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SisterHearts on Screen

Local businesswoman pairs with Square in a powerful short film



Nearly 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed a year after their release.

It’s a statistic Arabi business owner Maryam Henderson-Uloho fought hard not to be a part of, and she has dedicated her life and livelihood to helping other women do the same.

After serving 13 years in prison on an obstruction of justice charge, Henderson-Uloho found herself out on the streets of New Orleans unable to get a job, a bank account, a credit card or even find a place to live. She resorted to squatting in an abandoned apartment building selling items she found on the street out of a suitcase.

“I used my first $40 to start my business,” she said. “I rented a space at a flea market in Algiers, then outgrew that and moved to a space inside the Healing Arts Center, then to a 1,200-square-foot building that I outgrew in three months, then a 4,000-square-foot building in Arabi, and then to my current space, a 17,000-square-foot warehouse in Arabi at 7519 W. Judge Perez Dr. All of this was within three years.”

Uloho now runs SisterHearts Thrift Store, the largest thrift store in Saint Bernard parish.

In her early days of being in business, Henderson-Uloho said her business was changed by the addition of one small piece of technology, a Square credit card swiper. Ubiquitous now for small business owners, the Square Reader allows anyone with a smart phone to receive credit card or debit card payments from anywhere. The company was cofounded nine years ago by its CEO, Jack Dorsey, who also, by the way, cofounded a little thing called Twitter.

Last August, Square contacted Henderson-Uloho.

“They told me they were interested in telling my story and I honestly didn’t believe it at first,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had a story worthy of being told. It was just my life.”

When members of the company came out and visited her, Henderson-Uloho said she began to change her mind.

“It’s the first time I experienced that kind of level of compassion from someone,” she said. “It was obvious that they really cared about me and what I was doing.”

What Henderson-Uloho does is not only sell used items, she takes in up to 10 newly released former female inmates at a time and provides them with a place to live, helps them find jobs and get whatever care they need. Essentially, she helps them, as she says, de-carcerate.

Last fall, Square set out to tell the story of SisterHearts through a short film, the fourth in the company’s “For Every Kind of Dream” series, which documents the dream of small business owners across the United States. The resulting 15-minute film, entitled simply “Sister Hearts” is a powerful piece filmed primarily in black and white that makes no mention of Henderson-Uloho’s relationship with the company. It simply tells her story.

The film was shot over a period of a few weeks by Square’s creative team, who brought in Mohammad Gorjestani of Even/Odd films to direct. It was screened first at Orleans Parish Prison on March 16, and later that day at a premiere event at NOCCA with Dorsey. Dorsey also participated in a walking tour of three local small businesses earlier in the day. A third screening occurred during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, of which Square was a sponsor.

Kevin Burke, chief marketing officer at Square, said Henderson-Uloho’s story stood out among the company’s millions of customers.

“That idea of second chances in life, her embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit, of being resilient, determined to overcome all the odds and also give back to her community, it moved us,” he said. “She’s incredible. Definitely one of our favorite stories.”

For Henderson-Uloho, the extra attention will hopefully result in support for her cause, but, thanks to another gift from Square during their visit, she’s already seeing a boost.

“They gave me some equipment that I’ve wanted for so long but couldn’t afford,” she said. “It’s easily increased my business by 25 to 30 percent.”

Watch “Sister Hearts” online at BizNewOrleans.com/sisterhearts


Kimberley Singletary is the managing editor of Biz New Orleans magazine. A 20-year Southern California veteran, she has been surrounded by the film industry for most of her life.
 
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