After Moving to State College from Brazil, Business Owner Builds Company with International Reach
At the age of 14, Gracienne Myers moved hours away from the small town in Brazil where she was being raised by her grandmother to São Paulo, the nation's largest city and the largest in the Americas. Working in a flower shop, she earned money to send back to her grandmother while saving to pursue her dream of being an entrepreneur.
Today, Myers owns a State College-based company with an international reach. In 2007 she founded Mechanical Bull Sales, Inc., which manufactures and sells the entertainment systems to clients in 42 states and 44 countries.
"I had a goal to be my own boss," she said. "I started when I was 10-years-old selling popsicles using my grandmother’s fruit from her backyard and I had five or six kids selling them for me in school."
(Editor's note: Myers is married to Dan Myers, owner of Lazerpro Digital Media Group, the parent company of StateCollege.com)
Her grandmother led a simple life, raising Myers and two of her younger cousins by doing cleaning and maintenance at a hotel, where Myers would help her out. There she met a woman from São Paulo who offered her the opportunity to work in her flower shop, becoming her legal guardian.
She worked there, saving as much as she could to one day open her own shop. After three years she said she found herself uncomfortable with some of the business practices and went to work in another shop. At 19, she opened her own flower shop.
But concerned about the country's economy and safety -- at 21 she was robbed and injured outside of her shop -- she seized an opportunity to head to the United States in 1998, having saved about $7,000.
"You couldn’t do anything. You had no power to change, to make it better," she said.
She first went to Europe for a month and a half but couldn't find a place she connected with. She had been dating a man from State College and she came to the U.S. on a six-month visa.
After a few months, she said, their relationship soured and he kept her passport from her. She ended up at the Centre County Women's Resource Center waiting to get her passport back from him and speaking very little English. She just wanted to learn enough English to be able to get on a flight and return to Brazil.
"The Women's Resource Center, they are an amazing help," she said. "If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think maybe I would be here today."
Soon after she visited a nightclub and while walking in fell down the steps and injured her leg.
"It seemed like everything was going wrong," she said. "But in my mind, I thought 'You need to keep going.' I felt safe in State College."
At that time she met her future husband, Dan Myers. Meanwhile she worked at Panera and Woodrings Floral while taking classes at Penn State and becoming more fluent in English. Eventually she became a U.S. citizen.
After she and Myers married, she helped manage his company, Local Motion DJs. Looking to branch out, she saw renting mechanical bulls as a unique opportunity. So she bought one from a company in Brazil and found interest from several local bars, then from establishments in places like Dubois, Altoona and Harrisburg. She would do mini-tours, helping the businesses promote events with the mechanical bulls.
As the customer base grew she found some wanted to outright buy one, and she developed a commission agreement with the Brazillian company. She worked with an engineer to come up with changes to ensure the systems were safe -- the bulls throw riders to padded sides, rather than forward which is how injuries can occur -- and got licensed by the state to sell them. She sold 20 in the first year and 38 the next.
She said she was selling them faster than the company could produce them and earning larger commissions than they wanted to pay. At the same time she had to drive to Philadelphia regularly to pick them up and bring them back to State College in a trailer.
So she worked out an agreement to get the rights to file a patent in the United States and found places the systems could be manufactured here. Myers said she has worked closely with clients to learn what they wanted to make the product better.
"I was always engaged with the customer to understand what they needed and wanted the product to be," she said. "From a very young age I learned the number one most important piece of a business is not the product, it’s the client. The customer to me is the most important thing."
Myers also found that small businesses looking to buy a bull sometimes couldn't pay everything up front. She initially referred them to leasing companies, but found that high interest rates and early payoff penalties made it difficult for the clients. So she began to offer financing on her own, asking her engineer to build into the system a code that had to be entered every month and if payment wasn't made the bull wouldn't operate.
But as her international clientele grew, that wasn't an ideal solution. In 2015, she learned about the Export-Import Bank of the U.S., an independent federal agency which can provide insurance policies for companies exporting products built in the U.S., allowing them to provide flexible repayment options to international customers. Myers said through the program she was able to quickly offer financing to her first client in New Zealand.
And she says it's an example of the opportunities in the U.S. to help businesses succeed.
"This country has all the tools for someone to be a success," Myers said.
She also recently found assistance locally as she looks to expand the business with a new system. Penn State's Small Business Development Center helped her put together a business plan and understand what to do to get a bank loan for the expansion.
"I was shocked by all the resources Penn State offers to small businesses in Pennsylvania," she said.
Having the support of family who want to help her achieve her goals and her own determination have been keys to her success, Myers said. So, too, has moving to the U.S., and State College in particular.
"You can be creative and a hard worker and have all the skills to be successful, but the place you choose to be is very important," she said.