By Maryann Santos
The following is a success story about Carmen Once, an immigrant from Ecuador turned Connecticut businesswoman. Imagine yourself starting a business amid a global pandemic. This is what Carmen experienced in early 2020 when she opened Waterbury Vision Center. Upon entering her store, one may think to themselves how successful she must be, but there is a back story. With her permission, here is Carmen’s story.
There is an image on social media of a cross section of an iceberg. One sees the exposed iceberg which represents “success,” but below the water is the rest of the iceberg, the part no one sees, the enormous part. That unseen part represents hard work, sleepless nights, faith, discipline, action, perseverance, tears, multiple jobs, redos, and sacrifice.
Carmen is an immigrant who did not have the opportunity to attend high school or pursue a career in her country. She completed 6th grade which is the equivalent to a 3rd grade education in the U.S. When she arrived in America at the age of 19, Carmen never thought that she was going to accomplish her dream of attending high school. Little did she know she was destined for so much more.
Before working in optical, Carmen held many different jobs, including landscaping. She does not regret doing any of them, as those experiences opened doors for her to learn all that she now knows. She didn’t realize at the time that her experiences were forming and shaping her into the optician and business owner that she has become.
Introduction to the Profession
Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Carmen began cleaning business offices to earn a living. About 15 years ago, one of her cleaning customers, an optician, needed someone to help him with lab work and asked her if she was available. At first, she thought he was joking, so she tried explaining to him that she barely spoke English and did not know anything about eyeglasses, prescriptions, or eyes. He asked, “Do you want to learn? If so, I can teach you.” She replied, “If you want to teach me, I am willing to learn.” Later that day, when Carmen finished cleaning the office, she asked him what time he wanted her to come the next morning. He said 8 a.m. and asked if that was okay or if it was too early. She told him, “If you want me to come at 6 a.m. I will be here because I am excited to learn.” This was an opportunity she was not going to pass up.
Back to School
One day her boss asked her, “Why don’t you go to school to get your license?” She explained to him that she never attended high school in her country, meaning she would have to obtain a high school diploma before entering college to become an optician. This seemed daunting to her. Carmen had been told by others that she would never get that far because her level of schooling was that of a third grader, but her boss encouraged her. He explained that she would not need a license to work in his lab but would need a license to work anywhere else as an optician. Carmen’s boss offered her the opportunity to attend school and come to work after her classes. A few days after that initial conversation about attending class, she registered for high school. At that moment, she set her mind to becoming a licensed optician. Carmen’s professional journey began that day, all because her boss provided hope, encouragement, and the opportunity to acquire her diploma, which later led to college, and eventually earning her license as an optician.
Ever since she started working at the optical shop, Carmen’s dream was to one day open her own business. Naysayers told her it was never going to become a reality because of the money required and her English language barrier. Undaunted, Carmen worked at other optical establishments and learned as much as possible every day.
While Carmen attended Goodwin University’s Vision Care Technology program, she applied for and was awarded a scholarship to the Opticians Association of America’s Annual Leadership Conference in San Antonio, Texas. Unfortunately, faculty were not able to attend due to teaching and program obligations, but Carmen went to Texas representing Goodwin and Connecticut. It was there that she met optician Russ Fritz, Jr. who later became another encourager and a mentor. A few years later, Carmen ran into Russ again. He offered to help her open a business when she was ready. When that day arrived, she started the process.
Location, then COVID
The slogan in real estate is ‘Location, Location, Location.’ Carmen searched for the right place for her dream optical shop. The first few places she investigated were nice but too expensive. Finally, she found the right one that met her financial and business needs. She always understood that starting a business would be hard and challenging, but COVID-19 made it harder than ever. Opening during the pandemic has not been easy for Carmen’s fledgling business. The Grand Opening with the Chamber of Commerce, community members, friends, and family was slated for Friday, March 20, 2020. She had to cancel because that day everything came to a pandemic halt in Connecticut. The business opened, but it is still a challenge because she cannot go out to meet the community due to social distancing and pandemic restrictions. There will be an Open House in the future to introduce Carmen, Waterbury Vision Center, and all she and her business have to offer. Carmen has a full lab on the premises to make eyeglasses onsite and do repairs.
From designing the store to setting it up, selecting and buying the frames, then placing them on shelves, it has been an amazing experience. Carmen’s favorite part is now being able to help her patients select eyeglass frames matched with the best pair of lenses for their specific needs. Carmen loves everything that has to do with eyeglasses, lenses, and helping people to see.
Despite those who said she couldn’t go to school to further her education, and that she could not open her own business, Carmen succeeded. She did not listen to them. Instead, Carmen listened to those who provided her with hope and belief in herself. Remember to be an encourager, and to listen to the dreams of others because you may be the next mentor, provider of hope, or maybe the next Carmen.
Learn about digital retail interactive technologies that elevate the optical customer's online and in-store experience with our CE, Steps to Enrich the Customer Experience, at 2020mag.com/ce.