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Beginning Again

Tracee Martin overcame stiff odds to climb the corporate ladder. Then she ditched her job to become an entrepreneur.

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But it was only eight weeks ago that Martin finally got her real dream job. She opened Occasionally, Carytown’s newest accessory boutique.

“I really wanted to be in a business where it was OK to be a girl,” she says. “I definitely wanted something not corporate, not male. It was great to be successful in a man’s world. But I also wanted to be softer, frou frou, chi chi. I do know how fortunate I was to have those great jobs. People still ask me if I’m crazy, but this is my calling.”

People who know Martin professionally expect only success for her shop — despite the fact that many small businesses fail and that Carytown’s increasing rents continue to squeeze other tenants out.

“I’m not at all surprised Tracee moved on to become an entrepreneur,” says former client John Phillips, the vice president and general manager of MSL, a Hewlett-Packard subcontractor. “When you’re in a corporate setting, creative solution development is often stifled. That’s where she’s very strong.”

The shop near the corner of Freeman and Cary streets is a far cry from computers and boardrooms. Instead, it’s a frilly paradise where you can find $20 note cards and $300 bags. All of it captures the spirit of girlfriends gabbing over coffee. One set of cards reads: “I hear you’re pregnant. Can I have all your little cocktail dresses?” There are tiny silk pillows. Irresistible purses lining the walls. And of course the place smells nice too.

It’s hard to reconcile the striking, confident business owner with her past. She grew up in South Side, one of five kids who, she says, were all very close. In high school, she fell in love with one of her brother’s basketball friends, and in the first few weeks of her freshman year as a music major at Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered she was pregnant. On the drive back from college to get married, her boyfriend was killed in a car wreck — an event that she says “rebegan” her life.

“I was five months pregnant,” Martin says. “I realized that suddenly I was on my own — even though my family was and still is incredibly supportive. I realized, ‘Oh, man, there is a big stereotype problem. I’m 19, I’m unwed, I’m a mother, and I’m on food stamps.’”

Her response was to get moving. She enrolled at John Tyler Community College where the flexible schedule, lower tuition and day-care possibilities made her feel less awkward with a baby in tow. She eventually earned a full scholarship to the University of Richmond, where she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology and then packed up her son, Cameron, to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Virginia, again in sociology with a focus on marketing research.

“I had such strong family support,” Martin says of her time raising her son around odd jobs and class schedules. She easily admits that raising Cameron has been a family affair and knows that a lack of family support and drive to keep moving is what seals the fate of so many other young women in tough circumstances.

“Not everybody agreed with my decision to go out alone and get services,” she says. “ But I think I used the services the way they were intended to be used — to get back on my feet.”

She is decidedly not down on her luck now. Since graduating, she’s continued to run her own marketing firm, Martin Marketing, which does branding, logos, business publications, and media placement. She’s also worked at WWBT-TV 12, Media General, and at a regional staffing agency — all in increasingly high-profile corporate positions, where she was known as tough, completely prepared for clients and magnetic.

“She’s incredibly bright and talented — and driven,” says Julian Young, assistant vice president of finance at Channel 12 who worked with Martin for three years. “She’s one of those folks that when you first hear some of her ideas, you just get excited. I can’t think you can ever count her out.”

In a chilly backroom, surrounded by canvas bags and new hats for spring, Martin beams when she talks about Occasionally. She’s exceeded her projected numbers for December, January and February, and has used only two-thirds of the money she borrowed to get started. She’s started a monthly newsletter, an ad campaign and plans to go online by the end of the year.

“I think all the ick, all the struggles and all the good have come together in this shop,” she says. “This move to leave a great salary behind and to do this is nothing more than a step of faith. It’s God asking me ‘Do you trust me?’ So far, I think his plan has worked pretty well.” S

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