(Tinley Park) SouthtownStar
HOMEWOOD, Ill. (AP) — Someday, I'll have my own braiding salon, Sherry Harris Williams thought as she worked banking jobs and braided hair on the side for fun and a little extra money.
And someday, I'll run my own company, her sister, Sundae Williams, dreamed as she put in years at AT&T.
With a corporate safety net gone and a terrible job market, some Americans are using their unemployment to realize their “somedays”' by starting the businesses they've thought about for years. For the Williams' sisters, losing their jobs has inspired opportunity.
“I kind of stepped out on faith,” Sherry Williams said, standing in her tiny Homewood braiding studio, which she calls Sherry Amore. “This has been a dream of mine for a long time.”
The sisters are among a growing number of people who are seizing an opportunity to become entrepreneurs, said Don Brozek, a director at the CenterPoint small business development center at Governors State University.
Since the recession began, CenterPoint's counselors have seen a change in which services have been requested. They used to mostly handle business expansions for people looking to grow. About 60 percent of CenterPoint's clients used to need help fixing an existing business. And the rest were interested in starting new businesses.
Since the recession kicked in and unemployment reached double digits, the numbers have switched, Brozek said, with most now seeking help starting a business.
Williams got laid off in March 2009 from a good full-time job at MB Financial Bank in Glenwood, a month after it took over the failed Heritage Community Bank. She had been in banking for about 10 years, a year and half in Glenwood.
Before that, she worked alongside her father at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Heights plant, turning out vehicle body panels.
His death from cancer coincided with a buyout offer from Ford. So Sherry walked out of Ford, put on a suit, and within two weeks of walking into local banks landed a teller's job at Heritage, the fourth one she visited.
“I had three boys I had to support,” she said. “I did what I needed to do.”
That was then. After this layoff, Sherry knew how badly banking had been hit. She didn't even bother looking for another teller job.
“I was really, really scared,” she said. “What am I going to do? We have a mortgage. I don't have a job.”
Meanwhile, her sister got cut from AT&T, downsized the day she returned from maternity leave after eight years with the company.
“Oh, Sherry, I know,” Sundae told her. “You can come and help me get my business started.”
Sundae Williams is running a small call center, Serenity Marketing, in the office next to Sherry's salon. She started with three employees on March 25, 2009, has grown to 10, and is about to add 10 more on a later shift. Her bread-and-butter is a contract from a company that offers one-stop shopping for elder services.
Whether elderly people need help with meals or transportation, they call one of Serenity's numbers, where operators take their information and set up the appointments. The services are paid for by Medicare.
“I'm using this as an open door instead of pouting about losing my job,” Sundae said. “I would prefer to put all my energy into my own company.”
Before the fall, CenterPoint was running one or two classes a month for people interested in becoming entrepreneurs. Since then, growing interest prompted the center to hold a session every week.
“Entrepreneurship certainly has its own rewards,” Brozek told a group at a recent meeting. “Now is a great time to start a business. Now you have to think about every dollar you spend. So many strong businesses started during the (Great) Depression.”
It's not that recessions are the best time to start a business, Brozek said after the session. It's that a business successfully launched during down times will start stronger and survive longer. People handed easy money during a boom often don't know what to do when business slows or customers stop rolling in, he explained.
But you have to be more self-sufficient to get going, he said.
“Things have really tightened up. It used to be if you started a business in decent personal shape, you'd get $3 for every $1 you put in. Right now, if there's money available now, you might get every $1 for every $1 you've put in,” Brozek said.
And regardless of the economy, only half of small startups make it past five years, according to U.S. Census data.
The sisters had to use their own money to get started. They chose Homewood, believing its reputation would make them look more professional than starting at home.
Sherry managed to borrow a few hundred dollars from a friend. Relatives and friends gave her some furniture, too. Another friend built custom wood cabinets, where she keeps her supplies.
Sundae raided her 401(k) account for her start-up capital. Recently divorced, she's managing to support herself and her three kids in their South Holland home with her call center.
She got help from the nonprofit Community Assistance Programs in Chicago Heights, which trained and paid her employees at the beginning and offered some mentoring.
“Employment and jobs is what fuels the world,” program director Martin Strahan said on one of his site visits to Sundae's office. “Love makes it better, but business makes it happen.”
While Sherry's making enough to cover her costs, the salon has yet to turn a profit. Her clientele is still pretty much word of mouth, so she doesn't yet keep regular hours, only when a client calls. Each hairdo can take hours — up to 10 hours for long microbraids. Meanwhile, she's at home in Chicago Heights, able to ferry around her 8-year-old son.
Neither sister currently has health insurance. It's just not yet in the budget, they said, but it is a goal.
So is creating more jobs in the south suburbs. Sherry's big plan includes starting a braiding school, where young girls can learn a good trade.
Sundae's shooting for 300 employees. The long lines at a recent job fair on Chicago's South Side broke her heart.
“They're in the same position we were in,” she said. “They're out there, and they don't know where to go.”
The sisters were raised by a strong mother, they said, who urged her five daughters to rely on themselves and on each other.
That kind of support, right next door, is something that keeps the sisters going, Sherry said.
“It makes me feel happy when I come here and see her,” she said. “She's doing something she's dreamed about. I'm doing something I dreamed about.”
Information from: Southtown Star, www.southtownstar.com