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Breaking Barriers

Meet the optician/entrepreneur who expanded Hartford’s access to high-end eyewear with Connecticut’s first Black-owned optical store.

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ONE OF THE distinguishing qualities of eyecare pros is the way they straddle the perceived line between art and science. Norma C. Brown, owner of ProVision CT in Hartford, CT, embodies this quality; but then Brown has a habit of breaking barriers, as an immigrant to the U.S. with the twin distinctions of becoming the first female African American licensed optician in Fairfield County, CT, and opening the state’s first Black-owned optical store.

THE IDEA

Brown was born in England to Jamaican parents whose talents, in retrospect, hinted at their daughter’s future direction: “I get that sense of fashion from my mother, who was a self-employed seamstress to high-end designers, and my attention to detail from my father, an electrician; plus, math is just my thing. Really, this industry reflects who I am,” says Brown, who after migrating to the U.S. and graduating from university held various optical positions from apprentice to director of operations, primarily in Fairfield County, where she became a licensed optician in 2008.

As for so many, 2020 was a year of disruption. “This pandemic allowed me to reevaluate my quality of life and my priorities,” a process that, counterintuitively perhaps, culminated in her decision to open a business. “I also realized that the Hartford area was underserved and had real market potential. I seized the opportunity to become the first Black-owned optical store in Connecticut.”

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THE EXECUTION

In Hartford, Brown found a central location in a high-end optical market with room for growth. “To be able to purchase certain brands of eyewear, residents of this northern section of Connecticut would have to travel to Boston… or New York… an hour drive in either direction. Downtown Hartford is worthy of a beautiful optical store no matter the color of your skin.”

“I am keenly aware that it takes relationships to build a business,” Brown says. She found a valuable resource in the Black Business Alliance, which helped her secure funding assistance and access to a network of other Black business owners in the state —“Who even knew that existed?”— and obtained a grant through Local Initiative Support Corporations.

Brown is quick to acknowledge the support — “I was never alone,” she says — and believes that if more minority-owned opticals and eyewear lines are to flourish, investment in students and entrepreneurs in minority communities is needed.

“There is plenty of room for growth. Desire has to be matched with a plan to make change,” she says. “People of color in this industry usually enter the field on the sales level and not many have an opportunity to grow or advance into management. I have been blessed in this way and I’m committed to opening doors for others along the way.”

How do you open in a pandemic? Cautiously, it turns out. For Brown it was one day a week by appointment. The butterflies really began, she says, the week she took ProVision CT full time. “The reality was that I had resigned and left behind a place that I had been really comfortable for over 21 years … a business system that I was used to and created … not to mention, a regular paycheck!” But she knew this was her time. “I remember looking around the new location with its bright orange accents and knowing that this was a new season in my life and my mother would be proud.”

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THE REWARDS

For Brown, the chief rewards of launching ProVision CT are establishing a legacy for her family and the freedom of having her own business. She’s also gratified by the new relationships she has gained and is building daily.

“Having an impact in my community has always been important to me,” says Brown. “Whether volunteering to help struggling women gain new ‘vision’ for their futures or traveling to Mexico to fit underserved communities with eyeglasses, I believe that business is an opportunity to make a difference in many ways.”

Do It Yourself: Words of Advice From Norma Brown

  • If you believe it, you can achieve it. Chase your dream. It’s yours for a reason.
  • Surround yourself with positive people who will encourage you.
  • It doesn’t matter how many times you fall; it matters how many times you get back up.
  • Get the education. Get the experience. Get the entrepreneurial spirit. You can do it!
  • Don’t bury your talent. Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch…

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at [email protected]

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