Our Stories

A Small Business with Expansive Vision

After acing a LISC Boston entrepreneurship program two years ago, Dr. Lesa Dennis-Mahamed opened a business she'd dreamed about–and that her neighborhood needed. Gallery Eye Care, already a beloved community institution, has brought optometry, low-cost eyeglasses and an art exhibition space to low-income Roxbury.

The excerpt below is from:
A creative business plan: Optometrist combines art with eye care in Dudley shop
By Sandra Larson, The Bay State Banner

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.

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.

Gallery EyeCare does double-duty as an exhibition space for local artists.
Gallery EyeCare does double-duty as an exhibition space for local artists.

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.

The staff at work
The staff at work

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. Continued[+]...