Columbus, Ohio USA
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Women at the Greystone
Three female entrepreneurs take a leap and follow their hearts

by Karen Edwards
January/February 2018 Issue

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Photos © Larry Hamill

Justina Smart, Dawn McCombs, and Irina Boubeleva
seated in the Greystone courtyard


There, amid the glass, the steel, the concrete; the clean, uncomplicated lines and sharp angles that make up most of the other buildings of the Short North today, stands an old gray lady. She emerges from swirls of construction dust and modern-day litter like a fairy-tale castle, a little dark and brooding, yes, but with an air of mystery, of beauty and grace, an ancient stateliness that defies her age. No moat surrounds her, but she sits off the road, behind a small patch of green, a fountain rising before her like a watery beacon. She may seem intimidating at first glance, but nothing could be further from the truth, for she has welcomed both residents and passersby for years.

Step inside, and instead of kings and queens and noble knights about to embark on some faraway quest, there are enterprises of a different kind. This is Greystone Court, 815 N. High Street, housing both apartments and businesses. And like the venerable gray lady herself, the businesses that have set up shop here have a decidedly female edge.

There is nothing new about women-owned businesses, of course. A recent report by Ohio’s Secretary of State shows that, on average, more than 16 women-owned businesses start up each day in Ohio. And there’s certainly nothing new about female entrepreneurs in the Short North. From pioneers like Maria Galloway of pm gallery, Liz Lessner of the former Surly Girl Saloon, and Melaine Mahaffey of Mary Catherine’s Antiques to newcomers like Maren Roth of Rowe Boutique, women have opened up businesses all over the Short North.

But it is unusual to find three independent women entrepreneurs all operating under the same roof. That roof happens to belong to the Greystone Exchange, as the business side of the building is called. It’s at the Greystone you’ll find the quirky shop Glean, owned by Dawn McCombs; the holistic AMD Services, owned by licensed massage therapist Irina Boubeleva; and the vintage clothing shop Smartypants Vintage owned by Justina Smart.

So what’s it like to be a woman business owner operating in the Short North today and under the same roof as other female business owners? What challenges did they face starting their business? And how do they find that ever-elusive work-life balance when they’re the one running the show?

We asked these intriguing questions of all three women of the Greystone. Their responses are presented here, as a roundtable discussion:

Briefly describe your business, and what prompted you to start it?

Boubeleva: My business combines therapeutic massage with various forms of alternative medicine. I was introduced to Chinese medicine, like acupuncture and acupressure in my early childhood in Russia. It always fascinated me, but I went in a different direction when it came time for my education. I became an electrical engineer, but I knew that was something I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. When I came to this country,
I decided to pursue my interest in massage. My friends were surprised, but they supported me. I have been in the business for 12 years, 10 or 11 of those years on my own.

McCombs: I own a store where the focus is on local goods designed from upcycled material. I make about 30 percent of the goods myself – bath and beauty products, terrariurms, jewelry, journals, etc. I also have about 60 local artisans who make products for Glean. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I used to dream about it as a kid. At 11 years, I sold pumpkins I grew out of the back of a pick-up truck. When I finally took the leap to start this business, I wanted to create something I felt passionately about, some place I’d want to shop. I honed in on upcycled materials because I wanted to push myself and others to really think outside of the box to invent alternative uses for items that would be otherwise discarded.

Smart: I have a vintage clothing shop where I carry clothing from the 1890s to the 1970s for both men and women, along with accessories, like classic handbags and ‘70s boots. I started with an online presence on Etsy then moved into a brick-and-mortar location at the Greystone five years ago. Before that, I worked at a coffee shop about a block away from where I am now, but I’ve been a vintage clothing collector since high school. I collected so much clothing by the time I was in my 20s, I thought I might try selling some of it. I really wanted to share vintage fashion with others. At the time, Etsy was just becoming popular, and I did well selling on that platform, but I still had so many items I found myself wishing, “If only I had a shop…” I hated to pass on items that I could buy if I had the space.

Why launch in the Short North? Why the Greystone?

Boubeleva: When I was ready to start my own business, I didn’t know where to go, but I had a friend who worked at the Greystone and I had always liked the building, even though I didn’t know what was inside it. So, I went to her and asked if she’d like to bring in a business partner, and she said yes. It was a happy accident.

McCombs: I’ve lived in the Short North for 23 years and couldn’t imagine any other neighborhood for my business. I feel like myself here, and I wanted my business to be as expressive as I needed to be. I can’t say why I chose the Greystone, but prior to opening the business, many years ago, I used to walk past my very space in the Greystone and point to it and tell my daughters that I was going to have a business in there one day. When I decided to make my dream a reality, I called the Greystone first.

Smart: I had been working in the Short North, and used to pass the Greystone every day. I always thought it was such a unique place. Fortunately, I had friends who owned a business there. They published a magazine, but only used the back half of their space for an office. The front half sat vacant for at least a year, when I approached them and asked if I could launch a pop-up shop there. I could help with rent, and they weren’t using the space. I never expected it to be more than a four-month shop, but people found it, and it became popular, so I continued to rent it. The friends left eventually, and a couple of months ago, I was able to expand into that space.

My business and personal life are so interconnected it’s hard to tell them apart, but when both worlds are so much fun, it doesn’t matter. – Justina Smart

What were some of the challenges you faced starting up, and who helped you?

Boubeleva: I think people graduate from massage school without really understanding how much work it is to build up a business. Most aren’t really prepared for that, and I wasn’t either. I went to work for someone in the business, first, so I could learn everything that you’d need to know, before I decided to go off on my own. Gaining the trust of clients was hard at first. So was gaining the confidence I needed to start my business. But my clients helped me with that, and my husband and family were supportive as well.

McCombs: My initial challenge was building a business from scratch with no capital and having to do it all myself. I’m trained as an educator, not as a retailer. I was on a steep learning curve, so picked people’s brains about things like marketing, store design and operations. I did write a business plan, and each year, I create new goals for myself. When I put myself on the wait list for a space at the Greystone, an opportunity opened up in just a few weeks. I wasn’t ready, so I asked my parents if I could borrow money to get my shop started. I paid my first year’s rent upfront so I wouldn’t have to stress about that. I ended up paying my parents back in full within that first year.

Smart: I can honestly say I faced few problems as far as starting my business. I already had the inventory, the space, and my boyfriend built all of the clothes racks and built-outs I needed, so I saved a lot of time and money there. I guess you could say I had the right people in the right places at the right time.

How do you define success in your business and what’s the most rewarding part for you as a business owner?

Boubeleva: For me, success is doing a good job, and seeing how my work affects my clients’ health. So many come here with aches and pains they may have had for years, and they tell me I’ve helped them feel much better. They tell others about me, which has helped me grow my business. For me, that’s success – doing the right work, helping people, and having those people refer others to me.

McCombs: I define success by my own personal feelings of happiness. Meeting financial goals are, of course, important, but we spend so many hours working, my investment of time has to be spent doing work that brings joy. The most rewarding aspect is no ceiling for my creativity. I enjoy thinking up new concepts and running with them without needing anyone’s approval or being told to tone it down.

Smart: Financial success is important, of course, but I’m not trying to be a millionaire. I just want to share these wonderful items I collect with others. When you collect with the kind of passion I do, you’re attached to these pieces, you form a personal connection. Each piece has a story to tell, and I enjoy sharing that with customers. People will post pictures of themselves wearing the items on social media, so I get to see how the story continues – whether the item is now being worn while on a honeymoon in Italy, or it’s on Jimmy Kimmel on stage, it’s a thrill.

LtoR: Smartypants Vintage, 815 N. High St., Suite D
Owner Justina Smart • 614-500-3137 • AMD Services, 815 N. High St., Suite M
Owner Irina Boubeleva • 614-571-7190 • ibubeleva@hotmail.comGlean: stuff reawakened, 815 N. High St., Suite C
Owner Dawn McCombs • 614-515-2490 •

How do you balance work and your personal life:

Boubeleva: It’s hard, especially when the children were younger. They’re in college now, but when they were young, the kids helped a lot around the office, doing administrative work. My husband helps me as well when he can. But it is hard to reach a balance, especially with the kind of work I do. It’s difficult to say no when other people are in pain and they need you.

McCombs: In the beginning I didn’t do a great job balancing the two. Starting my business was a seven-day-a-week venture. I think anyone who starts their own business will tell you that it’s very time consuming, especially in that first year. Now, I give myself one day off per week to be with my family, at least, and I don’t do any work when I get home each evening so I can spend time with family and friends. I’ve achieved a pretty good balance these days, minus the month of December when it’s 24/7 again, but in retail that’s the nature of the game. Still, when you love what you do, you don’t count the hours.

Smart: I only have a business life. Even at home, my collection surrounds me. But that’s the way we are. My father collected antiques, and I grew up in the environment, so I love it all. In addition to clothes, I also love antique furniture and I’ve become a collector of fine textiles as well. My business and personal life are so interconnected it’s hard to tell them apart, but when both worlds are so much fun, it doesn’t matter.

What lies ahead for you and your business?

Boubeleva: My husband is the one who is pushing me to do more marketing and more on social media. I’m generally not on social media, but he understands – and has helped me understand – that I need to look forward with my business. Both marketing and doing more with social media will help my business take another step ahead.

McCombs: I’d like to expand, either by finding a larger retail space or opening a second store. In my dream scenario, I’d find a space where I could have enough room for an open studio at the back of the store with room for community events like music and dance and poetry readings. Somewhere where local talent could come to express themselves outside of the visual realm.

Smart: We’ve expanded in the shop in the last two months, which means twice the inventory. And we’ll start a very small line of children’s vintage clothing because my customers have requested it. We’ll see how that works out. And because of the construction in the Short North, our online presence will be more important than ever, so we’ll be doing more in that direction.

If you were starting a business today, would you do anything differently? What advice would you give other women who want to start a business?

Boubeleva: I would have started earlier if I had to do anything differently. I would tell others: Don’t be afraid to do it. Just go ahead. Believe in yourself. Find people who believe in you and will give you confidence, then just do it. Also, be open to networking with others. Have an open house where you can introduce yourself and meet people. Become involved in small business groups, like the Short North Business

McCombs: I wish I would have started a business a long time ago. Fear held me back, but I’m so thankful I gained the courage to do this. My advice is, if you have the desire to be an entrepreneur, just do it. If you follow your heart and do what you feel passionately about, you’ll succeed. Don’t let anyone hold you back. And don’t hold yourself back either.

Smart: I wouldn’t do anything differently. I went into it ready to fail, so I had no fears. I’m glad now that I didn’t think about it too much. I just did it. I would encourage anyone who wants to start a business to just do it. It’s easy to talk yourself out of it, so just take the leap. Reach out for a mentor, someone who has done it before. Women business owners want to help other women succeed. That’s just the way women are. But if you have done your research, know your product and the community you’ll serve, you’ll succeed.

Sounds like the stuff of dreams, right? But it sounds just about right for those who work inside a fairy-tale castle.

© 2018 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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