As the daughter of EBSCO founders Elton B. and Alys Stephens, Jane Comer says entrepreneurship is in her blood. In the late 1980s, she opened The Elegant Earth, which she once described as a “garden boutique.” Like her parents, who spent the last few decades of their lives donating millions to arts education and various charitable causes, Jane is a philanthropist, too. An avid art lover, Jane has chaired the board of the Alys Stephens Center (named for her mother) and has served on the boards of the Alabama Ballet, Alabama Symphony Orchestra and Birmingham Museum of Art. She has also worked with the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham. In 2009 she donated $5 million to the Alys Stephens Center to create ArtPlay, which offers arts programs for Birmingham-area children. Jane is also the founder of GirlSpring, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower girls through a web-based platform and community events. We are honored to have Jane Comer as today’s FACE of Birmingham.
How did you get interested in entrepreneurship?
I knew early on [that] I wanted to start my own business. And I knew when I had my children that I did not want to do full-time work. I wanted to tend to them. So I waited and I did a lot of volunteer work. I stayed engaged.
I would say entrepreneurship is something that’s in your blood. Some people do not want to be in charge of anything. I’m the opposite. And I like to do creative things. So I started The Elegant Earth. And I think that entrepreneurship came from my father. He was an entrepreneur. I would say he was big influence, and my mother was extremely supportive.
In 1985, I started putting this thing together – The Elegant Earth. At that time there were not many garden shops in the United States. I was even featured in The New York Times. I had antiques. I had hand-carved stone, metal, marble, wood — all sorts of outdoor pieces that I’d brought back from Europe or Mexico. In 1995, we started a reproduction business where we replicated the pieces so they were much less expensive, and we opened a warehouse in downtown Birmingham. [She sold the business in 2000.]
What does it mean to be an entrepreneur?
To me, entrepreneurship is doing something no one else has ever done. If you start a restaurant, that’s not being an entrepreneur. But if you start a restaurant unlike anybody else’s, that’s an entrepreneur. Being original and being creative is part of being an entrepreneur, I think.
How did you get the idea to start ArtPlay, and why did you feel Birmingham needed a program like this?
I think every city does. I knew that I could give to the community financially, and I wanted to do something special and different. I wanted to give $5 million for a safe place for children to go indulge in the arts — music, dance, drama, media, poetry. I love children, and I love art, so I thought, ‘Yes, a place where children can go do art!’ We found this house and restored it from top to bottom. Kids go to school, they sit in a desk, the teacher stands up at the front, she talks, and they don’t participate. With ArtPlay, the idea was to let the kids take over. We’d have teaching artists, yes, but let the kids take over. Let the children be free to direct, produce, write and act in their own plays with adult guidance.
In 2009, you attended Gloria Steinem’s 75th birthday party, and she issued a challenge for everyone in the room to commit one outrageous act in the cause of simple justice. You had already been thinking of starting GirlSpring, and after that, you moved forward with the idea. How did GirlSpring finally begin?
I started GirlSpring for women. In 2009, I wrote a long letter to 12 somewhat prominent women in Birmingham asking them to come to my house for a chat. The chat was about women and equality. It was a lot about awareness and a lot about volunteering and giving financially for equality for everyone. We had several women’s meetings at different houses with lots of enthusiasm.
How did GirlSpring evolve from that into what it is today?
It was like the caterpillar turning into the butterfly. It was very gradual. I began to realize it wasn’t women who needed an organization like this. It was girls. I just decided that we would do better if we would provide more of a service and opportunity for girls to concentrate and focus on their careers and family planning and education. And we don’t just serve underprivileged girls. We serve both, and that is rare. Privileged girls need help, too.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing girls right now, and how does GirlSpring address that?
I think the biggest challenge is probably self-confidence. The Springboarders (girls ages 13 to 18 who serve as the editorial board for the website, volunteer at community events and help plan GirlSpring programs) have told me and their mothers have told me, too, that GirlSpring saved their daughter’s life, because it gave her confidence that she could go out and be herself and be brave and confront the world and do what she wants to do and get done what she wants to get done. Secondly, awareness is very important. The #MeToo movement has been huge, and these girls are more aware of human trafficking. They’re more aware of people trying to take advantage of them sexually or in other ways. They know that their voices can be heard and they have more self-confidence to do that.
When you’re not busy working and volunteering, you like to spend time with your six grandchildren. What sorts of things do you all do together?
I used to bicycle with them. I like to talk to them. I like to take them out to a special event and dinner. I like to go to their piano recitals and dance recitals and basketball games.
Tell us about the book you wrote for your grandchildren.
It’s called Light of the Moon, and it’s about a little girl named Clara who dances with the elves and fairies in the light of the full moon. I have an incredible illustrator. I’ve written five little books, but I’ve only published that one.
What else do you like to do in your free time?
Travel is number one. I also like to garden. I love novels. I like to design and decorate.
I danced from age 3 to 18, and when I go to New York, people say, “What shows did you see?” I say, “I didn’t see any shows. I saw five dance performances!” That’s my performing arts love. I go out of my way to go to dance performances.
What are a few of your favorite places to visit when traveling?
I love Europe. I love Mexico. Guatemala was fabulous.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Birmingham?
What’s the best advice you have to give?
Breathe — it will make you better physically, better emotionally, better in every way.
Name three things you can’t live without?
Chocolate, flowers and goats — the goat was my mascot in my business, and I collect goats.
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