When a hobby becomes a business
From a young age, Vanessa Winston had a desire to be unique, to add her original flair to the beaded necklaces that she would create with materials from her grandmother’s business. “I have always had a love for nature and creating things, I used to mix and match materials and so forth.” Vanessa never liked settling for the conventional. Instead, she would add a shell or a stone to put her own spin on a creation. “I like to go against the norm, to create a design you wouldn’t think of.”
While she played around with beads and necklaces as a child, as a teenager Vanessa envisioned herself pursuing a career in science. Despite this alternate aspiration, Vanessa found herself in a friend’s craft shop in Antigua where she began working with leather as a hobby. “Eventually life happened,” and Vanessa had her first daughter. With a new baby to take care of, Vanessa’s priorities switched gears and she started using her leather skills as a source of income on a small scale. What had started as a hobby for Vanessa became a means of subsistence and ultimately transformed into a micro-enterprise, New Beginning Gifts and Leathers.
Entrepreneurship support was a lifeline
From the very beginning of her entrepreneurial journey, Vanessa had visions to expand her business, so she decided to get in touch with Dominica Youth Business Trust (DYBT), YBI member in Dominica. The month long training programme that she attended through DYBT encouraged her to change to a more sustainable business model instead of a sole focus on leather products. Showing her entrepreneurial spirit, Vanessa taught herself to mould scented candles and soaps and, soon after perfecting her craft, introduced a new product line and began to attract a new line of customers.
While the DYBT training programme was incredibly fruitful for Vanessa, she did not participate without facing substantial challenges. Vanessa had twin boys the same year she started training with DYBT, but she did not allow that to prevent her from seizing the opportunity. “I wanted to be there, so I was going to the training with my boys, one in the bag and one on my arm.” Vanessa had to follow a rigorous schedule which required her to report at 7am each morning. “Every day I wanted to give up, but every day I got up and went again, and it was the best decision I ever made.”
When Vanessa encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacles, DYBT offered her a lifeline. Financial institutions rejected Vanessa’s requests for funding due to her lack of a financial background, so DYBT came to her aid by providing the necessary loans.
“DYBT became almost like my family. They stood behind me no matter what because they felt that I pushed myself. I did not give up.”
Soon after starting New Beginning Gifts and Leathers, Vanessa ended up being a single mother which not only affected production, but every aspect of her life.
“I had to leave my house. But I think my business helped me. It was like a therapy, there was something else I could focus on; there were people who had faith and confidence in me, and I really found that at DYBT.”
Entrepreneurial women are still facing barriers in Dominica
As a female entrepreneur, Vanessa faced discouragement and scepticism from her peers in Dominica. The culture expects women with a high school education to get a practical job or do secretary work; they are much less welcoming to women who want to drive a business forward. As a single mother of four, Vanessa remained determined. “I have to protect my children and create a means of employment for myself to make a path for them,” she explains. She draws motivation from forging a path for women who face the same limitations. “We tend to accept situations because we feel that we have the children to take care of so we will not move, we stay stagnant, we won’t take the risk we need to take to take our business to another level, but being able to inspire other women, I want to be able to create a path that they know they can follow.”
The road is certainly not easy, and having the responsibility of her children while maintaining a business has been nothing short of a balancing act. “Sometimes the opportunity that is out there requires you to step off the island or step out of the home to achieve, and it becomes challenging because you tend to have to decide between leaving home or staying home with the children and missing the opportunity.”
The resilience of entrepreneurship proved more important than ever when Hurricane Maria battered Dominica in September 2017. “When I got to my shop, there was five feet of dirt and water in there. I just walked away because mentally I could not deal with anything inside there at that point of time,” Vanessa said of the storm’s aftermath. For Vanessa, optimism in the face of disaster is crucial to survival.
“There is a lot that can come out of the rubble we have around us right now, and if we think of it that way, we can really build.”
Vanessa has always maintained an authentic vision to inspire others and touch her customers in some way rather than solely focus on making money. “I am not pushing my products and pushing a brand so that I can go and sit at a table. I want to see my products on a runway in Europe or something of that sort.” She realised this dream when she was honoured at Buckingham Palace in February 2018 as part of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, a fashion show that celebrates artisan talent across Commonwealth countries and recognises the power of fashion to have a positive impact on the world. “So far, getting to where I am now, I feel like a queen.”
As she reflects on her entrepreneurial career, Vanessa says that above all, she “aspires to inspire” and use her craft to help young people. As proprietor of New Beginning Gifts and Leathers, president of Dominica Arts and Crafts Producers Association, and founder of New Beginning Craft Workshop, she has been able to give back by developing youth skills in the creative industry. Even with struggles as difficult as domestic violence, Vanessa values that period of her life because it helped her realise how hard she had to push to make a path for herself and her children.
“It’s been a journey, but I can say that through all that journey, I would not go back on anything.”