Daymara Baker

Entrepreneur makes it happen

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK "I think that, like many of us, Daymara knows that contributing to the community provides benefits many times over. It may be because of what has happened in her home country, Venezuela, that she recognizes how important it is to give back." -- Carol Reeves, associate vice-provost for entrepreneurship, University of Arkansas

Daymara Baker is no stranger to taking risks. The founder and operator of Rockin' Baker -- a bakery in Fayetteville that hires members of the community who have special circumstances that may impact their ability to gain employment -- Baker risked everything when she came to the United States from her native Venezuela in 1996.

"I sold my apartment, sold my car, sold everything that I had and just left," she says. "It was one of those things where I thought, 'I'd better do it now or never.' I don't want to get older and have any pending questions. I thought, 'If I go and it doesn't work out, I'll just move back.'"

Through Others’ Eyes

Daymara Baker

“She is an extremely hard worker who is very motivated to achieve any goal she sets her mind to. I believe her passion for helping others along with her dedication was behind her motivation to open Rockin’ Baker.” — Rockin’ Baker employee Jennifer Dozier

“Daymara is smart, warm and holds herself and those around her to high standards. We’ve been best friends for almost 20 years, and she amazes me every day with her high energy level and incredible drive she brings to everything. Her high standards sometimes get to people, but she would never ask people anything that she couldn’t live up to herself. She is a role model for many, and at the same time, she’s so talented, artistic, and a she’s a fun person to be around. I’m fortunate to call her my sounding board, my confidant, my best friend, my sister.” — Isabel Fang

“I think that Daymara wants to deeply touch the lives of individuals who are frequently overlooked by others. She is trying to develop a way to involve these individuals in mainstream society.” — Carol Reeves

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At the time, she was living and working in Curaçao.

"I could tell by then that our economy was getting worse," says Baker. "I had a good job, but, at the same time, you could see how the situation in the country was degenerating, and it was just getting worse. It was really getting unsafe. I was going to a program very similar to an executive MBA program here, and on my first day of class, my car was stolen. And that was the second time. I had already had an experience where I had my car stolen with a gun to my head. So I said, 'Maybe next time I won't be that lucky.'"

Where is Monticello?

Baker's childhood was fairly traditional and sounds idyllic. Growing up "by the ocean side," Baker and her brothers -- one older, one younger -- were raised by their great-grandmother while their parents worked. Baker's father owned his own business doing paperwork for importers and exporters, and her mother was an executive secretary at a power plant.

"It's very traditional for [Venezuelans] to live with your parents after you grow up and get older," she says. "It's very common. When my great-grandmother got very old and became a little senile, my mother decided to quit working and take care of her."

By this time, Baker had already been to the United States once.

"The first time I left Venezuela was when I was 17," she says. "I came to Philadelphia to learn English. And that's when the economic crisis in Venezuela happened. My father just got too nervous trying to find currency every day, so he said, 'It's time to come back home.'

"There were a lot of Latinos around at that time, and that meant you tended to hang out with them, which meant I didn't learn as much English as I wanted to. But when I went back home, I went to the British Consulate and tried to take as many English classes as I could."

Fast forward 15 years or so, and Baker was ready to give it another shot in America. Determined to make more progress on her language skills this time, she deliberately targeted schools that appeared to have fewer Spanish-speaking students in attendance in order to force herself to practice her English. That's how she ended up applying for and being accepted to the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

"No one really told me where I was going," says Baker. "I had been exposed to New York, to Philadelphia and all of those cities with access to trains. So I went to Little Rock and took the Greyhound bus to Monticello. The station was in the middle of nowhere. So my first instinct was to ask for a taxi, and the [people at the station] just laughed. There were no taxis. The bus driver, he said, 'Oh, honey, somebody didn't tell you something. I will take you to college.' So he took my bike and my bags on the bus and dropped me off at campus.

"When we got there, he opened the doors, and I thought he said, 'Be careful with the red snakes.' And I thought, 'I'm a city girl, I don't even like going out in the woods.' But after I had been going to class for a few days I thought, 'Oh, he actually said, "Be careful of the rednecks."' I had never been exposed to any of that."

There was a lot she was being exposed to for the first time -- the variety of accents made language comprehension even harder for the English learner. Baker says she felt desperately lonely in those first few months.

"I didn't know that I could cry that much," she says. "I didn't understand anything for weeks. One of my [resident assistants] said to me, 'Don't worry about it, sometimes I don't understand either,' and that made me feel like, OK, maybe it's not just me. One of the professors was from Texas, with a very different accent, and another professor used to tell jokes all the time in class. When you're learning a language, you are very literal. Jokes don't make sense. In class, everybody would laugh, and I thought, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' so I was worried he was insulting me. And of course, I would fail all of my oral tests."

With characteristic determination, Baker set out to solve this problem. She went after a highly desirable position at the university library and got it when she explained to the librarian she wanted the job to improve her language. Within six months of her second landing in the U.S., she was on the honor roll. Within two years, she had earned her bachelor's degree.

"I took as many credits as I could every semester," she says. "I was taking so many credits, 22 or 23, and I was also a resident assistant, so the chancellor would have to sign off on my class schedule. But I still had all As."

On to Fayetteville

Next on her to do list: obtain an MBA at the University of Arkansas. She made an immediate impression upon her arrival in Fayetteville.

"I was MBA director when I first met Daymara," says Carol Reeves, associate vice-provost for entrepreneurship, Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. "My first impression of her was that she was a dynamo. She was extremely organized and driven to excel in an MBA program that was being taught in a second language for her. I was so impressed with her that I recruited her to participate in a new student-run business, For Business S.A.K.E, that we had just started. Daymara ended up being one of the lead managers for the class. She was much more mature and driven than most of our students. She would not let anything get in the way of the success of the business and was relentless in her pursuit of happiness."

After graduation, she worked for two marketing agencies before landing at Chiquita Bananas, where she would eventually end up as director of sales.

While working in this high-pressure job, Baker turned to pottery as an outlet for relaxation. She had been taking classes at the Walton Arts Center after the University of Arkansas restricted their pottery classes to university students, but she was disappointed when the WAC announced they were focusing more on performing rather than visual arts. It looked like the pottery classes might be one of the programs that would be cut as a result.

But then Baker had the urge to take another leap into uncharted waters.

"Susan [Hutchcroft] and I said, 'What if we could create something to keep it alive?' and that's how we co-founded the Community Creative Center," she says. "So we worked very closely with the Walton Arts Center to do just that. We leased the space [at the Nadine Baum Studios, 505 W. Spring St. in Fayetteville], and I made a proposal to buy all the wheels, all the art supplies they had. And the day we opened the doors [in 2007], mail came saying we were approved as a nonprofit organization."

Baker had never helped create -- much less, helped run -- a nonprofit organization before. Additionally, she was working as a high-level executive at a major corporation at the time. But Baker says she saw a need in the community and couldn't help but try and fill it.

"I didn't believe that the program needed to die," she says. "I thought, 'We have to make it happen.' Susan had already been working for the Walton Arts Center, so she had an idea how to put the classes together. I kind of worked behind the scenes, doing the paperwork.

"I strongly believe that art really helps, especially kids, to become more socially engaged and helps them with problem solving. There is not just one way to reach a solution with art. You can become really creative, and everyone can come up with a solution in so many different ways. I thought this was especially important with the educational system in the United States cutting budgets for all of the arts programs. Without exposure to arts, I was afraid kids would be too rigid, too much thinking inside the box. [Innovative] thinking is what it takes to become an entrepreneur, and if you're cutting that, you're cutting the creativity that this county is known for."

When Baker's Chiquita Bananas position was eliminated due to corporate downsizing, she was plotting out her next move when inspiration struck on a plane trip home to see her family in Venezuela.

"It was on the last leg of my flight, and I was reading a book," she remembers. "And this...'movie' came to me. This idea of helping people gain trade skills and soft skills by working in this type of environment. It was so vivid, that 'movie,' because all of the eventual colors of this space were even in this imaginative dream, the decor, how I was going to do everything. When I landed, it was quite scary, and I have to say I cried because I couldn't believe it happened. I kind of tried to push the movie away, but it kept coming back. I thought, 'Well, I guess I have to listen to this and hear what it's trying to tell me."

Rockin' Baker

The dream was of Rockin' Baker: a business where those who needed a hand finding gainful employment could seek help. Baker says the thought had never occurred to her before she had her vision.

"I have always thought of education as one of the only ways to help people succeed and achieve their dreams," she says. "I don't believe in giving money to people. I believe in giving them tools. And, for me, education is one of those tools."

Her first idea for the bakery was to hire people with histories of incarceration. According to a recent Arkansas Department of Correction study, rates of recidivism in Arkansas continue to rise, now hovering just below 50 percent. A lack of employment opportunities for those with criminal records is often cited as a reason for that growing statistic.

"I saw this concept as a chance for these people to incorporate themselves back into society," says Baker. "I kept reading that all of these doors are shutting for them. You read these articles, and you think, 'How can they get back on their feet if they never have a chance?' If there's nothing they can do [to make a living], they're going to have to go back [to prison]. We as a society are pushing them back instead of helping them, so that's what I decided to do."

"It's hard for a convicted felon to find a job, it's really hard," says Cynthia Shaver, a baker at Rockin' Baker who was recently incarcerated. "Some people say they're not biased, but they really are. Daymara is offering me a second chance, and I'm learning to bake bread from the beginning to the end, and all the steps in between. I'm learning a new set of skills. So, wherever I go, I can take this with me."

Baker had never owned a bakery, had never worked in the restaurant industry in any capacity. But, showing her typical moxie, she didn't let that stop her. Her husband -- a lawyer, as well as a skilled handyman and carpenter -- helped her navigate the difficult legal aspects of operating as a nonprofit business, and also built the handcrafted tables and counter that lend the Rockin' Baker space its charm in its cozy space at 3761 Mall Ave. in Fayetteville. Meanwhile, Baker headed to San Francisco's Baking Institute for a crash course in baking, followed by a trip to Cincinnati to briefly work as an apprentice in a shop specializing in fresh, homemade bread. In the end, she says, it's been the actual experience of running the business that has been the best teacher.

"There is only so much that you can read and ask people," she says. "The day we opened, something happened, and I had to figure out how to solve it right on the spot. It's just learning and extinguishing fires as you go."

And Baker has shown that, with a concept like hers, flexibility is key. She hadn't been open for very long when Amie Glass, whose daughter, Leah, is a person living with autism, approached her about the possibility of offering employment to people with disabilities in search of work experience.

"That had never occurred to me," says Baker. "I said to her, 'I have to be honest, I have never worked with someone with autism before, but I'll just use common sense and see how it goes.' That's how Leah began working here. I learned from her counselor and her mother, and now I have someone with a second chance and someone with a disability working here together. They're learning from each other."

"There were a few communication issues at first," says Glass. "I explained that Leah's thinking was so black and white and rigid, that when Daymara says, 'a pinch of this' or 'just a little bit of that,' it's beyond her comprehension. So we've had a couple of meetings with the Arkansas Support Network, Leah and Daymara, just to get everybody on the same page. Overwhelmingly, this experience has been just miraculous for Leah. She really enjoys being part of a team, where, before, she never liked working as a team. She couldn't do it. She wanted to do everything by herself."

"It's a challenge, but it's a lot of fun," says Leah. "I actually get to bake here, I get to make my own recipes. I'm free to do a lot more things. Daymara is a great teacher."

Baker says her biggest hope for the bakery is that it becomes self-sustaining, relying less on grants and donations, so that she can hire more and more apprentices, offering more and more second chances and training. She recently received donations that allowed her to purchase a dough divider, something that will, hopefully, expand her operations and staff.

With a vision like Baker's, it seems anything is possible. She is not limited by the fear of the unknown. Instead, her driving ethos is summed up in the words she used when describing why she started the Community Creative Center: "I saw that it needed to happen, so I did it."

"I think Daymara hung the moon," says Glass. "She's a beautiful person, inside and out. She does everything she can to make many, many people's lives better. She just does it and never calls attention to herself. It's just what she does."

NAN Profiles on 10/29/2017