By: Raina J. Johnson
Special to The Milwaukee Times
The African-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Milwaukee presented its annual ‘Women in Business’ series luncheon, with the theme of “Journey of Powerful Women.”
This year, the sold-out event featured two very successful entrepreneurs who went after their dreams and never looked back; Ms. Lazonnie Belton, President/CEO and Instructor at Visions in Hair Design (VHD) Institute of Cosmetology, located in Milwaukee and Miss Robbie Montgomery, owner of Sweetie Pie’s at the Mangrove and The Upper Crust, nationally acclaimed soul food restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri.
Ms. Belton, or Ms. B, as her students affectionately call her is a trailblazer in the beauty and business worlds. Dr. Eve Hall, President of the African-American Chamber said, “Visions in Hair Design is the only female, African American owned and operated cosmetology institute in the state of Wisconsin.” That fact alone makes Ms. B a visionary leader and pillar in this community.
The realization of her dream didn’t come easy, but Ms. B never gave up. “As a little girl, I was always the one that wanted to do somebody’s hair, when I got older, everyone would come to me to get their hair and make up done for their special occasions. It was always my dream and vision to become a cosmetologist. I also like to play school, but I had to be the teacher or the principal, so the two passions merged.”
Since its inception in 2003, VHD cosmetology institute has graduated at least 100 students. Ms. Belton said her greatest success is the school. She concluded saying, “My school isn’t just for me, it’s for the community, it’s for those young people that need to be poured into; they need direction for life and that’s what Visions in Hair Design is endeavoring to do.”
Recalling her time starting up her own salons and the institute, Belton said, “Was it easy? was it smooth sailing? Absolutely not! But where there is opposition, where there are obstacles, there is opportunity! A set-back is really a set-up for your destiny!” She encourages others to fully discover and pursue their purpose through their passions.
Owner, operator Miss Robbie Montgomery of three St. Louis based restaurants; Sweetie Pie’s, which opened in 1996, Sweetie Pie’s at the Mangrove and Sweetie Pie’s: The Upper Crust, opened in 2012. All are nationally acclaimed for their southern style cooking and Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s is a television show that appears on the OWN network, a cable network operated by Oprah Winfrey. Montgomery, who was the keynote speaker for the luncheon shared her story with conviction and humor.
She came from very humble beginnings, Robbie, the oldest of nine children; also toured the U.S. as a back-up singer for Ike and Tina Turner in the ‘60s. “We didn’t know we were poor, we had a little of everything, my dad was a railroad man, he went and cashed his check, took out what he wanted and sent the rest to my mom. I said one day, that’s not going to happen to me. I’m not going to wait on nobody to take out their money, take out what they want and give the rest to me.” Miss Robbie didn’t wait for anybody. After she spent time helping her mother in the kitchen as a child; her dream was to open a restaurant, Ms. Robbie followed her dream even when others didn’t believe in her.
“You don’t know how you’re going to get there, but you’re going to get there, if you believe, because this is your dream. So, during that time when I was trying to get people to help me or loan me some money, none of that was falling through. I would go home at night and pray Lord, help me, and then I would cry because nobody believed me, nobody believed that I could do this, but me,” she said.
Her son, Tim was sentenced to 10 years in prison at the age of 17. As a mother, Robbie says she felt helpless, she knew when he came back home, it would be hard for him to find gainful employment. With his help, they opened Sweetie Pie’s: The Upper Crust in 2012.
Everyone at Sweetie Pie’s believes in giving second chances. “That’s why we hire ex-offenders, homeless, because all they need is a second chance, they need somebody to believe that they can go straight, some of them don’t make it, but we try. I’ve had four and five chances,” Montgomery said.
She told the crowd a story her son often shares. “He said in prison they were given a number and it was impressed upon them that they would always be a number, so what I say to you today is you can be a number but be number one,” she concluded.
At the luncheon, there were a host of business representatives from small businesses, like Ms. B’s salons and cosmetology institute and major corporations such as Johnson Controls. Business owners are working to develop stronger businesses and a stronger community, the African-American Chamber of Commerce’s helps business to fulfill their dreams by abiding by the mission of developing programs to strengthen and sustain businesses owned by African-Americans. To learn more about how you can help the African-American Chamber or to become a member, please call (414) 462-9450.