Skip to main content

In Good Company: Women Lead The Charge With Thriving Businesses

Nov 19, 2022 12:35PM ● By Pamela Brown - Photography By Lynn Bohannon

Women business owners include (from left) Nissa Cullen, Julie Sumanis, Jackie Oktay, Kirsten Connor, Elena Taylor, Eileen McGuckin, and Kim Souza. Not pictured: Nina McCampbell from the Collection.

It’s not easy owning a business today with the challenge of a fluctuating economy and supply-and-demand issues, among other factors, but women in the Upper Valley are experiencing admirable success in their businesses. “In any town, women-owned businesses play a vital role in driving the town’s economy. White River Junction has attracted many small artisan businesses that are owned by independent and resourceful women who have managed to creatively survive COVID and economic downturns,” says PJ Skehan, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce. According to the World Economic Forum, women started 49 percent of new businesses in the US in 2021, up from 28 percent in 2019, according to a new study, with women entrepreneurship growing around the world.

“More women are starting to be recognized for running successful businesses,” adds PJ. “I’m delighted to see more women become successful business owners. We’re fortunate in the Upper Valley area to have many women who are business leaders and have become great mentors for those that follow them.”

The following pages shine a spotlight on eight women business owners in downtown White River Junction who are blazing a trail in their fields: Jackie Oktay of Tuckerbox and Little Istanbul; Elena Taylor and Julie Sumanis of Juel Modern Apothecary; Kirsten Connor of Flourish Beauty Lab; Kim Souza of Revolution; Eileen McGuckin of Thyme Restaurant; and Nissa Cullen and Nina McCampbell of the Collection.

Jackie Oktay
Tuckerbox and Little Istanbul

Jackie Oktay redefines entrepreneurship. With her husband she opened Tuckerbox in 2013, an eclectic cafe and restaurant in the heart of White River Junction. “It’s a community gathering place with local regulars who truly care about their community. Tuckerbox has amazing strong, bold coffee and super fresh, delicious food,” she says. In 2018, they opened Little Istanbul, an inviting shop with bright colors, natural materials, exotic spices, and great aromas. “It’s meant to transform guests to the street markets of Istanbul.”

Appreciative of her husband’s Turkish heritage, Jackie embraces the culture. “To be able to share it with the Upper Valley community brings us great pride. It’s very rewarding to provide delicious foods and unique goods to this wonderful community.”

Jackie feels empowered being her own boss. “It’s a lot of work but the payoffs are great. Each of our businesses takes nurturing and molding, a lot of time and effort, but it’s incredibly rewarding when they run smoothly,” she says. However, due to a malfunctioning sprinkler system in the building, Tuckerbox recently endured immense losses, but Jackie was able to overcome the hardship. “Our resilience 100 percent came from the unbelievable response from our community. We did consider giving up, but our community’s response gave us a boost of energy to see beyond the disaster and begin to move forward.”

Favorite dish at Tuckerbox? My go-tos are Pastirma and Eggs for breakfast, Cold Meze Platter for lunch, and Tenderloin Guvec for dinner.

What advice would you give to your younger self? All the sacrifices, hard work, tears, and sweat will be worth it. Keep truckin’ on.

Who influences you in your business? My husband and I are excellent partners. My mother-in-law takes care of my kids while we’re working. We have an amazing group of hardworking, dedicated employees.

Most cherished Turkish item? A stunning Turkish wool village carpet. It’s huge and has very bright, warm colors and ancient patterns.

Favorite way to spend the day away from work? Most likely in my vegetable garden or tending to my honeybees.  I enjoy producing food from the earth from nature.

One South Main Street
(802) 359-4041
Little Istanbul
27 North Main Street
(802) 698-8611

Elena Taylor and Julie Sumanis
Juel Modern Apothecary

Wanting to share their reverence for nature and love of food, herbs, and lifestyle as medicine, friends Elena Taylor and Julie Sumanis opened Juel Modern Apothecary in 2018 to help others improve their health and well-being. “We’re a café and retail shop serving everything from whole-food smoothies and cold-pressed juices to espresso, tea, and tinctures, to plant-based food and gluten-free baked goods,” says Elena.

Their menu comprises 90-plus percent organic ingredients that support local farmers and makers. “When you buy local and organic, you’re voting for clean soil and air, the environment, and your community,” says Elena, who defines modern apothecary as a place with a welcoming ambiance and healthy food connecting mind, body, and spirit. “It’s a belief that overall well-being integrates many factors—what we fuel our bodies with, our level of physical activity, the health of our mind, our connection with Mother Earth and her ability to calm and heal, and how we treat the planet we inhabit and all who share it with us.”

Both women appreciate their wide customer base. “We’re most proud of the diverse range of customers we have—people from all sorts of backgrounds, on all different stages of their health journey,” says Julie. “We really take pride in the fact that people on all ends of the health spectrum feel comfortable in our space.”
(Answers by Elena, except the last question answered by Julie.)

Favorite life quote? “Everything in moderation, including moderation” by Oscar Wilde.

Who inspired you to pursue this type of business? Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to own a restaurant. For me it’s a convergence of loving to be around people and loving food.

Number-one tip for wellness? Getting enough sleep and not taking yourself too seriously. They’re a great pair.

Current popular item? Strawberries and Cream Smoothie. It’s like a strawberry milkshake but packed with wholesome ingredients like strawberries, raw almonds, banana, organic yogurt, and orange.

How do you feel being a woman-owned business in White River Junction? To be surrounded by other resilient, caring, forward-thinking women who own businesses is like winning the entrepreneurship lottery.

Juel Modern Apothecary
27 North Main Street
(802) 281-6015

Kirsten Connor
Flourish Beauty Lab

Kirsten Connor’s sensitive skin and autoimmune issues inspired her to create hypoallergenic, vegan, gluten-, and nut-free hair and skin care products that smell delicious and are environmentally friendly. “Our focus is on super-clean ingredients and luxurious products for people with sensitive skin, scalp, and hair. We’ve curated exceptional independent brands from around the country, all created by passionate people who are experts in what they do,” says Kirsten, owner of Flourish Beauty Lab, who sources ingredients from local farms to formulate and produce products in her open lab. Eco-conscious, Kirsten uses silicone-free biodegradable ingredients, reusable containers, recycled packaging, and refill pouches that use 96 percent less plastic than bottles.

The shop has a Refill Bar, one of the largest in Vermont; a Beauty Bar, where customers can get Facial Flights and recommendations; and a Steam Bar featuring custom herbal blends curated by her staff herbalist. “It’s fun for groups of friends to sit at the bar with tea and catch up while steaming or giving themselves a facial,” says Kirsten, who is thrilled to be part of the WRJ business district. “It’s booming. I feel very supported. This is such a great community. Other business owners are so encouraging and genuinely care about problem solving.”

Favorite fragrance? Ginger Elixir has been my go-to for years. I love it year-round!

Best piece of advice for skin and hair care? If you’re sensitive, don’t listen to trends or what the buzzy new ingredient is. Sometimes it’s the practice or the order in which you do things that makes the biggest difference.

How often do you wash your hair? Always pay attention to what works for your hair. It’s not good to set unrealistic expectations of washing your hair once a week if you have baby fine hair. I generally stick to every other day.

What skin care routine is a must? Oil cleansing! It has changed my skin. A rinseable oil cleanser is incredibly gentle, builds your skin barrier (a compromised barrier is the top reason for stinging or reacting to products), plumps your skin, and for more oily skin types helps to calm overproduction.

Flourish Beauty Lab
4 North Main Street
(802) 291-3709

Kim Souza

You can shop outside the box at Revolution, an exurban thrift boutique that features a mix of contemporary, excellent-condition used clothing, accessories, footwear, and jewelry in addition to independently designed and ethically produced new merchandise.

“I wanted to create an attractive atmosphere where people could discover treasures and build community around the shared experiences of what we call a ‘radical shopping experience.’ We’re delighted to greet people and facilitate a warm, welcoming experience,” says owner Kim Souza.

Kim opened Revolution in 2002 after a 12-year career in the travel industry on advice from Murray Washburn, a business mentor who recognized the potential for creative revitalization in White River Junction. After operating solo for four years, Kim was about to close Revolution but Ann and Simran Johnston of South Woodstock stepped in to keep it afloat. “We reinvented and renovated our new partnership, which we lovingly called Revolution 2.0. The shop has been financially sustainable and a cornerstone of the downtown WRJ community ever since,” says Kim.

Raised in a large working-class family, Kim has respect for hardworking matriarchs and feels empowered being a woman-owned business. “There tends to be a genuine appreciation for and care of community and quality of life that emanates through the interactions we encounter every day in our work.”

Favorite T-shirt slogan? White River Junction . . . It’s Not So Bad. Also, Tax the Rich.

What’s your day-to-day style? In my youth, I always experimented with bold looks from my thrift store finds. Now, I dedicate more energy to public service and community support and land on comfortable jeans and a black T-shirt or sweater 90 percent of the time.

Last piece of clothing you bought? A pair of used Lucky jeans and a black cashmere cardigan. One of my recent favorites was a black Burberry raincoat with a zip-out vest. The jacket was a little small, but I kept the vest, which I wear about four days a week this time of year.

What are you passionate about? Community support and valuing the genuine goodness in everyone.

Who is your fashion icon? Beyonce.

26 North Main Street
(802) 295-6487

Eileen McGuckin
Thyme Restaurant

Despite admitting she wasn’t always a foodie and was a very picky eater when she was young, Eileen McGuckin’s years of experience in the restaurant industry in New Jersey and the Upper Valley prepared her to live her dream as owner of Thyme Restaurant. “I’m proud to own a restaurant in White River Junction and be in such good company with the many other amazing women that own businesses in town,” says Eileen. Thyme was originally called the Tip Top Café. Eileen worked at the café for five years prior to purchasing it in 2013. “I changed the name to Thyme to really make it feel like my own and reflect the direction we were headed.”

The restaurant has an industrial feel featuring original photographs and artwork. “We serve globally inspired comfort fare based on availability of ingredients,” she says. Francisco Guerra, her life partner of more than 20 years, is head chef. “He is 100 percent committed to the business. We achieve synergy because we have complimentary skill sets, dedication, and one vision of what we want to achieve.”

Who inspires you? I’m inspired by Gaal Shepherd Crowl (a well-known artist/sculptor in New England) because of her creativity and ability to conquer adversity.

What’s the significance of the name Thyme? My LLC is It’s About Thyme. I chose that name because after all of the years I had worked in the food industry it was “thyme” I owned a restaurant of my own.
If you could eat only one food, what would it be and why? Bread. I love the satisfaction of enjoying the variation and textures of many different types of bread.

Favorite meal you’ve had? My favorite meal was a special Francisco created—Rock Shrimp Ragout with Creamy Polenta.

If you weren’t a restaurant owner, what would you be? My other passions include horses and gardening. Luckily owning a restaurant gives me the opportunity to do everything I enjoy.

Thyme Restaurant
85 North Main Street
(802) 295-3312

Nissa Cullen and Nina McCampbell
The Collection

Vintage clothing never goes out of style. That’s what inspired Nissa Cullen to open the Collection in 2017, a local clothing and accessory store. “I’ve always loved thrift shopping and treasure hunting and hoped one day I would have my own store to support my love for shopping and share my shopping scores with others,” says Nissa, who, along with co-owner Nina McCampbell, was collecting inventory for years before they opened the store.

The shop carries clothing for men, women, and children; shoes and boots; jewelry; and accessories in addition to small furniture items, antiques, and gift items. “We source most of our inventory from thrift stores, flea markets, yard/garage sales, antique malls, and online. We do the treasure hunting for you and try to bring an eclectic, fun, and unique variety of things to our store,” says Nissa, who likes knowing vintage clothing and accessories have a story. “We may never know what that story is, but imagining what it might be can give you an instant vibe or feeling. Finding that one-of-a-kind quality item that you fall in love with is something that never ever gets old.”

Nissa is proud to have a shop that focuses on reducing our impact on the environment. “Fashion, sustainability, quality, diversity, and creativity—these are a few of our favorite things,” says Nissa, adding both she and Nina feel lucky to have a business in downtown White River Junction. “There is an incredible amount of talent, energy, creativity, and support within the downtown WRJ business community, and we feel right at home.”

Favorite weekend outfit? Jeans, tall boots, long tunic, long sweater duster, and a scarf.

Oldest/coolest vintage item in the shop? Right now my favorite vintage item we have is a 1960s solid brass gentleman’s suit clothing valet.

What is your everyday style? It depends on the weather, the time of year, my mood . . . I like anything simple yet classy.

Who inspires you in the fashion industry? I’m a fan of classic, vintage fashion—Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Gaultier, Hermes, and Versace.

What is your go-to accessory? Big earrings.

The Collection
25 South Main Street
(802) 291-9959

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Image's free newsletter to catch every headline