Connecticut Post (Sunday)

The determinat­ion of two amazing women entreprene­urs

- ‘I was able to gain enough momentum’ dhaar@hearstmedi­act.com

Editor’s note: This column is part of a series, “Connecticu­t Comeback at a Crossroads,” on the state’s quest to gain economic momentum.

It’s 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon at the Starlander Beck auto electronic­s store in Milford and the place is hopping, with Diane Domin behind the oldstyle retail counter, festooned in a U.S. flag mask, unflapped by the phones ringing as three customers wait for service.

Except for the mask, the scene might be from 1973, when Domin founded the place.

“I’ve got to see what kind is it, I’ve got to see the vehicle before I can come close to giving you a price,” she says into her headphones as a man in pale fatigues at the counter looks over a couple of Pioneer car stereo boxes.

Off to the side, near an old set of framed installer certificat­es and a joke price list — $150 an hour if you tried to fix it yourself” — an associate works with another customer. To a caller, Domin asks, “Is it a key or a push-button start?”

Then at 3:30 p.m., boom, the free-standing, green-painted store with a faded sign on the Boston Post Road, goes dead. No calls, no cars in the side lot.

“That’s retail,” Domin says, finally having a few minutes to talk with me about the uneven recovery of the Connecticu­t economy. “We’re working twice as hard for half as much.”

The popcorn-selling professor

At that moment in Bridgeport, nine miles down Route 1, Kim Bianca Williams is switching from one gig to another.

She’s a training consultant, mostly for local nonprofits on performanc­e improvemen­t and soft skills such as presentati­ons. She’s an adjunct professor at Housatonic Community College and Monroe College in New York. She just signed a lease for a 1,600-foot commercial location in the city’s East End, with plans to convert it to a work-live space in the hopes of sparking activity in the

Deacons Point Historic District.

“I was looking for a space where I could build community,” Williams, who moved to Bridgeport in 2011, tells me at her after-work gig, a popcorn stand at Beardsley Park.

Yes, a popcorn stand. Williams owns and operates the Gourmet Popcorn Bar, an old Dodge Ram pick-up truck pulling a spiffed-up, black-and-white food trailer. It makes money, for sure, but it’s also part of her Urban Synergy in Action project to help entreprene­urs.

On Friday, she was a highly energetic character in Bridgeport’s Trunk ‘n Treat drive-through Halloween party at Beardsley, handing out bags of popcorn and screaming for help escaping a spider web as a nonstop line of cars paraded by for more than two hours.

Williams needs all these projects to cobble together a living.

“Each one ties right back into the community,” said Williams, who named her advisory business VCL Consulting Group, for Victorious Christian Living. “So while it sounds like I’m doing a lot of different things, they all go to the same target.”

‘You have to be an idiot ... to stay in Connecticu­t’

Diane Domin and Kim Bianca Williams. One of these enterprisi­ng women despises government interferen­ce, what she calls the state’s lack of focus on small business and rising taxes “to blow money on stupid things.”

The other unashamedl­y benefits from public grants, loans and assistance designed to help minorityow­ned and women-owned businesses like hers thrive.

For both of them, the post-pandemic Connecticu­t economy presents an opportunit­y even as it demands a slog. In that way, they each represent the small business economy that could drive Connecticu­t into a period of stable growth, or perhaps back to another lost decade of stagnation after a hopeful year if nervous gains.

It’s a dogfight and anyone who fails to think creatively might as well stay in bed.

Domin, for example, seeing the supply chain backups and a fire earlier this year in a Japanese factory that makes semiconduc­tor chips for the auto industry, acted boldly. “I took everything from retirement and I put it into the product,” she tells me, matter-of-factly. “It’s paying off because I have stuff to sell...many of the stores are buying stuff from me.”

And, she tells me, she was the first in the state to install the breathalyz­er devices required for people with a DUI arrest. That enabled her store to qualify as an “essential business” in the lockdown of 2020.

Business, in fact, was brisk in the depths of the pandemic. “You’d get a lot of people coming in, saying, ‘Hey, I just got my stimulus,’” said Ron Dominick, who works with and sometimes for Domin at the business — who noted that sometimes the same cars would be repossesse­d and dealers would call them to remove the sound systems.

Starlander Beck seems to thrive, shelves stocked with all manner of auto electronic­s and connectors, quirky signs and a colorful line of two dozen tiny, bright, colorful gift bags tacked to the ceiling, all adding to the buzz of a successful operation as Domin walks in a slight limp from her stool at the glass counter to the back room.

But Domin is, to say the least, not bullish on the state’s recovery — because of rising costs from taxes, the supply chain crisis, utility price hikes, you name it.

“We’re holding our own but we’re certainly not making the money we were making five years ago,” Domin tells me, still behind the mask, never raising her voice. Back in the ‘90s, she said, “I had like 25 or 20 employees.”

Now she has two. “They’re killing us,” she says, referring to taxes and other costs, especially in Connecticu­t. “I don’t blame anybody that’s moving out of Connecticu­t. You have to be an idiot, you have to have a couple of screws loose, to stay in Connecticu­t.”

Weird to say this after hearing that, but the North Branford resident does carry a positive attitude. I ask what aspect of the business she most enjoys after 48 years and she says without hesitation, “I like it all. I like the wholesale end, I like the retail, I like selling online.”

Williams, for her part, chose to move to Connecticu­t after the 2008-09 recession — from Savannah, Georgia — to be nearer to her elderly parents near New York City. Bridgeport, lacking the built-in advantages of Stamford, New Haven and Hartford, was, and remains, slow to see any kind of recovery.

“For me as a Black business owner, it was worse because we didn’t have access to anything,” she said, adding that she still can’t get bank loans.

Funding increased after the murder of George Floyd, amid the Black Lives Matter movement. “Unfortunat­ely it took a tragedy for that to happen,” said Williams, whose lease in the East End includes an option to buy.

With a blow to all of her income streams, she was able to collect pandemic unemployme­nt for selfemploy­ed people, but only kept it for 10 weeks. “Fortunatel­y I was able to gain enough momentum where I didn’t have to use it all the way through its designated term,” she said.

Like Domin, she’s making it work but is less than ebullient about a fast recovery. “Of course it still needs a jump start,” she tells me. “People are gun-shy about their ability to spend.”

 ?? Dan Haar / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Kim Bianca Williams, a Bridgeport consultant and entreprene­ur, dons a Halloween spider web with help from Rowena White, communicat­ions director for the city, at the annual Trunk 'n Treat event in Beardsley Park Friday. Williams' gourmet popcorn trailer is at right.
Dan Haar / Hearst Connecticu­t Media Kim Bianca Williams, a Bridgeport consultant and entreprene­ur, dons a Halloween spider web with help from Rowena White, communicat­ions director for the city, at the annual Trunk 'n Treat event in Beardsley Park Friday. Williams' gourmet popcorn trailer is at right.
 ?? ?? DAN HAAR
DAN HAAR
 ?? Dan Haar / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Diane Domin, owner and manager of Starlander Beck Mobile Electronic Center, is shown in the Milford retail location on Friday. Pictured below is the exterior of the store, which Domin founded in 1973.
Dan Haar / Hearst Connecticu­t Media Diane Domin, owner and manager of Starlander Beck Mobile Electronic Center, is shown in the Milford retail location on Friday. Pictured below is the exterior of the store, which Domin founded in 1973.
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States