Mely Ballard celebrates 34 years of owning and operating her ice cream shop, Mely's Yogurt & Ice Cream, in Kansas City.
Inside of Mely’s Yogurt & Ice Cream, there’s a framed photo of Mely Ballard hanging on the wall. She’s sitting in a chair with her shoulders back, chin up, and her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Beneath her picture, it reads: "The Boss."
Ballard has owned and operated the frozen yogurt and ice cream store in Prairie Village, Kansas, for more than three decades. She’s served four generations of customers, formed long-lasting relationships, and learned what it takes to be a successful business woman. Thirty-four years later, she’s still the boss.
In 1979, Ballard, a Chinese-American immigrant, moved to the United States from the Philippines with $100 and a suitcase full of clothes. She said that if it weren’t for her move, she would never have had the chance to be the business owner she is today.
"The opportunity in America – you can never beat that," she said. "It will take somebody to go out of the country to appreciate it."
Immigrant entrepreneurs are twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. In fact, many cities and city leaders are looking for ways to attract and retain foreign-born entrepreneurs like Ballard to start and grow businesses in their communities. It's that kind of welcome Ballard attributes part of her success to, not only the opportunity of the American Dream, but specifically to Prairie Village, as well.
When she opened Mely’s in the Corinth Square shopping district in 1985, she said that, as an immigrant, she was accepted into the community – and it shows. In 2003, she was awarded the Star of Kansas Taliaferro Community Spirit Award by the City of Prairie Village, and on July 4 of this year, she was awarded the Villagefest 2019 Citizen Spirit Award from the City of Prairie Village. There’s even a tree dedicated to her at Franklin Park, just a mile from her store.
Mely Ballard works in the ice cream shop she’s owned in Prairie Village, Kansas, for 34 years. Photos by Luis Villareal.
"I’m very lucky that I’m here," Ballard said. "Prairie Village is just really, really different."
To her, the community stands out because of the people. She’s known almost every mayor of the city and they’ve known her. Her long-time customers always come back to check in on her, like Prairie Village couple Bill and Julie Rainen, who’ve known Ballard for 30 years.
After she won the Citizen Spirit Award, the two made a trip to Ballard’s store to congratulate her.
"We just came to get your autograph," Bill Rainen told her.
They gushed over pictures of the Raimen’s newest grandchild and laughed about the time Bill rode his bike to Mely’s with their first baby on the bike, too. Ballard knows them, their children, and now their children’s children all because of her business.
"The kids that used to come here are coming back as parents, and their parents are coming back as grandparents," Ballard said. "I love to hear what they have accomplished, what they study, where they are now … to me, if it's their accomplishment, I feel like it’s mine too."
Nearby store-owners keep up with Ballard too. Wynne Foster, co-owner of In Clover Boutique, said that she and Ballard often talk about business. Foster’s children went to elementary school across the street from the shops, so she and her kids have been eating Mely’s ice cream for years.
"She has always known our names and who we all are," Foster said. "[She creates] a great neighborhood feel."
To Ballard, being a successful entrepreneur means hard work, concentration, and innovation. She said she’s always been able to concentrate on her business, and during slow months like December, she’s learned to make up for lost ice cream sales with other products like gingerbread houses, peanut brittle, and candy.
Today, though, her biggest challenge is her competition. As a small, locally owned ice cream store, she’s faced pressure from franchises like Baskin Robbins and TCBY, but now she says it’s any ice cream store nearby.
"They say competition is good for you – that’s bologna," Ballard said.
Despite competition, the desire to run a strong, profitable business keeps her going. She doesn’t make a lot of money, she said, but she’s happy with what she does – and that’s enough for her.
Ballard, who is 66, said that she’s nearing retirement. In the next few years, she said that she wants to have time for herself.
"I need to clean my house," she laughed.
But when the time does come for her to sell her business, she said the thing she’ll miss the most is her customers.
"The people around this area – you can never find anywhere else," Ballard said. "They’re very helpful. They’re willing to help one another, and I learned a lot from them."