PITTSFIELD — Growing up in Ghana, Alfred Enchill's dream was to become a lawyer and work as a diplomat at the United Nations, but life had other plans.
A series of events and circumstances guided Enchill to own Elegant Stitches embroidery on First Street in Pittsfield instead.
"We were in turmoil [in Ghana] back then," Enchill said, referring to the series of coups and clashes that led to the rise of former military leader and president Jerry J. Rawlings. "I was at the University of Ghana when we had the problems. My folks wanted me to come to the U.S. and live with my uncle and go to school."
In 1988, Enchill went to live with family in Bridgeport, Conn. He was going to continue his legal studies, but his plans changed once he saw the tuition and fees for a semester at the University of Bridgeport. He couldn't afford it. So, Enchill became a delivery contractor for the U.S. Postal Service.
That job brought Enchill to Pittsfield in 1991. Six years later, he and his wife, Vivian, opened the original Elegant Stitches at Fenn and First streets.
The shop was burned down in an arson in February 2004. It was completely destroyed.
But with help from the community, the Enchills were able to rebuild their business and thrive. Elegant Stitches, which also does screen printing and vinyl heat press customization, has become a popular spot for custom apparel in the Berkshires.
The firm's clients include Tanglewood, the Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon, numerous county high schools as well as Brown, Tufts and Wesleyan universities.
We met with Enchill recently to talk about his journey, the advice he would give to immigrant entrepreneurs and why, at age 57, he still is pursuing a college degree.
Q Given your goals when you were younger, do you have any regrets about how your life turned out?
A If I go back and say, "Oh, if I had been a lawyer " [I would have to] then forget the fact that I had been able to raise [four] wonderful kids to become men. Then I am cheating myself by not acknowledging the accomplishment that comes with being a parent. If there's any regret at all, it's that the journey has been longer for me to get my degree.
Q You're still going to school?
A I'm at Berkshire Community College. I now have, like, five credits to finish an associate degree in business administration at BCC. Then I'll probably go to the University of Massachusetts or the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. I did it in reverse. I started 15 years ago, then stopped because it was tough raising the kids. You can't do it all raising the kids.
Q Why didn't you continue your studies when you first came to the U.S. in 1988?
A I went to the University of Bridgeport. Boy, the bill was so huge. I asked the guy [at the college]: When I looked in your catalogs, you said this was the price for tuition. So, how come [it's higher]? They say because I'm a foreign student. So, I have to pay double and triple? I couldn't afford it. So, I started to work.
Q How did you end up in Pittsfield?
A I had a delivery truck and I was
delivering for the post office as a
contractor. I got a contract with the Pittsfield Post Office. That's what brought me to the Berkshires.
Q You started your embroidery business, Elegant Stitches, with your wife, Vivian, in your home basement back in the 1990s ...
A We couldn't afford going outside. It was easier to do in the basement.
Q Why make the change from post office delivery contractor to embroideryshop owner?
A [In Ghana], Vivian used to design clothes and do African clothes for sale. But we weren't selling much of that in Berkshire County. There was another company that Vivian was making clothes for in New York. So, one day I was in New York and said, "Let's go see these guys." When I got there, they were taking her designs and making them in bulk. They said, we can do this for you guys. So, we started selling them at local craft shows. And we sold all of them. So, we started looking into embroidery. The industrial [embroidery] machines came in 1997. Before, we were doing embroidery with smaller machines. So, we don't count those years as embroidery.
Q After moving out of the basement, you opened your first shop at First and Fenn streets, but lost it in 2004 due to arson ...
A Oh, yeah. That was heartbreaking.
Especially when we were watching the whole thing burn. We were there the whole time.
Q Were you able to salvage anything?
A The Fire Department and the chief of police actually helped us a lot that day. They were able to break the side door to get our hard drive out. It had all of our customer information and our designs on it. At least we could breathe when we had that.
Q I read on your website that it only took you six weeks to find another location. How did that happen so quickly?
A We got a call from Berkshire Bank. They said, "Al, what happened is a sad thing, but we're here for you and we can make it happen with you as quick as possible." We knew we needed equipment, but we knew what we needed, which was easier. Then, a guy offered us his place [on Tyler Street] for free to use for six months.
Q Were you surprised the community stepped up to help you like that?
A I will never forget this one. [A friend] signaled to me to pull over from the rotary, and said, "Al, take this and take the kids out." I said, "No, no." Then he goes, "No," and shoved the money in my hand and said, "Just take it. Take the kids out to eat." When I got back in the car, I was in tears. It's something that I will never forget, the generosity of the community. The mayor [then-Pittsfield Mayor Sara Hathaway], she wrote us a note. I still think we have it somewhere. And Tricia [state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who was a city councilor then], her kids played soccer with us at the time. She sent us a very nice note, too.
Q What advice would you give to an immigrant entrepreneur who is just starting out?
A I think you have to start everything small. Some people believe in getting things and going boom! But if it blows up in your face, you lose a lot. So, you start small, work on your craft and then grow. Starting a business is like raising a kid. It's not easy. Sometimes you may not know your way right off the bat, but it will grow if you are
committed to it. It takes time.