By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
Women’s History shouldn’t just be relegated to the month of March. Women shape the fabric of our community and many have stories that have yet to be told. We ought to tell them. There are many women around our community who run booming small businesses across various industries. All are in the heart of the neighborhood, many which we likely walk by on a frequent basis.
Did you know that Expert Building Violation Removal Services, located at 103-49 118th Street for example, is run by Venessa Sammy? Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Venessa and her parents migrated to New York City when she was in high school. Her parents prioritized education for Venessa and her sister. After studying Finance, Venessa worked in the corporate sector for approximately 15 years at which point she realized that her energy would better be expended on growing her own business instead of someone else’s. Venessa’s company works with the City directly in providing and obtaining approved plans, blueprints of actual plans of engineering reports, when there are infringements for codes broken, when there are violations for illegal basements, and more; resolving these issues for the client. She has two assistants while most of her staff works as consultants, ranging from engineers, electricians, contractors and expediters. When Venessa was asked what challenges she has experienced along her journey, she highlighted sexism. “At first it is not something very visceral. But it exists and it happens in our minority community as well. It’s even more highlighted when you’re aware of it – when you have to work 10 times harder to be respected and taken seriously … This is a male-dominated field and many women that started off in this field are no longer around.” How did she overcome those challenges? “I would say by proving that you’re just as capable as anyone else, regardless of your gender, or your disposition in any way. I have a philosophy: If I’m paid $10 for a service, I’ll give you $50; I’ll give you more in value,” said Venessa. Venessa’s advice for young women entrepreneurs would be to stop making excuses or procrastinating. “I could have found all the reasons why I wouldn’t survive and succeed in this business, in this field. I didn’t do that. I felt all the reasons to do it.”
Jyoti Bindra is the owner of fashion boutique Vikhyati Inc, where she makes custom clothing and also sells accessories. Born and raised in Calcutta, India, Jyoti migrated to New York City in 2007. She founded Vikhyati, a women-run, woman-owned clothing boutique. Together, Jyoti and her mother Sanyog run the business which previously was located off of Atlantic Avenue in Richmond Hill and relocated to 106th Street and Liberty Avenue four years ago. Being a woman herself, Jyoti feels deeply connected to her clients who she views as an extension of her family and friends. She sees her clients as the best part of her job. Before migrating to the U.S., Jyoti used to work in the Bollywood industry, specifically the Bengali film industry.
During the pandemic, Vikhyati did mostly online orders, shipping for free regardless of the order total price. The business also supported people around the world to stay safe by using all the fabric they had in stock to make cotton masks and offer them for free. They distributed over 5,000 masks all over the United States. Through Vikhyati, Jyoti employs several housewives who are unable to leave their homes to obtain work. They support her in making clothing using fabrics imported from India.
Kalpanna Seegobin is the vision behind Blossom Marimuthu, a flower shop located at 98-03 101 Avenue, named after Marimuthu, the Tamil goddess of rain. For Kalpanna, “There is no garden without rain water. Everything needs rain in order to blossom. “ Growing up, Kalpanna was always intrigued by flowers. She made bouquets as a hobby but then was encouraged by her parents to do this as a business. Undergoing her own struggles, flowers helped Kalpanna to relax and release her anger. “They were the only thing that took me back to something I love. Whenever I give someone flowers, it’s out of love and care. It’s a way of releasing everything that’s going on inside of me.” Kalpanna opened her shop on July 31, 2021. She balances two jobs and hopes to open more shops in Queens, Brooklyn and potentially Manhattan and Long Island.
Kalpanna would advise young women entrepreneurs not to listen to their friends. “Do what you have to do. Follow your heart, and work hard everyday. It’s going to be tiring but don’t give up. It’s always worth it because you’re doing what you love.”
Shanta Sookram also owns a flower shop, Diya Flowers by Shanta, located on 130th Street and Liberty Avenue. Originally from Guyana, Shanta migrated to the U.S. in 2002.
During her first two years in this country, Shanta moved from job to job. She took a job in dry cleaning because of her previous background as a seamstress. She was offered a part-time job at a flower shop, and then balanced another job as a florist simultaneously, sometimes working 24 hours a day. Her family and friends encouraged Shanta to open her own business but she indicated she couldn’t summon the courage or self-esteem to do it. “Eventually, I told my boss I didn’t want to manage the store anymore and he fired me. That was the push I needed to start my own business,” said Shanta. She opened her store in 2010 at first making no profit but feeling grateful to not be in debt. Shanta’s busiest times are when she is booked for funerals and weddings. She credits her mother for teaching her how to save. “I learned from my mom to really stretch my money. My mom would have $100 and spend it like she had $1000 and she would still manage to say some money on the side.”
Shanta’s advice for young entrepreneurs would be to “find the spark and prepare to move towards that goal.” “You will have to work hard, and ignore the negatives people have to say,” she said. “Don’t let anyone hold you back, if you find something you love and you go for it, you won’t Have to work a day in your life.”
Through a partnership with the Queens Economic Development Corporation’s “It’s in Richmond Hill,” and South Queens Women’s March (SQWM), various women business owners in the Richmond Hill area were featured in the #WeAreSouthQueens storytelling community archive.
The above is a synopsis of their stories. To view the full interviews, visit www.southqueenswomensmarch.org.