Carolyn Natrin: Inspiring Small Business

Carolyn Natrin

Small business Saturday is coming up on Nov. 27th. It’s a chance to forget Amazon and Walmart and to show some love to your local small businesses. Philadelphia is chock full of amazing privately owned and operated places for you to support, from small boutique stores to your favorite local restaurant to your neighborhood thrift shop. 

An organization that helps a number of those small businesses is the Independence Business Alliance (IBA), our region’s LGBT chamber of commerce. We spoke this week to one of the board members, Carolyn Natrin, who works for a company that also specializes in helping small businesses. 

So where do you hail from?

My family was from Delaware County. My father was a teacher in the public school system, and then when I was in about the 3rd grade he got a job in Wilmington, Delaware, so we moved there and that’s where I grew up. It’s funny, back then I thought it was such a small town, I couldn’t wait to go someplace bigger and better. I just wanted to get out of there, so I went to college in Florida. After that, I moved home and discovered Philly and gay bars and a whole new world and I couldn’t get myself out of Delaware fast enough. So in my early 20’s I moved myself to Philly. I lived in Center City for over 20 years before I met my wife. We moved to the suburbs about 18 years ago. It’s funny, now I go back to Delaware and I’ve discovered that all the things that I didn’t appreciate back then, I really love now. In fact, I bought a house in Rehoboth Beach a few years ago. I’ve come full circle and could see myself retiring there now. 

I always forget how close Wilmington is. I take a drive there with my neighbor on occasion and the thing I remember most is going to the 99cent store, and being excited that I didn’t have to break a 2nd dollar to pay for the tax on 99 cents. 

[Laughing] Yes, no sales tax, that’s a big draw. And real estate taxes are very low too. We were looking for a place in Asbury Park, which we prefer, but the taxes were way too high. Plus the president’s summer home is in Rehoboth, and it’s fun seeing him from time to time. 

What’s something about Wilmington that we don’t know about? I know they have a lovely Opera House theater. 

Yeah, I saw Bonnie Rait there when I was really young. For me, the hidden gem would be the bike trails; they’re fantastic. We had a governor a few years back who was really into biking so he put a lot of money into building out bike trails throughout the state. And Delaware is a flat state for the most part, so if you’re a biking enthusiast like I am it’s great. Though I guess if I were truly an enthusiast I would look for hills! But there are such beautiful trails through the marshland there. I can do 90 minutes without even thinking about it. 

Do you come from a big family?

I am the middle of 5 children. I think that’s what makes me good at networking with people. I love connecting people and bringing everyone together, it’s kind of my thing. 

What did the folks do?

My father was a teacher; he’s been gone for a long time. My mother is 87 and retired, but speaking of small businesses, she now owns a custom baby blanket business. She makes these beautiful heirloom blankets that are sold in high end boutiques. She partially hand sews them with pictures and names, and then hooks knitting mills up to her computer for some of it. She designs patterns and programs. She cranks them out and manages to get them shipped out on a deadline. She’s very tech savvy, self taught. She’s also very creative but she doesn’t believe it. 

Wow, I’m impressed! Back to you, what did you study in Florida and where?

I went to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. I graduated with a degree in graphic design. I moved back to Delaware as a graphic designer and then was promoted to Art Director of “Fine Times” magazine. I did that for a number of years. We covered restaurants, art and a lot of the music scene, so those were some fun times. I got to go to a lot of concerts and met a lot of interesting people. 

How did you get involved with the IBA?

Four years ago I switched careers. I started out in graphic design and for a number of years had my own business. Then I became an account exec at an ad agency, and from there went to an ad agency that specialized in Human Resources. My career took off from there. I love HR and was really good at promoting it, and I built a branch office for a big national ad company. We were rated 5th in the country, and they sold the company in great part because the branch that I built was so successful. Then I was selling recruitment advertising to big companies and I was like, “How did I get here?” After that, I had a ‘non-compete’ so I had to do something different. Fast forward after a few other things, and I heard about Insperity. I really liked their focus and their mission which was really positive. It’s an HR company and they really care about people. So now I’m working with them helping small businesses. It’s so funny how I started as a creative and now I’m on a different side. But I remember going to an HR conference years ago and thinking, “These people are wonderful! They’re nice and they care about the world. I’m not an HR person, I’m a sales person, but there’s something about them that I love.” And now I’m in that space. 

So, back to finally answering your question! My first day at Insperity, someone told me about IBA. My new job is about meeting small business owners, and the IBA has a lot of small businesses in its membership. They do a lot of great networking events, so I went to one that night and I met my first customer. [Laughing] After that I went to EVERY event! About a year in they asked if I would consider joining the board. I think my superpower is in connecting people, and I love to do it so I was happy to join. And this year, I volunteered to be secretary. I love helping people. 

Tell me a little about the work you do?

It’s exciting. Insperity was started in Texas and they were the first PEO (Professional Employer Organization) concept. It was just two guys in a small office who wanted to help small businesses. It’s hard for small companies to compete with big companies who have lots of resources and buying power. They often don’t have the HR and legal resources, so they fall out of compliance with labor laws and get sued, because they inevitably do and say things they shouldn’t. They have to figure out payrolls and taxes, and often it’s hard to get the benefits they need to get top employees, and they don’t have the power to find the solutions. So what they figured out was that they could be the employer, and then companies could tap into our resources and get benefits at our cost. For example, we don’t sell benefits, but you can get them through us at our cost. We don’t sell workman’s comp, but you can get access to our policy at our cost. By reducing your costs using our technology and services, you substantially lower your costs so that you can afford to hire us to do your HR services. So you get all those benefits, plus a team of HR professionals. So we help small businesses achieve their growth goals by giving them the tools they need to get there. And we work with businesses from 5 to 5,000 employees. 

Cool! So going back, what is your coming out story?

It used to be, as a person in the corporate world, that you had to go back in the closet. Luckily, that’s changed today, it’s almost embarrassing if you’re not out. But then I just didn’t talk about it. I figured it out when I was about 13 and had crushes on friends. Once I figured out what a lesbian was, I knew that’s what I was. I never had a specific conversation, but I think most people kind of figured it out. I mean my mother was at my wedding to Ellen, so that was probably a clue. 

Yeah, I’d say a subtle hint. 

We talk about it now, and when I was at the ad agency, they figured it out right away. It was funny, the way I figured out that they had me pegged was not them coming out and saying “Hey, you’re a lesbian!” but the woman during the interview process kept saying that they were thinking of opening an office in San Francisco and that I’d be great for it! So after that, I was pretty much out at all my jobs. In fact it was that same woman who said, “Stop hiding it, you’re going to be better at your job if you just be who you are.” And she was right. 

Tell me about being a married woman. It wasn’t legal in most places when you got hitched. 

Yes, it was 23 years ago. Marriage wasn’t a thing for us back then, so it wasn’t even a possibility. I originally met Ellen’s best friend at a holiday party. She was very interesting and we chatted for a bit. Ellen said that the friend called her that night and said, “I met someone tonight who would be perfect for you, but I’m not going to introduce you”. She and I dated casually for a few weeks, and then I went to another event and Ellen was there and it was like, zing! We immediately connected. 

We emailed a few times and decided to share the drive to a “ladies” party in New Hope. We stopped to get lunch on the way there, went to the dance and then went to dinner afterwards. It just happened to be Valentine’s Day, so it was weirdly romantic with hearts on the table and couples all around us. We weren’t on a date, but because it was the Valentine’s Day menu we had to share a dessert and I looked at her and thought, wow, I’d be interested in dating her. We both knew that night that it was going to become something and here we are all these years later. 

And the wedding? 

Even though we weren’t legally married, we just decided that we were going to move forward as if we were. Then just as some states were starting to legalize it, Ellen’s mom had a stroke and it really made her think about the legal protections that come with marriage. As gay people, without any protections, the other person’s family could come and take things, or restrict visitation, etc., so she asked me to marry her. It wasn’t legal in PA, but it was in Delaware, so we got a certificate and then had 30 days to get married! But we pulled it off. We’re both big wine connoisseurs, so we got married in a wine restaurant on a Thursday night. They opened an hour early so we could have the place to ourselves. We got married and they put a long table in the middle. We had about 18 guests, family and friends. Then the restaurant opened and all the diners became a part of it. People kept coming up to congratulate us and it was nice. 

What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?

I’ve traveled a lot to Europe and been to Italy a number of times. I’ve been to Hungary. It’s been a while because of the pandemic, but I think our last trip was to Ireland. Can’t wait to go back to Europe and explore more. 

What’s something you like to do for fun?

I’ve gotten away from it because work takes up a lot of time, but I used to love to do landscape oil painting. It’s another reason I like being in Delaware, so many farms and pastoral scenes to paint. I love being out in nature, spring, summer, fall, or winter. I’ll put on some great music and get lost in painting. Sometimes it would feel like hours would go by and suddenly I’d wake up and have this interesting piece in front of me. I’ll get back to it soon I hope. 

What’s your favorite picture of Ellen?

That’s an interesting question. Hmmm, as I said, we enjoy wine, so we do a lot of vineyard trips. We’ve visited wineries all over and… [laughing] you know, I’m going to sound like a wino and I’m really not! But I have some great shots of her in some of the vineyards. And a lot of my paintings are at wineries! 

Not a wino, you spit it out don’t you?

Never! 

Something you’d do if you weren’t afraid?

I don’t know. I wish I was better at public speaking so I could be a better representative for the community. 

Ginger or Maryann? 

Ginger for sure. 

What’s the origin of your last name?

I think Natrin is Latvian. My father was also half Hungarian but I didn’t know much about that side. It’s partly why I made that trip to Budapest, Hungary. I had DNA’s done for me and my mother and it turns out she’s a whole bunch of things that we weren’t aware of. I found out that I was also Irish and English, which I didn’t know. Oh! And I found a 1st cousin I didn’t know about, she was given up for adoption when my aunt was young and a niece that I didn’t know about… and neither did my brother! It was before the internet or cell phones, he left town and didn’t even know he left someone pregnant. But I’m so happy I found them, they’re now my two favorite people! I’m a connection person, and this was a pretty exciting new connection.