I’ve never met anyone like my mother. And I’m not just saying that because I’m her daughter. I’ve truly never known anyone quite like her. She’s never known the meaning of phrases like “no”, “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t”. She was always strong and brave and wonderfully independent during a time when it was uncommon for women to be this way.
She’s always been kind of a rebel and I adore her for it. But to be honest, she’s also a pretty tough act to follow. Growing up, I did my best by listening to her, watching her, challenging her, even arguing with her sometimes. But what I didn’t realize was that her most substantive lessons wouldn’t come until she started her own business back in 1977 – a small farm market not far outside of Cook Forest State Park in Pennsylvania. At the time, I was 12 years old and had no choice but to go along for the ride.
Like any good business, it began with a single goal – and for my parents, that goal was to earn enough money between them to put their four kids through college. So college, for us, was never an option, it was a non-negotiable requirement. But that also didn’t mean we would get a free ride. Oh no. We all worked in the business.
I worked there for well over 10 years – with my mother as my manager. And during the course of my tenure, I learned four lifelong lessons from the toughest boss I ever had.
- A strong woman makes and manages her own money. Every Monday, I would sit at our kitchen table and help my mom with bookkeeping – and that’s also when I would get paid for the week. She insisted that she hand me the entire amount I earned. And then she’d say, “Now give it all back except for $20, because we’re going to deposit it into your savings account.” She taught me how to fill out the deposit slip and into the bank it went. I got it when I graduated from college. Those weekly bookkeeping sessions taught me how to manage money and live within a budget.
- A strong woman commands respect. My mom always told us that a strong woman will always have the final say in any transaction. “If you don’t like how you’re being treated, then don’t accept it.” This was much more than just talk – my mom has always lived this advice. Every week, she’d jump in her truck and drive to the Strip District in Pittsburgh to buy inventory for the store. When I was 13, she allowed me to go with her. We’d leave Clarion at 11 PM, arrive in the Strip District at around 1 AM and she’d do the buying from various vendors of different types of produce. We would “walk the platform” to each and every seller and it didn’t take me long to notice that we were the only two females in the entire place. All of the sellers were men; all of the other buyers were men and all of the truck drivers were men, as were all of the truck loaders. I remember one time, when we walked up to one of the sellers (a kind of intimidating guy with a brown hat and a big cigar hanging out of his mouth), she told him what she wanted to purchase and he said, “Lady, the retail shoppers get here at 9 AM. Come back then.” And my mom just looked at him and said, “I’m not a retail shopper, I’m here to buy wholesale, so if you’re not interested in my business, I’ll gladly take it elsewhere.” And she took my hand and we walked to the next seller. A minute later, he yelled, “Ma’am? I’d like to have your business!” And he walked over and extended his hand to shake hers. And after that night, he ensured we always got the best products at the best prices. He’d also select his best guy to load our truck. That day, I learned that commanding respect is a powerful motivator.
- A strong woman is tough when she needs to be but compassionate the rest of the time. My mother was a savvy businesswoman. She knew she needed to make a profit and managed her business accordingly. But she also had a big heart, especially where her customers were concerned. And I remember one of those customers very well. A woman came into the store one day and bought a lot of things and she asked if she could pay by check. A couple of days later, the bank called to inform my mom that the check bounced and this had occurred with several businesses, not just hers. So my mom said, “Okay, I don’t want to take any action on this.” And then she waited. Within a week or two, the woman came back into the store and my mom let her pick out all the things she wanted, and when the time came to check out, she took out her checkbook. But this time, my mom gently stopped her. “Ma’am, I can’t take your check and I think you know why. I’d like to understand why you’re writing bad checks.” As it turned out, she explained that she didn’t have enough money to pay for the things she needed for her family. So my mom said, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. I’m going to open an account for you. You buy what you need and just pay down your account whenever you can. Just do it a little at a time; but I need you to promise that you’re not going to write another bad check.” And she did make that promise – and lived up to it. From that day forward, she became one of our best customers. And every week, without fail, she would come in and pay toward her bill. That day, I learned that a little compassion goes a long way.
- A strong woman doesn’t need to be told she can do anything she wants; she just knows it. In business and otherwise, my mother led by example that we could do absolutely anything we set our minds to. There was never any question about it. When I was 16, I wanted to drive to Pittsburgh with three of my friends to see a Rick Springfield concert. I just got my license a few months earlier and never drove in the city before. When I asked my mom if I could go, I fully expected the answer to be no. But instead, she said, “You’ve proven that you’re a responsible driver and a responsible person, so yes, you can go. Just be careful and come home right after the concert is over.” So off we went! And with me went all the confidence I needed to do just about anything I set my mind to. (Oh and by the way, I didn’t wreck the car that night, either; though, we did get lost a few times…).
In summary, all I can really say to my mother is thank you – for all of the sacrifices you made; for allowing me to make my own mistakes; for making me do manual labor (or else, I’d have never truly understood the importance of hard work); for putting up with me at times when I’m sure I stretched a few nerves; for not giving me everything I wanted; and for showing me what love and compassion really mean – not only for others but for myself as well.
Mom, you’ve stood the strength of time and have been my number one role model and cheerleader. You’ve molded me into the strong, ambitious yet compassionate woman I am today and I am forever grateful. I promise to pay it forward as much as I possibly can – in business and otherwise.