Two years ago, Heather Smith came to Renaissance Economic Development Corp. (REDC) with a dream: establishing a new staffing company to help immigrant women find their footing in New York’s hospitality industry. Today her firm, Tropical Stars, Inc., based in Flatbush, Brooklyn, boasts almost $3 million in annual sales, and Smith is planning to expand her services. In recognition of National Small Business Week, we’re bringing you her story.
Where did Smith come up with the idea for Tropical Stars? As a longtime executive with large staffing agencies, she placed many quality applicants in leading New York City hotels. Smith began to notice that several other worthy candidates, mostly women new to America, could not be hired due to stringent application rules. Very often, they lacked necessary language skills or relevant job training. “I figured there’s got to be a way I can really give these ladies work,” explained Smith, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica almost 20 years ago. “When you interview them, you look in their eyes and you can tell they want to work, you can tell they’ll be an asset to somebody somewhere.” While she launched a training program for her previous employer, Smith became frustrated by the constraints of working in a corporate environment that could not give applicants the personal attention they required.
In late 2015, Smith and her sister/business partner, Natalie Atkinson, came to Renaissance with their vision for Tropical Stars. It would be a firm dedicated to making sure housekeeping attendants and other employees were thoroughly prepared before ever stepping foot in any hotel. She set up a mock hotel room, offering new staff members valuable language and practical skills training.
Many of the women hired by Tropical Stars are refugees. They’ve come to New York from Africa, Syria, Jamaica, Haiti and Grenada, among many other countries. “If there’s a woman from the islands,” said Smith, “the first thing she can do is clean. We use that as a way of getting them on their feet. A lot of these women are accountants, nurses, doctors in their (former) country, but when they come here, they’re reduced back to zero. They need to start somewhere.”
At first, Smith was working on her new venture part-time, funding it out of her own pocket. A $10,000 loan from Renaissance gave the firm the boost it needed in those early months. In a recent interview, she was joined by a trusted associate, Sagine Duverneau, Tropical Stars’ operations manager. As Smith explained, “It was not about me or Sagine. It was about these women, a lot of them have children back home, to be the advocate for them and to give them a job.”
In addition to that initial loan, Renaissance provided counseling services, including guidance on how to negotiate future office leases. “We got counseling on how to become a certified women and minority-owned business,” added Smith. “Any questions at all we have, we can call.” Today Tropical Stars employs about 96 housekeepers. There are offices in Brooklyn, as well as in Orlando, Florida. Since the beginning of this year, Smith has been working at her rapidly growing company full-time. She’s come back to Renaissance for a larger loan under the SBA Community Advantage program, which will help Tropical Stars reach the next level. The new funding will allow the company to pursue larger contracts and to expand to upstate New York during the ski season.
Asked what she loves best about her new venture, Smith said, “It’s the people, the diversity. They lift up your spirit.”
Renaissance Economic Development Corp. is a Small Business Administration-approved microlender and Community Advantage lender. During the past two decades, we have made more than 1200 small business loans, deploying more than $46 million into New York’s immigrant and emerging neighborhoods. Click here if you would like to learn more about Renaissance’s loan products and here if you’re interested in our training programs.
Renaissance Economic Development Corporation, an affiliate of Asian Americans For Equality
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