in awe of everything she’d created through that store. She was respected and loved in the community and even during my last trip to see her, the waitress who served us at a cafe remarked that she’d long ago bought her dress from my grandmother. I truly believe that her influence is a large reason why my sister and I have both become entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship is never easy, but we have to give thanks for the generations before us that helped pave the way.
~thank you for letting me honor my grandmother by sharing this with you