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A creative business plan

Optometrist combines art with eye care in Dudley shop

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
A creative business plan
Gallery EyeCare occupies ground-floor retail space in Dudley Square’s Bruce Bolling Municipal Building. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

What’s in a name?

When optometrist Lesa Dennis-Mahamed opened her new full-service eye care shop in Dudley Square’s Bolling Building last fall, she chose a name infused with multiple layers of meaning.

Author: Sandra LarsonLesa Dennis-Mahamed’s full-service shop includes a wide selection of frames.

On the web

Gallery EyeCare website: http://galleryeyecarevisionsource.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/galleryeyecarellc/

Center for Women & Enterprise: www.cweonline.org/

Dudley Square Main Streets: www.dudleysquare.org

First, she says, Gallery EyeCare pays homage to her mother.

“My mother was an artist. I can remember the first time she had her artwork for public display at the Harriet Tubman House, and how excited she was,” Dennis-Mahamed says, speaking in her shop’s airy showroom. “The emotions she had are what I want to elicit from local artists by giving them a forum. So that’s why I called it ‘Gallery.’”

What’s more, the name ties in with the very concept of vision.

“It’s about appreciating the gift of sight,” she says, flanked by a colorful array of eyeglass frames on one side and a wall of paintings by a local artist on the other.

Gallery EyeCare is the only standalone optical shop in Roxbury, says Dennis-Mahamed, who grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester, and she didn’t want it to be a “typical” shop. She has sought to make her mark by focusing on customer service and supporting local artists and the community.

Serving the community

To support artists, she sells eyeglass chains made by local artisans and gives over an entire wall to rotating art exhibitions. Since opening the shop in November, she has featured work by four local artists; some have sold their very first pieces there.

The shop offers frame prices and styles to fit its full range of customers, from those seeking high-end designer frames to the 80 percent who have MassHealth insurance to patients with limited funds and no insurance coverage.

Many patients’ insurance plans cover eye exams, but not glasses, she says, and she makes a point to offer value-priced options, as low as $79 for frame and lenses.

For her staff, after one year of work she will support their applications to be apprentice opticians.

“Eventually they can take the exam and become licensed opticians, and they can take that license anyplace. So that’s one of the ways I can help my employees,” she says.

An accidental entrepreneur

For most of her 20 years in optometry, Dennis-Mahamed did not imagine hanging her own shingle. But in 2013, a co-worker at a clinic mentioned a business planning course offered by the Center for Women & Enterprise. Dennis-Mahamed decided to drop in “just to learn” — and the 12-week course changed her life.

The CWE program included speakers from organizations including Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Nuestra Comunidad CDC and Boston Impact Initiative and covered market analysis, choosing a name, analyzing the competition and even selecting colors and logo designs.

“I’d say that was a Babson [College] business course in 12 weeks,” she marvels. “After the third week, I thought, ‘I might be onto something.’”

By the time she finished, her vision and plan for a Roxbury eye care shop earned her a finalist ranking in the business pitch contest.

Next, she needed a location. Here, timing and tenacity paid off. Passing through Dudley Square one day, she noticed a fence around the long-vacant former Ferdinand building. She didn’t know the Bolling Building was about to rise and become the new Boston Public Schools headquarters. But she was curious, so she jotted down the fence company phone number. A half-dozen phone calls later, she reached people in City Hall who said the new building would have retail space, but the request for proposals was yet to be issued.

“I didn’t even know what an ‘RFP’ was, but I got on a list to be contacted when anything came up. I called back every two months to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”

Only after submitting her 50-page proposal did she realize that established chains like Starbucks were also vying for the limited retail space.

“If I’d known, I wouldn’t have done it!” she says. “But God kept me focused and didn’t let me get intimidated. I guess this was meant to be, and here we are.”

In the heart of Roxbury

The shop’s location is a big plus, she says. Customers include BPS employees, neighborhood residents and people from Central Boston Elder Services across the street.

“We’re situated right next store to the busiest bus station in Massachusetts,” she says. “For a person on a fixed income trying to get downtown or to Boston Medical Center, it can be a hardship to get there and back. People come in here saying, ‘This is right down the street.’”

Even before move-in, her Gallery EyeCare proposal earned Dennis-Mahamed a $5,000 award in 2014 from Dudley Square Main Streets and Private Bank of Boston for “Best New or Unique Business.”

Dudley Main Streets Executive Director Joyce Stanley says an eye clinic is a welcome addition to the area.

“There are so many people who need it, being across from the Elderly building, and right here in Dudley Square. She’s bringing good quality at a good price.”

Stanley knew Dennis-Mahamed’s mother, Jacqueline, who was active in Roxbury and Dorchester community service in addition to being an artist.

“When people work so hard to make the community work, it’s good to see that now her daughter can be one of the beneficiaries,” Stanley says. “It’s like it comes full circle.”

Lessons from sports

Before she was an optometrist and entrepreneur, the young Lesa Dennis made a name for herself as a star basketball player for Emmanuel College, graduating in 1988 as the women’s basketball program’s leading scorer and holding that record for 22 years. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.

Now she sees parallels between business and sports, with a shared focus on team spirit and facing the unknown.

“All businesses have the challenge of the unknown; you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. In basketball, you don’t know how you’ll need to play against that next team,” she says. “Sports takes you to a different level — mentally preparing yourself and meeting challenges.”

Continuing vision

Nine months in, Gallery EyeCare sees eight to ten patients per day for exams and has 20 to 25 people coming in with outside prescriptions or to pick up glasses, she says. She has six employees, and among them capacity in English, Spanish, Arabic and Urdu. So far, she is exceeding the expectations of her business plan, she says, though a big challenge is the long lag time for MassHealth reimbursement.

She is settled enough to start envisioning the future.

Near-term plans include a scholarship program for patients who are students in art or health care fields, and a project to provide free eyeglasses to low-income patients lacking insurance who tally up ten acts of kindness.

A further vision is to expand her model far beyond Boston as a franchise operation.

“Eventually, God willing, I would like to see Gallery EyeCare in urban areas throughout this nation,” she says.