Can't hold me back: Women of Color entrepreneurs break boundaries in West Michigan

Across the country, female entrepreneurship is on the rise, and we sat down with three fearless females in West Michigan who are plugging away at their own unique businesses, despite the challenges, and celebrating a craft undefined by their gender or race.
#thefutureisfemale. And it's true. Female entrepreneurship is having a moment that is not just a moment. It's a push toward a future that respects and celebrates women on equal footing as colleagues and entrepreneurs. And whether they are making their mark in the services industry, as designers or project managers, marketers or writers; or in food and beverages, positioning their cafes or restaurants as unique spots to be or crafting baked goods in incubator kitchens; or even in self-care, launching their own skin-care lines or advising thousands of social media followers on fitness, cosmetics, or hair, female entrepreneurs are here to stay.

Across the country, female entrepreneurship is on the rise. According to the U.S. census bureau, "The number of women-owned firms rose 26.8 percent from 2007 to 2012, from 7.8 million to 9.9 million businesses." Even more interesting, "Overall, women owned over a third of all firms in 2012, but the proportion was greater among minorities and varied by group."

In particular, "Among minority groups (non-white races and Hispanics), only one group had more female-owned businesses than male-owned: Black/female-owned accounted for 58.9 percent (with 1.5 million businesses) of the nation’s 2.6 million black or African American-owned businesses. While over half (52.0 percent) of Asian-owned businesses were male-owned (996,606 out of 1,917,902), there were a couple of Asian subgroups (based on nationality) that were majority women-owned."

To explore what drives these women of color entrepreneurs in West Michigan, we sat down with three fearless females who are plugging away at their own unique businesses, despite the challenges, and celebrating a craft undefined by their gender or race.

Mary Alvarez, Tamales Mary

"Mi mama, ella todo el tiempo hecha las tamales por todo de su vida." ("My mother, all the time she made tamales, for her entire life.") says Mary Alvarez, founder of Tamales Mary, a tamales food cart in Grand Rapids. Alvarez credits her mother for her experience with tamales because for her, this was her only education in food or business. When asked about her education, Alvarez jokes that she completed, "escuela de la vida," or the "school of life."

Emigrating to the United States at age 17, Alvarez worked in factories for many years before finally being invited in 2009 to work in Tacos el Cuñado on Burton street, a food truck turned restaurant owned by her father-in-law, Hector Lopez. After the business expanded to its Grandville location and Alvarez had honed her skills making and selling tamales, she opened her own restaurant under the same name on Bridge Street in 2012. "He allowed us to use the name because we helped him build his business," says Alvarez.

Building upon the success of Tacos el Cuñado's full menu of tacos and burritos, as well as tamales, Alvarez decided to expand once again, developing a food cart that would exclusively offer her 15 different kinds of tamales. "Es solamente un carrito," (It's only a little cart), says Alvarez humbly of her popular food cart that she launched in 2016, from which she is often seen dolling out her popular and filling tamales in Rosa Parks Circle on weekdays.

The cart itself was a leap of faith. Partnering with New York-based Move Systems, Tamales Mary became the first mobile food cart operating Grand Rapids. Though Move Systems produces their carts in Walker and ships the vast majority to the food cart-prolific NYC, they sought an entrepreneur to pilot their first eco-friendly, solar and electrical-powered mobile food cafe. And thus, the tamales cart was born.

Despite all of these successes, Alvarez speaks humbly about her business and herself, making sure to mention the help she receives from her husband and daughters on a daily basis. But her success does not come without challenges. "The biggest challenge for her is sacrificing time with her children to put in the work necessary to run her business successfully," says her Raul Alvarez, Jr., (no relation), who handles all of her PR and marketing. "…which presents a catch-22 situation since she started her business to provide a better life for her children and family."

He continues, "From my perspective: oftentimes individuals like Mary are not aware of the resources available to them to help them either pursue a business idea or grow it successfully. This includes access to funding or programs that focus specifically on helping women entrepreneurs. It is lack of this access to resources, information, and funding that creates such a big challenge."

He continues, "One of the things I like about working with Mary is her attitude about her business and the vision she has for growing it—she's not afraid about always thinking 'what's next?' for Tamales Mary and Tacos el Cuñado Bridge St."

Whether handcrafting her recipes, caring for her family, or brainstorming ways to get tamales into the hands of more Grand Rapidians, Alvarez is a force to be reckoned with. "No tengo terminando mi sueno," she says, "I won't quit my dream."

Femé Naigow, Apsara Spa & Mé by Femé

"When I started, people did not understand what I was trying to do. As a woman of color, I did not fit into many of the boxes that get assistance here in GR," says Femé Naigow, founder of Apsara Spa. Opening the spa over five years ago, Naigow notes that the availability and familiarity with aestheticians back then was limited. Because she didn't cut hair (Naigow offers skin care, facials, massages, nails, and body treatments like full body wax), many were uncertain of her business model.

However, after self funding and years of building a committed client base, "Things have changed a little bit," says Naigow. Expanding from one room and one staff member (Naigow herself), Apsara has grown to a three-room space with nine staff members, all women. Still located in the East Building on Wealthy Street in Eastown, Naigow offers an intimate, comfortable setting that allows clients to kick back and relax.

Naigow also launched her own skin care line, Mé by Femé, in January of this year. "My dad passed away a few years ago, and I got my love of beauty from him," says Naigow, who looked to her father for inspiration when creating the line of plant-based vegan products in both anti-aging and acne-fighting formulas. "It's kind of like my wish list of everything I want," she says. Mé by Femé includes everything from moisturizers to serums to night creams.

And though Apsara is tucked quietly in Eastown, the business continues to succeed (experiencing 15 percent growth from last year). For Naigow, this growth and loyal client base can all be credited to a culture of acceptance. "My goal…it's to be that place you come where you're really really comfortable," she says. "A place where you see people who look like you."

Julie Lee, Angel's Thai Cafe

Ask any Thai food aficionado—there are likely a few in your friend group touting to be one of these—and they will point to Angel's Thai as a frequented favorite in the city. Tucked conveniently along Monroe Center, directly across from Rosa Parks Circle, this long, somewhat narrow establishment is known for its big, fresh portions of Thai cuisine—think Pad Prik, Chicken Peanut Curry, or Drunken Noodles.

At the center of this no frills establishment is the owner, Julie Lee. Born in Laos but raised in Vietnam and here in the United States, Lee partnered with another family in a restaurant business on the East side of the state before moving to Grand Rapids. However, she says, "It wasn't enough to feed two families." Divesting of that business, Lee, her husband, and her children decided to look elsewhere for a new venture.

"We wanted to move to GR because it was up and coming," says Lee, who adds that her children, who were then starting college, had a wide variety of educational options in GR. With over a decade of restaurant experience at the time, Lee decided to open a Thai restaurant that was strict about fresh ingredients and dedicated to bold flavors. Also, "I was the first one in the downtown area," she adds.

Opening her Monroe Center restaurant in 2010, Lee crafted her recipes on those she was familiar with as a child, growing up in her mother and grandmother's kitchens. Lee notes that she has been cooking "as far as I can remember back as a little girl."

"I was always cooking with them, chopping, cleaning," she says. "That was how I learned to cook with a lot of herbs and spices. It just comes so naturally. It's always been taught in the family." Lee's father was also a leader in the community, so her family frequently catered dinners and events, for which she planned and executed the menus.

Finally in charge of her own business in 2010, Lee made sure to remain true to the flavors she loved as a child. She purchases fresh vegetables herself two to three times per week and incorporating healthy amounts of ginger, lemon grass, basil, and garlic. "We don't remake anything. We make it to each customer order so everything is fresh and the spice is there, and the herb is there so you can really taste the flavor," says Lee.

And this dedication requires hard work. Add the intricacies of the restaurant industry and trying to raise a family, and Lee has truly earned her spot in the traffic-heavy Monroe Center. "I think the challenges of being a woman owner is always there," says Lee. "Being a mom, trying to run a business, and then still trying to have a family life, that's pretty much universal."

And though funding is publicized as existing in every nook and cranny these days, Lee was unable to secure support from local banks due to the inherent ups and downs of the business. "The only thing that helped me was pretty much a handful of people that knew my talent and knew my work ethic….Those were the only investors that were able to help me out…," she says, adding that at least 70 percent of Angel's Thai funding was sourced from her own savings.

But despite these challenges, Lee continues to cook up some of the best Thai food in the city, attracting locals and visitors, all from a humble space that, at its core, cooks with fresh ingredients and handmade sauces. And as Lee works to update her business and double down on technology's role in her day-to-day tasks, she doesn't stop learning.

"The most difficult part is keeping up your reputation and your brand. Once it's up and going, you still have to keep being in focus," she says. "My standard is in how I motivate myself everyday."

It's these women, and many others, that shatter the notion that women aren't formidable entrepreneurs. Across the country, here in West Michigan, whether you're visiting a tasty cafe, grabbing a tasty bite of street food, taking in a relaxing spot treatment, or just going about one of your many daily tasks, a talented woman is likely behind the wheel. Carry on, ladies.

Photos courtesy of Tamales Mary and Angel's Thai, respectively, and by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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