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Female entrepreneurs share stories, successes


Profiles by Danielle Jackson


Passion. Drive. Dedication. These words typically are used to describe any entrepreneur, but are particularly specific to the many young female business owners thriving throughout Wake County.


Wake Living had an opportunity to talk with some of these women about what made them decide to become entrepreneurs, as well as the challenges they face and their advice for others.


Sarah Benken

President, The Triangle’s Other Woman Inc., Raleigh

Sarah Benken comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, so she’s aware of the difficult tasks and responsibilities that go into running a business. She began a career in accounting 10 years ago, then jumped into business management and freelance bookkeeping before launching The Triangle’s Other Woman Inc. — a one-stop shop for assisting activities, from event planning and household chores to errands and administrative services — earlier this year.


“The biggest reason for branching out on my own was my passion for working with others and a desire for more,” she says.


“I hope to touch as many lives as possible and share my knowledge and expertise with those in need of a helping hand.”


While she oversees the day-to-day responsibilities of the Raleigh company as president and business services manager, Benken is quick to credit her mother with her drive to succeed.


“My mom has been my biggest cheerleader and supporter,” she says.


“She drilled the ideals of success and independence into my brain as early as I can remember,” Benken adds. “I attribute much of my success to her.”


When starting out, she advises other female entrepreneurs to make sure they enjoy what they do, as well as to do their homework.


“Do a lot of research,” she advises. “The start-up will be the most difficult — but the best — time in your life. Looking back, you’ll appreciate every minute of it.”


Krista Cathey

President, GreenPea Nursery, Apex

While she had always wanted to open a baby store, Krista Cathey’s thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2006 made her reassess her life and career. After spending several years in retail and the past nine as a partner in a real estate appraisal company, she shifted gears to focus on researching how her cancer came to be.


“I was shocked to learn that I had been using a product on my skin that was banned in other countries,” she says.


“For the first time, I learned that no one is looking out for your safety, and that you truly have to research products to find out what’s in them.”


Cathey extended her research to discover what she was using on her children as well. Her findings became the backbone for GreenPea Nursery, an eco-friendly boutique that she launched in January 2008. With a storefront in downtown Apex and a strong online presence, GreenPea Nursery sells environmentally friendly apparel, gifts, toys, and accessories for babies and children.


For Cathey, it’s more than being socially conscious; it’s about better health from the ground up. Her mentor, Nancy Murray, runs Builders of Hope, an organization that builds affordable housing utilizing environmental, economic, social and educational solutions.


“Nancy had a mission behind her business to help others. It was not simply about making a living,” Cathey says.


“If you start a business, don’t do it just to make money, because it’ll be a long time before you do,” she adds. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, be able to work long hours and have a family that supports you wholeheartedly.”


Angel Clements

Owner, LightSpa RTP

Angel Clements had enjoyed success in multi-level marketing for more than 12 years when she decided to branch out on her own.


“I wanted to serve the community in a different fashion and spread my wings,” she says.


Clements became owner and president of LightSpa RTP, part of an international teeth-whitening franchise, in August 2008.


“LightSpa has given me the opportunity to serve the public and make them happy by providing a proven and less expensive method to teeth whitening,” she notes.


“The best part of one’s self is his or her smile.”


Clements took a cue from a long-time friend, who has been a successful business owner for more than 30 years.


“This woman has been a highly inspirational person in my life, and her customer service model has inspired me to follow suit,” she says.


Clements recommends asking as many questions as possible when researching a particular business.


“Call other similar businesses to get their positive and negative feedback on it so that you’re going into the business prepared,” she says.


Lisa Disbrow

Owner and Buyer, Scout & Molly’s Boutique and Walk, Raleigh

Lisa Disbrow has always been interested in fashion. She worked part-time at a boutique during graduate school, and after earning a degree she worked in business development for Manpower to gain some real-world experience.


But she knew she wouldn’t be happy in her career until she could do her own thing.


“It took my husband telling me to do it or stop dreaming about it to finally get up the guts,” she admits.


After that, she launched Scout & Molly’s Boutique and the adjacent Walk, a shoetique, at Raleigh’s North Hills. The successful shops offer the latest fashions for every taste.


Disbrow credits her late father with mentoring her.


“He believed in doing good things for people and never lost hope,” she says.


Disbrow is quick to advise others interested in owning their own businesses to be realistic.


“You have to be a worker and have to really want to work,” she notes.


“A lot of people think it would be fun,” she adds of running a company. “It is fun, but it’s a lot of work as well.”


Elizabeth Galecke

Owner, Elizabeth Galecke Photography, Raleigh

Elizabeth Galecke didn’t always want to be a photographer. Currently owner of a Raleigh studio specializing in black-and-white photography, she had originally studied child psychology but wasn’t sure she could handle the emotional side of the career. In college, she took a photography class and was instantly hooked.


Soon after, Galecke studied with a Denver-based photographer who had started a program for children with life-threatening illnesses. She returned to school and launched a similar program on her own campus.


“It was so exciting setting out with a vision and seeing it come to fruition,” she says.


“When you put your heart and soul into something and work hard at it, you can create what you want in life.”

After graduating, Galecke worked for a few photographers before opening her own studio, where she aims to capture portraits of people that truly reflect their lives.


“Old-school photography using film is an art form that’s quickly disappearing as an option for those who want an heirloom to pass down to future generations,” she says.


“I hope to preserve this archival tradition and give clients a unique snapshot of their lives that transcends the moment and captures its essence.”


As founder of Chix in Business, a grassroots organization of female business owners that provides member support, mentoring and education, she passes this advice onto women looking to launch their own companies.


“Work hard, believe in what you do, and give clients a unique product or service,” she says.


“Also, get involved with the community,” Galecke adds. “It’s a great way to give back and make business and personal connections.”


Juanita Lee

Owner, Above Fashions, Fuquay-Varina

Juanita Lee decided to go into business for herself after a 17-year career as a childhood educator.


“I envisioned a change that would give me the flexibility to participate in my child’s school functions, doctor visits and recreational activities,” she says.


In 2003, that career transition came in the form of Above Fashions, a boutique that allows customers to design their own handbags and totes. The shop also features a variety of fashion accessories such as wallets, cosmetic bags, wristlets, checkbook covers and cell phone cases.


“Customers choose the fabric and style, and can personalize bags by adding a trendy monogram,” says Lee, whose shop is located within The Shops of Fuquay Merchantile in Fuquay-Varina.


She advises setting obtainable goals and remaining focused when launching a business.


“Even though we carry many titles such as mom, wife, cook, maid, doctor, umpire, chauffeur, and entertainer, nothing is impossible when you apply diligence and hard work,” Lee says.


“Never let anyone or anything keep you from reaching your dreams.”


Alli Leggett

Co-owner, The Pink Alli, Cary

Alli Leggett co-owns The Pink Alli, a girlfriend gift boutique in Cary, with her parents and Pink, her Belgian cocker-poo. The shop opened in September 2007 and has been growing ever since.


“My parents and I had always wanted to open a store, and when Stone Creek Village was built we knew it was the perfect location for our boutique,” says Leggett, who taught Creative Moments with Bright Horizons Family Solutions before opening the shop.


“I definitely went from my passion of dance to something that I love.”


It was a natural fit for Leggett to go into business with her parents.


“They have always been my No. 1 mentors on everything,” she says, adding that the family also drew inspiration from Dylan Lauren, owner of Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York City.


Her advice for other women looking to go into business for themselves?


“Do all the research you can in all areas,” she suggests. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”


Deborah McNaughton

Founder, President and Lead Jewelry Designer, Azuli Skye, Apex

A biostatistician by trade, Deb McNaughton’s creative release has always been making jewelry. But when she began getting compliments on her designs after hosting a Mother’s Day jewelry party a few years ago, she realized that she was onto something.


McNaughton, who launched Azuli Skye — a party planning and jewelry design company — out of her Apex garage in September 2008, since has expanded the company to include sales consultants in 30 states.


“It’s a modern take on Tupperware,” she says of the business, which offers at-home parties selling vibrant, handcrafted jewelry made from sterling silver, Swarovski crystals, handmade glass and semiprecious stones.


All Azuli Skye jewelry is handmade, packaged and shipped locally, and the company offers flexible schedules for employees. McNaughton credits her mentor, Pat Dempsey of At Home America, with helping her navigate the world of direct sales.


“I had no direct selling experience when I started, and Pat’s organization wins awards every year,” she says.


While the company has enjoyed success, it’s beginnings were shaky — literally. On the eve of its launch, McNaughton fell down the steps in front of her house and broke both arms and three teeth. She had to have plates put into her arms and was unable to do anything for herself for several months.


“This certainly was the most humbling experience of my life,” she admits.


But through hard work, the launch went off without a hitch. McNaughton says persistence is key when launching any business.


“Have a vision for where you want to be, both in your life and business, to keep you going when things get difficult,” she says.


Amina Sierra

Owner, Nativa Boutique, Apex and Raleigh

Amina Sierra began her career as a retail buyer for her mother-in-law, Virginia Ramirez, who ran the successful Nativa boutique in Puerto Rico.


“I really enjoyed it and was encouraged when she loved the items I purchased,” says Sierra, who opened Nativa’s first U.S. boutique in downtown Apex last year.


“She always encouraged us to open a Nativa in the U.S., and when a spot opened up we saw our opportunity.”


Since then, Sierra — who has a cosmetology degree and worked as a hairstylist until her second child was born — has opened a second location for the boutique at Raleigh’s North Hills. She credits Ramirez’s success as a businesswoman with launching her own successful boutique.


“Nativa has been in business for more than 25 years in Puerto Rico due to her passion and dedication to her work,” she says.


“She started her business out of the trunk of her car selling clothes to her friends, and now successfully runs two boutiques.”


Sierra cautions those considering launching their own businesses to first find something they’re passionate about.


“Then find the right place to open, because location is extremely important,” she says.



Lisa Snarski

Owner, Sprig, Wake Forest

As owner of Sprig, a Wake Forest-based garden and gift shop inspired by nature, Lisa Snarski has followed her dream. A career in graphic design, as well as stints at local garden and nursery centers, readied her for the challenge of opening the store last March.


“It was just time for me to do it,” Snarski says of launching the business, which she says has been a creative outlet.


A mother of three, Snarski was inspired by her godmother, who owned a floral shop and left her with an inheritance to be able to follow her dream.


“She worked hard her entire life,” she says.


While Snarski admits that entrepreneurship is a huge endeavor, she believes it’s definitely worth the time and effort.


“Life is short. Do what you love,” she says.


“Don’t give up,” Snarski adds of the inevitable challenges that face every business owner. “Be patient, and know when the right time is to do it, not for anyone but for yourself.”


Danielle Jackson is editor of Wake Living, Fifteen501 and Triad Living magazines. 



A champion for women


Lawyer shares insight on balancing work, family


Mary Nash Rusher, managing partner of Hunton & Williams in Raleigh, has a unique perspective on female leadership in the Triangle. An instrumental organizer and supporter of the Women’s Networking Forum, she recently was named one of the top 50 female lawyers in the state by members of the North Carolina Bar Association.


Wake Living had an opportunity to talk with Rusher about her advice for other women.


Wake Living (WL): What is your experience helping other women launch their careers?


Mary Nash Rusher (MNR): When advising young women who are starting careers and families, I help them determine how to best navigate the process. The key is to realize that there is no one way; what works for one woman might not work for someone else. I encourage women to sit back and think through their short- and long-term goals, and to design their own path. I also remind them that the concept of balance is one that must be considered over the long haul. There rarely will be a single day, week, or month in which the balance between time spent at work and at home is “just right.” The hope is that at the end of the day, you will have participated in all of the things that make you feel satisfied and successful across time.


WL: What made you decide to help other women in business?


MNR: I know there are women in my life and in my law firm who went before me, and other women of my generation who banged on doors until they opened so that I could walk through them more easily. I believe that I have a responsibility to reach back and help others find their own paths. As a working mom with three almost-grown children, I find that younger women often want to talk about how others did it. Sharing stories — including the disasters — and talking through issues is a way I can reach out and help other women find their way.


WL: What are some of the biggest challenges facing female leaders today?


MNR: I believe that the credibility gap has narrowed significantly — the growing number of women in positions of leadership in government and business has made it much easier for companies to have female leaders. The difficult part continues to be juggling the demands of home and work in order to get to that leadership position.


WL: What are some of the greatest opportunities you believe women have?


MNR: There is a growing understanding that there is not simply one path to success. The key to a successful career is flexibility. For example, the process in which a lawyer leaves law school, joins a firm and stays there for an entire career has become outdated; lawyers often move in and out of firms and companies several times over the course of a career. Increased flexibility and mobility also create the opportunity for more entrepreneurial lawyers — and businesspeople — to step out of the traditional career path and venture out on their own.