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WomanOf The Month 5-09: Donna Sell

What do hot burritos, crispy nachos and fresh salads have in common with train tracks and locomotives? Truth be told, not much, but that didn’t bother Donna Sell. In fact, the former locomotive engineer decided to leave her career behind to pursue one of her passions – Mexican food – and opened Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina located in Kingsport, Tennessee. It took two years for the restaurant to open due to building and financial obstacles, but that didn’t stop Sell from achieving her goal. She opened in 2006 and has been thriving ever since.

For Donna, life started by milking cows on her father’s farm. And, it was only a few years ago that Donna was operating mile-long locomotives, traveling the rails from Richmond, Virginia to Rocky Mount, North Carolina. After obtaining a Bachelorapostrophes in Agriculture and a Masterapostrophes Degree in Hazardous Materials, Donna joined CSX Railroad, moving to the company’s headquarters in Richmond to take on the job of engineer. She originally went to Richmond to get an environmental job, but stayed as a locomotive engineer for five years. They never did hire anyone for the environmental position. She also worked as a safety chairman.

After 5 years, Donna left the railroad and moved back to Tennessee to be closer to her family. That was when she decided to visit her sister in Charlotte. A Salsarita’s franchise had opened nearby and Donna was really taken by the concept. This started her thinking about the possibilities. She had always been interested in owning her own business and now armed with a new found eagerness to find the right one. She proceeded to do extensive research. After meeting with the Salsaritaapostrophes company representatives to discuss franchise opportunities and the perfect real estate location available, she knew it was the right path to take.

However, finding financing was a whole other situation for Donna. Her father had helped her in the beginning, loaning her any money he could and then the unexpected happened. She received a dividend check from an investment she had made. And, guess what? It happened to be in the exact amount she needed. Things finally fell into place and she was able to open Salsarita’s in February of 2006. Since then, she has enjoyed every minute of owning her own restaurant and is so happy to offer a place where folks in Kingsport can come and enjoy fresh Mexican food.

We asked Donna to shed some light on a couple of things, because we knew youapostrophed want to know. Hereapostrophes what she had to say:

What was it like being a woman in the railway business?

Being a woman in a male-dominated field allowed me to really prove myself with my intelligence and skills. I was able to show them that I could do anything they could. The hard part was that I had the education and training to be a locomotive engineer, but what it really came down to was showing them I could do it. The same applied to opening Salsarita’s. There are few women business owners today and it’s a hurdle to show people you are able to do it. It was also difficult to obtain financing as a single woman, but with the help of my father and an unexpected windfall. My dream came true. I was able to prove myself not only as an engineer, but also as a business owner.

What advice can she give other women about overcoming career and business obstacles?

My best advice would be to stay strong and positive. If it is something you love to do, stick it out and people will see your strength against adversity. I used my faith in God as a way to help me through some of the challenges that I faced. I would say to anyone looking to make a career change or start a business, find someone who will be there for you through thick and thin. It is so important to have a support system that will help you on your journey.