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'They carried a torch for a period of time': Female business owners in Berkeley share their stories

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APRIL 02, 2020

There is a long history of female leadership in business and entrepreneurship in the city of Berkeley, and many women today continue to work to increase diversity and equity in these fields.

Impressionable and inspired, Alice Waters attended UC Berkeley in the 1960s before eventually establishing the renowned Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Waters quickly became a part of the Free Speech Movement, impressed by Mario Savio’s leadership.

“I felt always empowered, I felt like I could do what I wanted to do and I never thought I wasn’t able to do that because I was a woman,” Waters said.

Waters found herself viewing culture and food in a different light after studying abroad in France while attending UC Berkeley. She continued to travel throughout Europe and returned to Berkeley in 1969, inspired to open her own restaurant.

With no prior experience other than cooking for herself and friends, Waters opened her restaurant with the goals of working with organic foods from farmers and ranchers and introducing people to new tastes.

Waters said she believes determination is important and added that collaboration is a necessary step to gain the confidence to achieve one’s goals.

“Getting a sense of what direction to go, I was always looking to get what is greater than the sum of the parts,” Waters said. “I think collaboration is really the way that we ultimately find success.”

Serial entrepreneur and Medinas Health co-founder and CEO Chloe Alpert founded Medinas Health in Berkeley after learning about the work nonprofit medical donation companies do. Medinas Health helps hospitals manage inventory and buy and sell used medical equipment.

Alpert said she decided to join the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce program, Women Entrepreneurs of Berkeley, to help make Berkeley a better place for female entrepreneurs and diversity inclusion. As a female CEO, Alpert said diversity is a priority and building diversity within the workplace is a continuing effort.

“The challenge is that it’s a reality and my take on it is that the women who came before me made progress,” Alpert said. “They carried a torch for a period of time that made it possible to do the things I’ve done.”

Diana Gordon, the owner of Ketér Salon on Fourth Street in Berkeley, has been in the hairstyling business for more than 20 years and has no plans of stopping.

Gordon previously worked in San Francisco before moving to Berkeley, where she made the “bold” decision to buy the salon.

Unfortunately, opening day arrived right before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I did free hair after free hair and it just turned into paying clients,” Gordon said. “Now I have 29 employees and we’re opening from 8 a.m. to 9 at night. We have a thriving business and I’m really proud.”

Gordon has also started an apprentice program for recent cosmetology school graduates. Through the program, apprentices earn a sense of camaraderie with the staff and learn skills to advance themselves within the salon.

For women aspiring to own their own business, Gordon’s advice is to start from the bottom and learn from that perspective. She added that cultivating a positive environment is important and said business owners should develop a relationship with their staff and communicate their values.

Restaurant owners Hang Truong and Dilsa Lugo both found opportunities through La Cocina, a nonprofit organization that works to solve equity issues in business ownership for women, immigrants and people of color. Both Truong and Lugo opened their own restaurants, Noodle Girl and Los Cilantros, respectively, featuring food from their childhoods.

“My goal is to always have the food that I grew up with and share the dishes that we shared in Mexico,” Lugo said. “Cooking is amazing because I’m doing something that I love. It’s work that is from the heart because you are cooking for someone to bring a smile to their face.”

One of their toughest challenges, though, is being both mothers and business owners.

For Truong, there are days during which she works 16 hours and cannot spend as much time with her daughter as she would like. For Lugo, it means managing her time better so she can both actively participate in her children’s education and provide for her employees.

“You have to be persistent — don’t give up very quickly and try to follow your path,” Lugo said. “Sometimes it takes longer than you expect, but when it happens, it’s really amazing.”

Contact Thao Nguyen and Clara Rodas at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

APRIL 03, 2020


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