Local female business owners open up about hardships, pursuing passion

Media Credit: Connor Witschonke | Hatchet Photographer

Ashley Powdar (right), founder of the clothing line Ruby Sampson, speaks with two other panelists at an event highlighting women in business Tuesday night.

Three D.C.-based female entrepreneurs gathered at General Assembly Tuesday to discuss the bold moves they made to start their respective businesses.

At “How She Got There: An Evening with D.C. Entrepreneurs,” three local business owners talked about how they rose to their current stature and discussed their experiences while hustling and paving their way in business.

At the event moderated by Deloris Wilson – head of strategy and operations at Beacon, a nonprofit for women entrepreneurs in the District – the three women touched on how they got their starts and what it takes to make it in business.

Here’s what each woman had to say:

Victoria Lai – Founder, Ice Cream Jubilee
Lai, a first-generation American citizen and former attorney at the Department of Homeland Security, said before she launched her company, Ice Cream Jubilee, she constantly spoke of her love of ice cream with her political colleagues.

But despite her passion, Lai said she felt “shame” as a daughter of hard-working immigrants who wanted to pursue the risky path of entrepreneurship.

“I had to have a lot of people hit me over the head and tell me that I should do this,” Lai said.

Now with two locations near U Street and Navy Yard, Lai’s more than five years of pursuing ice cream retail shops has paid off and she said she was emboldened by the constant challenges.

One ever-present challenge she said she and other women face in business is sexism. But women who experience it don’t have to feel alone, she said.

“Change the situation,” Lai said. “Educating all men is the solution to changing the bad actors. You need to tell people who can help you to help you.”

Ashley Powdar – Founder, Ruby Sampson
For other business owners, the idea comes out of personal necessity.

Powdar’s company, launched in 2012, produces silk-lined clothing and accessories for women with textured hair. She said she started making her products as a hobby while studying abroad in China, where products that cater toward women with curly hair are scarce or even non-existent.

“I think there has to be alignment,” she said. “For me, part of my business is a passion but there’s things I can’t explain. Things fell into place.”

She said she didn’t realize her work was worth it until the profits started rolling in.

“My moment came when I was finally selling to people I didn’t know, that’s when I knew,” Powdar said.

Juliana Cardona Mejia – Founder, Street Entrepreneurs
Each woman’s pursuits were driven by a passion project, but Cardona Meija said there’s only a thin line between that and a simple hobby. When she first went after her dream of pursuing politics in D.C. and became a community organizer, she said she had low-income neighborhoods that she could not turn away from.

“It’s just in you, like if you don’t do this, you just can’t breathe,” Cardona Mejia said. “That’s what it feels like when you have a calling to start a business, and you need that.”

That calling led to her nonprofit organization, Street Entrepreneurs, which provides entrepreneurial education and mentorship.

Because playing chance is so integral to a business’s success, she said failure is to be expected. She said she encourages her team to share their mistakes and applauds them for their faults.

“There’s such a thing as giving yourself permission to fail,” Cardona Mejia said.

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