Irma Elder

When Irma Elder got married, her mother told her that a wife followed her husband no matter where he goes. For Elder, who met her husband while he was vacationing in her home state of Florida, that meant moving to Detroit. “He was a general manager at a car dealership,” she says. “We made a pact that we would save money and buy our own dealership. My job was to save money, his job was to work and earn it.” The couple met their goal in 1967, buying Troy Ford. It had opened the year before, and the original dealer had lost a lot money. With support from Ford Motor Co., the Elders took over and slowly built their business. “We went through the good times and the bad times,” says Elder. “The Ford strike really hurt us. The oil crisis really hurt all the dealers. And then the 80s came in and that was the worst time of all. We used every penny we had to keep going.” Elder, whose family arrived in the United States from a small village in Mexico when she was 15, soon faced more tough times: her husband died of a heart attack in 1983, leaving her with three children to raise. With the support of her family, friends and Ford, she decided to take over the business, becoming the first woman dealer in metro Detroit. “We were broke,” she says. “I made the choice to take over the dealership. It didn’t sit well with a lot of people, but I did.” “My parents and family were incredibly supportive,” she adds. “My brother told me, ‘You have to take over and you can do it.’ Ford said to me, ‘If that’s what you want,we’ll support you every way we can.’ It took every bit of money I had to keep going in the business. But we made it.” Indeed. Today Elder owns 10 dealerships, three of them in Florida. She says she made mistakes along the way, especially as she first expanded into Owosso and Perry, Mich. But she managed to stay afloat and even thrive, and says her success can be achieved by others. “The Urban League was giving me an award that I was not going to accept, but I decided to accept because I want to tell the minorities, the people who have immigrated here, I want to tell the women: There is always hope,” she says. “Sometimes you fall, but you have to get up. This country was built on immigrants who came from all over the world. At the ultimate end the only thing that matters is your integrity, honesty and respect for other people. You cannot give up any of those values.” Elder notes that her family members are accomplished in their own right: her sister was the first woman on the Florida Supreme Court and served as chief justice; she’s now on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Her niece is a physician, one nephew works for the Federal Reserve Board and another is an attorney who graduated from Yale. “These are immigrants,” she says. “This is what the immigrants are bringing in. People focus on the negative; they need to start focusing on the fact that this country was built by immigrants.” “Everybody thought when my husband died that I would leave and go back to Florida where my family is,” she adds. “But I love Detroit. This is where my children went to school, this is where my husband and I made our life. Detroit has seen a lot of bad things but I think they have a future. I live in Bloomfield Hills. But when people ask me where are you from, I say Detroit. The more immigrants that come, the bigger we will build our city. We have to work to get a million people again. We have to welcome legal immigrants in. They’re going to build new businesses and bring new life to Detroit.”

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