Like most small-business owners, Darlene Mathis has encountered pitfalls, inspirations and U-turns on her journey.
In the late 1970s, the native of Seat Pleasant was a single mother who dreamed of opening a beauty spa to serve the District's African American upper crust. In 1979, she graduated from cosmetology school and, with loans from relatives, opened a salon in Northwest Washington called Monday Mornings. Mathis said her clients were judges, policymakers, doctors and other professionals.
She also started giving her customers advice on style and image -- how to wear their makeup or put together a sharp outfit. That led to a book deal with Random House. Her book, "Women of Color: The Multicultural Guide to Fashion and Beauty," sold 70,000 copies in hardcover, she said, and has since been reprinted by Mathis in paperback.
Mathis began pouring her resources into researching and developing a makeup line. Then a $6 million deal with a large investor went sour. "I invested every dollar that I had in developing this line," Mathis said. "That was a very rough period for me."
For inspiration, she turned to her heroes -- Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and, particularly, Oprah Winfrey. Like Winfrey, Mathis said, she overcame a tough childhood and career challenges. Like Winfrey, Mathis decided to remake herself, in her case by taking courses in interior design.
Last year Mathis sold her salon and used the profit to begin a new career as an interior designer. She said she has small-business contracts with the Defense Department. She also has a store in Georgetown, Collectibles Gallery, that sells whimsical MacKenzie-Childs furniture and chandeliers, Schonbek lamps and fine china by Marc Blackwell.
The store opened in May and Mathis said she is only a month or two from breaking even on her investment.
Now Mathis, 50, is looking for a really big way to say thank you to the woman who inspired her. She has joined a campaign called Friends of Oprah Winfrey to try to get the talk-show host nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which was won this year by Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
On a small table beside the door in her store, Mathis put a petition and a gold ink pen alongside a pamphlet tied with a purple taffeta bow explaining why she thinks Winfrey is worthy of the prize. It cites her work with girls in South Africa and the contributions of Oprah's Angel Network, which gives college scholarships and has funded the construction of homes and schools.
"We had some naysayers: Why Oprah?" Mathis said last week. "She reaches back to help, and we need to do that more. Small businesses need to catch on to this because we can pool our resources and say here's what we are going to do."
-- Krissah Williams