Domestic Violence Survivors Overcome Past Violence to Succeed in Business

By Sonja Sharp on June 4, 2012 10:59am 

CROWN HEIGHTS — Ebony Fletcher aches every time it rains, and a downpour last week was no different.

As lighting flashed and thunder rattled the windows, the 32-year-old stylist pressed on the ghost of a gunshot wound under her halo of black curls and winced.  

The pain is a reminder of everything she's worked so hard to accomplish — her own hair-dressing chair at a hip Crown Heights salon, a line of haircare products with customers worldwide — all the dreams that flashed before her eyes when her ex-boyfriend tackled her in the hallway of her East New York apartment, pressed the muzzle of his gun to the back of her head and fired.

"My first thought was, 'Oh my God, I’m about to die,'" Fletcher said. "I’m only 25, and I’m about to go out like this in a hallway." 

Miraculously, she didn't. Fletcher survived with a bullet lodged in her right thigh and a nick to her skull, just as Angela Lewis, 31 of Bedford-Stuyvesant survived the brutal abuse that landed her and her two children in a shelter for nine months. 

Both women are among the nearly 10,000 survivors of domestic violence counted in Brooklyn by the NYPD every year, averaging more than a third of the survivors citywide.

Those who don't survive are even more likely to have spent their last moments in the borough, as more New Yorkers are killed by their partners in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the city, statistics show. Central Brooklyn — specifically Bedford-Stuyvesant — is particularly plagued, statistics show. 

But Fletcher and Lewis have something else in common besides violence in the their past. Both women are entrepreneurs, whose determination has helped them transform their dreams into burgeoning businesses.

"I went from selling one jar a month to 20 a week, and then to four countries," Fletcher said of her beauty line, Hair Krack, which took off after she won a grant from the Verizon Entrepreneurship Training Initiative, a special fund for survivors of domestic violence. 
"I started Hair Krack with $25. Once I had the grant ... it took it out of the park."
It's the same grant Lewis hopes will help her grow Empress Catering, a Caribbean soul food company she developed in the inaugural entrepreneurship program at New York's Sanctuary for Families, which graduated its first class of survivor-CEOs on Thursday. 

"It means a lot to women who are survivors of domestic violence, who are trying to start our lives over," Lewis said. "It shows our children and our family that we can move on from the past."

The nonprofit serves more than 10,000 New Yorkers, providing everything from emergency shelters to legal assistance and job training to survivors of domestic violence.

The new entrepreneurship class offered another track for women working to support themselves and their families, said Ilana Yamin, who coordinates Sanctuary's economic empowerment program.

"Our career readiness is really geared toward women who are looking to apply for jobs in institutional or organizational settings," Yamin said. "But we serve a broader pool of clients — not everyone wants to be an administrative assistant."

Entrepreneurship has proved an unexpected boon for immigrant women, many of whom lack the English fluency required for an office job, she explained. 

For survivors, starting a new business also provides a much-needed boost in self-esteem. 

"It makes you feel like you’re in the right place, you can do the right thing, and you have an entire room full of women who are trying to do the same thing," said fellow graduate Lia Jay, 38. "You want to succeed, and they're all applauding you and cheering you on." 

For Fletcher, the best part is finally being able to express herself. 

"Every morning when I get up I say, 'I’m getting up and I'm going to do what I love'," she said, patting her right thigh, where the bullet wound still throbs. 
"I'd rather have my leg hurting than not be here." 

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