Small Business Owner, New York City

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to start a small business in Manhattan, say open a framing shop? In one of the most competitive (and most expensive) areas of the city? Susan knows. She is doing it right now. The ups and downs are clearly explained below and it's quite obvious (at least to me) that one has to live and breathe their passion in order to swim and persevere. I'm thankful I got to meet Susan, tour her studio where the framing magic happens. Thanks for the brutally honest answers. Can't wait to frame my photos with you.

1. Name

Susan Lewis

2. Where is your hometown?

New Rochelle, NY

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

Owner/Partner of John Esty Custom Framing in the West Village

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (career wise)? When was the mental shift to start the journey?

I fell into picture framing accidentally. I had dropped out of college and was working for minimum wage at an art supply store. They had a framing department which was very successful, eventually they transferred me to framing and taught me the basics of sales. I picked it up pretty quickly and got involved with art packaging, quality control, and working closely with the production team. I took a job at a high end custom frame shop where I learned more about the craftsmanship behind hand made frames. I did well as a salesperson there until I became manager of their production facility. During that time I was in charge of ordering materials, delivery schedules, proper technical executions, etc. A few years later I became manager of the entire framing department at a former midtown art store. I had my first real experience managing a staff on my own. I also dealt more with the owners and administration where I learned the organization of our products and materials from a more bureaucratic perspective. So once I had started at John Esty Framing I had experience in every aspect of the industry. I therefore organized nearly all of the work in the shop. I handled all the office paperwork, accounts payable and receivable, sales, customer service, material resourcing, production, etc. Eventually the opportunity arose for my partner, Francisco, and I to purchase the shop when the owner passed away. It was a difficult time for everyone involved. We very much wanted to continue on and preserve the atmosphere that we had both blossomed in. We set out to find a lawyer and make arrangements to take over the business. It was very complicated and frustrating. There is so much paperwork, everyone needs tons of information for every single step. There are lawyers, bankers, landlords, bureaucracy up to your eyeballs. It was a very stressful and exhausting time. It took about 6 months. We finally closed in May. Even after all of the work involved with purchasing the shop, there was still so much more to be done. We had to switch over account information and update our tax ID for every vendor, utility company, web hosting, you name it. Several of which required paperwork proving our ownership and included waiting periods to close old accounts. Even switching the registration for the office computer was a nightmare. With just the two of us it's hard to find the time to get those extra things done while being open for business and taking care of clients. So it's been a long few months dotting the i's and crossing the t's but we are getting more organized every day. It's twice the work than we were responsible for before, but there's a satisfaction to knowing that it's for your benefit. The added pressure is a challenge to be sure you're doing your best and providing the best for your clients. It's really a labor of love. I feel deeply content when finishing a project or a job even though I might be completely exhausted. It's a journey and a learning experience every day.

5. What did you study in school?

Studio Art /Art Therapy

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

My life is completely different now. When I was 20 I was just getting started. I had left school, was working, moved out of my mother's house. I was trying to figure myself out, growing up, and struggling with it quite a bit. It was also about this time that both my father and my step mother were first diagnosed with cancer, sparking a long history of health issues throughout the years. If you had told me then all the things that would happen in the next 14 years I would never have believed you. I had moved throughout the company I worked for until I realized there was no where else I could advance and left for a new opportunity in a managment position elsewhere. I had seen my father battle cancer and come out alive, only to deal with it again ten years later. My father passed away 3 days after my 30th birthday due to complication from cancer treatment and stroke. One month later I found myself interviewing at a small, high end frame shop in the west village. I was hired on the spot and began working at John Esty Framing along side Francisco. We worked well together immediately.

He is so good at what he does and has taught me so much. He's made me a better fitter, and in turn, a more confident framer. To think that we would end up owning the shop together is crazy. I'm glad to have such a talented and reliable partner. I don't know if I would have wanted to do this alone, it can be a lot for one person. Being able to work so well with someone is not common. I am very grateful.

7. Biggest accomplishment since making the (physical/mental) move?

Becoming a shop owner is definitely the highlight of my career. Ever since I settled into being a picture framer I've wanted to advance to eventually having my own shop. Although it was a serious dream of mine, it always seemed like it was just out of reach. There were definitely some bittersweet circumstances that led to us being able to buy the shop, but it's been a turning point for both myself and my partner that we couldn't be happier to undertake. And I am lucky to have a partner to work with that I can rely on and grow with. We support each other and have the same vision for the business and the future. It's been a long, difficult journey and it's only been possible for me to keep going because we went through it all together.

8. What was biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

I think the biggest disappointment for me was realizing that as a woman in the work place I will not necessarily be supported by my female supervisors. I've been very fortunate to have worked along side some very wonderful people, some of whom have become dear friends. However I have dealt with push back by female bosses or would-be mentors that I didn't expect. It hit me hard, especially when I was younger and just starting out. I've always been a bit of a loner and as I grew and became more committed to my feminist ideals I really wanted a female role model that I could learn directly from. Unfortunately there is not only a lack of woman in authoritative positions, but there is a culture of competition that, I feel, keeps women from working together in fear of being replaced by one another. Ultimately I was fortunate to be able to learn and grow with my female colleagues. There have been several women (and a few men) that I have worked with that have shown me so much about myself as a creative individual, as a woman, and as a professional. I've been able to take those positive lessons and combine them with what I learned NOT to do from others and form a confident, well rounded approach for how I conduct myself as an employee, as a boss, and also in my personal life.

9. Advice for other women?

Be strong in your convictions, even when you stand alone. Don't act from fear, embrace the scary things and plow through anyway. Be honest, especially with yourself, and allow yourself to make mistakes. Always be yourself.

10. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

Absolutely women can be all and anything they want to be. I think the biggest thing is to remember not to drag each other down. Everyone is an individual with different needs and different wants. One should respect all backgrounds and lifestyles. It's important that, as women, we support the different choices of our sisters without judgment. You don't have to agree or like it, but it's everyone's right to follow their own path. It's important to learn how to disagree with respect.

11. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

It may be a surprise, but my happy place is my home. I make it a point to create a warm inviting home atmosphere and quite frankly I'm proud of what I've done with my home. It's a physical representation of me. I feel totally comfortable there and I am in complete control. It's my kingdom and my sanctuary. I have my wonderful boyfriend, my sweet little cats, and my friends and family visit often. It's a great place where we can all come together and enjoy each other which means the world to me.

12. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

Honestly, I don't have much time for extra-curricular activities. Between running the shop and taking care of my personal responsibilities, it takes almost all of my time. I have no idea how people with kids do it. That would be the last straw for me. I barely keep myself on track as it is! I do make a point to spend time with my friends as often as possible. And thanks to them I have re-kindled my creativity. We get together and craft, drink, eat, and talk. It's a great way for me to express my artistic self without having to drag out an easel and pallet every time you get inspired. It makes it easier too undertake creative projects with out having to make such a time and space commitment.

13. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

Haha. I might never know what I want to be. I hope as I get older that I'll have more time for hobbies. I'd love to have time to make more art and be more active. I'd like to be able to spend more time with friends and family, spend time outdoors, relaxing, and enjoying the simple things in life.

14. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
If I'm being honest, my biggest fear is failure.
I think, as women especially, we hold ourselves to a higher standard and that is certainly true for me. I can be a perfectionist and a little controlling and I take it really hard when things don't go as planned. I push myself to do too much and I have difficulty accepting help from others. Im very hard on myself and I beat myself up when I've made a mistake. But that only slows me down in the end. It's hard to do a good job when you've spread yourself too thin. It's been something I struggle with a lot both personally and professionally. It's also been a huge learning experience in business. It's important that as a small business owner I can manage the work flow and deal with any surprises or schedule changes that come up. I need to be able to go with the flow and find solutions to each situation. I've learned when and how to stand up for myself in business while remaining professional. I can confidently say no to a client or a vendor when necessary without animosity.

15. Anything you'd do differently (if you had another go at life)?

There are plenty of things in my life that were unpleasant and I would have liked to have avoided, however I've always felt that everything I've experienced has molded me into the person I am today. Nothing is ever perfect, but there is always an opportunity to learn something. I really like who I am now and I have many wonderful things in my life that I am very grateful for. I wouldn't change a thing.

16. What inspires you?

Hard work and selflessness inspires me. When I see people who are truly passionate about what they do and feel compelled to reach out to those in need it really moves me. It inspires me everyday to get up and try my best, even when I feel like the chips are stacked against me. Especially now with everything going on around the world it really helps motivate me to see acts of unity and humanity across the divides.

17. What are you hopeful about?

I'm hopeful about my future. I'm the owner of my own shop, with my partner. I'm my own boss and for the first time I am in complete control of my future. I'm in an amazing, healthy, enjoyable, supportive relationship. I get to build a home and a life with my best friend. I feel extremely positive about what's to come for us and I can't wait to see what comes next.

18. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Balance. Nothing is all good or all bad so allow yourself to be naughty and enjoy yourself. There are always things you should be doing, but worrying about that all the time can drive you crazy. Everything in moderation. It's okay to have a hamburger and ice cream soda. It's okay to buy a new dress if you want it, even if you don't need one. It's okay to binge watch Netflix instead of doing your laundry. As long as you're still taking care of business ad handling your responsibilities. You don't have to be everything to everyone all the time. It's okay to just be you.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I am currently reading Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins. It's a great collection of shorts about race and gender in 60's + 70's NY. She has an amazingly raw and unique voice.

My favorite author is Tom Robbins. I have all of novels and re-read them often, or give copies to friends. He has a quirky way of exploring progressive and alternative philosophies through fiction. I get something different from his work every time I re-read it.

20. Who is a “WOW Woman” in your life who inspires you (and why)?

I am extremely lucky to have many strong and amazing women in my life. Each one of them help teach me something different about life and myself. It would take to long to mention them all here, but I hope they know who they are. Above all however, I am supported and inspired every day by my best friend Sabrina Welsh. She is the best person I know and having her in my life has made me a better person. She's smart, kind, honest, reliable, and she's put up with me for over 20 years. I've never known someone so ready to help another out, no matter what else she might have on her plate. She's always been there when I needed her and always knows what to say. I feel like no one knows me better. She never lets me get away with anything, and it's helped me break some bad habits. She always looks for the positive angle and works on solutions that benefit everyone. She's fair, understanding, and beyond capable. She's the sweetest, most loving, and beautiful woman. I couldn't imagine my life without her.

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?