An avid supporter of community and philanthropic causes, small business owner Maria Whittingham experienced firsthand that it really can pay more to give than to receive, after more than 300 supporters rallied together to reward the Nyack, New York business owner for her years of giving with an Intuit $35,000 Love A Local Business grant in February 2011.
For more than 20 years, Maria Luisa Gifts & Accessories and Maria Luisa Boutique have provided eco-conscious artists and socially-aware vendors with an outlet to promote and sell their products. We recently spoke with Whittingham about her entrepreneurial influence, her experience with running a community-oriented business, and the rewards that can follow.
ISBB: What sparked your interest in becoming a small business owner?
Whittingham: Since I was a kid, I had always wanted to go into business. My grandfather was a merchant in a small town in Puerto Rico. His store was something that I always cared about. I guess you would call it a bazaar, as it had a little bit of everything; from toiletries to clothing to handbags to pretty much you name it. It definitely influenced my interest in business.
What have been most challenging aspects of running a small business?
There are multiple challenges that come with running a business. Initially, it is financing. Secondly, it is the time commitment. Running a small business requires a 24/7 commitment. Also, I’d say finding committed employees.
As a small business owner, what are you most proud of?
What I’m most proud of is that I’m still in business after 20 years, that I was able to open a second business, and that I still keep them both afloat, and still enjoy it.
What sets your small business apart from the competition?
We put a lot of focus on natural fibers and textiles. Our clientele are primarily artists, trend followers, and people that care about their community and planet. We really try to work closely with ethical vendors, fair trade companies, and groups that do a lot of philanthropic work. It’s important to us, but it’s also important to our customers.
How do you play an active role within your community?
We promote several philanthropic causes through the business. On April 1, we are hosting an off-site exhibit in support of the Edward Hopper House Organization. We’re going to have an artist that will be creating vignettes in our front windows, using our merchandise, but it will be very Hopper-esque.
On April 5, we will be participating in “One Day Without Shoes” for a second year. It’s a great awareness campaign that was started by TOMS Shoes, which was originally a for-profit business that became a non-profit, providing a pair of shoes to a child in need, for every pair of shoes that they sell. They’ve given away more than a million pairs of shoes to children around the world in the past four years. At our store, we will have artists that will customize TOMS shoes, and we will be auctioning off several customized pairs as well.
How do you keep your customers coming back?
I communicate with them. We’re in a small community, so we really treat our customers like family. We know them by name, or we get to know them because we want to know them. I do a lot of one to one mailing, Facebook, and contact through email on a regular basis. I’m also very involved in the community, and we get a lot of support that way.
What exciting plans do you have in the works for your small business?
My boutique store is moving into a great location that is right next door to where we are now. It’s a godsend to me; to be able to have the two businesses side by side. The community is excited, we’re excited, and my employees are excited. It’s been a decision that I’m very happy to go forward with. It also gives me the opportunity to rebrand a little bit, which is difficult to do when you’re in the same location.
How did the Intuit $35,000 Love A Local Business grant work for your small business?
I saved the advertising portion of the grant for the end of the year, using it between November and December. It was an amazing advertising budget and received great response. No one is used to hearing a local business on a major radio network, so that was pretty wonderful. The advertising was really great for our community also, because it made some of the local organizations say, “Hey, maybe we can do this as a group.”
The rest of the grant was used for a renovation of the lower level of our current location, which was a success.
Competing for the Intuit grant was a wonderful experience. The actual process got us all to rally together — our community, friends, and family. It just got us going on a good groove.