6 Entrepreneurs Finding Success in the Scenic City
From One Home to Another
6 Entrepreneurs Finding Success in the Scenic City
By Chelsea Risley
Photography by Ryan Long Photography
Chattanooga is rich in natural beauty and history, and it’s one of the best places around for small businesses, but what makes our city really special is its people. Our area is home to people from many different cultures and backgrounds, and it’s continually growing. Data from the United States Census Bureau reveals that nearly 7% of Chattanooga residents are foreign-born, and there’s been an almost 40% increase in our immigrant population in the last decade. Diversity in our schools, businesses, and communities can only be a good thing as we all learn and grow together. Here, we’re highlighting some of the folks who have come from all over the world to make Chattanooga their home and pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship.
Shey Natural Smoothies
Born in Isla de la Juventud, Cuba, and raised in the Cayman Islands, Sheyla Jordan moved to the U.S. when she was 22.
She says Chattanooga is surprisingly similar to Cuba with its lush greenery and quiet feel, though the atmosphere is different. “In Cuba, you can smell traditional congri cooking down the road and pick a fruit on your way there to get a plate,” she says. Of course, Chattanooga lacks the ocean, which according to Jordan, can cure everything: “If ya sick, gone dip in the sea.”
Jordan brings island vibes to our landlocked city with Shey Natural Smoothies, which offers herbal supplements, fresh juices, organic tea, and smoothies featuring flavors like papaya, mango, pineapple, and lime. Enhancements like ginger and turmeric provide additional natural health benefits. All of her products are named after a place, saying, or experience in Cuba or Grand Cayman. “Our Batabano smoothie is named after the Carnival we have yearly back home, and then we have the famous Island Ting that comes with a feeling of fineness that my customers love.” Jordan values the ability to share these different aspects of her culture with her customers and says that it helps “keep her accent alive.”
She was inspired to open her own business to give herself the opportunity to do what she loves and make a positive difference in her community. Shey Natural Smoothies offers local deliveries, but Jordan can also be found at many community events like sports tournaments, neighborhood markets, and festivals where she’s able to really connect and get to know the people she serves. The initial challenges to starting her business included the legal knowledge required, “especially when it came to insurance, licenses, taxes, and compliance.” But Jordan was able to educate herself on these areas, partly due to her recent graduation from LAUNCH Chattanooga, a small business development program that helps business owners plan, develop, and expand their ideas. While Jordan wishes she’d known about the program sooner, she says it’s been a very helpful resource for her as she grows Shey Natural Smoothies.
The keys to Jordan’s success have been her unique background that can’t be imitated, as well as the incredible support system found in her husband and kids. Her love for family and community clearly shines through her work, and that’s her advice to new business owners: “Let love be the root of all your actions.”
Sujata Singh opened Spice Trail because she wanted to make authentic Indian food available to everyone. “What is presented in most Indian restaurants as ‘Indian food’ left me appalled,” she says.
The opportunity to be her own boss, despite the grueling hours, was also more appealing to her than the typical 9 to 5 job using her accounting degree. Spice Trail began as a pop-up dining experience with private dining and catering services, and Singh is now opening a brick-and-mortar location in downtown Chattanooga with both a restaurant and a shop featuring artisanal jewelry and gifts.
Despite speaking little English and not knowing how to drive when Singh first moved from India to the U.S. for college, she caught on quickly. In her experience, most people who choose to immigrate “move to any country, in my case, the U.S., to make better lives for themselves. Sacrifices that are made for that goal are many,” she explains, “and because of those sacrifices, the work ethic is of a different level.”
Singh took a course at CO.LAB, a local nonprofit startup accelerator, when she realized she wanted to turn her pop-up business into a full-time job. She says that Chattanooga is very small-business friendly, and though she has a great support system of family and friends, she wishes she had realized early on that she should ask for help and advice when she needed it. “Almost every person I reached out to, however hesitantly I did so, has been very helpful, and in some cases has gone out of their way to help,” she shares. That’s her main advice to other new entrepreneurs: “Asking for guidance early on will save you a lot of time and headaches.”
Even with all the time and energy that goes into being a small business owner, Singh remains focused on what’s most important to her. She explains, “There is a big insistence on family and family values where I come from. I do my best to still have my family – and that means extended family as well – as my priority.” She goes on to say, “No matter where immigrants go, they carry their home country with them and will go to extra lengths to preserve their traditions, food, culture, and religious practices.” That’s certainly true for her as she brings a lot of what she loves about India – the diversity in food, language, and religion and a strong sense of community – to Chattanooga with Spice Trail.
According to Carlos Garcia, one of the most exciting things about living in the U.S. is the incredible cultural and geographic diversity – he says going from state to state is “like traveling the world without a passport.”
Even better than that, though, are the endless opportunities. “If you dream it, work hard enough, and do things right, you really can do anything you’re able to imagine,” he says. Garcia’s family moved to Texas from Colombia when he was a baby, and later split their time between the two countries. Garcia settled in Chattanooga in his 20s.
One of his dreams when he first started out was to “create a company where I could change people’s lives through work, treating employees the way I always wanted to be treated.” He hopes to have a positive impact in the world around him and create a legacy for his family and future generations. Garcia’s definition of success includes bringing about change, which he’s doing through his company, LogistiX, a rapidly growing logistics vendor for online retailers that has locations in Tennessee and Texas and is in the process of opening offices in Mexico and the United Kingdom.
Garcia believes that being an immigrant made him a flexible and welcoming leader. He shares, “It’s allowed me to better understand different cultures and backgrounds and adapt to those differences.” This is crucial to his success as he works to expand LogistiX in other parts of the world.
In addition to the culture and food, one of the things Garcia loves the most about his Colombian heritage is the broad concept of family. “In Colombia, we have very large families,” he explains. “A member of that ‘family’ may not even be a relative, but is someone you live close to or someone you grew up with.” Garcia has built that into his company culture and makes an effort to treat everyone as if they are part of his family. To him, that means, “I will do anything I can to provide for them and protect them.” Garcia shares that one of his biggest goals is to be a mentor to others and “encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams, knowing that support and resources are out there.”
Kat Smith Yoga
Yekaterina Smith first moved to Chattanooga as a 15-year-old, when she attended East Ridge High School as part of a U.S.-Russia student exchange program.
“It was a dream come true to live nine months in a country so different from mine. I got to stay with a host family, be submerged into a foreign culture, attend school, travel, and basically live life as an American teen,” she shares. This year, Smith celebrates her 29th year in Chattanooga, saying, “I am a proud American citizen and so very grateful for the opportunity to build a beautiful life for myself here in Chattanooga.”
Smith started out in a career in the financial services industry before becoming an independent yoga instructor. “I fell in love with yoga the moment I was introduced to it, but initially never thought it would be more than a hobby,” she explains. “Being a yoga teacher has been my most meaningful professional role yet.”
It wasn’t always easy to work as a new resident of the U.S., Smith says. “I felt I was always operating under a large magnifying glass, and because of that, I had to work three times as hard as every student or professional around me.” Smith partners with premier local yoga studios and credits their owners with helping her business succeed. She says her husband also helped her by stepping into a variety of roles, from part-time CPA to website creator to marketing strategist to cheerleader. Beyond some language barrier difficulties in the beginning of her time in the U.S., and shortening her given name, Yekaterina, to Kat to make it easier for her clients to pronounce, Smith says she has experienced acceptance, support, and kindness throughout all of her professional journey. She believes her strong work ethic has grown from her appreciation of the opportunity to immigrate to the States, and she incorporates her heritage and experiences into her teachings whenever possible.
“In Russia, we say семь раз отмерь, один раз отрешь, which translates to measure seven times, cut once,” Smith explains. When applied to her philosophy of business, this means taking time with preparation, training, and strategy. “Be prepared to pour your heart and soul into your business,” Smith says. “Remember and appreciate those who’ve helped you on your journey, and do the same for others every opportunity you get.”
Perfect Blend Pest Solutions
Rather than excitedly immigrating to the U.S. to chase a dream, Marionnth Critser was reluctant to leave Colombia.
Her father had a successful political career before deciding to leave to pursue new opportunities in a new country when she was 15. “My move to the U.S. was in fact a very humbling experience. There were times when I felt that my home and culture that I loved had been ripped away from me,” Critser shares.
As time went on and she grew up and started a family, she began to consider the U.S. home. Chattanooga has played a big role in that shift because of its strong sense of community. “The people are so friendly and supportive in so many ways,” Critser says. “I’ve never lived in a place where I get to know my neighbors and make friends so easily.”
“Colombians are traditionally family-oriented and a very hard-working people, quick to recognize business opportunities,” Critser explains. Her mother, who engaged in several businesses throughout Critser’s childhood, serves as a wonderful example of this hard-working spirit, and has been an immense help to Critser on her journey to open her own business, Perfect Blend Pest Solutions.
After many years in service, sales, and management in larger pest control organizations, Critser’s husband encouraged her to invest in herself by opening her own business. Pest management is a male-dominated industry – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the roughly 119,000 pest management workers in the U.S. in 2021, only 5% were women. As Critser explains, this can be challenging and sometimes requires her to work harder to be taken seriously by potential clients and vendors. “I do find it funny how surprised some people look when they see a woman with gas-powered backpack sprayers and big drilling augers,” she laughs.
Critser shares that while her husband’s support and confidence in her has been her main source of motivation as she began her business, the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Business Development Center and Sequatchie County-Dunlap Chamber of Commerce were also huge helps. Her unique perspective as an immigrant allows her to see opportunity where others don’t. “I can see past difficult personal situations and see the potential in people. The most loyal employees are usually someone who just needed an opportunity at the time,” she explains. Critser says that even though “you will be the most intense boss you’ve ever had,” being a small business owner is ultimately worth the struggle.
A Minnesota blizzard greeted Caroline Shibata when she first arrived in the U.S. from Indonesia to attend college, and she ended up stranded in a hotel for three nights.
“It was frightening as I saw the light snow turned into blizzard conditions,” she shares. Shibata intentionally chose to be far away from the large Asian population on the West Coast so she could be totally immersed and learn English as quickly as possible.
She realized that many Americans are unaware of Indonesia beyond having heard of Bali, but Bali is only one of more than 13,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. In addition to the tropical beaches and lush paddy terrace fields, Shibata loves the artisanal craftsmanship of Indonesia, such as “the traditional methods of weaving, carving, and batik painting that have been passed down from generation to generation,” she explains.
These are some of the design elements that Shibata has incorporated into her business, Jeffan International, an Indonesian artistry- and nature-inspired furniture and home goods brand. During Shibata’s corporate career, she realized that “deep down, some sense of fulfillment was still missing from my work life.” She looked to her parents for inspiration and found that as entrepreneurs, they were able to actively contribute to their communities. This led her to the idea for Jeffan: “connecting elements that I love from my home country to the country I call home now.”
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome as an immigrant business owner is not having established networks in the U.S. to lean on, Shibata explains. She credits her younger brother in Indonesia as her biggest asset when she first began her business – together, they were able to figure out rules and regulations for importing goods from Indonesia.
Shibata also attributes some of her success to her parents and the sacrifices they made to give her the opportunity to study in the U.S. “As a result, I strongly believe in access to quality education as a primary driver for economic and social mobility, especially among traditionally underprivileged minority groups,” Shibata says.
As an immigrant, Shibata is very aware of how diversity makes the U.S. a better place for everyone, which is why her vision for Jeffan is to “enrich lives through cultural exchange.” This applies both to her company’s products and her philosophy of business. Diversity in business leads to diversity of thought, and as Shibata says, “We gain strength when we care for and support all colors, shapes, and sizes of entrepreneurs.”