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February 18, 2019 Focu s on women in leadership

Through a group text spanning six years, five entrepreneurs have created their own support network

Photo | Brad Kane Entrepreneurs and friends (from left) Miriam Hyder, Renee Diaz, Kristie Laskes, Avra Hoffman and Amy Lynn Chase
Photo | Brad Kane (Clockwise from bottom left) Miriam Hyder, Renee Diaz, Kristie Laskes, Amy Lynn Chase and Avra Hoffman.

The friendship grew out of one simple text, “Where are we going to eat?”

Five Worcester entrepreneurs who loosely knew of each other began to coalesce in 2013, as they hung out in the evenings following business workshops the city government was putting on that year. Their exchanges eventually developed into a group text that is about everything as much as it is about nothing, but between all the pics, GIFs, meeting plans, love and support, these women have created nine high-profile businesses. And counting.

“Amy started it because she is great at bringing people together. She is the ringleader,” Hyder said.

Starting up

The group text activates in fits and starts, but the friends touch base at least once a week.

“The main thing is talking each other off the ledge, especially when a bad review comes in. We remind each other not to take it so personally,” said Kristie Laskes, owner at Nkd Waxing, Lashes & Makeup, Corp. in the Canal District.

Laskes, Chase, Diaz and Avra Hoffman – co-owner of Canal District restaurant BirchTree Bread Co. – all started their businesses from scratch, so each had the experience of being the first employees and putting in long days before slowly adding more staff and management responsibilities. Hyder grew up in her father's store, which he started before she born, and took it over with her brother and mother following her father's death last year.

“When I first opened, it was just me as an employee,” Chase said. “When I went to hire my first employee, I had nothing in place. I told Avra, 'I don't have a handbook. I don't have any procedures. I have no idea what to do.' When my employee asked for time off, I said, 'I don't know how this works.'”

If Chase is the ringleader of the group, Hoffman is the organized one who shares business documents like handbooks, rental agreements, and human resources paperwork, which the friends can modify to fit their own needs.

“Except one time with a rental agreement, I forgot and just copy-and-pasted it, so it said 'Crompton,'” Diaz said.

Growing up

As BirchTree, Crompton, Queen's Cups and Nkd have evolved out of the startup phase over the last 2-3 years and Hyder has taken on a more executive role, the group has dealt with handing off customer-facing responsibilities while still maintaining the same quality of goods and services.

“We always tell each other, 'No one will ever care more than you about your business,' whether we are talking about staff cleaning the floor or taking orders,” Hoffman said. “We're lucky at BirchTree because our crew is high caffeinated and ready to go, but sometimes I'll have to step into the storage room and text these guys to say, 'What is going on with people today?'”

Before Christmas, Hyder was due to have her first baby, but she was stressing about taking time off, since Dec. 23 and 24 are the busiest days for the Mediterranean market. She hoped to go into labor early so she could come back in time while her brother comforted her by saying the labor might start after Christmas.

Hyder ended up working until Dec. 19. Julianna Alexis Logan was born on Dec. 21.

“When she shared with all of us that she was pregnant, she said 'I'm pregnant, but what kind of shopkeeper am I that I am having a baby?'” Hoffman said. “We were like, 'What are you thinking? This is great! You're having a baby!'

“It is good advice, though. If I ever have a baby, I'll make sure to plan on having it during a slow time,” Hoffman said.

Hyder said she is trying to learn from Hoffman how to not stress about delegating perfectly, since Hoffman and her husband, who she co-owns BirchTree with, are able to take long international vacations. They are planning a trip to Argentina this year.

“When we first started, I had it on my bulletin board saying 'It's just bread and coffee.' because I would get so crazy about stuff,” Hoffman said. “Now when I go away, it helps not to worry about it, thinking 'It's just bread and coffee.'”

The same thinking applies to bad reviews and angry customers, which was a sure-fire way to get the group text firing.

“We have all evolved,” Diaz said. “Maybe two years ago, we all would take it super personal when we get a bad review. Now we just laugh. It's just bread and coffee.”

Despite running their own shops, the friends often will have to deal with customers or salespeople who eschew them in favor of wanting to speak with others they feel are really in charge, like Hoffman's husband or Hyder's brother.

“Some people want the man's answer,” Hyder said. “People will come in and ask if they can talk to the manager or the owner. One time somebody went around me to my brother because they didn't like the answer I gave them, and he said, 'No, she's the one in charge. Her answer is the answer.'”

Chase: “Right after I first started, a sweet old lady came in as I was entering our sales into a spreadsheet and said, 'It is so nice your boss lets you do your homework at work.' I thought, 'Oh my gosh, she thinks I'm a kid.'”

Having a small bit of anonymity occasionally is good, especially when salespeople show up unannounced – often selling low-cost energy – and haven't done their homework as to who the owner is, Diaz said. As they have grown into executives, the friends have learned the value of spending their time wisely.

“That is a good way to practice saying no,” Laskes said. “Sometimes I'll be sitting at the front desk and someone will walk in and ask to speak with the owner or manager – which is me – and I'll just say, 'No, she isn't available.' Customers who know will start laughing.”

Hanging out

Before Julianna was born, the group threw Hyder a surprise baby shower at Chase's home. That came after they threw Diaz a surprise wedding shower at Hoffman's house and the surprise birthday party for Chase where Shrewsbury Street restaurant simjang personalized a menu for her. Laskes threw a housewarming party when she first moved into her new home, and the rest of the group was perplexed when they realized they never crashed her pool this summer.

“I feel like it's the start of a joke: A baker, a clothing retailer, an esthetician and two curly-haired ladies are all hanging out,” Laskes said.

The friends will try to get together at least once per month, even as their lives become increasingly complex with new spouses, children and business ventures.

“Every month, we say, 'We need some time with our girls.' I love my husband, but he just doesn't get it. There is only so much he wants to hear,” Diaz said.

Even if they can't get together physically, the group text continually ties them together. Plus, all their businesses are in close proximity.

“Sometimes I'll get back from somewhere and have 25 missed texts. It's like, 'Oh, what happened?'” Diaz said. “Avra will text, 'These crazy people just ordered 18 lunch sandwiches on a Saturday,' and then I'll look around be, 'Oh, everybody in my shop is eating BirchTree.'”

Hoffman: “That's ok, though. I would really do anything for these girls.”

But as much as the group text is about leaning on each other for emotional and business support, the exchanges largely boil down to like-minded friends who tell jokes and want to share and be apart of each other's lives.

Laskes: “Most of it is just pictures of Amy's dogs.”

Hoffman: “I would love to see more baby pictures.”

Diaz: “Kristie's daughter has so much sass, it is the best.”

Chase: “The majority, though, is talking about where we are going to eat.”

Hyder: “If someone didn't like to eat, we would probably kick them out of this group.”

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