Local Women of Color Entrepreneurs & Their Stories

Left to right: Sheila Coon, Donabelle Casis, Erica Wilson, and Rosemary Tracey Woods

By Lucia Solorzano

Starting a local business is quite a challenge and a large endeavor, but these four inspiring women have cultivated different paths to follow their passions and create businesses.

The Women of Color Leadership Network from the Center for Women and Community at UMass Amherst held a panel of four local businesswomen to inspire and engage in conversation with young business women of color on Thursday, November 28.

Erica Wilson is the creator of Head Games Beauty Supply in downtown Amherst, a natural hair care store. She opened the shop after realizing there was no accessible beauty supply store in the Amherst area. Despite spending most of her life as a professional dancer or dance teacher, she had always had a love for hair care. At a time of transitioning into teaching at a new university, her son going through an academic transition, and cutting off her dreadlocks to having a new halo of curls, she saw an opportunity to go after something new that was also an important aspect of embracing her curls. She had a vision for Head Games and after much planning and testing products, eventually opened up the store.

Sheila Coon is the owner of Hot Oven Cookies in Springfield, a cookie store with a plethora of flavors and homemade recipes. Sheila always had a love from cooking and baking after watching women in her family cook, and she wanted to make that passion into a career. After having trouble balancing children as a single mother and taking care of her grandmother, her dream job got interrupted many times. It had always been a struggle to be able to follow her passion, but she was determined to prove that she could do it. After a tough time business-wise, she recently opened up her cookie shop in Springfield on November 24, 2018. She looks forward to expanding and becoming a franchise in the future.

Aaija Hall, UMass sophomore, said regarding Sheila’s story that, “even in times where it seems like life has ended because it’s so hard and you feel like you’re not going to get through that, things are actually possible because you see it in real form, and this woman has really done this with seven kids, birthing a baby at 15, and now she has her own business that’s successful.”

Donabelle Casis is a local artist who turned her art into a leggings line. She calls it her “project” because it is only sold in a few small stores and online. She has always loved colors and creates vibrant art pieces, and she wanted to create her own leggings that can be used everyday or for working out. Once she created them, people inquired about where she got them; so she made her leggings available and got picked up by a few local stores.

Onasheho Toweh, UMass PhD Student stated that “ it was so real to tell us, you know what? It’s not easy, there are many stumbling blocks along the way but going for your passion and being true to what your call or vision is, is key.”

Rosemary Tracy Woods owns Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield focuses on African American artists. She had always loved art and museums and saw a lack of representation in museums and art conventions. Growing up she had never seen black art, and when she did she felt a connection with and saw herself in it. She had friends who sold art, so Woods also got involved, eventually opening up a gallery in Springfield.

They all gave the advice to always be open to critique because there is always room to grow and improve your business. It was also stressed that planning is a key part of starting a business. They suggested tools such as Live Plan to create a business plan to always look back to. Valley Venture Mentors in Springfield, a sort of mini shark tank, was also suggested as they are a great support for women and people of color.

Jaida Hall, UMass sophomore and business owner, stated that despite the setbacks the women ran into, “they knew there was going to be more opportunities as long as they loved what they wanted to do.”

A common thread through all of their advice was, as Woods put it, “don’t follow the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, follow your heart. Whatever business you get into, you really have to enjoy what you’re into.” They all emphasized how this is all worth it to them, through every struggle, judgment, and failure they endured, because they are extremely passionate about what they do.

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