Living the American Dream: Four women from abroad who have built successful businesses

Freedom, opportunity, prosperity. These are just a few of the ideals that draw people from other countries to the United States. Here they hope to achieve not just success, but respect, free of the encumbrances of cultural restrictions that often dictate foreign operations. For women the prospect is especially attractive because the traditional “glass ceiling” once found in the United States, although not completely shattered, has certainly suffered a few significant cracks. The following women may have come to the United States from vastly different cultures and under varied circumstances, but they have one thing in common: They all own their own businesses — their own extraordinarily successful businesses.

For these strong and independent women, the American dream is a reality.

Wah Tee Nguyen

Wah Tee’s Tailoring

The unassuming store front on a less than aesthetically pleasing stretch of Austin Highway gives no clue as to the thousands of dollars of couture clothing (and couture clientele) that pass through the doors each day. But Wah Tee Nguyen, owner of Wah Tee’s Tailoring, seems unfazed by the well-heeled men and woman hurrying in and out. She is just as happy to apply her considerable talent to altering a $20 dress as she is to a gown worn by Fiesta royalty. “Hi, Wah Tee,” her customers cheerfully call out upon entering her shop, and when they discover she is being profiled for this magazine, more than one comments, “It’s about time.” Nguyen grew up in South Viet Nam, but even as a child she yearned to leave her part of the world behind. “When I was a little girl, I had a dream to go far away,” she says in her broken English. In the 1960s, during the Viet Nam war, 16-year-old Nguyen began hearing tales of America, and she says she knew then that was where she wanted to be. She tried everything in her power to get there, including dating an American GI and later a captain in the hopes that one would ask for her hand in marriage.

“It didn’t work out,” she says with a big laugh. More determined than ever to follow her dream to what she deemed “the land of opportunity,” Nguyen married an American who worked in government contracting and returned with him to the states. When the couple eventually started a family and settled in San Antonio, Nguyen says she knew she was home, and later, when her husband relocated to Kansas, she and her young daughter stayed behind. “When I got here, I never wanted to go anywhere else,” she says warmly. As a single mother, Nguyen decided to try her hand at sewing to support herself. While taking the bus downtown to look for work, she met a woman who changed her life. “This woman was a secretary for Dr. Charles Halff, and I offered to do some sewing for him,” she recalls. “My work was not good, and Dr. Halff sent me to his tailor, Mr. Adrian Bernard, and told him to train me. I apprenticed with him for two years.” The training proved valuable and launched Nguyen into careers at various department stores and tailors before she landed a job with the late Larry Mazer, where she remained for nine years.

“It was here that I learned a lot about skill and technique,” she says. She also learned a lot about people, and Nguyen worked hard to assimilate into the American way of life. “I never let people’s prejudices bother me,” she says in her usual upbeat fashion. “But that’s why I worked so hard to learn English because if you can’t speak the language, people assume you are uneducated. When you can communicate with people, they lose their prejudices.” In 1986, Nguyen decided it was time to open her own shop on Austin Highway. “I decided I would rather scratch a little living and be happy than sew my heart and soul out for someone else,” she giggles. Her business grew, and soon this talented seamstress was designing and altering the clothing of Spurs players and their wives, Fiesta royalty, local media, celebrities and society’s elite.  Today, remarried and a grandmother of three, Nguyen has simplified her business and takes in only alterations. Her husband of the past 21 years is employed by the Postal Service, and he drives her anywhere she needs to go.

“I never learned to drive,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It takes more time, but I don’t need things to speed up.” Nguyen obtained her American citizenship in 1974, and although she doesn’t have any regrets about leaving her native country, she did take one important thing with her, and that was the advice of both her mother and grandmother: “If you want to do something well, pay attention to one detail at the time.” As for her own pearls of wisdom, Nguyen says she has learned that it doesn’t take much to be happy. “Good friendships, good food, family and love,” she says. “That is all anyone really needs.”

Isabelle Timms

Isabelle’s European Day Spa

A sign above the door of Isabelle’s European Day Spa reads, “Enter as strangers, leave as friends.” It is a philosophy that owner Isabelle Timms lives by, and it is one of the reasons that her now 6,000-square-foot spa is such a success. “You don’t need $10 million to open a business,” says the European beauty. “It just takes hard work, a positive attitude, and you must make your business personal.” Timms physically encompasses all that comes to mind when you think of the European woman — thin, with long dark hair, beautiful skin and a soothing voice that is thickly tinged with a French accent. It is easy to see why so many women flock to her for beauty advice. It is also clear why her husband of 15 years married her after knowing her less than two short months. “I came to San Antonio for a visit and met the most wonderful man in the world,” says Timms in her hypnotic voice. “Fifteen years later here I am.” Timms is the daughter of a French mother and a German father, and she divided her time between the two countries before her fated visit to the United States at the age of 32. She credits the combination of her heritage for her success and strong work ethic as well as her love of life. “France is so laissez-faire, and Germany is very structured,” she explains. “I have both cultures in me.”

No stranger to business, Timms was a partner in a successful high-end fashion and cosmetic business while in Europe. After settling in the states, this mother of three realized that American women could learn a thing or two about the European approach to beauty. “In Europe we are more about preserving the skin so that you don’t need the face-lifts,” she explains. “We use a more natural and holistic approach rather than a harsh chemical approach.” She adds that the European methods incorporate techniques that no one else uses, such as utilizing the hands as machines. “By using the hands you can feel the needs of the client’s skin,” she says.
And the hair removal techniques are unparalleled. Timms’ salon is so successful with waxing that the Tyra Banks Show Web site recommends it as the place to go for the best Brazilian wax in Texas. “Our wax is made specifically for us, and I train my estheticians in special techniques that make the experience less painful,” explains Timms. “It is a very intimate process, and it can be harmful if you don’t know what you are doing.”

She is walking testimony to how well the European approach to beauty works, and when asked why it is that European women seem to have an otherworldly beauty, she laughs. ”We eat well and a very healthy and balanced diet,” she says. “We also walk a lot in Europe. It is a social event to shop for fresh food daily in the small villages.” In fact, it is the food and the rituals of walking and shopping that Timms misses most about her culture. But those things aside, she has immersed herself in the American way of life and is thankful for how well both she and her business have been received. “My favorite thing about this country is how embracing Americans are toward foreigners and how willing they are to help you without jealousy or envy,” she says. “They seem to understand that you are working hard to make it on your own.”

Perla Salzillo

The Cake Shop

As a young girl growing up in Matamoros, Mexico, Perla Salzillo spent her days working and playing in the family’s bakery business.
“I remember carrying my first cake when I was 5 years old,” she fondly recalls. “And I made a birthday cake for my brother with a picture of Donald Duck on it when I was 12.” Today this talented baker and cake decorator owns two of her own successful bakeries, and Donald Duck drawings have been replaced by far more elaborate decorations. Salzillo got her first taste of Texas and the United States when she attended St. Mary’s University. After graduation she returned to Mexico, married her husband, José, and together they decided to call San Antonio home. “We felt San Antonio was a good place to raise a family,” this mother of three explains of their decision. Salzillo first found work as a teacher, but soon was baking cakes for friends and eventually decided the time was right to follow in her family’s footsteps and open a bakery of her own. “It was tough at first,” she recalls. “The kids came to the shop a lot.” Not one to shy away from hard work, both Salzillo and her husband put in long hours and lots of blood, sweat and tears in building their dream. She even went so far as to do paperwork from her hospital bed after the birth of her third child. “It was just the two of us running it, so I didn’t have a choice,” she laughs. All her hard work and dedication paid off, and today The Cake Shop boasts three bakers, four decorators, two locations and a loyal following. Each day Salzillo and her team create 100 to 150 cakes as well as countless cookies, petit fours and cupcakes. The secret to her success? Aside from inheriting her family’s strong work ethic, she never says no.

“Because we are a specialty shop, we are not limited to what is on the menu,” she explains. “People see something on the Food Network and want us to recreate it, and we always say yes.” Another thing that sets Salzillo’s business apart is her willingness to listen to her customers and try new things. She creates cakes based on religious and dietary restrictions, and The Cake Shop is one of the only bakeries in town that sells cake by the slice. “It’s comfort food,” she explains. “People have a bad day, and they come in and get a slice or two, and they feel better.” Salzillo says the bakery business in the United States is muy different from the business in Mexico and far more demanding. “People here are very picky, and the trends are very different,” she comments. “Here the cakes are more like works of art, but there hardly anything has changed since I was a child.” Salzillo also expresses surprise at the number of men who come in and buy cakes. “They are always running in at the last minute,” she says with a chuckle.

Although she misses the food in her hometown of Matamoros, Salzillo enjoys the culture and the “family feel” that San Antonio has to offer. She and her husband are both very appreciative of the way they have been received and the support from the community. But although she has achieved success in the states, Salzillo knew she had made it when her father, who has been in the bakery business for 45 years, decided to follow in her footsteps. “In the beginning my dad said we wouldn’t make it,” she says with pride. “Now he’s starting his own strictly cake shop in Mexico.”

Judy McCarter

McCarter Communications
When Judy McCarter moved with her husband from Johannesburg to San Antonio, she never dreamed she would stay. Now, 35 years later, McCarter proudly calls San Antonio home and has made a successful life for herself and her family. Born in Australia and raised in South Africa, McCarter attended the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg and majored in French and English in the hopes of becoming a translator. Little did she know at the time that life had other plans in store.
McCarter’s first husband took a job with the University of Texas Health Science Center, and the lovely blonde found herself uprooted and unemployed.
“I found that in San Antonio people tend to hire people they know, and it was hard to find a job right away,” she recalls. Her first job was at the headquarters of a small business, where she wrote articles for the company newsletter. To the former corporate communications consultant for a large construction company in Johannesburg, it was hugely disappointing. “Here I was, a professional person, punching a clock,” she says. Then a series of more appropriate jobs opened up, including a six-year stint in corporate communications at USAA, a founding partnership in Dublin, McCarter and Associates public relations firm, and a position as a senior vice president of marketing at Frost Bank. “I worked at Frost for four years, but I realized I missed the variety of clients that I worked with in public relations,” she explains. As a result of that epiphany, McCarter used her many years of experience to open her own public relations company, McCarter Communications. Here she specializes in taking the complex messages of her corporate clients and breaking them down into more reader-friendly concepts.

Thanks to technology, she is able to work from anywhere, including her home office with its relaxing view of the backyard fishpond.

“I wanted to have more time to travel and play golf,” she laughs. “I haven’t played more golf, but I have enjoyed traveling. “If I had stayed in Johannesburg, I would have had a much more constrained life,” she adds. “You really are so free here, and you can do what you want in terms of earning a living.” McCarter does go back to South Africa every couple of years to visit her 94-year-old father, but she frets about the lack of safety in her former hometown. “My father was stabbed five times in the neck while living in his retirement community,” she says with disbelief. “There is a great wealth disparity there that makes it unsafe, and you never go out after dark. That was one of the reasons my first husband and I left to come to the states.”
However, high crime rate aside, McCarter says she does miss the beauty of South Africa. “You have rain forests, mountains, beaches and deserts,” she remarks. “You have all of that in America, but you have to travel farther to find them.” She also misses the hospitality and the way that people just “drop by” one another’s homes for tea. Being an avid tennis player helped McCarter build her own social network when she first arrived in the states, but she said it still wasn’t the same.

McCarter received a few more culture shocks to her way of life, including the relaxed first-name basis in the corporate world, the Americans’ lack of travel outside of the states and all of the American efficiencies.

“I was so excited by all the new and different gadgets here,” laughs McCarter. “In South Africa you have cheap labor who come to your house daily to cook, clean and wash. Here you have huge freezers and dishwashers.”

But perhaps the most shocking thing to this successful businesswoman was the fact that she could make it in the land of opportunity.       

“In South Africa we have an inferiority complex,” she states matter-of-factly. “I didn’t think I could compete here. I was surprised to find that not only could I compete, I could do well.”

Author: Bonny Osterhage

Photographer: Paul Lara

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