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Trading the executive job for the blank canvas of a business start-up

Tucked in the trendy AkSarBen Village, within walking distance of a park, shops and coffee sippers is what Kathy Byrnes hopes is to be one of Omaha’s hottest fashionable merges of gallery, retail and creative exploration.

Village Canvas and Cabernet offers a gallery featuring local artists’ works for sale on consignment, and a small wine, beer and coffee bar off to the side for browsers.  While the space also will be available for private parties, the best part, and the linchpin of the business, is an artist who will lead fun and entertaining painting sessions to help guests craft their own unique works. 

“I hope we can have the space for people to explore their creative side and potentially discover their inner artist,” she added.

Kathy Byrnes (center) of Village Canvas and Cabernet

Kathy Byrnes (center, in tan jacket) during the opening of Village Canvas and Cabernet Sept. 14 in Omaha's AkSarBen Village. 

It’s a natural progression for Byrnes, who, along with her husband, are general partners of the Hot Shops Art Center, a collection of artist studios and galleries north of downtown.

About 13 years ago, Byrnes recalled working in the health promotion area of The Nebraska Medical Center, enjoying a coffee break with a co-worker.  As both of them daydreamed, lost in conversation, they asked each other:  What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?

“I answered, I saw myself in a flower shop or a coffee shop surrounded by unique gifts and things I love,” Byrnes remembered.

That would be a departure from a career she started while still in high school, soliciting volunteers for door-to-door work for the American Cancer Society.  

After earning a degree in community health education and a master’s in public administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Byrnes eventually found her way to head a non-profit firm, Executive Service Corps Nebraska, which counted as its supporters some of Omaha’s biggest names in business, helping smaller community-focused groups get their start.  Finally, after the age of 50, she gave up her full-time career as the CEO for the non-profit Prevent Blindness Nebraska to work on the next project in her life.

And it started on a holiday visit with family in Denver.

“My sister-in-law took me to a place where you paint pictures,” Byrnes said. “I had a glass of wine, we were just following the instruction from the artist, and it was amazing, our talents came out in what we were doing.  So she turned to me and said, ‘you should open something like this in Omaha.’”

Byrnes had long since put her idea of a shop surrounded by flowers and coffee aside, but that visit planted a seed.  On the seven-hour drive back to Omaha, she discussed the potential venture with her husband; upon returning home, she got to work.

As she put together a business plan with his help, she scouted locations from office buildings to shopping malls, finally settling on a 2,000-square-foot place on a first-floor corner in AkSarBen with enough foot traffic to make it work. 

“There are about 300 of these types of businesses across the country,” Byrnes claimed, “and I eventually visited four of them in Colorado, seeing what they do, getting a better idea on what I wanted to do with mine.”  

She took her plan to Dundee Bank, a branch of Security State Bank in Omaha, where she was approved April 6 for an SBA Express loan.  The process of applying for the SBA-backed commercial loan reminded Byrnes of her non-profit experience completing grant applications—“the process was similar, you just have to know where to find the information they’re asking for.”

What was daunting was the leap of faith she had to take, that everything needed to open her business would happen.  With the line of credit in hand, she began working in May and had it in mind to open in June; except considerable work had to be done on the leased space to turn it into her business, pushing to mid-September before she could open her doors.

“That was the scary part,” she admitted.

Ribbon cutting with Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and Larry Gomez of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to commemorate the opening of Village Canvas and Cabernet.

Ribbon cutting to commemorate the opening of Village Canvas and Cabernet, along with Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and Larry Gomez of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

“I think being over 50, I have the experience to know what I don’t know and to surround myself with people who can help me,” Byrnes said.  “I know what I’m best at and what I’m not so good at.  I think with that experience, there’s a greater comfort level to admit I need to get the right people for advice and help.  For example, I’m not an artist, and if I don’t get the right artist to lead our art classes, it could really negatively affect the business.  We’re always learning.”

To help her start-up succeed, she also took a marketing workshop from the Nebraska Business Development Center, “and I plan to do more with them,” she said.

Byrnes will hire up to five part-time employees, not including the artists she’ll bring in as  independent contractors as needed.  She’s also reaching out to UNO to attract interns who want to learn how to teach art or gain real-world business experience.

Moreover, she’s not done working with the non-profit businesses in the area.  “I’ve embraced it as part of our mission,” she said.  “We have three ways here to help smaller non-profits, from providing a meeting space, providing donations and hosting fundraisers.”

As Byrnes traded the job as an executive for the blank canvas of starting a small business, “I never in a million years thought I’d be an entrepreneur.

“You know, I can really feel good when I walk in here every day, knowing I established a great place where guests feel inspired to explore their creative side so many of us don’t explore.”