Women with Ideas
How did you turn pottery from a hobby into a job?
A potter in my building gave me some advice: Start at local crafts fairs, then bigger fairs, then sell to the trade. I had my first sale in my loft and started selling at flea markets. I had nothing to lose; it was $40 for a table. I applied to crafts fairs over the next year and then to the wholesale gift shows. When I started doing that, I was inundated with work.
Do you have advice for someone who wants to do what you do?
First, take it easy. Because it's your passion, you can get carried away and burn out. Second, take small steps. Third, don't try to figure out what sells. And the most important thing, have a really comfy couch in your studio.
Where did you get the idea for this charity?
I've been an activist all my life. On July 4, 1999, I read a newspaper article with a picture of Zambian children and a caption that said, "These are some of the 100 children being fed by this organization, which has 2,000 children registered." I was horrified at the thought of how a person would decide which 100 kids eat every day.
What was the next step?
It's always homework. I started going on the Internet and reading books and finding out everything I could about Zambia. Then I talked with other organizations working there.
What mistakes did you make?
I believed that I'd be able to write a few grant proposals, pull together a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and just go do it. But I have yet to receive any major funding from foundations or corporations. Many of the initial donors are still supporting me.
Why did you decide to renovate New York buildings?
When I founded CDO in 1993, Harlem wasn't the hot place it is today. I looked out and saw all this wonderful housing stock—a lot of it abandoned—while people really needed affordable housing.
How did you begin the process?
I started going to conferences and to seminars to get some sense of what was going on in community and economic development. I also talked to people in the business and got their advice. You don't have to reinvent the wheel.
When will you know it was all worthwhile?
When I get the Certificate of Occupancy that allows 36 families to move into their condominiums. Then I can take a breath and relax.
How did you get into the rug business?
I'd been working with textiles all my life—when I was a child, my mother and my grandmother would teach me stitches. In 1976 I was in the Peace Corps in Fiji, and I came up with a project to develop traditional industries to produce items, including textiles, for a high-end customer.
Why did you launch your own company?
When I started to work with the carpet industry in Nepal, I realized you need a certain kind of sensitivity. Finally I thought, 'Not only could I do this myself, I have to do this myself, because they're just not getting it and I am.'
What's been the hardest thing?
Putting together the financial structure. It was the part I knew and cared the least about; no bank would help me. I developed my own alternative bank, borrowing small amounts from people who believed in me. I was able to pay them back in four years, and by that time I was bankable.
How did you get the idea?
I was working at a youth leadership program in New York with a bunch of really smart, talented kids from public schools. We were watching them graduate from high school, go off to college, and then come back six months later, having dropped out. We organized a focus group to ask what happened, and one kid said to us, 'I never would have dropped out if I had my posse with me.' And I thought, 'What a simple, good idea. Why not send a team of kids to college? That way they could back one another up.'
What's been the hardest thing?
This year we helped 192 students. We've placed over 700 students since 1989 and have a graduation rate of almost 90 percent. We know this works, but one of the biggest frustrations is that this year we had 4,000 students nominated for 192 scholarships. We turn away thousands of kids.
What made you go into interior design?
After college I got a job in merchandising. It took me two years to figure out that I was totally unhappy and that I needed something creative to pique my interest.
How did you become Queen Latifah's interior designer?
Some friends and I had a small catering company and a loft space in New Jersey, filled with furniture I had designed. We would host art shows, and one day Queen Latifah came in. She liked one of my pieces and said, 'When I really blow up, you're going to do my place.' Lo and behold, three years later, I check my voice mail and there's a message from her mom.
Why did you start making bags?
For convenience. I was studying architecture at Northeastern University in Boston. One day I was getting on the bus with all my stuff in a backpack, and I had to take the entire bag off just to find my change. People behind me were yelling. I thought, 'There has to be a better way.' So I pulled out my sketch pad and drew a bag.
And how did you make the bag into a business?
That Christmas I got about $1,000 in gifts. So I opened the Yellow Pages and started calling manufacturers. I used the money to make five samples that I could bring around to stores.
When did you know you'd made it?
In graduate school, I had really good grades, but I was so busy with my company that I wasn't around much. One of my guidance counselors said, 'I don't know what you're doing, but we're not happy.' And then he mentioned that he liked the bag I was carrying—one of mine. So I said, 'You really want to know what I've been doing?' All of a sudden he thought I was the best student in the world.
How did you wind up as a DJ/corporate vice president/country music singer?
FI've wanted to be a musician for years. I did an old-time country show in college, and after I graduated I had a show on WFMU, which is an independent radio station in Jersey City. It was pretty obvious that I would have to find a way to support my music habit. So I went to work as an assistant at a Wall Street investment bank. I would do the radio show on Saturdays and tuck whatever gigs I had as a musician into whatever time was left.
What have you done with your corporate clothes?
I still have one suit that I bought six years ago—black jacket, black skirt. Part of me thinks it should be torched because it's not ever going to be worn again. But there's something sentimental about it; a lot of years of putting my nose to the grindstone are embodied in that suit.