Home   >   Articles   >   ICYMI: Yello Interviews Dominican Entrepreneur Vanessa Winston

ICYMI: Yello Interviews Dominican Entrepreneur Vanessa Winston

by Karen Rollins Mar 6, 2023

Share this
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vanessa1.jpg

Dominican entrepreneur Vanessa Winston has been through many trials.

She’s a survivor of domestic abuse, a single mother to four children, and she has had to rebuild her artisan business ‘New Beginning Gifts and Leathers’, after Hurricane Maria caused devastating damage to the island in September 2017.

But Vanessa is a strong and determined woman, and she now plans to make her accessories business even better than it was before. She’s also hoping to empower disadvantaged Dominicans through training and skills development.

Vanessa talked to Yello in June 2020 about her life as a businesswoman and mother.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I grew up with my grand aunty and grandmother in Anse de Mai, and Lagoon in Portsmouth, which is the second largest town in Dominica.

At the age of eight, I moved to Roseau with my mother, so I could go to school there, but every weekend and every holiday I went back to stay with my grandmother and grand aunty. I consider myself a melting pot being raised between Roseau, Portsmouth and Anse de Mai.

When I was young, I enjoyed going to the sea, collecting shells, and hunting crabs. I also climbed trees, picked fruits, and explored the forest. I loved being around my uncles, cousins, and brothers.

We had a small wooden house with no washing facilities, so on weekends we packed our clothes and went to the river to wash them.

It was an interesting childhood and, although we didn’t have much, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

Were you always a creative person?

I was always a thinking person. Growing up, I used to mix and match chemicals, and I wanted to be a scientist, but that didn’t work out.

Now, instead of mixing and matching chemicals, I mix and match different materials and create things that persons enjoy.

I used to destroy necklaces and chains and make my own designs to wear because I like to be unique and have something that’s different to everybody else.

Who was your role model growing up?

My role model growing up was my grand aunty who helped to raise me.

She worked at the Portsmouth Infirmary looking after the elderly and people with disabilities who had been abandoned. She was strong, protective, and strict, but she kept everything real.  

In high school, I really admired Roosevelt ‘Rosie’ Douglas, the former prime minister of Dominica. I admired his activism and his desire to see black people get to a different level.

When / why did you start ‘New Beginning Gifts and Leathers’?

My idea for New Beginning Gifts and Leathers started in 2006 after I completed entrepreneurship development training with the Dominica Youth Business Trust. I received an award for my business plan.

I registered the business and opened to the public in 2008.

I started the business because I’m a single mother and there was a high rate of unemployment at the time, so I needed to find work that would be suitable for me and allow me to take care of my children.

What was the toughest challenge you faced setting up the business? How did you overcome it?

My toughest challenge was breaking away from domestic violence, becoming a single mother to four children, and trying to start a business at the same time.

In a small community, and as a woman, it was challenging to get started.

I had no money for childcare, so I had to juggle everything to make it work. It was challenging financially, to get a loan, and to keep my sanity and put everything in place to sustain myself and the children.

What products do you offer?

My product range includes leather accessories such as belts and bags for men and women; leather and copper jewellery; scented candles and decorated scented soaps.

I do a lot of mixed medium jewellery, so I combine leather and copper with natural materials like coconut, wood, stones, or shells.

The aroma candles and soaps are made from soy wax.

My products and designs are all unique. They are not mass produced. No design is ever the same.

How has the business been developing since you started?

When I first started the business, it went well, but certain events have disturbed the process of growth.

Hurricane Maria destroyed 90% of the business. It has been difficult, but I am keeping it alive and staying hopeful. I believe you may lose the finished product, but you never lose your creativity, so there is always room to develop and grow and start over again.

So that’s what we’ve done, and we aim to grow again. Even with COVID-19 happening now, I am hoping we can get back on track.

When / why did you start the New Beginning Craft Workshop?

As an entrepreneur, mother, and small business owner, I am always looking for ways to give back to my community.

Looking around at the many young people who are unskilled and unemployed, and after working with some young persons at Youth Skills Training, I realised there was a need to put an emphasis on learning skills.

So, I started New Beginning Craft Workshop to train young persons in what I am doing, and the skills of other artisans, so that we can develop a community of artisans to propel the arts and crafts industry in Dominica.

I’m also part of the Dominica Arts and Crafts Association (right now I am the President), so we really wanted to foster the creativity of young people and at-risk persons, who are unemployed or single parents, so they can have a skill and be self-sufficient.

What lessons have you learned as a female entrepreneur?

I have learned that failure is not a weakness. Weakness is when you give up.

As a woman and a mother, you have to realise that you have a purpose. Once you understand you have a purpose and a mission, you understand the value of what you are doing.

As a woman, you can conquer all things and overcome any barrier. And being independent doesn’t necessarily mean not having a partner, it means that you are strong enough to influence others to be better to themselves and others.

We need to be independent emotionally. To know that you are able to love yourself, your children, your partner and what you do and to stand against injustices against other women.

What has been your proudest career achievement so far?

When I was part of the first Commonwealth Fashion Exchange initiative which was launched at Buckingham Palace in 2018.

I partnered with Meiling, a designer from Trinidad and Tobago. She created the outfit, and I made a leather corset belt. We went to Buckingham Palace for the event, and that was my proudest achievement.

How do you juggle being a mother and an entrepreneur?

It can be difficult because you have to dedicate your all to both.

Being an entrepreneur is what puts food on your table and being a mother is equally important because you have to steer your children in the right direction.

I involved my children with what I was doing so they would be with me while I was working. We would have conversations, and they would be doing homework.

While they watched me at work, they also came up with ideas, which helped me to develop and grow. So, rather than keeping them separate, I married work and my children together, which made it easier.

What advice do you have for aspiring female entrepreneurs?

My advice is to love what you do because the road to entrepreneurship can be very difficult. If you aren’t passionate about what you want to do, you will fall back very easily.

You also need a diverse mind, meaning that you have to think about what will happen if your plan doesn’t work out, and how you can approach it from a different direction.

For instance, you may plan to go down the street a certain way, but then you come to a roadblock. Are you going to turn back? Or are you going to divert and go to another street that can still take you to your destination?

You have to be quick thinking, dedicated and passionate. Your attitude has to be right. You have to be firm and steadfast. Don’t compromise on respect but at the same time, don’t be too pompous.

What do you love about Dominica?

Dominica is home. I love the nature of the place. The ability to explore and our natural resources.

Where do you go to relax on your days off?

As an entrepreneur, you hardly have a day off.

Even on your days off, you are technically working because, even if you are not physically working, your mind is still going and coming up with ideas.

If I have time, I try to visit Portsmouth or Anse de Mai, where I was raised. I’ll see family and go to the beach.

How is Dominica different to other Caribbean islands?

The difference in Dominica is the physical structure of the island like our mountains and waterfalls.

But the islands are almost all the same even if some may be a bit more developed than others.

The people may speak a different dialect and have a few cultural differences, but generally, Caribbean culture is almost the same. To me, the islands even feel the same.

What are your plans for the next five years?

Our population is relatively small, so my plan is to see how I can explore and expand to the regional market. I would love to form regional creative collaborations to help us grow, and move into the international market.

My brand is called ‘Vgur’ which comes from the effort, energy and enthusiasm that is being put into the product.

I really want people to understand my product, my reason for creating, and my purpose as an artist.

See more of Vanessa Winston’s artisan creations on Facebook.