Name: Ilene Grayson
Occupation: Owner, Apartment Arrangements by Ilene
Why we think she is Girlfriend of the Month material:
Despite never advertising, Ilene has built a very successful independently [female] owned business based solely off of word of mouth endorsements. Ilene is very active in the Charlotte community and is always seeking out her next adventure.
J: What is your definition of success and what makes you feel successful?
I: I think I am successful because I am happy and I like my job and I like what I do. What I do is a service even though I do what people tell me. You can deviate a little bit, but doing what you’re told is a piece of cake. How can you be wrong?
Success is making enough money to cover your expenses. You might see a big house and a picket fence as a goal, but I never did. I was raised in a big house with lots of fences all around. It was a rural coal mining town. My goal was to live in places all over the world. I used to take a month off every year and go somewhere in Europe, North Africa, Alaska, New Zealand or wherever. I would have to work like hell to get caught up after I got back though.
J: Why did you want to go all over the place? Just because you wanted to see it?
I: Yes. I was raised in a very small town. We didn’t go to the beach. We lived in the mountains so we didn’t have to travel for that. We would go to the lake sometimes. I still want to see everything. I just don’t feel like taking a month off anymore. I feel like I could hit and run in a week now.
J: You went to school in England for two and a half years when you were younger. What was that like?
I: I was 19. I was in nursing school and interested in Psychiatry. I talked to somebody about it and got a letter of recommendation and then a few months later, I was in England. It was scary and terrifying and wonderful.
J: Why was it terrifying?
I: I had spent some time away from my family in Hartford, Connecticut, but I was still attached to mom. I would fly home and spend time with the family. But this was way across the ocean. I went on the Queen Elizabeth. We were at sea for 7 days and we had a storm and they had to bring out the stabilizers and everything. I was down below with all the poor people and students.
J: What was England like?
I: I would study in the morning and then do some work in the ward in the afternoon and then I would work and stay on for high tea because it was like dinner. The British would pay you for anything that was a service to society but I was scrounging a lot back then.
Later, my goal in working was to see how much fun it would be to stay in a five star hotel. I deserve it. It’s fun. It comes with breakfast, dinner and a massage. I haven’t done that in a long while. Now I will meet family in Pittsburgh and share a room with family for $80 a room.
J: You got to where you are now by starting your own thing.
I: Yeah, because I don’t really have any talents.
J: I will stop you right there. I remember you telling me quite some time ago that you believe that EVERYBODY has a talent.
I: OK. I did have a talent. My gift of gab is my talent. Relating with people. Learning how to ask a question that doesn’t offend somebody because I want to know everything. Eventually, if you ask the right 2 or 3 questions up front they will take over and tell you everything. I recently was working with a man from Mexico City and he didn’t want to talk initially. Finally, I saw that he had a pack of cigarettes and I asked him if he wanted to stop for a smoke and he did. So we went along and stopped every couple of hours so he could have a cigarette and then I found out all about his dogs and how he’s allergic to them and how he has a new 9 month old baby. I joked with him and pointed out that he mentioned the dogs first before the baby. He laughed. He thought that was funny, too.
J: Would you say that you have always been driven or did you recently acquire that trait.
I: No. I was a kept woman. That means married. A housewife. I was the hostess and the trip-booker and the watch the kid person.
J: Did you enjoy that?
I: No. Not very much. I once took off 17 long weekends to visit family and others. I didn’t like ironing and I didn’t like laundry, even though I’ve always been a compulsive cleaner.
J: You say you weren’t driven then, but was it something that you acquired later on or was it hidden or hibernating somewhere?
I: No. I’ve always been an adventurer, but not driven business-wise. I was always driven to have a new adventure and my husband was like that when we first met but as he got more involved in business he became less and less like that.
J: When you started your own business, you had $40.00 in the bank. Weren’t you scared?
I: Yes, I had $40 and I have doubled it! Yes, I was petrified. But it was fun, really fun.
J: I thought you said scary.
I: Scary, fun. I was scared all the time, but being scared is fun.
J: So you were fearless, which is not to say that you didn’t have any fear, but you didn’t let it inhibit you.
I: Actually, the fear kind of made me be stronger because not only did I have to accomplish what I needed to accomplish, I had to accomplish it while being afraid to do what I was doing.
J: Even when you were a housewife, you would work here and there and volunteer everywhere. That doesn’t sound like somebody who’s not driven to me. Are you very restless?
I: Oh, yeah. I am an A++ personality. I have to do something all the time. I can’t sit at my desk for more than 2 or 3 hours. I will have to get up and go somewhere. I’ll call it an adventure. People who work in offices all the time don’t fare as well as others health-wise.
J: What made you decide that you wanted to strike out on your own and do this job?
I: Well, before I started the business and when I was married, we moved 17 times in 20 years. My husband would hire a new somebody and ask me to take so and so’s wife out and help them find an apartment, help them find furniture. Help them get their electric turned on. So, I was doing that and one lady in an office one day said to me “how much do you get paid for this?” And I said “I don’t get paid. I do it for free.” She then mentioned that there was another lady who was doing it and helping people find apartments and I told her I went a step further and helped them find furniture and get set up. I’m like their mom.
So I looked into starting a business from that day on. This was in my head actually before the divorce. When everything started to disintegrate at the same time, I went downtown and got a business license. I had a friend who had just started a business at the time who helped me name it. He said that I would want to name it with the two A’s so I would be in the front of the phone book.
J: What time do you get up in the morning?
I: In the summer, just when the sun wakes me. In the winter, around 7:30 or 8:00. I do get up in the middle of the night sometimes and do things though.
J: Do you have insomnia or something?
I: No, sometimes I just wake up and I have an idea.
J: Do you keep notebooks by you?
I: Oh yeah. By the bed, on the bar, everywhere. I get so mad at myself if I forget whatever great idea I had.
J: Do you ever suffer from negative self-talk?
I: No. I have an ego problem that is really difficult for everybody and myself to deal with. I think I am right and I think I can handle everything. I have never been plagued by self-doubt. I just keep busy. Sometimes I worry about facets of my business that aren’t doing well, but they aren’t my part of it. For instance, if I have a vendor that I am having trouble with, I have to figure out how to deal with that. I probably had a confidence problem when I was young. I was really shy so I just go involved and tried out for everything.
J: Do you have anybody in particular who inspires you?
I: Me. I’m my own hero. I have been asked that so many times. I have overcome so many things and I have accomplished so many things without any help. I’ve never borrowed any money-ever! I’ve asked for advice but I’ve never asked someone to just do it for me.
J: I know now that mistakes are valuable. Do you agree?
I: Oh yeah. I have a list of 150 things that I have done wrong. Somebody told me a long time ago that ignorance is not a dirty word. It’s an opportunity to go out and learn something.
J: Have you ever had any mentors.
I: Yes, my ex-husband. During our family gatherings in the morning, he used to plan his day. I do that now. It’s Saturday and I know now what I am doing on Monday. He was devoted to his job. He was very strict with his employees and with himself. He was always on time. He always looked nice and the store always looked good. I learned a lot from him as far as business. I didn’t like the way he excluded his family at that cost and that is why I have incorporated my son into my business.
J: Do you mentor other people?
I: I have started three people in this business. One was my sister and she did it for 15 years up in Pittsburgh. I also helped 2 of my former assistants.
J: Do you have any particular theme song, mantra or phrase that you really relate to?
I: Yes! “Let’s take the rest of the day off.”
J: One final question. What kind of advice would you give to other women?
I: You have to find out what you do best and what you like to do.