Kenyan, Nigerian among women leading businesses in Chapel Hill and Durham

By Sophia Wilhelm

Women are starting 1,821 businesses in the U.S. every day. As of 2018, women entrepreneurs have increased by 114 percent in the last 20 years, totaling about 40 percent of businesses overall.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, below are stories of four influential women entrepreneurs in the Chapel Hill and Durham communities. The include Kenyan and Nigerian women.

Caren Ochola was sitting in a class at Duke University when she heard UNC had just won the National Championship in basketball in 1982.

“Go UNC!” she yelled.

All of the students and the professor stared at her and informed her she wasn’t supposed to like UNC. How was she supposed to know? Ochola had just enrolled in classes at Duke and had moved from Kenya three years before. 

Seven years later, Caren Ochola started a club for international students in Durham that turned into a renowned restaurant serving African cuisine. 

Caren Ochola

Caren Ochala

moved from Kenya to become a student at North Carolina Central University and took supplemental classes at Duke. International students would get together once a month at her house to mingle, listen to music and eat food. As the group got bigger and bigger, they needed a new space. They moved to a place on Blackwell Street in Durham and the group named the new spot “The Palace International.” After deciding the name, the group contacted the N.C. Peace Corps Association to partner with them. 

“We decided to do it weekly, and then it became a business by default,” she said. “… We were engaged in bringing life back from Africa and the Caribbean.”

The business kept growing. Ochola created a menu based on her own Kenyan cooking and taught people the recipes. The Palace outgrew its location and moved to Perry Street, where it stayed until 2001.

“But all along when we went uptown, the palace became everybody’s spot, regardless of gender, color, age,” she said. “It was the only place in Durham you could come to get that kind of mix.”

On the morning of April 1, 2001, Ochola received a call telling her the place was on fire. An insurance payout wouldn’t cover the cost of building.

She felt lost, so she worked on getting a second degree and worked at a hotel. 

“I was missing that connection with the community, I was missing the touch with the people,” she said. “We had to start everything from scratch.” 

The Palace International opened again in 2007 on Broad Street in Durham. 

“My favorite part is getting to know people and helping people, just knowing I made a difference in somebody’s life in one way or another,” she said. “Just to know that I can bridge that gap between people from different parts of the world.”

Ochola said she wants people to know that they aren’t so different from each other. When she first moved here, she was surprised by how Black and white girls didn’t know anything about each other. 

“My friend was a white girl and would be like ‘Caren, let me touch your hair’ and ask me how to do Black people things, and then I would go to Central, and my Black friends would ask me the same questions about the white girls,” she said. “I realized that these people are both Americans but they don’t know each other — I was the person that was supposed to be asking these questions.”

She said The Palace International has helped people open up to each other recognize their sameness.

“At home, in Kenya, a human being is a human being — we grew up knowing that,” she said. “There was definitely a difference in color, but not much.”

Lola Olufolabi

Lola Olufolabi remembers going into the principal’s office, worried her son would get bullied for being Black with a British accent. 

Lola Olufolabi

“It was a Black woman coming in and saying, ‘I hope my child won’t be a victim because of the way he spoke,’” she said. “This is the South, so that kind of accent stands out on its own, and it’s not expected on a Black face.”

Olufolabi moved to the U.S. from the United Kingdom with her family in 1997 for her husband’s job, but she is originally from Nigeria. In Nigeria and in the U.K., Olufolabi was a physical therapist. After moving to the U.S., she was a stay-at-home mother until 2006, when she opened her boutique and art gallery, The Exotique, in Durham. 

Its 13th anniversary is in April. 

“I wanted to showcase art and the beauty of art and handcrafts, and promote the artisans as well,” she said. “The whole idea was to create a place where people come to appreciate what artists have produced, and in another way also enrich the lives of the artists by doing this fair trade thing in poorer countries.”

Olufolabi travels looking for artists and artisans, specifically young or start-up artists to help them establish their businesses. She said she’s been to South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, India and Indonesia.  

She said the store has an African focus because they have the most access to artists in Africa. However, the store is multicultural and finds products from artists and nongovernmental organizations. 

“When (artists) are overseas, we have to pay them what they want there and then because they don’t have the luxury of letting go of their goods and not getting the money,” she said. “…The beauty of it for us is to be able to go in and put some dollars in their business and help them.”

Olufolabi said it was difficult to juggle being a business owner and a mother. For the first few years, she said she would close her store early to be with her children. 

“You don’t want the kids to feel left out, to feel that you’re not there as a parent,” she said. “That part is really tough.”

Olufolabi said she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit.

“Women in Nigeria are very resourceful and very hardworking, especially southwest Nigeria where I come from,” she said.

She said she could not underrate her husband’s support for the business. With Durham changing, she wants to take on the challenge of being relevant to the new occupants of downtown. 

“We enjoy being an influence on the artist’s life, being able to promote proudly the creations of these artists,” she said. “Above all, it’s being able to say to the artists that we put this amount of money in your business and we hope it makes a difference in your life.”

Sally Mack

Sally Stollmack, known as SallyMack, was having a glass of wine with her friend, waiting for the oven to preheat to cook dinner.

Sally Mack

“Oh my God,” Mack screamed as she dashed to the oven and pulled out handfuls of jewelry. 

Years ago, Mack owned a business called Sally’s Kitchen where she would sell jewelry out of her kitchen — and keep it stored in her oven. She was around 51 years old and had just quit her job in the furniture business.

“I did something pretty ballsy, some people say — I’m not sure if it was ballsy or stupid,” she said. “I quit my job without having any idea of what I was going to do.”

Mack had six months of savings to figure out what to do. She jumped around to different businesses, traveled the country as a salesperson and then eventually did “the stupid ballsy move again” and quit. 

Mack said she has always been a book junkie and was always in and out of Flyleaf Books. One day, she approached the owner with a proposition to work there for two months and be paid through books. After working at Flyleaf for three months, she approached the owner again and asked if she could have a small area in the bookstore to sell jewelry and accessories and give them a percentage of her sales. 

Three years later, Mack was 58 years old and decided to open her own store next to Flyleaf Books. On Oct. 22, 2014, SallyMack, a life furnishing store, opened. The jewelry counters in her store are the ones she used at Flyleaf Books. 

“For me, it’s all about my customers and my relationships with my vendors and the artists that I work with,” she said. “I’ve probably gotten 30 handwritten notes from customers thanking me and telling me, ‘I don’t know if you remember, but you helped me pick out that wedding gift for my niece, and you picked out the perfect gift,’ and oh my God, it’s magic — that’s what it’s all about for me.”

Mack said she hasn’t found it particularly difficult being a woman entrepreneur because she aligns herself with other female business owners. She said about 75 percent of what’s in her store is made by women artists or business owners. 

“I surround myself by smart successful women, so I don’t see an absence of it,” Mack said. 

She said if she can do it at 58 years old, any woman can find opportunities. 

“If I could help through whatever little things that I’ve accomplished in my business for somebody to go out there, a younger person, for them to see it can be done and for them maybe to start it sooner than I started, oh my God, that’s the biggest gift — the biggest high of anything I could possibly ask for,” she said. 

Ya Huei Chiu

Ya Huei Chiu who also goes by Julia, had the American dream. After seeing American movies and living in Seattle for one month when she was 16, she couldn’t get America off her mind. In July 2018, her dreams came true, and she moved to the U.S. with her family. 

Before crossing the ocean, Chiu lived in Taipei, Taiwan, where she owned a noodle restaurant. 

“I told them that I have my American dream and I want it to come true, but I just don’t know how because I am already married and have two kids,” she said. “We kept talking about this, and discussing this, and they thought I should try to open a store over here and they could help me, so that’s why I have my courage to move my whole family here in America.”

Chiu wasn’t sure a noodle house would be a good fit in the United States, so her brother-in-law Andy Adkisson came to Taipei to brainstorm. 

“When Andy went to Taipei, he found out one thing interesting, that is, tea houses were all over in Taipei city,” she said. “… At first, we had him try the boba milk tea and he thinks, ‘Oh my god, what is this? The black thing inside of the drink? I never had that before, it’s so weird.”’

But the more he tried it, the more he fell in love with it.

Chiu found a Taiwanese lawyer on a Facebook page for Taiwanese people in America. Because she had years of experience in the restaurant business, he helped her apply for the E-2 nonimmigrant visa, which allows a person to be admitted to the United States when investing capital to an American business. 

“My intention was not to get a green card over here, but my intention was to open a business and create more work opportunities for the residents over here,” she said. 

As Chiu was in the process of getting a business-based visa, she came to visit Chapel Hill to decide on a location for her tea house.

After a total of 10 years and some convincing from her sister and brother-in-law, she was finally able to move to the United States.

Cha House, on W. Franklin Street, opened in April 2018.

Chiu said her family barely spoke English when they moved. She said moving here has not only allowed her children to have a different perspective and experience of the world, but has also allowed her to help her country. 

“I can have the people here taste the exact flavor of the boba milk tea, just like you have in Taiwan,” she said. “… I can let more Americans know about Taiwan, and there’s a small island called Taiwan that exists — and it’s not Thailand, it’s not China, it’s Taiwan — Taiwan is a country.”

Chiu said she thought women in the United States were more independent than in Taiwan, even though she said that is changing for her country. She said in her family, women are more powerful and her mother was in charge of everything.

Chiu is hoping to create a franchise out of Cha House.

“Right now I’m 40, I think I still have the energy to make my dreams come true,” she said. 

She said she plans to go back to Taipei after she lives her dream.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.