Running her own business comes naturally to Caroline Cooper, who owns Cooper Canvas and Boat Works in Cape Coral. The oldest of four, she’s always been “the bossy one.” As she puts it, “I like having things done my way.”
Cooper, 44, is originally from Marseille, in the south of France. She’s a pastry chef by training. When her husband began buying and fixing up boats as his hobby in Cape Coral, he started ordering expensive marine cushions. Finally Cooper told him, “Let me get a little sewing machine, and I’ll try to make you one.” She didn’t have any experience with sewing or marine canvas, but what she did have was a mathematical brain trained to work with precise measurements from her days as a pastry chef. She took apart one of the cushions from her husband’s boat, copied the design and recreated it. “It turned out pretty OK,” she admits.
Soon, she was making more and more cushions. “My husband was fantastic,” she says. “He bought me a bigger, better sewing machine.” Around this time, she became pregnant with her first baby. As she headed toward three months of maternity leave from her day-to-day job as a manager at West Marine, she thought, “If I’m going to have my own business, it’s now or never.”
That’s how she came to launch her marine canvas shop while she was still pregnant. “I jumped on boats quite often with a big belly,” she remembers, laughing. “It was a balancing act.” Though her daughter arrived a month early, Cooper knew she couldn’t step away from her fast-growing company. “I already had customers lined up. I was not losing them.” She took a long weekend off when her daughter was born, then immediately went back to work with her new baby beside her. “Sometimes you just have to make it happen,” she says.
Now, 12 years later, she runs a successful business with nine employees, all but one of them women. She caters to her employees, telling them to come in early if they want to work their hours so they can pick their kids up from school and don’t have to pay for daycare. When the kids need to stay home from school, Cooper has them come to the office. “They’re my shop buddies,” she says. She likes the idea of paying forward her own good work-life situation. “I felt lucky with my daughter,” she says. “I could actually have both work and my baby with me.”
It’s no magic act
Cooper’s advice for entrepreneurs is honest and pragmatic. There’s no magic to owning your own business, she says. Just hard work. “You’re working 24/7, on the weekends, on holidays. Your phone is always going. You think you’re going to take your two-week vacation and nobody is going to bother you? Ha!”