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Aunt Henrietta And The Captains Of Small-Town Industry


Some who live in the big city didn’t start out that way. Many came from small towns where their friend’s parents were the local economy. One Dad owned the pharmacy, another friend’s Dad owned the stereo shop, and another Dad owned the tire store. Their ads were on the radio, and their last names adorned the fences of the football field.

But this story isn’t just about Dads. In many small towns in America, there is a woman who is a force of nature. A serial entrepreneur, who in the spirit of Gartner’s Challenger mindset, is far mightier than her resources and prolific in her accomplishments.

In my world, that woman was my Aunt Henrietta, who inconceivably passed away last week. She seemed to have worked a lifetime, raised a houseful of kids, including dozens of troubled foster children, before I became aware of her sphere of business influence.

Henrietta Law opened Henrietta’s Market in Magnolia, Delaware, and before long, she added on a restaurant. Or maybe it was the other way around. People drove from miles away to get her Italian subs. With all the pivoting going on in the restaurant industry today, post-pandemic, Henrietta would have been right at home with the leaders of groups like Let’s Talk Womxn who are pooling their power and taking action.

Like a growing number of women business owners, Henrietta was a serial entrepreneur. After the restaurant and the market, there was Henrietta & Sons Plumbing. She remains in rare company with that business. According to the American Express 2019 State of Women-owned Businesses Report, only 4.1% of construction and related businesses are owned by women but the growth in the industry is impressive. Revenue in women-owned construction-related industries increased 31% between 2014 and 2019. Given the emphasis on this sector in 2021 since everyone seems to be renovating or rebuilding, and with women starting more new-businesses, it will be interesting to see these trends progress.

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Aunt Henrietta spent every day of her life doing what makes an entrepreneur unstoppable—solving problems for her family and friends. She was a woman of deep faith whose sense of mission went far beyond food and quality plumbing. She actually opened her home as a bed and breakfast so people from the city could come to stay, commune with cows and goats, wander through a row of butter beans, and enjoy the finer things off the beaten path.

When Aunt Henrietta opened her bed & breakfast, she didn’t have the support of organizations like the Castell Project, a group that benchmarks the hospitality industry for diversity, equity and inclusion, and challenges the industry. I’m sure they would have gotten a kick out of her drive.

In her later years, as an extension of her church, Aunt Henrietta found herself exploring the world and just couldn’t quiet that enterprising spirit. In the beautiful backdrop of Belize, in Central America, she founded a hostel on Hummingbird Highway called the Lost World Jungle Lodge. The great big world is really a series of small towns, and none of them is unreachable to a small-town girl with big dreams.

Women have always been a powerful force in social enterprise and faith-based business. You don’t have to search far to find inspiring stories of women doing amazing things, like Tiphanie Montgomery, covered here in Forbes on her self-improvement program “Get Up and Go Harder.” I’m willing to bet that Tiphanie and Aunt Henrietta have a thing or two in common.

Corporate America, the VC circuit and many public/private partnerships are very focused on the growing ecosystem of women-owned enterprises. This attention is warranted because women are some of the strongest and best businesspeople I know. The concept of women business owners isn’t new. And still, there are so many amazing untold stories of women who make a difference with their businesses and their lives.

There is only one Aunt Henrietta to me, but there are millions of her everywhere helping and employing entire towns. Don’t keep your Aunt Henrietta, or the impact of her small business empire, a secret.

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