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The Entrepreneur Within: From Homeless Teen to C-Suite

The Entrepreneur Within: From Homeless Teen to C-Suite Credit: The Spice & Tea Exchange

You could say I had an unconventional upbringing – but it served me well and was the catalyst for my sense of determination, level of conviction and desire to succeed. I am truly a product of my own making.

My parents divorced when I was 12 years old. My mother moved far from our home in Michigan and I spent my early teen years living with my father. But, at the young age of 16, I moved to Florida to live with my mother. My presence was not well-received by my step-father. Before I could even graduate high school, I found myself homeless, broke and completely on my own.

This is where my determination began. I learned quickly how to get and keep a job. I actually had to lie about my age to secure coveted restaurant and country club positions. I earned what I could to made ends meet, and soon developed a tremendous sense of independence and self-worth. I learned everything I could and adopted the skills that were needed to excel and move forward. My tenacity provided results, and it was during this time that I secured a permanent home – I was able to purchase my first house.

For most of my early 20s, I juggled different jobs and survived on what you would call the ramen diet. But pushing myself, being authentic and staying focused was a working strategy. By my early 30s, I had moved up the ranks and was established as a corporate sales manager for Starwood Hotels. I was learning the ins and outs of the business world, making connections, building relationships and doing all of this with virtually no higher education behind me. It wasn’t too much later that I was starting a family and running an independent online real estate business.

It was in 2007 that my entrepreneurial spirit came into play once again. While on vacation in St. Augustine, Fla., I stumbled upon a small specialty spice retailer and fell head over heels. The shop spoke to me – I loved the charming atmosphere, exotic scents and unique products, and envisioned how I could take this concept to new heights. I spoke with the owners that day about the potential I saw in their business, and soon after, The Spice & Tea Exchange brand was born.

We began pursuing this dream of creating a growing, national specialty retail franchise in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. With an economy in a downward spiral, no banks would consider us for funding nor would they support loans for a “startup” franchise concept, meaning we had to be creative in order to break through barriers no one thought we could. We personally met with neighborhood bankers, worked one-on-one with our franchisees to help them use home equity lines and drained our 401ks in order to keep the dream on a steady course. 

With the economy in the dumps, foodies who frequently dined out, who now couldn’t afford to, were delighted to discover that for a few dollars they could get gourmet flavor from the finest spice blends to create restaurant-quality meals right at home. Our stores were packed and by word of mouth, we began to gain incredible momentum. We opened more than 18 stores in our first 18 months and were even called upon by Disney to partner with their kitchen essentials store in Lake Buena Vista.

We continued to grow as the recession regressed, switching up our growth strategy through lessons learned every step of the way. Less than 10 years after we first began franchising The Spice & Tea Exchange brand, I became the CEO of the 50+ location specialty retail chain.

I feel that I first resonated so strongly with The Spice & Tea Exchange concept because of its authenticity – it is original, it is transparent, and it is honest. As I’ve grown as a leader and as a person, I have found myself placing a higher value on these qualities, especially growing up with a different sense of identity than most. Today, I don’t want my employees and colleagues to mask their personalities or insecurities. I want each individual to be their authentic self. I desire those around me to build each other up, to motivate and to inspire one another. There is a genuine enthusiasm that is created when you allow your team to embrace their personal genius. The culture of positivity that we have created here is truly the thread that ties us together.

While the principle of authenticity has laid the foundation for my personal and professional motto, my unique experiences in the business world have opened my eyes to other key ideas that have helped my team and I succeed:

• Resist complacency: Never let yourself become too comfortable – you can’t move forward in life without pushing yourself, and you’ll surprise yourself with what you can learn and accomplish with just a little extra effort every day.

• Identify solutions, not problems: The Spice & Tea Exchange is always striving to make improvements.  By analyzing processes and seeking out efficiencies, we are able to evolve and solve concerns with a fresh perspective. If we didn’t constantly come to the table with a variety of ways to solve issues, we would not be where we are today. Encourage your employees to function with the same mentality.

• Follow your passion: This is the biggest of my drivers. Passion comes from within and is something that is developed and nurtured along the journey. When you are passionate about something, you are unfailing in your dedication to its success and longevity. I’ve worn many different hats over the years but leading a company that I believe in and love has been the most rewarding. The work is worth it.

In short, listen to your gut and let your team be a testament to your success. No matter where you start, great things are just around the corner.

About the author: Amy Freeman is the CEO of The Spice & Tea Exchange. In 2005, she stumbled upon a small specialty spice retailer and realized she could take the concept to new heights – less than 10 years after the company began franchising, Amy is now CEO of the 50+ national retail chain.

Edited for length and clarity by Shannon Gausepohl. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Email your pitch to Shannon at sgausepohl@purch.com.

Shannon Gausepohl

Shannon Gausepohl graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a degree in journalism. She has worked at a newspaper and in the public relations field. Shannon is a zealous bookworm, has her blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and loves her Blue Heeler mix, Tucker.