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The post-pandemic work of two incredible women entrepreneurs


Editor’s Note: This column is part of a series called “Connecticut’s Return to a Crossroads” on the state’s quest for economic boost. Click for stories on jobs here and housing here.

It’s 3 p.m. Friday afternoon at the Starlander Beck automotive electronics store in Milford and the place is buzzing, with Diane Domin behind the old-fashioned retail counter, scalloped with an American flag mask. , not turned down by the phones ringing as three customers wait for service.

With the exception of the mask, the scene could date from 1973, when Domin founded the place.

“I have to see what kind it is, I have to see the vehicle before I can give you a price,” she says into her headphones as a pale man in fatigues at the counter looks at a couple of car stereo boxes. Pioneer.

On the side, near an old set of boxed installer certificates and a wacky price list – $ 150 an hour if you’re trying to fix it yourself ”- an associate works with another client. To a caller, Domin asks, “Is that a key or a start button?” “

Then at 3:30 p.m., boom, the independent store painted green with a faded sign on Boston Post Road, shut down. No calls, no cars in the side parking lot.

“It’s retail,” Domin says, finally having a few minutes to talk with me about the uneven recovery in Connecticut’s economy. “We work twice as hard for half as much.

The professor who sells popcorn

At this point in Bridgeport, nine miles on Highway 1, Kim Bianca Williams goes from one gig to the next.

She is a training consultant, primarily for local non-profit organizations on performance improvement and soft skills such as presentations. She is an assistant professor at Housatonic Community College and Monroe College in New York. She just signed a lease for a 1,600 foot commercial location in the city’s East End, with the intention of converting it into a work and living space in hopes of sparking activity in the historic district. from Deacons Point.

“I was looking for a space where I could create a community,” Williams, who moved to Bridgeport in 2011, told me during her after-work gig, a popcorn stand in Beardsley Park.

Yes, a popcorn stand. Williams owns and operates the Gourmet Popcorn Bar, an old Dodge Ram pickup truck pulling a black and white food trailer. It makes money, that’s for sure, but it’s also part of his Urban Synergy in Action project to help entrepreneurs.

On Friday she was a very energetic character in the Halloween party driving Trunk ‘n Treat in Beardsley, handing out bags of popcorn and screaming for help escaping a spider web as a queue of cars marched nonstop for over two hours.

Williams needs all of these projects to make a living.

“Everyone is directly linked to the community,” said Williams, who named his consulting firm VCL Consulting Group, for Victorious Christian Living. “So even though it seems like I’m doing a lot of different things, they’re all aimed at the same target. “

“You have to be a fool … to stay in Connecticut”

Diane Domin and Kim Bianca Williams. One of these enterprising women despises government interference, which she calls the state’s lack of focus on small businesses and tax hikes “to waste money on stupid things.”

The other shamelessly benefits from grants, loans and government aid designed to help minority-owned and women-owned businesses like hers thrive.

For both, Connecticut’s post-pandemic economy presents an opportunity even if it requires hard work. In this way, they each represent the small business economy that could lead Connecticut into a period of steady growth, or perhaps return to another lost decade of stagnation after a hopeful year if nervous gains.

It’s air combat and anyone who doesn’t think creatively might as well just stay in bed.

Domin, for example, seeing supply chain backups and a fire earlier this year at a Japanese factory that makes semiconductor chips for the automotive industry, acted boldly. “I retired everything and put it in the product,” she tells me in a neutral tone. “It pays off because I have stuff to sell … a lot of stores buy stuff from me.”

And, she tells me, she was the first in the state to install the required breathalysers for those arrested for impaired driving. This allowed his store to qualify as an “essential business” during the 2020 lockdown.

Business, indeed, was booming in the depths of the pandemic. “You would have a lot of people coming in saying, ‘Hey, I just got my stimulus,’” said Ron Dominick, who works with and sometimes for Domin at the company – who noted that sometimes the same cars would be seized. . and the dealers were calling them to remove the audio systems.

Starlander Beck appears to be thriving, shelves filled with all manner of automotive electronics and connectors, quirky panels and a colorful line of two dozen bright and colorful little gift bags nailed to the ceiling, all adding to the buzz of an operation. successful as Domin walks with a slight limp from his stool at the glass counter to the back room.

But Domin is at least not optimistic about the state’s recovery – due to rising tax costs, the supply chain crisis, rising utility prices, and more.

“We’re holding on, but we’re certainly not making the money we made five years ago,” Domin tells me, still behind the mask, never raising his voice. In the 90s she said, “I had about 25 or 20 employees.

Now she has two.

“They’re killing us,” she said, referring to taxes and other costs, especially in Connecticut. “I don’t blame anyone who leaves Connecticut. You must be an idiot, you must have a few loose screws to stay in Connecticut. “

Weird to say this after hearing this, but the North Branford resident has a positive attitude. I ask her what aspect of the business she enjoys the most after 48 years and she says without hesitation, “I love everything. I like wholesale, I like retail, I like to sell online.

“I was able to gain enough momentum”

Williams, for her part, chose to relocate to Connecticut after the 2008-09 recession – from Savannah, Georgia – to be closer to her elderly parents near New York. Bridgeport, devoid of the inherent advantages of Stamford, New Haven and Hartford, was, and remains, slow to see any kind of recovery.

“For me, as a black business owner, it was worse because we didn’t have access to anything,” she said, adding that she still couldn’t get bank loans.

Funding increased after the murder of George Floyd, amid the Black Lives Matter movement. “Sadly, it took a tragedy for this to happen,” said Williams, whose East End lease includes a purchase option.

With a blow to all of her income sources, she was able to collect pandemic unemployment for the self-employed, but only kept it for 10 weeks. “Fortunately, I was able to gain enough momentum that I didn’t have to use it throughout its designated term,” she said.

Like Domin, she makes it work but isn’t enthusiastic about a quick recovery. “Of course, we still need a helping hand,” she told me. “People are shy about their ability to spend. “

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