Three generations of savvy, New York women comprise the Ware family. When Michele Ware, owner of Hoodwinked Escape in Upper Manhattan, left her job to pursue a passion, she had two immediate concerns: her daughter, Samantha Salmon, a student at Towson University in Maryland and her mother Doris Ware. Doris, a retired banking executive of 50 years says, “We are so proud of Michele. She is the one who has kept our extended family together.”
Born in Anderson, South Carolina, Doris’s mother moved her five children to New York in 1947. Doris reflects, “Harlem was beautiful back then and it made me tough.” Tough and ambitious. “I started making money at the age of 12 as a showroom model at Bloomingdales. I lied and told them I was 16. I wanted to make my own money and I kept that job throughout high school.”
After attending Hunter College majoring in Black History and York College to be come a paralegal, Doris entered the banking industry working for US Bank and Citibank as an investor, an analyst and an accountant. “Michele started coming to work with me at 6 years old on Saturdays. They taught her how to file or she would run interoffice errands. They would give her a few dollars. Bringing her to work with me, I let her see that money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Endeavoring to rear a financially acute child, Mrs. Ware went a step further. “At 10 years old, I gave her my checkbook, the bills and my pay stub. I told her to pay the bills.” When her daughter did the math, “Michele said we don’t have enough money. I said ok, let’s come up with a plan. So what we decided to do was pay up one bill at a time.”
Becoming a single mother, when Michele was seven, Doris found the freedom to parent as she saw fit. “Raising her alone? It was fine!” Doris sharply assures,“I didn’t want the other opinion!” The 70-something years young woman continues, “Sometimes it’s hard to have the father’s input. I had to push Michele. He thought I pushed her too hard in school. He disagreed with my efforts, so it was best for me to do it by myself.”
On that wave, they explored life and travelled extensively — . “Michele was always busy from horseback riding to LaCrosse to basketball”. When Michele wanted to model in Europe before going to college, her mom gave her permission and she hit the runways of Paris in 1985. “If Michele mentioned it, I exposed her to it. I wanted her to know she had choices in life.”
“I consider myself a true native New Yorker because I’ve lived in all five boroughs,” says Michele who has a Masters of Science in Financial Statements, Analysis and Security Evaluation from Baruch College. “My life before being an entrepreneur was accounting. In college, I was intrigued by this club—the National Association of Black Accountants, Baruch chapter.” Michele notes, “Not even connecting the dots to the exposure my mom gave me earlier on to the banking world.”
Michele’s enthusiasm for her own business was discovered while working as a manager in the financial industry. “Sometimes you work so hard you that forget the co-worker sitting next to you is a person, not just a producer. I found it was very important to find ways for the staff to bond to boost morale to respect each other as people from different walks of life.”
Taking her staff to an escape room invigorated a desire. “Everyone’s personality came out and everyone realized the role they played. My staff left that experience motivated.” And Michele left with a winning idea. “I liked the concept. I said to myself, I want to open one of these.”
Over the years, Michele has listed several ideas, “Million dollar ideas, maybe billion dollar ideas, I’ve had for businesses but never going forward with any of them.” However, she was losing fervor for her job. “I was going through changes at work. I was tired of dealing with the politics of corporate America.” And she couldn’t stop thinking about the escape room. “This idea felt right.”
Michele woke up one morning in that state of pure potential—“The time, between sleep and just waking up where if you listen you get your answer.” She had a strong desire to leave her job. Primarily concerned with her daughter who was a senior in high school at the time and her mortgages. In this meditative moment she received the answer to her prayers. “You’ve accumulated assets. Liquidate and fund your business,” she recalls. “I know this is something I was led to do.”
“Over the years, all of my ideas my mother supported. I said I want to go to Europe and model she said ok and let me go. Singing classes, acting lessons, always, ‘ok, go for it’. Michele’s daughter was a tough crowd, however. “Samantha said yeah right ma, another idea.” Jaded by her mom’s lengthy list of unrealized businesses, “I wanted to prove my daughter wrong.”
Samantha, 19, admits her skepticism. “At first I thought, Is this really going to happen?” When Michelle quit her job, Samantha was shocked. “I thought, this is getting serious now.”
When the Forensic Chemistry major came home to visit from college, seeing her mom’s new venture for the first time, she says, “I could feel that it would be successful.”
Michele opened for business in winter of 2015. In the first quarter, the escape rooms entertained over 1,000 clients; the sweet smell of success.
The overall concept of Hoodwinked Escape is you collaborate to escape a locked room by finding clues, solving riddles or cracking codes. The rooms have provocative themes like The Hangover Room or The Spirit of Harlem Room. The goal is to figure out how to get out. The escape rooms are suited for two to ten people: staffs, birthday parties and even couples are energized by the experience. “Family’s come to Hoodwinked and it’s like an old school family game night but even more interactive.” The CEO states, “You learn a lot about each other. It allows for a different conversation.” And a new, fresh source for fun.
Doris, who sits at the front desk on Saturdays calls her daughter’s well-designed adventure— “fabulous”. Mrs. Ware observes, “Everyone is excited when they leave the escape room. And it makes Michele happy because, she’s making them happy.”
“The coolest thing,” Samantha adds “is that Hoodwinked Escape has brought a lot my family together more.” Michele’s daughter adds, “My mother is very hardworking and determined. All that rubbed off on me because I see where that got her. She’s always been supportive of everything I’ve wanted to do. She’s a good person. I’d like to be like her.”
For more information on this Coolest Family’s business, visit www.HoodwinkedEscape.com.
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.