Just when I thought I couldn’t love Deidra Riggs an ounce more, she goes and writes this beautiful post about what it really means to be a successful entrepreneur. You’re going to love this peek into the mid-1900s and what Deidra’s grandmother can teach all of us about business, faith, and life.
When my grandmother became a widow, she had two sons. The oldest was three years old and the youngest (my father) was two.
A couple of years ago, on a rainy evening, after my nephew’s little league baseball game, my dad drove me by the house where my grandfather died. It’s a small, white bungalow, on a corner lot, on top of a tiny mound of earth in rural Virginia.
One evening in that house, while my grandmother got the two boys ready for bed, my grandfather was getting ready, too. He was looking forward to a hunting trip he had scheduled for the next day. He went into the bedroom to get some stuff together, and he never came out.
He passed away from a brain aneurysm. Just like that. The year was 1942.
At the time of his death, my grandfather was employed as an agricultural extension agent for the county where he and his young family lived. His income kept the family afloat and his death left a gaping hole, not only in the hearts of his young wife and boys, but also in the practical aspect of putting food on the table. And so, my grandmother went to work.
Family members rallied around the small, young family and they helped my grandmother open a general store on Rural Route 2 in Buckingham County, Virginia.
By the time I came around, the general store was a major hub of that rural community—second only to the Baptist church just across the field. My grandmother sold everything from penny candy and Camel cigarettes, to washtubs and overalls, guns and ammunition.
During hunting season, at the end of each day, pickup trucks rolled across the gravel parking lot by the dozens. The hunters would slide down from their worn out cabs and walk around to the back of the truck to proudly show my grandmother a bunch of pheasants, or invite her to count the points on the antlers of the deer. Then, the hunters pulled their vehicles up to the gas pumps and filled up for the next day’s journey.
Inside the store, unfinished wood floors bore the dust of the day and the pot-bellied stove offered a place to warm up before heading home for the night. Each time someone walked through the door, the bell above the entry rang and the people who were already there hollered out a greeting.
Someone might drop a few dimes in the jukebox and my grandmother might let me slide open the top of the icebox with the Pepsi-Cola logo printed on the side. If I was lucky, there’d be an ice cold chocolate soda in there, waiting just for me.
The men drank beer and couples danced and cigarette smoke hung like mist in the air. I didn’t even know I should care about any of that. I climbed up on the stool behind the counter and helped my grandmother count the change and work the cash register and weigh the cold cuts on the scale.
It took me decades to realize my grandmother was an entrepreneur. As I’ve grown into my vocation, I’ve searched for mentors to advise me on how to manage this, or handle that. I’ve read the books, paid for the seminars, listened to the podcasts.
Then, one day, I realized I’d had the best mentor a person could ever wish for. My grandmother wasn’t working a strategy or following a formula. She was sensible and she turned a profit, to be sure. But she didn’t let the business run her.
I have not doubt that, in the beginning, when it was just her and those two little boys, she had nights of panic and days of worry. But, when my dad talks about those days, it’s always with a warmth that sort of spills out of him.
My grandmother passed away more than ten years ago, but the lessons she taught me have stuck, even though she never sat me down and said, “Let me teach you a thing or two.” Recently, I took some time to think through the business values I caught from my grandmother, just by sitting up on that stool behind the counter and helping her work the cash register.
I can sum them up like this:
1. Have faith.
My grandmother was always saying, “Keeping looking up.” No matter how bleak things looked, that was her standard response.
The store was closed on Sundays, no matter what. My grandmother sang in the choir, gave to the church consistently and regularly, and taught Sunday School. Sunday was the Lord’s Day and there was no use trying to convince her otherwise.
My grandmother’s faith was her bedrock. The store was her livelihood but, the way she saw it, she wouldn’t have had the store if it hadn’t been for God.
2. Help others.
The general store wasn’t just a store, and my grandmother wasn’t just a shopkeeper. The general store was there for the community.
My grandmother saw to it that people were registered to vote, that they were taking their medicine and going to the doctor, and that they got a ride to the city if they needed one.
The store was a means to an end for grandmother. It was the way the community stayed connected during the week and, in many cases, it was the way the community stayed fed.
3. Have fun.
Remember that jukebox? I may have my grandmother to thank for the spontaneous dance breaks I’m likely to take in the middle of an ordinary work day. There was a lot of laughter in my grandmother’s store. There was storytelling and back slapping and dancing and lots of space to breathe. My grandmother was a master of making the workplace fun.
My grandmother was the very first entrepreneur I ever knew. From the moment I met her, without my even knowing it, she was teaching me how to work for myself and take care of myself.
My grandmother ran that general store. And, when I say she ran it, I mean she raaaannnn it. My grandmother raised her children, kept a roof over their heads and shoes on their feet and, when the time came, all of her children went to college and graduated.
She may have been making a living, but even more than that, my grandmother was making a life.
Deidra Riggs is a national speaker and the founder of Forward, an online book club, and Jumping Tandem, a retreat for writers, authors, entrepreneurs, and other fabulous people who have an amazing dream.
Deidra is the author of Every Little Thing: Making a World of Difference Right Where You Are. Her second book, One: Unity in a Divided World, will be available in the Spring of 2017 (Baker Books).
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