My welfare mom was an entrepreneur

My mother’s ability to raise five children, in public housing, while on public assistance, and dealing with an alcoholic spouse puzzles many people.

Growing up in poverty there were many times when we had the bare minimum to eat and to sustain ourselves. A stay at home mom, and administrator of all of the household’s financial affairs, my mother’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. Her small retail business taught us lessons that catapulted each of us to where we are today.

My dad was a  taxi driver who worked six days a week but there never seemed to be enough money for anything we needed.  My parents often fought about finances. Specifically about my dad not having enough money to contribute to household expenses and his unwillingness to give her money. The food stamp and cash benefits she received from the city were not enough to feed and clothe five children.

My mother taught us that out of necessity you can create opportunities for yourself.

She transformed my brother’s room into her retail store where she sold bed sheets, comforters, towels and clothes.  To replenish her inventory, we took turns going with her to Broadway Lafayette on the train from The Bronx. She learned being an entrepreneur from her dad who owned several small colmados (small grocery stores) in San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. His colmado sold household items, food and produce he grew on his farm.

Wherever my mother went she’d haggle lower prices, all while knowing very little English. She did it with so much grace and warmth that the sellers couldn’t help but give her discounts.  When one of us went with her to shop for her retail hustle we learned that you don’t take no for an answer. Equally important, we learned that treating people with optimal love and respect will help you gain more respect, trust, and get what you want and needed.

There were people who came to the apartment to purchase items and would request a payment plan.  As an entrepreneur my mother always gave customers that option. Often making house visits. With her notebook and one of us in tow, we navigated the project buildings and knocked on doors visiting her customers, making connections while collecting money owed.  Her house visits were done with sincerity, assertiveness, and love. There were times where customers did not pay and being a devout Catholic she would say she would pray for them. And she was still persistent in her follow up, with care, consistency and service. We were learning  the value of faith and service through joining her on house visits.

My mother wasn’t all hustle all the time though.  

My mother took us to parks when the weather was good to have fun, relax, and meet up with family.  Family was very important to my mother. Joyful dancing celebrations filled our home every holiday. She made light of most situations and coped with my father’s alcoholism and other family crisis with poise and grace.  My mother was a hustler and utmost graceful matriarch of the family. Visits to the welfare office were grueling for us. The caseworkers were often rude to my mother and made statements that evoked shame. Taking turns, we’d translate for our mother while being challenged with not telling the caseworker how we felt. Through it all, my mother would maintain her calmness and optimistic demeanor despite the caseworkers’ negative disposition.

Learning from my mother and taking her lessons

Growing up I struggled with the shame of being on public assistance, how my peers viewed it, and the ingenuity of how my mother’s retail business. She helped finance our Catholic school education from elementary through high school. Additionally, she helped support us a bit while we were in college. She instilled so many values in me and my siblings.  My mother taught us the value of creating opportunities for yourself; the art of negotiation and importance of treating people with respect and honor; the need for faith and service; and importance of incorporating fun in your life.

Her Drive Was Passed on to Her Children

Through her perseverance and her wisdom, she raised five successful adults who have each, in their own way incorporated these values.  My oldest sister an assistant principal at a public school. Another sister is a Senior Advisor for Campus and Diversity Initiatives for college campuses at a nonprofit. The other – who is a twin – is a program director at a preschool. Her twin is a Managing Director of Global Managed Services and Support, overseeing 160 people in IT services. As for me, I work as an Associate Director of Field Education at Columbia School of Social Work and I am a business owner.

Growing up in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s was a difficult time. My mother was able to use her entrepreneurial skills to raise children who are contributing to society in a positive way. I am ever grateful for her life lessons and how they have impacted who I am today.


Cindy Bautista-Thomas is an innovative visionary committed to helping others tap into their hidden potential. A licensed clinical social worker and PhD candidate in Urban Education. Cindy is enthusiastic about connecting with people and supporting them in their transformation process to live their best lives. To learn more about Cindy and the work she does with Velocity Visions visit the website at http://www.velocityvisionsinc.com.