Dr. Denyse Ray: Making Strides As A Black Business Woman In Hawaii
According to the 2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, African American women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States, with firms growing 322% since 1997. As of 2015, firms owned by African American women number an estimated 1.3 million firms, employing 297,500 workers with an estimated $52.6 billion in revenue.
Meet Dr. Denyse Ray, CEO and founder of Lady Ease Wear (which includes the lines Salon Ease, Cross Culture, and Mi Nudes). Dr. Ray is also the first African American woman to own an apparel manufacturing company in the state of Hawaii. Since manufacturing is known to be a male-dominated industry, Dr. Ray’s success is particularly noteworthy. That’s why we chatted with her about the journey of being a Black female business owner in a state whose Black population is only 2.3 percent, business challenges (and successes), what’s it like being able to design clothing for the Obamas, and how she hopes to impact the larger business community.
MadameNoire (MN): How did you get interested in manufacturing fashion apparel?
Dr. Denyse Ray (DR): My background is as a Psychological Tramua Specialist. I was a clinical first responder to every major disaster on US soil. I remember standing there in the aftermath of 9/11 and there was a lot of particulate matter in the air and nothing to cover my face. As a clinician, I was there for the emotional component, but that day I realized there was an untapped market. That untapped market was women. We weren’t going to go into the home depots and buy those ugly white masks to cover our face.
Over a few years, I designed and developed washable reusable face masks. They launched in 2008. Those masks started the manufacturing component. I was adamant about keeping my products in the USA, but it was difficult for me to find someone to manufacture my product.
Ultimately, I started my own manufacturing company. It was supposed to be for my products alone, but [I later] expanded from 4,000 square feet to 7,800 square feet in order to accommodate other designers and people wanted items sewn here in the US.
It was brutal for many years to learn the components of manufacturing. I wouldn’t find out until much later that I would be the first African-American women to own a manufacturing company in the state of Hawaii. My tagline is, “Lady Ease, Putting The W-O in manufacturing.” It’s a very male-dominated industry. The fact that people fail to look at manufacturing [is interesting], specifically apparel, as it as a multi-trillion dollar industry.
I wanted the State of Hawaii to not only rely on tourism as its only resource for generating revenue. It’s been a pretty difficult climb. Today in 2015, we are about to launch a job training program teaching native Hawaiians- women, recent releasees from prison, those considered low-income, and single parents- how to sew and start up their own manufacturing business. I am pretty proud of that.
MN: What made you choose Hawaii as your business location?
DR: I’ve been here for many years. My husband got a job and I came along with him. I said that I was never going back to the mainland. We stayed and I immersed myself in the community. They adopted me and gave me a Hawaiian name. I am currently writing a book “Mirroring Images: The Traumatic Journey of Native Hawaiians.” I am writing it because the Native Hawaiian community is very much parallel to the African-American community, most specifically as it relates to the traumatic journey we had. I want to use the journey and accomplishments of the African-American community as examples to help the Hawaiian community reclaim their identity and move forward.
MN: What is it like being a Black woman in business in Hawaii?
DR: Hawaii is a difficult state for small business period. It doesn’t matter what race or gender. It’s not as difficult as it would be somewhere else where there are alot of people doing the same thing and fighting for the same small pool of resources. That’s what makes Hawaii very appealing for a minority group. There is only one of us doing one thing.
Shipping is difficult because it’s so far from everywhere else. With each challenge comes a responsibility to determine how to overcome, preserve, and make an example so that those who we work with and for will not be deterred.
MN: How did you get the opportunity to design for Barack Obama?
DR: I am very good friends with his sister. I was able to get access and custom-make shirts for him based on his direct measurements as a result of the relationship. There are many policies that exist when it comes to gift-giving the president and his family. Most of those shirts will end up in his library and museum because he will be unable to keep them past wearing them through his term.
That is my proudest moment at this point. To be able to end up in history at the first African American female manufacturing company to produce garments for the first African American president in his home state [is amazing.”] I’ve also made items for Mrs. Obama and their children. They both have items from each of my lines but I only make each in a limited edition. His shirts, designed from our Aloha pattern, were made from one fabric and were ever repeated.
[As far as tailoring and design goes], the president only has a small group of people that he works with. It tripled my pride that I am in such a small group of identified people who have made a contribution to his eight years in office.
MN: Did the opportunity to create clothing for Barack Obama impact your business?
DR: It wasn’t something that we could publicize. My employees were loyal. Their pride showed through the craftsmanship. I am not certain what it will do business wise now that people are becoming aware.
MN: How profitable has your business been?
DR: Initially, we thought we wouldn’t eat again! We cashed in our savings and retirement and invested that money into the factory. We invested in human capital. Being that we are in Hawaii and have to ship everything here by the ton…for a few years it was quite a struggle. We would sometimes look at each other and wonder whether going back into practice was the best route for me.
The type of returns we are seeing now are making my husband and my investment well worth it. We persevered with the belief that we were doing the work of the community and our life purpose. Now, we are in a position to have job training programs.
MN: What’s the greatest business lesson you’ve learned over the years?
DR: It cost me 1.2 million of our dollars to find out that we should not have ever opened the doors to a manufacturing company until we trained the people. There is a distinct difference between being a seamstress and/or tailor. They are only working with a design for one person at a time. In manufacturing, there is a time when you are pushing out 10,000 units for one garment. There is a deadline when those 10,000 need to be in the stores.
For the first few years, it was brutal. We would not make deadlines. I’d return money. Those were during the times when we thought we were doing everything incorrectly. What we found as we went along is that we were training the next generation of manufacturers. Training is critical.
MN: What are you most proud about in regards to your business?
DR: If we go back to the washable, reusable face masks, there are about 7-8 videos on YouTube and one of those stories is about a girl with an autoimmune disease. They attribute me giving her that donation of masks and her wearing them to helping to save her life. I’ve donated these masks all around the world. Having the product is not just about making money. If I have something that my neighbor needs and cannot have access to…it is my responsibility to provide that. It has everything to do with the benevolence that exists in my heart to share with the people the knowledge, gifts, and products that I have that can help them.
Even with the fabrics that I buy from around the world, the person that sells to me is now able to select an organization that they would like some of the proceeds from the sales of the garment to be donated to. Those are the types of things that make me the proudest about this journey.
MN: You didn’t plan on going international until 2017, but now plan on expanding sales to Senegal, Zambia, and the Ivory Coast in 2015. Why this choice?
DR: Everywhere we go, women are fashionable. Women are the nucleus of revenue. If we’re smart, we won’t just stay in the Americas. We’ll reach out and become global connections to everybody. Why not sell to women everywhere in the world? They are our customer!
MN: Why is it so important for Black women to support one another?
DR: Black women have finally reached the point in our lives where we understand each other and are supportive. We are right where we belong. We are a powerful group of women and are finally acknowledging that. We look around and acknowledge that every other culture and race attempts to emulate us. We are acknowledging the fact that all of these falsehoods that have been stated about Black woman have been because other cultures have created the hate climate. Now we are applauding our haters. We are so grateful for each time you try to hate on us because we look in the mirror and say, “You just trying to be me.” It’s time, girl! We need to get in front of the people. We need to be allowed to tell our stories so that the hunter is not telling the story for us.