Deborah Whitby, Sheri Marshall and mother-daughter duo Martha and Kate O’Hara keep Austin homes in tiptop shape with their bustling businesses.
By Rachel Rascoe, Photos by Dustin Meyer
It takes a lot to make a home tick. Whether Austinites are bothered by plumbing problems, undertaking the mess of moving or facing a design dilemma, local entrepreneurs Deborah Whitby, Sheri Marshall and mother-daughter team Martha and Kate O’Hara are here to assist.
Along with being experts in the plumbing, cleaning and design industries, these entrepreneurial women know how to launch and sustain a successful business. Their financial, marketing and leadership savvy ensure customers in the Austin area and beyond have functional, clean and beautiful residences to come home to.
DEBORAH WHITBY | Owner of Austin Plumbery
When Deborah Whitby was a youngster, her dad enlisted her to help out on his plumbing service calls. Instead of delivering tools, Whitby preferred to paint her nails in the truck. Today, the two have worked out a more productive arrangement. Whitby’s dad, Joe Ochoa, is one of the technicians at her thriving business, Austin Plumbery.
Austin-raised Whitby launched the business in 2016 after two years of teaching high school. Upon learning she was pregnant with her first son, the local re-evaluated her career in search of a more flexible lifestyle.
The budding businesswoman began appraising her prospects. She held years of experience in accounting and budgeting for a large local church pastored by her grandfather. Her dad was working independently as a plumber at the time, and Whitby thought she could grow his skill set into a full-blown modern business model.
In an atypical launch deal, Whitby used just $500 of her father’s revenue to start Austin Plumbery. Within a year, she had expanded the company’s customer base and hired employees, including her industry-experienced husband, who works as one of the plumbing technicians. As the owner, Whitby oversees finances, business development and her crew’s daily operations, a mix of residential and commercial plumbing services.
Revisiting her love of teaching, the 34-year-old now speaks about scaling startups and mentors up-and-coming businesswomen through the Society of Women Entrepreneurs. Whitby is also a member of the National Association of Women in Construction, holds a Women-owned Business Enterprise certification from the City of Austin and has her very own plumber’s apprentice license.
Austin Woman: What’s your biggest piece of advice about financial planning?
Deborah Whitby: A lot of the success that we’ve had has been because I mind my money. This is the health of your business. As scary as it is, walk alongside a mentor or hire a coach. Ask the questions, and be in the know with your money. As women, we get caught up in our craft and just want to do what we’re good at. You can impact more people in your respective craft if you understand the numbers behind it.
AW: What satisfies you most about running the business?
DW: Being able to give people jobs is satisfying for me. It’s allowing people to tap into something that is their own that they can create alongside me. My dad is still working, but now he has a retirement plan. My husband is one of the plumbers also, so all of our personal funds come from our business. I’m able to create a life on our terms, on our values. Every day, I get to live life exactly how I want it.
AW: What are your goals for the future?
DW: The next milestone is to be a million-dollar company, not just for the sake of the title. Ultimately, it’s to have a medium-sized company that can have impact in the community. We’re changing the conversation about the plumbing industry and showing that we’re not the typical stereotype. We’re young. That goal, for me, is to give all women an example of what it looks like to be a modern entrepreneur in this industry.
I’m able to create a life on our own terms, on our values. Every day, I get to live life exactly how I want it.
With decades of experience balancing her own business alongside a full-time gig, Sheri Marshall is a master of the side hustle. The Austin native launched her residential cleaning service while working in the financial-aid office of a local college. She also provides notary services throughout the city as the Best Choice Mobile Notary.
In 2007, the lifelong entrepreneur pivoted to focus on commercial cleaning under the name UMoveIt-WeCleanIt. Marshall’s expert janitorial team cleans out homes and businesses after construction, in addition to providing janitorial services for more than 35 stores throughout Austin. When browsers enter high-end shops like AllSaints, Coach and Lilly Pulitzer at The Domain, Marshall’s crew is to thank for spotless floors and shiny storefront windows.
The Pflugerville, Texas-based businesswoman’s resume includes accounting work for the National Guard, recruitment work with Dell and a Master of Business Administration from St. Edward’s University. She says a love of finance and servicing others through training link her grab bag of gigs, collected while her family was stationed in Germany and Alaska during her husband’s military career.
Now Marshall’s main focus, UMoveIt-WeCleanIt has jobs in Houston, Austin’s surrounding suburbs and at the San Marcos Premium Outlets. The 63-year-old founder’s beloved team, which includes many rehabilitated ex-offenders, provides cleaning services for local events during the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Formula 1 festivities.
In addition to her mentorship of formerly incarcerated employees, the grandmother and mother of two guides aspiring entrepreneurs through the National Association of Black Accountants. She’s been president of the Austin chapter for more than six years, leading workshops about financial literacy for the local community. She is also currently the local president of the National Council of Negro Women, and has received a variety of statewide recognitions.
Austin Woman: Did you experience any struggles in starting your business?
Sheri Marshall: The commercial-cleaning field is predominantly male-dominated. I was very intimidated because when I went to the bidding sites for jobs, it was mostly white men. I never will forget asking for some help with figuring out how to bid. No one would help me. I learned myself through the internet and YouTube. Now I win all the bids and they’re asking me for help.
AW: What kind of community-service work are you involved with?
SM: When I started looking for good employees, they were very hard to find. I started recruiting ex-offenders to come and work. When they come out of prison, a lot of them already have janitorial training, and they have a good attitude. They have something to prove to their families and themselves. I check on them once a week and often ask them, “What are your long-range goals?”
AW: What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
SM: Most of the people that I work with are college students. My advice is don’t quit your full-time job, and don’t quit school. I was an entrepreneur all my life, but I worked still, and I have a pension that I get from the military because I did 22 years of federal service. Once I made enough money from my side job so it was equal to my regular salary, that’s when I finally went into entrepreneurship full time.
When I started looking for good employees, they were hard to find. I started recruiting ex-offenders to come and work. When they come out of prison, a lot of them already have janitorial training, and they have a good attitude.
MARTHA O’HARA | Owner of Martha O’Hara Interiors
KATE O’HARA | Director of Marketing and Business Development for Martha O’Hara Interiors
While growing up in Savannah, Tenn., Martha O’Hara helped fluff pillows at her grandparents’ hotel. The experience prompted her love for putting a room together. The family-owned business, matched by her parents’ automotive stores, also launched her interest in entrepreneurship.
Martha O’Hara went on to earn her accounting and Master of Business Administration degrees, establishing a career as an accountant and business consultant. For her husband’s job, she ended up moving multiple times throughout the U.S., and once to Canada. With each relocation, the mother of two solidified a passion for setting up a beautiful, livable home design.
In 1988, she decided to pin down her family in Minneapolis to launch Martha O’Hara Interiors. The company has since grown into a full-service design firm with teams based in both Minneapolis and Austin.
Austin-based Kate O’Hara recalls passing out flyers for her mom when she was just 10 years old. She had no intention of joining the family business and went on to study education. But while working at the company during a summer vacation from teaching, Kate O’Hara ended up becoming obsessed with marketing. In 2006, she came on full time to build the brand’s digital presence.
The women’s intergenerational expertise grew the firm to take on design jobs throughout the country. Martha O’Hara Interiors is now a leading interior-design firm on decorating idea site houzz.com and boasts more than 200,000 Facebook fans. The mother-daughter duo also established Fay + Belle, an artisan-rug company sourcing weaves from Turkey and Nepal.
O’Hara designs have been featured in countless national publications and received various recognitions, including awards from the American Society of Interior Designers.
Austin Woman:What are your biggest guidelines for design?
Martha O’Hara: The home always needs to be relevant to the lifestyle of the client. After that, the home needs to speak to the design aesthetic of the client. It’s really important that we’re designing not the prettiest room for us or for a magazine, but that we’re respecting and listening to the homeowner.
Kate O’Hara: My mom grew up in the South. Her grandparents owned a little small-town hotel with marble floors in the foyer, so she’s always had a sense that spaces should have a classic feel to them. Whether you’re going for a fun hipster style or you want to do something super glam, you can still do it in a way that will stand the test of time. The goal is to create an interior that changes when you do, not a home that has to change because it has become outdated on its own.
AW: What about your mom has made her so successful?
KO: She’s a happy workaholic. She’s always in motion. She has always known the power of business and personal relationships. As a manager, she finds leaders who she trusts and will proudly say are better at certain things than she is. That also makes her really fun to work for. She’s the person constantly giving credit to everyone working around her.
AW: What satisfies you most about running the business?
MO: My favorite part of the job is when a project has a grand reveal. Sometimes we get to go in and arrange the furniture and hang the art and set out the accessories and make that home gorgeous. The client walks in as we stand in the kitchen with a glass of Champagne, ready to toast. It doesn’t always happen that way, but when we can create a grand reveal, it’s a lot of fun.
It’s really important that we’re designing not the prettiest room for us or for a magazine, but that we’re respecting and listening to the homeowner.
Austin Woman asked these four businesswomen for their sage advice when launching entrepreneurial endeavors.
Know the story your money is telling you about your business: “Even if it’s not showing me what I want to see, it’s positioning me to make better decisions for the company. The only antidote for fear is fact.” –Deborah Whitby
Don’t expect things to happen overnight: “You have to put in the work. It’s not going to come easy. The struggle is real, but just go for what you want. If you’re passionate about it, you’ll do well.” –Sherri Marshall
Ask for forgiveness, not permission: “That’s one piece of advice my mom has always given me, even before I started working with her.” –Kate O’Hara