The Accidental Entrepreneur
Our Story From Side Hustle to Big Impact
The Accidental Entrepreneur
"Can you really make a living selling mannequins?
"What made you think of that idea for a business?
"Do you used to work in visual merchandising for a department store?"
These are the questions people ask me all the time when I tell them what I do. So if you too are curious about how a middle aged Black woman started a mannequin business from her backyard in Oakland, CA (far from the the fashion capitals of the world) read on.
My only experience with visual merchandising was watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
My favorite character on the show was Rhoda, who worked as a visual merchandiser at a department store. Rhoda was a quirky, colorful and carefree character, which I admired.
And she was making a living doing something creative and slightly non-traditional. At the time this was foreign concept to me, until many years later when I read the book, "The Artist Way" by Julia Cameron.
After graduating from journalism The University of Southern California I worked over 20 years for two Fortune 100 companies. The benefits were great but I wasn't fulfilled.
Fast forward to 1999 when I went to work at a dot com start up with only 30 employees. This was the first time I worked side by side with the company senior executives, many of which were serial entrepreneurs.
With a few exceptions they were all male, Anglo and most were younger than me. (I was in my mid 40's at the time).
I had never considered being an entrepreneur before. This was long before the term "girl boss" existed. And living in the Bay Area the only examples I saw of entpreneruers where young white males who went to Stanford and had venture capital money to start a tech business.
But watching my co-workers made me see entrepreneurship from a different point of view. I read the book "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" which suggests having multiple revenue streams. This planted a seed.
I enrolled in a 3 month business planning class at the SF Renaissance Entrepreneur center. I had no idea what type of business I wanted to start. I just knew I wanted something creative that I could do while still working full time. I was too risk-adverse to consider being a full time entrepreneur.
A few months after graduating from the class I was searching on Craigslist for tickets for a sold out Tina Turner show. I stumbled across a posting for mannequins for sale.
This caught my eye because I had always wanted a mannequin to mosaic and put in my garden. I contacted the seller and discovered the he ran the only mannequin rental business in town and was leaving the state. He was selling his entire inventory of 50 mannequins.
Although I had never touched a mannequin, never worked retail and had no idea that people actually rented mannequins, I had an Aha moment. This would be my side hustle.
Since he was leaving town in just a few weeks I did not have time to hesitate. If I had more time I probably would have talked myself out of doing it. He delivered the mannequins to me and promised to send me his client list once he unpacked everything in his new home. I never heard from him again.
So there I was with 50 mannequins in my living room (until I could make space for them in the basement) with no client list, no experience and everyone thinking I was a little nuts. That is why I named the business Mannequin Madness.
I won't bore you with the details of what happened next, but let's just say I am tenacious AF. And when I heard the retail chains would throw their unwanted mannequins in the trash - even they they were still in good condition, I decided to change that.
See mannequins are made out of materials that do not biodegrade (metal, fiberglass, styrofoam, plastic) so they should not be sent to landfills. And since landfills are often located in communities where people of color live, this really concerned me. So I made it my mission to offer retailers an eco-friendly alternative. I would recycle their mannequins for free and then resell them.
In six months I went from 50 to 500 mannequins - and they were still being kept in my home. They were in the basement, garage and and tents in the backyard.
The internet was still in its early stages then and the only ecommerce was on sites like Ebay. So Ebay and craigslist became my primary sales channels until e-commerce.
My little side hustle was starting to get its sea legs, 9/11 happened and I lost
I stumbled into this business by accident. It is never easy to be a small business owner. And being a woman owned, Black owned business in a niche industry is especially challenging. But it is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Did I mention that I had no previous experience as an entrepreneur and that my degree from the University of Southern California was in journalism, not business?
How does a middle aged Black woman find success in an industry that is overwhelmingly white and male? And how can a business with deep roots in the fashion industry be located in Oakland, Ca far away from the fashion capitals of NY world ?
For answers to those questions, check out our timeline here.