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Black Female Entrepreneurs Talk Careers, CT Community Service and Helping Others Succeed

They both have been named among the top 100 Women of Color. Both women also work to serve the community and evolve their entrepreneurship. But even with similar goals, their journeys took different paths.

The Courant spoke with Francine Austin and Tasha Ruth about how they created their own paths to entrepreneurship.

Francine Austin

As a little girl, Austin was sure of two things: she loved the entertainment industry and serving others.

She said she knew, even at an early age, that she was born to become an entrepreneur.

And her two loves helped her to build entrepreneurship; she is now the CEO and founder of Francine Entertainment and Marketing Co.

“I was the person with the lemonade stand at the end of her driveway,” Austin said. “I was always an entrepreneur. … When we had the big (bake) sales in school, I was the one that would work with the teachers to organize (and) bring the baked goods around to each of the classrooms, (making) sure that everything looks just right, that presentation (of the baked goods).”

Austin said the training as a young girl translated into her work today in production for her company.

“All of it together was natural for me. … I would have showcases at my home as a young girl 10 and 12 years old, where I would have kids come to my home and I would organize it,” she said. “They would recite poetry. A lot of the moms (were) at home, and we would put on performances for them. I would orchestrate (and) plan (this). I (would) get the snacks. I set out everything just right. I’d create the graphics.”

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Austin said that watching Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey on television also helped her to realize that she could live out her dream of giving back to others, while being in entertainment, as an entrepreneur. This led her to starting her organization, A Giving Heart.

“Oprah arrived and just shined a light on your ability to be all things … how you can still have a giving heart, because I realized at that time that I can live my dream (of) philanthropy, as well as (in) entertainment as an entrepreneur. I (can) still produce all my own things, use my skills for marketing, PR event(s), (and) production. All those things came together for the greater good of humanity. That’s what’s most important to me.”

Austin noted that she pivoted out of corporate America, before COVID-19, into entrepreneurship.

She said she “was working at corporate, because we’re all told (to) go to school, get a corporate job.

“That means you’ve arrived … you have succeeded. However, success was not defined for me by another corporation telling me, ‘Here’s this review. Here’s what you do. This is your life.’ I knew there was more inside me, something greater. There was a passion burning inside of me … always … to do something greater. I was always a visionary. I knew I had to step out on faith and do exactly what I was supposed to do.”

She has been an entrepreneur for more than 25 years.

After she left a corporate job, she began by opening her first hair salon and day spa in Bloomfield, with the goal of providing a safe haven for women of color to be pampered and talk about issues that mattered most to them. Many of her first clients were professional women of color, many of whom she had worked with, were fellow members of her Links organization, or friends she had grown up with.

“I knew I wanted a spa. Not so much a salon, but a spa, (as) there was no place at the time where women of color could go and be taken care of in a professional manner. We are told as women of color that we don’t deserve time to relax or self care,” she said. “This generation now (is) talking about it a little bit more. However, at the time, no one told women of color that you should have self care. Also, (when women of color would go to receive) those types of services in other establishments, you were discriminated against. So, you wanted to go somewhere where you felt comfortable, where someone understood you.”

Through the spa, she was able to cultivate conversations about philanthropy, service, new careers, and scholarship information for children.

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As she worked on her spa and salon business, Austin said she was able to move into food on her next step of her entrepreneurial journey, which led her to television, after helping a young woman who wanted help selling a product at her business.

“I invited her to my salon to host an evening to sell her products and help her with business,” Austin said. “She was so happy, and tells other people (about the event). Then, next thing you know, people heard about my food, what was happening in the salon.

“I started bringing food to the salon so that we wouldn’t have to order out and everyone would have something great. Fast forward ABC ‘The Chew’ finds out about me. I go on national television. I cook ribs for ABC and I won … for my brown sugar molasses ribs in 2016.”

After Austin won on “The Chew,” she was offered a show, along with other opportunities. At the same time, she decided to give back to different local organizations, set up an evening at the Bushnell, and called on her friend, ABC’s Tamron Hall, to create A Giver’s Heart presents “An Evening of Philanthropy” featuring Hall in April 2018.

This parlayed her to transition into her company, Francine Entertainment & Marketing. Through this company, Austin has produced community events and fundraisers throughout the state, using her national connections and pull.

Some of these include: Black Doctors Day at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford, introducing youth of color to the medical field; Black Giving Circle Fund at the Hartford Foundation Presents: 20/20 Vision: Black Philanthropy’s Role in the Social Justice, where she brought in guest speakers such as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and creator of the landmark 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones, and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a national organization focused on increasing voter registration and turnout in the Black community, LaTosha Brown; Trinity Health of New England 24 Hour Vax-A-Thon, with over 1,000 residents vaccinated.

Also, she helped raise funds for the first monument built of Walter “Doc” Hurley and his Legacy Scholarship Weekend with state Sen. Douglas McCrory held at Artists Collective, Hartford; and created a strategic plan of branding, marketing, communication and media placement, directly with Fairview Capital, JoAnn Price, founder and managing partner and Stephen Bayer of the Jewish Federation for the Brother Carl Institute for Violence Prevention and Community Engagement.

She said the thing that makes people understand her the most is that she has the ear and heart of her community. “They know I care. … When I say my community, I don’t just mean Hartford. My community is large. People know that I genuinely care and what you see is what you get with me. … That’s just who I am.”

Tasha Ruth

Once the COVID-19 pandemic caused Ruth’s position to become remote, and her CPA told her that she could not claim anything by working remotely, the 13-year associate manager decided to take her love of service to the next level.

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After learning that from the CPA, Ruth said, “You know what? You’re right. I’m going to go ahead and do it.

“That kind of put the battery in my back. I had already unofficially been running my own business, without an LLC. What I do is I help individuals with comprehensive financial planning, budgeting and teaching the basics on how to manage your credit (and) to save money.”

Thus, Ruth Consulting LLC was born. Along with helping others with finances, she helps community members with job interview prep and event planning. Many of these services she was doing for free before going on the entrepreneurial path.

“A lot of things I do from the heart. I helped so many people with repairing their credit. I helped them write letters to the credit union so that they can get a loan if they need it for a car, helping them fill in the gaps,” Ruth said.

She said she also helps when clients are asked about work history, what happened with student loans, how to communicate with lenders, or even what happened with an electric bill.

However, she said she also understood the importance of making her business official with an LLC, not only for her personal financial gain, but also to reach more individuals in her community in need of help.

Some of the other services that Ruth Consulting Firm, LLC offers include helping with Social Security and disability paperwork.

She said, for example, that she can help those who are denied disability benefits by working as an advocate, helping clients pull together documents and medical information, submit it and speak to case managers.

“A lot of times people are denied Social Security or disability simply because they do not understand the process,” she said.

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Ruth lost her father during the COVID-19 pandemic and paused her business to take time needed to grieve, but now has resumed it in honor of her father.

“I was deferring the business because if I can’t take care of myself. How am I going to help somebody else? I’m still grieving, but a lot of stuff is being fueled through the spirit of my dad,” she said. “I was a daddy’s girl. I decided that I have to get back in the game.”

She said it helped when she was nominated for an award, attended the event and was asked to speak.

She said she noted she had “been absent from the scene” and taking care of herself after she lost her dad. She also spoke of remaining relevant and that “a lot of people will call me in the community just to try to give me support” and seek her assistance.

She said she retained her job at MetLife and appreciates their support, as she was recently promoted.

While her outside business is up and running, Ruth still has big plans to continue to help her community, including adding a Realtors’ license to her long list of services, and planned to take the real estate test.

She said her “goal and mission” is to buy a building and rent it to people who want to purchase homes, and can stay in that building for up to 36 months with a fixed rent rate, so that they can save money. She said she would offer financial and how-to classes.

Ruth wants to make sure that she can help more people of color become homeowners.

“As you can see, they’re knocking down on the projects. We no longer have projects anymore, where people can go in and pay a low, low rate. Right now if you want to rent on Garden Street in Hartford is about $1,500 for a two-bedroom flat. We need more homeowners,” she said. “We need to get a lot of people in (the) community, in a place where they can have more purchasing power. That’s my goal.”

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