From time to time we get a variety of requests from NYU about WeFestival. They have been anywhere from PR agencies to get their clients on the panels to professors who want to bring their students to the festival to how do I apply to the next event (April 13/14 2016). We always respond. Then this one came.
I’m writing on behalf of my mom, the CEO and founder of Debby Burk Optical, an online retail store started back in 1996. She started her tech company when she was nearly 70 years old, and is one of the few survivors of the dot com bubble of the 1990’s. She is now 85. She would love to attend this event!
I had to talk to Debby….and so I did. I am pretty sure there are a few gaps in the story but what a treat to hear about her life. Smart, funny, charming and confident. She was absolutely enamored to share her story with me as I was with her.
When I asked her my standard first question, “where were you born”? She laughed and said “Brooklyn of course”. She grew up in Flatbush on Ocean Parkway when there was a bridle path on it and people rode horses. Her parents were quite entrepreneurial. Her father owned residential hotels in NYC around Columbia College. Her mother was a milliner. They also owned a factory for blocking hats. When hats went out of favor they moved into other businesses. As a kid she worked in the hotels driving the elevator, opening up the clunky metal doors for people.
After graduating high school Debby went to a specialized art school and also took classes art classes at the Brooklyn Museum. She took a job in an ad agency essentially as an apprentice who got coffee for everyone. It was super tough at the time as a woman to get any real jobs in that field. She left and went to Coro Jewelry. She worked in the showroom as a sales person working with buyers across the country. She modeled and designed jewelry for them too.
Debby got tired of that and went to a paper house where she made handmade wallpaper as well as painted murals on peoples walls. Sometime around here she got married. Her husband was a chiropractor and he was entrepreneurial himself with other ventures on the side. They met at the Long Beach beach club and were married for 59 years. He has this idea of a plant holder. The plant holder hung out the window, he had it patented and then sold many of them. During this time he had decided that they should open a plant store. He went to the owner of a plant store who wanted to sell and bought it lock stock and barrel.
Debby told her husband when they met that he should not expect her to make any money because she was an artist. Ends up she is quite the resourceful one. In the early 70’s they are in the plant business. Debby is making and selling the macrame plant holders and sand terrariums that were quite popular back then. On a side note, my Mom was in the exact same business in the 70’s so our conversation around this business was really fun.
The plant store business started going down hill when grocery stores started to sell plants. It was time for a new venture. One Valentines Day her husband saw a pair of rhinestone glasses and bought them for Debby. The glasses were $50. They end up going on a cruise to Bermuda and see the exact same glasses in a store for $10. They asked where the owner had bought those glasses and when they got back from vacation they went to buy lots of them.
Debby had already been working the flea market with her miniature terrariums since they no longer had the plant store and here she was getting rid of all her pots. She brought the glasses to the flea market and they sold out of every single pair. They just shifted from plants to glasses.
They had a catalog business but in 1996 decided the smart move was to put their glasses on the internet. She saw it coming. At that point they had zero competition. Now of course everything has changed. They still have a big following with over 400,000 customers in their data base.
Debby has always been interested in fashion. Her Mom used to drag her to the original Loehmann’s. The older woman who owned Loehmann’s would wear all black with long grey hair pulled back in a bun. Underneath her clothes she had petticoats filled with cash. She’d go to showrooms, pick up her skirt and say I am buying everything and hand them cash. She also had red dots of rouge on her face. I loved this story. My Mom used to take me to Loehmanns too. It was very different back then.
Debby’s Grandma designed lace, her Mom designed hats (Debby’s milliner days), her sister had a fine jewelry and antique shop in the city. They were all old school retailers. She is still always keeping up on the latest fashions and trends. Debby does all the photography of her glasses for the site and photoshops them. She also does watercoloring on the side for fun. Her daughter who she refers to as the geek, joined her because the business got to be too much. She told her daughter you should join the business since I am giving it to you anyhow. They have 7 people that work for them in her house which is divided into a business on one half.
Debby couldn’t have more charming. She said “it’s life, it just happens. You do your own thing and that way nobody gets in your way. Men did not take women seriously then so you had to your own thing.” She honestly laughed so much through our conversation recalling her history. I hope she had as much fun talking to me as I had talking to her.