Woman sets sights on freedom: Disability isn't keeping shop owner from goal

August 28, 2006

Two doors opened for Pam Evans on Aug. 5-one to her own clothing store and the other to her independence.

The Cherry Shop represents both to Evans, who lost most of her sight over the course of a weekend in 1998 to a genetic eye disease called angioid streaks. Left with only her peripheral vision, she also lost her career in real estate and corporate sales.

After a period of depression, Evans decided she wouldn't lose it all.

"I felt I was a little too young to stop my career," said Evans, now 48.

After spending some time volunteering at local charity shops, Evans decided to open a store to regain her financial independence and eventually fund her not-forprofit organization to benefit others who are blind and visually impaired.

She accomplished that two years later, with guidance from several Indianapolis social-service agencies and the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Together, they helped her prepare a business plan, find funding and locate the specialized equipment she needs to work around her disability.

Evans started receiving Social Security benefits after losing her job in 1998. She hopes The Cherry Shop is successful enough that she won't need the government help for long.

"I think the No. 1 thing I had was determination-determined to get off disability and back in the work force," she said.

She's not alone. There are more than 23 million small businesses in the United States, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the numbers are growing-even among those with disabilities. The U.S. Census Bureau says people with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be self-employed as the general population-14.7 percent compared to 8 percent-given advantages like being able to set their own pace and schedule.

"Pam was very adamant that with her previous work experience and education, self-employment was the best option," said Sharon O'Donaghue, director of the Indianapolis-based Neighborhood Self-Employment Initiative's Central Indiana Women's Business Center.

Evans connected with NSI after meeting with a state vocational-rehab counselor in 2004 to discuss the steps she should take to become a business owner. Before long, she was enrolled in a business class through the local chapter of SCORE, a volunteer organization that offers free counseling to entrepreneurs. She also completed NSI's 20-hour Business Beginnings course.

Then Evans was ready to draft a business plan and seek funding. Her concept for The Cherry Shop: new clothes at thrift-store prices. She named the store to honor her 16-year-old daughter Sakura, whose name means "cherry blossom."

Something worked.

Evans got a $30,000 grant from the state to jump-start her business, plus $2,400 from Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana. And NSI helped her secure a $10,000 microloan.

O'Donaghue helped her break down her funding needs and develop a financial forecast. She encouraged Evans to start as small as possible with plans to grow the business in the future.

"By giving Pam a $10,000 loan, she has employed herself," O'Donaghue said. "It's such a success story and it's such a small investment."

Less than a month after opening for business, the small shop on South Meridian Street is filled with clothing and accessories for men, women and children. It also carries khaki pants and polo shirts, an attempt to capture some school-uniform business.

Evans buys products only from online wholesalers, searching for quality items that she can still sell at low prices. She expects her merchandise focus to change some as she observes which items move and which are staying on the racks.

"It's a learning curve," she said.

And although the learning process is complicated some by her disability, Evans is countering that by keeping pricing simple. Each item of merchandise is assigned one of 10 prices-everything in the store costs $30 or less-and price tags display colors, rather than numbers. Signs posted throughout the store tell customers what price each color represents.

The tags match Evans' color-coded cash register. When she rings up customers' purchases, she matches the color of the tag to the corresponding button on the register. The cash register also has a computerized voice that announces the prices and total.

"Pam is pretty self-sufficient with the assisted technology that she has," said Roxane Fischer-Piepenbrok, an employment consultant at Goodwill Industries.

Other helpful devices include a computer equipped with a screen magnification program, so words and images are easier to see. It's also a "talking" program that helps her know when a new e-mail arrives.

If Evans needs to read an invoice or other document, she can use a camera-projector, holding the paper under a small camera that projects an enlarged image onto her computer screen.

She also receives some help from her sister, niece and daughter, who volunteer in the store. Evans shares most duties with them, but usually remains in charge of cash flow. Also, some of the organizations that helped her open the store will provide continuing support through business counseling, classes and correspondence.

Montana-based consultant Cary Griffin, who has helped more than 400 people with disabilities start successful businesses, said Evans' choice of business is unusual. Most of the entrepreneurs he has worked with sold a self-made product or service. He sees few retail stores.

"It's not something that's done every day," said Griffin, co-author of the how-to book "Making Self-Employment Work for People with Disabilities." Even so, "we do know that anybody is capable of running a business with the proper support."

Evans knows more battles are yet to come in her journey, but she remains positive. Eventually she wants The Cherry Shop to fund Vision Works Inc., the not-for-profit organization she founded along with her business.

Shocked that neither Social Security nor insurance would cover needed visual-aid equipment, Evans decided something needed to be done to help others in her situation. The organization's mission is "to provide visual-aid equipment to the blind and visually impaired."

While Evans said the first week in business was slower than she expected, she knows she has to be patient. Those who worked closely with Evans during the planning process don't question her ability to succeed.

"She had a big dream and she would just not accept no for an answer," Fischer-Piepenbrok said. "She's just got a lot of tenacity."
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