Clara Villarosa, Woman Entrepreneur
Erin Bagwell, is the filmmaker behind Dream Girl. She came to me to interview me for the film and I became a supporter of the film. I can hardly wait to see this film make its premier debut at the White House on March 8th. Erin also interviewed Clara Villarosa for this film. Erin told me about Clara and I asked for an intro. A rare woman from a generation that rarely saw entrepreneurial spirits like Clara. Clara is just spectacular, a long story and an incredible long life that still keeps giving.
Clara was born in 1930. Before the depression her father had a great job as a bell hop in a hotel in Chicago. Once the depression hit the hotels fired all the black bell hops and hired the white ones because now those jobs were desired by white men where as before they were not. It took her father awhile to find another job. He finally found a cleaning establishment to hire him and he learned to press clothes. At one point he lost that job too and became a pullman porter. Clara’s family was forced to go on welfare.
Her mother only had a high school’s education. During the depression she went to work for a private family. Her mother decided that working for a private family wasn’t for her. She didn’t like cleaning her own house so she certainly did not like cleaning someone else’s. Her mom went to school to learn how to sew, took up sewing and millinery but wasn’t great at it. She then went to beauty school and became a beautician eventually owning her own beauty shop. After 25 years of that she went to get her real estate license and started another career. They were the middle class of that generation.
Clara graduated high school in Chicago and went to Roosevelt University. It was a school started by Eleanor Roosevelt because at that time, in the 40’s, there was a quota system. Schools only took in a few Jews and blacks. The Roosevelt University took in all without quotas. It was the first time she had been exposed to a large population of Jews who opened their arms to Clara and encouraged her. Her family wasn’t supportive of her going to college because at that time it was expected that the boys had to go and get that degree not the girls so they could support their families down the line. She persisted and they were ok with Clara going to school in Chicago and living at home. Her major in school was education and psychology.
Clara got a job as a student teacher while she was in college. It was something she always wanted to do. The job freaked her out. Too many kids! She was also working part-time at Jane Adams and noticed that the social workers got to work with people one on one. She thought maybe that made more sense and she decided to move into sociology. After graduation she pursued a job in social work working with welfare clients. Clara realized she needed to get a master to do psychiatric social work. She applied to University of Chicago and Loyola. U of Chicago turned her down because of their quota to take in only 2 Jews and 2 black students. Loyola did not have a quota system and she went on to get her MA in social work there. Upon graduation in June she met her husband at the Veterans Hospital and by September they were married.
She wanted to work at least 2-3 days a week to save money for a house. She got accepted to almost everywhere she applied but when she got to the interview and they saw she was black they turned her down. So Clara became a medical social worker making home visits. She asked the company she was working for if there were any jobs in the psychiatric social work department which is what she really wanted to do. They said there were not but then she saw a job posted in the paper for the company. She took out the ad and brought it to her boss and said I want this job. She pushed and they decided it was ok that she was black because she was qualified.
Four years later left when she was pregnant. The plan was that she would stay home, have three kids and then return to work when the last one went to 1st grade. She decided she was done after two kids and staying home made her depressed. Her friends recommended she work as a volunteer one day a week at a mental health clinic. That job made her a better mother.
When her second daughter went to first grade they moved to Denver. Her husband heard that Denver was a great place to raise a family and that there were no prejudices there. They took a trip to check it out, the girls loved it and her husband got a transfer. They decided to move into the suburbs where there was open housing. They found a 4 bedroom house and enrolled the girls in school. The kids thought they were seriously rich after living in an apartment in Chicago. On their way to the closing of the house they drove by it to take another look and found their new neighbors outside the house with pails and sponges washing the walls. Someone had written the word “nigger” across the house. They decided no way they were going to buy that house but the neighbors begged and pleaded for them to stay. Their beds and sofas were not going to get there for a few weeks and the neighbors had put stuff in their house so they could stay there that night. They convinced them to close. The first night they slept there two 12 year old boys came by with their father to tell them that they had written the word nigger on the house. Their 16 year old cousin who lived in Denver told them that they don’t want people like you in the neighborhood. They apologized and the father said the 16 year old cousin will never be allowed in his house again. It was 1969.
Clara went to work from 9-3 while the girls were in school at Children’s Hospital in Denver. Clara worked as the Chief of Psychiatric Social work for the hospital. She eventually rose to be the Director of the Department of Behavioral Sciences. They wanted to hire a black person. Ultimately Clara became the Assistant Hospital Administrator overseeing 16 outpatient departments for the hospital. When you move into administration you end up not doing what you were trained for. Clara was ready for something else.
After navigating the world of hospitals she decided to go back to school. She went to the Graduate School of Social Work Doctoral Program and College of Law at the University of Denver where she was going to get her doctorate in social work with a minor in law. She liked the law and wanted to take all of her past skills and move them into the corporate world. She ran out of money to pay for school and got a job at the United Banks of Denver handling squabbles between employees. The bank loved her and wanted her to stay and come on full time. She said she would stay for more money and a better job. She stayed for four years eventually becoming the VP of Human Resources and Strategic Planning before she was fired. Clara wanted to do more than HR. She wanted to become a real banker. It was one thing to be a black social worker changing HR but it was another thing to push for more. She got too big for her britches in a bank culture.
She learned from it. They offered her a nice chunk of change to leave. Her husband divorced her after she left the bank job. She thinks that making more money than her husband was an issue for him. She took the cash and opened the Hue-Man Book Store in Denver. It was 1984. She worked hard figuring out finance and book-selling. She called Hue-Man the largest African-American book store in the country. She had authors from James Baldwin, Colin Powell and Alice Walker come and do events in the store. She realized after 16 years that she could not squeeze blood from a stone. There were not enough black people in Denver to build a million dollar business. She had owned the building and business and decided to sell the whole thing and moved to NYC where her daughters were now living.
Clara was far from retiring even though she loved spending time with her daughters and grand-children. She decided to open the Hue-Man book store in Harlem. When she got to Harlem she saw black people walking up and down the street and realized this was where she could build a $1m business. Clara had sat on the American Booksellers Association for the past 7 years and had built quite a name for herself. She needed money and partners. She brought on two women partners who were the wives of two Knicks players. They opened the store in 2002. The store made a huge impact in the community where writers Walter Mosley to Maya Angelou would do readings. Bill Clinton signed his book “My Life” there on its release and it was one of his most successful outings.
In 2004 Clara decided it was time to retire from the book world. She brought in a 4th partner to run the store and retired to her next career. She wrote two books, Down to Business: The First Ten Steps to Entrepreneurship and The Words of African-American Heroes. When she was at the book store she would lead a story hour. Many times middle school kids would come who had never met a black person who had started their own business. She started talking about how you did this. She took her idea to Chase Bank and began running workshops for women around entrepreneurship. Her book has 20 different businesses in it. Women learn through stories. At the end of each chapter she asks questions around the info they just read. When you write it down you realize that is the beginnings of a business plan. The book has the steps. Clara said you eat an elephant one bite at a time.
She also has built Villarosa Media, a publishing company primarily focusing on black authors. She started it with her daughters. The shift of publishing has made it difficult for most African-American writers to get published. They focus on getting black authors work read.
She is also a trustee for the University of Denver where she spearheads their diversity programs. She is the founder of the African American Booksellers Association. She has also served on the boards of Colorado Small Business Development Center, New York is Book Country, New Federal Theatre, Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz Education Center and her organized workshops and chaired panel discussions for the Booksellers Expo annual conference, and was also an officer of the Business Owners Ministry of Abyssinian Baptist Church.
What I love is that she has not gone home after her multiple retirements. She continues to be a leader in her community and a role model for women. I am sure the amount of women (and men) that she has inspired is countless. I could talk to her for hours. Her entrepreneurial drive through an era when it was much more difficult for women let alone a black woman is powerful. She never gave up. She knew she had the brains to have that seat at every single table she sat at. She never took no for an answer instead she would just take another road to get what she wanted. Clara is an incredible human being.