Three Memphis couples reflect on running their own businesses together

 

Spending an extra 40 or more hours a week with your spouse might not sound ideal to some couples, but for others, it’s the happiest and most efficient way to live and work.

Entrepreneurship is risky enough, with an estimated 80 percent of new businesses failing within the first 18 months, according to Bloomberg. There's greater security in having a household partner with a steady income. Yet many couples say the benefits, like having more scheduling flexibility and knowing how to compensate for each other's strengths and weaknesses, outweigh the risks. Here are three Memphis couples who've not only made it work as an entrepreneurial couple but have built tremendously successful businesses together.

 

Golden Couple

Memphis natives Yvonne and David Acey have been married for five decades, and for the past 32 years they’ve organized Africa in April, a cultural celebration held at Robert R. Church Park that each year highlights a different African nation. 

The festival focuses on art, education, history, the arts, crafts, tourism, music and diversity, and includes children’s activities, a parade, and a vendor's marketplace offering African goods and art.

“We wanted to make sure that we would make a difference in the community, and that difference would include diversity in other aspects of our environment,” said Yvonne, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, LeMoyne-Owen College, and Memphis State, which later rebranded as the University of Memphis.

When she was an undergraduate, Yvonne met her husband, David, a Melrose High graduate who also attended LeMoyne-Owen and later Memphis State. Their romance continued when David spent some time away serving in the army.

“Nothing got between us,” said David, who, after returning from his tour of duty, became a graduate assistant in the African Studies department at segregated Memphis State, where he fought to establish courses around African American studies. He retired from teaching in 2016 after 43 years.

“And we continued to be Afro-Centric,” he said. “We never quit trying to promote ethnicity for African-Americans, so we can celebrate our heritage like everybody else, and we both worked with the NAACP around boycotting and demanding African Americans be treated right.”

The couple share a lifelong passion for civil rights and for African cultural awareness and use their unique strengths to split responsibilities in organizing one of Memphis' largest annual festivals. 

David said he’s an “ideas person” who see the big picture while Yvonne is more organized, analytical and detail-oriented and can foresee possible flaws in plans. 

“He sees things one way, and I’ll see them another, then we’ll look at pros and cons,” said Yvonne, who has a work background in education and communications. “I see it as a holistic picture. Sometimes he’ll see the beginning and the end, and I’ll see those things that come in between. I’m extremely detailed and into language.”

The Aceys describe themselves as best friends who enjoy spending as much time together as possible, using their South Memphis office as their base of operations. Organizing Africa in April is a year-round effort that requires a great deal of networking, but the couple never tires of spending that time together. 

“Marriage and friendship are a balance,” David said. “You’ve got to constantly balance those relationships. And when you’re married you have to continue to do that. There are no secrets between us, we just talk things out.”

 

Making time for each other

Over in Cordova, another married couple has found the golden balance in operating a business together.

Kimberly and Wendell Donelson have been married for 15 years and have operated Donelson’s Catering for the same length of time.  

Wendell and Kimberly Donelson
Before launching his own culinary venture, Wendell worked as a chef at the Peabody Hotel in Downtown Memphis and Kimberly worked as a speech-language pathologist.  After the couple married, Kimberly continued to work in her field while also helping to operate Donelson’s Catering, which provides food and service for events including weddings, graduations and corporate luncheons.

Four years ago, Kimberly made the transition to working full-time with her husband, who said that being in such a demanding, hands-on business requires investing a lot of hours, but they still find ways to invest in their marriage.

“Working together is a benefit because we actually still get to see each other throughout the day, even though we’re working,” Wendell said. “Sometimes we’ll take a break and have lunch or breakfast together and just get away for a minute.

For couples who don’t work together, there might be one person who works a lot, they might not see each other all day or for days at a time, or just see each other in passing.”

Kimberly said the greatest challenge is finding a work-life balance that includes their 18-month-old and tween daughters. 

“Sometimes it’s hard to know when to separate business from life – drawing that line,” she said. “We try not to talk shop at home. It’s hard to get around it. Sometimes we have to say, “we’re not going to talk about business anymore today. We’re going to enjoy life and our kids.”

Kimberly’s advice to couples considering opening a business together is to set aside time for each other and not let the company consume their lives.

“Life is short, time passes quickly, and you can’t get it back,” she said. “Carve out time for the two of you and your family when those opportunities present themselves, and when they don’t, make those opportunities happen.”

 

Takes a village

In Memphis’ Cooper-Young neighborhood, husband-and-wife team Jamie and DJ Naylor have worked together for the last eight years running Celtic Crossing, an Irish pub and restaurant that’s a neighborhood staple thanks to its hearty Irish fare, live music and trivia nights, and as a destination for watching international sports broadcasts. 
DJ and Jamie Naylor
Jamie describes DJ, a native of County Mayo in Ireland, as the “face of Celtic,” a hands-on owner who’s usually on site interacting with staff and customers.

“DJ spent a lot of time in pubs as a younger adult, so he has a clear vision of what he wants for Celtic Crossing,” she said. “He’s a high-energy person, which is required for the long hours needed to manage a restaurant.”

Jamie, on the other hand, works more behind the scenes planning, organizing, managing the office and scheduling meetings.

“Jamie is highly organized and focused,” said DJ. “She has a steady energy that really helps keep everyone on track.”

The couple agrees that the most challenging aspect of running a business with your life partner is setting boundaries between business and family life.

“We try not to always talk about work but it’s impossible not to bring our work home with us,” said Jamie.

The couple has two young daughters, and the tradeoff is having flexible schedules to be able to travel and spend time with each other and their children.

“It’s really a bonus for raising a family,” said Jamie, who has recently lessened her role at Celtic Crossing to focus more on the children as the oldest girl prepares to start kindergarten.  “Celtic is also a family business, so we enjoy bringing the kids to the pub, and many of our regulars have watched them grow up.”

Read more articles by Aisling Maki.

Aisling Maki is a writer and editor with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries and she has written locally for more than a dozen publications, including The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and Memphis Parent Magazine. She previously worked as a digital producer and weekend reporter for Action News 5, Memphis correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and staff reporter for Memphis Daily News.

Signup for Email Alerts