August 2017

Retail, Restaurants and Real Estate:The three Rs for today’s entrepreneurial women

Author: Lucy Rosen | Photographer: Krisztian Lonyai, Mkat Photography

Three of the hardest industries to conquer. Three of the most difficult industries to make a name for yourself in because of the ever-increasing competition and constant changes in the market (not to mention the often-fickle nature of customers and clients). Three industries that are built on offering a unique product, but also on reputation, relationships and referrals (yes, three more Rs…).

More and more, retail, restaurants and real estate are being dominated by women in the Lowcountry. The solid evidence is in the rising number of women-owned businesses in these fields, and it’s also seen anecdotally in the answers I get when asking people where to eat, shop, or turn to for real estate guidance. Ask 10 people where to eat in Bluffton, and you’re likely to have them tell you about The Cottage (owned by Leslie Rohland). Ask another 10 where to shop for unique and affordable clothing, and the majority will direct you to Birdie James, the Hilton Head Island boutique owned by Michelle Smith Taylor. Anyone looking for beautiful floral design and a unique assortment of gifts and decorative accessories knows of (and has probably been to) Branches—owned by sisters Sarah Perry and Lauren McAvoy. And, if you are looking to buy a house, the name you are certain to hear recommended more than once as someone knowledgeable about the island, dedicated to her profession, and with a proven track record, is Debbie Cort, at Charles Sampson’s office at Charter One Realty.

What is drawing so many Lowcountry women to the three Rs? And, more important, what lessons can their stories—and success—teach other women considering these thriving areas of entrepreneurship to enable them to turn their dreams into the fourth R: Reality?


Leslie Rohland, owner of well-known and well-loved Cottage Café, Bakery & Tea Room and The Juice Hive & Health Emporium, turned her dream of opening her own restaurant into a reality, but she noted that “while opening a restaurant starts out as a dream, it will eventually evolve into a labor of love—a tiresome labor of love.” With her longtime experience working in the restaurant industry, it was frustration of offering great ideas to others and seeing them come to fruition that prompted her to create and launch The Cottage Café. Wanting the fruits of her labor to truly be her own, and taking what she learned from her supportive mentor, Bob Masteller of The Jazz Corner (where she worked and helped for eight-plus years), she opened her popular café eight years ago. Not one to rest, loving what she does, and having a supportive and patient family, Rohland opened The Juice Hive and Health Emporium this past year. As clever, creative, and delicious as The Cottage Café, Rohland has another winner on her hands with The Juice Hive (I selfishly debated mentioning it, since it has quickly become one of my favorite places. I was trying to keep this local treasure to myself!). She credits much of her success to the qualities of patience, kindness, a willingness to listen and her role as a boss who is the “giver of second chances.” Does that sound like a recipe for success in the restaurant business? It should. It works.


Seeing a dream turn into reality is something that Michelle Taylor, owner of Birdie James (the women’s boutique located in the Shelter Cove Towne Centre) can certainly relate to. “When I think back about how I got here, I think WOW—a dream that I have had for nearly 20 years was realized and implemented in a year and a half.” But Taylor also pointed out that it was a “long and somewhat twisty road.” While she has always loved clothes, fashion, and empowering women to express themselves through style, she also has a way of connecting naturally with people and began her career in the mental health industry. Taylor returned to her love of fashion by starting her own small styling business, offering customized services such as personal shopping and closet auditing, which led her to a boutique experience, which led her to a partnership in which she ran a business and learned how to open her own—a role that kept her busy 70 hours a week, while balancing time with her toddler and husband, who traveled for his own career. During the 2015 holiday season, Taylor and her husband visited and fell in love with Hilton Head Island—and more specifically, Shelter Cove Towne Centre—as the home for Birdie James. In just a short three-hour visit, they decided to take the leap of faith necessary to bring her dream to fruition. Taylor’s mom, aunt, and “Gram” were her mentors, and she said it was like being raised by The Golden Girls. Their advice for Michelle? “Always stay true to yourself, be kind, never quit, and have a sense of humor.”

Taylor credits her boutique’s success to the team of women who work with her. She offers opportunities for their individual growth and they laugh—a lot. What does it mean to Taylor to be authentic in her business? “I have days when I’m 100 percent on, and I have days when I’m at 50 percent. I will make mistakes, and I will feel successful because of the hard work we’re putting in as a team. I feel like as long as I have this frame of mind, I don’t have to be the best, because at the end of the day, it’s not about that. It’s about being ourselves enough to impact and empower other women. Wanting to be the best was what I did in my 20s. Now, I just want to be me.”

“Do I continue grinding away in my current position or take a leap of faith into a challenging new career and start over?” That was the overarching question for Debbie Cort, as she quit her job in media sales and joined The Charles Sampson Group of Charter One Realty in the fall of 2015.

Embarking on a new career was “the best decision I ever made,” she said, further noting the impact that her move into real estate has had on her life. “When I was growing up, I was affiliated with a religion that didn’t allow one to ‘follow their dream.’ So, developing my business path and dreams was a more challenging course for me,” she said. “I always had visions of being a counselor of some sort, and funny enough, that’s a part of what I do in real estate sales. It’s very emotional to buy or sell a house, and it’s all about the human connection. We provide our clients with the council, the service and the tools they need to make the best decisions.”

In two short years, Cort has made a name for herself in the real estate industry as an agent who goes the extra mile for her clients—does the research necessary for a homebuyer to make that life-changing decision to buy the home of their dreams—and has brought tenacity and deal-making ability from her media days to her career in real estate.

The mother of a five-year-old, Cort wanted a business that she could grow into as her daughter grew. “The beauty of my business is that I can continue well into my retirement years,” she said. Women and real estate is a natural synergistic fit in terms of career choices—and in Debbie’s case, the fact that her partner is her husband makes the synergy even more beneficial to her career growth.

Teaming up in the beginning of 2016, Cort and her husband Daniel are extremely grateful to be able to work together as they raise their daughter—happy for the flexibility in their schedules that they created by working together so they can maximize family time and grow their business.


Definitely a family affair, Sarah Perry and Lauren McAvoy bought Branches—a well-known retail store in the Village at Wexford—from their mother a year ago. Specializing in permanent botanicals, custom designs, home décor and fresh weddings, their mother (a.k.a. the energizer bunny/baker extraordinaire) taught her daughters to work hard and continually keep the store fresh, unique and inviting. After 22 years in business, she has taught them well. With a fiercely loyal customer base (many who love Branches so much they end up working there) as well as a new group of younger women who have gravitated towards the unique artistic arrangements—often created using pieces of re-claimed objects and antiques—the sisters are making a name for themselves. “We are strong-willed women, who come from a strong-willed woman. It’s sometimes difficult for our team to work for two bosses, but even though, as sisters, we are different, our vision for our business is the same,” Perry said.

McAvoy agreed. “Having a business vision and staying true to the vision is important not only for success, but for sustainability,” she said. As far as family support, the husbands are often seen in the store doing the “heavy lifting,” and the combined four kids are already joining the family business, learning how to unpack boxes and price inventory.

Over and over during my conversations with women entrepreneurs, I heard the same words from those who have successfully launched and grown their businesses: Collaborating. Listening. Being patient. Having fun. Staying true to your brand. Loving what you do. Learning from others. Being willing to take risks. Following your heart. Asking for support. These buzz words and lessons don’t just apply to the restaurant, retail or real estate world, but hold true in any business. Long gone are the days of, “I’m the boss, so do it my way,” and meetings where the sole purpose is to distribute tasks.
Welcome, instead, to a world where doing what you love and loving what you do are one and the same…and where women are finding success and seeing their dreams come to fruition in record numbers.

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