Opening a Spa, and a Door to Economic Security
When Nelly Sanchez left Mexico for the U.S. nine years ago, she was fleeing a bad relationship and had to give up a career as a flight attendant and the security of a loving family. She arrived here with no money and no clothes.
It was, she says, like starting life over again. “I didn’t know much English, I didn’t have any skills, and I didn’t have much of an education. I felt lost, but I also wanted to get on with life. I needed to push myself to keep going.”
That meant working in a coffee shop, enrolling for English and computer classes at the College of Marin, and getting inspiration from her sister, who was already living in the U.S.
She also started cleaning houses, finding her own clients rather than working for someone else—“which wasn’t something I wanted to do,” she says.
All this time, at the back of her mind was a feeling that she wanted, eventually, to do something to help other people.
After her sister, Micaela, started studying massage therapy, they began to think about becoming aestheticians. They enrolled in school and got their licenses—at first working out of their homes, with mostly friends as clients.
But Nelly and Micaela wanted to open their own spa, and they “took a big risk” to renovate a space and invest in equipment and merchandise. The Fifth Avenue Spa—at the corner of Court Street and 5th Avenue in San Rafael—opened in January, 2010.
But Nelly soon realized that while starting her own business was the fulfillment of a dream, success wasn’t going to be easy. She says her only business plan “was the one in my head.” There was a lot she didn’t know about running a business. She needed help.
Through a friend, she was introduced to the Women’s Initiative—a nonprofit with offices throughout the Bay Area that helps low-income women start small businesses.
After attending an orientation, Nelly took part in a 22-session course, taught in Spanish, to help Latinas become entrepreneurs. “We learned about developing a business plan, cash flow, maintaining an inventory, marketing, and other things I didn’t know about,” Nelly says. “It made a big, big difference.”
Besides getting the spa off to a stronger start, taking part in the Women’s Initiative has enabled Nelly to join a network of other women entrepreneurs, including ones who have already been successful in business.
“Those women are inspirational to us,” she says. “They are so strong. Sometimes I feel I can’t do something, but they help me find the strength to do it, especially since the surrounding environment is often not very helpful.”
Nelly’s hopes for her business, as new as it is, involve more than her drive to see it grow. She also wants to help other Latina women “feel proud of themselves, feel beautiful, and have a good image of themselves. I want to create a place where they feel welcomed and supported.”
She’s already helping her community: Her waiting area has become a small gallery that features local artists, and she’s selling jewelry made by a fellow Women’s Initiative graduate.
Nelly tears up a bit when she thinks about the first day her spa opened. “Not that long before, I had to choose between eating and paying for school. I’m proud of myself.”
The Marin Community Foundation is helping many other women like Nelly by funding the Women’s Initiative under MCF’s Ending the Cycle of Poverty Strategic Initiative. This and similar efforts share the goal of helping increase the income of low-income Marin residents.
Women’s Initiative has helped Bay Area women start some 1,600 businesses since 1988. And these business-owners are creating new jobs by hiring additional employees.
“We’re breaking the cycle of poverty, and at the same time creating a cadre of confident, successful, and thriving women,” says Nicole Levine, WI’s executive director in San Francisco and the North Bay.