Aphrodite Comes to America: A Greek Tale
Country of origin: Greece
Emigrated to U.S.: 1978
Launched The Spa at Bedminster: 2001
Jobs created: 4
By Elaine Pofeldt
When Sandy Tsangaroulis came to the U.S. from Greece with her husband, she had never lived more than an hour away from the island on which she grew up, and she spoke very little English. That didn’t stop her from accomplishing her dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur in the United States.
Before she left Greece, Tsangaroulis had studied to be an esthetician in a rigorous, four-year university program. Her goal was to run her own small skin-care salon. By drawing on that background, she was able to launch the elite Spa at Bedminster, where she has created a base of 4,000 clients since opening the New Jersey business in 2001. “I stuck with my dream and never changed my mind,” she says. “It was the best thing I ever did.”
“Believe in yourself,” she says. “Nothing is more important than that. If you don’t, you cannot succeed.”
Here's her story:
Getting Started in America
When Tsangaroulis arrived in 1978, she and her husband, who was then beginning studies for his MBA and master’s degree in economics, moved to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, N.Y., where many residents are Greek. “Psychologically, it helps you to be around people who speak your language,” says Tsangaroulis. “You create a circle starting from that.”
With her husband at university, Tsangaroulis needed a way to earn money to pay their bills.
Prior to leaving Greece, Tsangaroulis had got a letter of introduction from one of her college professors to Christine Valmy, a beauty entrepreneur with several spas in New York.
Cold Calling for a Job
Armed with the letter, Tsangaroulis made her way to Manhattan, walked into Christine Valmy's flagship store, and asked to meet with the owner. Luckily, Valmy was in the store at the time and agreed to give Tsangaroulis a couple of minutes. There, Tsangaroulis explained who she was, handed over the letter, and in halting English asked if she had any vacancies. Impressed with Tsangaroulis’s sheer moxie, Valmy decided to give her an opportunity—on one condition: that she learn enough English within a week to sell to the spa’s customers.
Valmy decided to give her an opportunity—on one condition: that she learn enough English within a week to sell to the spa’s customers.
With just one chance to prove herself, Tsangaroulis spent the week studying grammar books and practicing mock sales conversations with her husband, who spoke English fluently. “It was a big, big effort,” she says. But it paid off. “I was very productive the first week, using my hands to communicate with clients and sell products,” she says. “People understood how determined I was.”
Optimizing the Opportunity
After one week, Valmy was so impressed with Tsangaroulis’s work ethic and productivity that she hired her for the company's flagship store in Manhattan. Tsangaroulis grabbed the opportunity with both hands. During her tenure at Christine Valmy, she made sure that she became one of Valmy’s most valued employees—so much so that Valmy eventually sponsored Tsangaroulis for a green card. This, in turn, enabled Tsangaroulis to sponsor her husband and gave them both a path to citizenship.
Valmy eventually sponsored Tsangaroulis for a green card.
In 1989, Sandy's husband, Nick, had to relocate to New Jersey for work. Tsangaroulis became an independent contractor and provided skin-care treatments at several New Jersey salons. After renting a room at one salon in 1999, she decided it was time to go out on her own. “I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a little part of a salon for nails and hair.”
“I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a little part of a salon for nails and hair.”
Using Her Foreign Advantage
Noticing that skin-care treatments were an afterthought in many U.S. salons—where they were often performed by hairstylists—Tsangaroulis saw an untapped niche for herself. Her dream was to focus exclusively on offering high-end skin-care treatments that included the massage techniques in which she’d been trained in Greece. “My training is a four-year college education,” she explains. “We learned cosmetology, pharmacology, chemistry, massages, a little bit of diagnostics, so we can direct the client to a specific doctor. It is not like here, where you go for 600 hours.”
Noticing that skin-care treatments were an afterthought in many U.S. salons—where they were often performed by hairstylists—Tsangaroulis saw an untapped niche for herself.
A Surprise Angel
Tsangaroulis began saving every dollar she could to open her own salon. She was able to fast track her launch however, when funding arrived from an unexpected quarter. When word got out that Tsangaroulis was looking to open her own spa, one of her clients approached Sandy and loaned her the money needed.
Listen to Sandy tell how she found her surprise angel investor.
When she finally opened the 1,600-square-foot Spa at Bedminster in September 2001, she stuck with her exclusive focus on skin care and took pains to stock high-end European skin-care products that would be hard for customers to find elsewhere.“ People know they are going to get the right thing for their face,” she says.
Although she opened the spa two weeks after the September 11 attacks, The Spa at Bedminster got off to a strong start: She had a big response to a few local newspaper ads she placed and had a strong clientele from her independent work. The spa became a haven for women who had lost their husbands in the tragedy. “I could see that my job was listening to people, understanding their problems,” she says. “It was not just putting creams on and taking them off.”
The spa became a haven for women who had lost their husbands in the tragedy.
That doesn’t mean the business hasn’t faced challenges. For instance, a 7% state sales tax on massages has made it hard for some customers to afford them, so she has run specials to keep those clients coming back. “This is what I have to say to the government: The tax for small businesses has to be a little bit less to help small businesses survive,” she says.
To give her spa a competitive edge, Tsangaroulis spends her free time reading industry journals, attending trade shows, and taking classes. “In this field, the knowledge never stops,” she says. “You constantly have to learn.”
Although Tsangaroulis says it was hard to achieve her dream while raising two children, both her spa and her children are thriving. Her son is a cosmetic dentist, and her daughter is studying animation at New York University. “My children saw how much effort my husband and I put in,” she says. “That was very good for them.”
As Tsangaroulis continues to pursue the American dream of small business success, she has one piece of advice for others who hope to follow her example. “Believe in yourself,” she says. “Nothing is more important than that. If you don’t, you cannot succeed.”