I am the only Black woman in the U.S. (and perhaps the world) who owns a mannequin company. Being in this industry is a pretty unlikely career choice, especially for someone with no prior experience in fashion or retailing.
Plus I established the business far away from the fashion centers in the world - in my backyard in Oakland, Ca When I started Mannequin Madness in 2001, I was in my 40’s - an age that is considered ancient in the technology industry that I was working it at the time.
It had never been my goal to be an entrepreneur. It happened quite by accident as a result of my indirect connection with my “shero” Tina Turner.
I have always felt a six-degrees-of-separation connection with Tina Turner for several reasons. First, I was born in Brownsville, Tennessee which is just 11 miles away from her birthplace of Nutbush, Tennessee. She is 18 years older so our paths never crossed, but my uncle went to high school with her.
When my family moved to Los Angeles, we lived in the same Windsor Hills neighborhood as Tina; her sons and I were in different grades at the elementary school. As an adult, I converted to the same sect of Buddhism as Tina. In the fall of 2000, Tina’s tour was coming to Oakland and a group of my fellow Buddhist’s were planning on attending the show.
Since I had waited until the last minute to purchase my ticket and the show was now sold out, I went looking for tickets on Craigslist. While scrolling I saw a posting for a mannequin for sale. I had always wanted a mannequin for a mosaic project for my garden.
Upon arriving at the storage unit where I met the Craigslist seller I was surprised that he had not one, but 50 mannequins for sale. Seeing all those naked mannequin bodies, in various states of dismemberment, was disconcerting. Up until then, my only experience with mannequins had been seeing them in store window displays. (Trivia side note: My favorite character on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” was Rhoda, who portrayed a window dresser.)
The Craigslist seller was a real life window dresser and his access to mannequins led to him operate a mannequin rental business. However, he was leaving town and selling off his inventory. As we chatted, he said sadly: “Now, there won’t be a place to rent mannequins in the Bay Area anymore.”
I started asking him questions about who rents mannequins and why. The more he shared, the more intrigued I became. Although I had never worked in retail, never touched a mannequin, never even ran a business, something in my spirit inspired me to buy all 50 mannequins.
I thought a mannequin rental business would be a fun side hustle as my job at the time — at a dot-com — was showing signs of instability. I had recently read the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” which encouraged the concept of multiple revenue streams. My other favorite book, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron had me seeking more creative expression in my daily life. This was my chance to create a new revenue stream AND be creative at the same time.
I suppose it’s is a good thing that the seller was leaving town two weeks after my visit. If I had more time to think about the situation, I would have talked myself out of buying the mannequins. Because the seller didn’t expect that anyone would want to operate a mannequin rental business, he had thrown away his client list. He thought retail stores or private collectors would be buying his inventory.
Except for my then-husband, everyone thought I was crazy for buying the mannequins, even though I was only planning for a part-time venture. My parents, who had paid out of their own pocket every cent of my expensive education at the University of Southern California, were especially alarmed. Hence, I named my business Mannequin Madness.
All this happened in the early days of the internet and social media did not yet exist. I missed the deadline to advertise in the yellow pages (remember those?). The term “girl boss” wasn’t a thing and it took me a long time to even consider myself as an entrepreneur. That was an adjective given to young male graduates of Stanford who had a tech business with venture capital. So needless to say, I had to blaze my own trail.
I won't bore you with the details of what happened next, but let's just say I am tenacious AF. When I discovered that retail chains would throw their unwanted mannequins in the trash when they closed or remodeled their stores, even if they were still in good condition, it lit a fire under me.
Mannequins are made out of materials that do not biodegrade (metal, fiberglass, styrofoam, plastic) so they don’t belong in landfills. I made it my mission to offer retailers an eco-friendly alternative. I offered to recycle their mannequins for free which saved them money on waste disposal fees. Soon I had enough used mannequin inventory to sell and rent.
Initially I was only selling to local customers. But then 9/11 happened which ended my day job at the dot-com. It was a fearful time in our history, but I chose to live more fearlessly. If this was going to be out last days and time, I wanted to spend more time doing something I enjoyed. So rather than look for a full time job, I decided to bet on myself and work full time with the mannequins.
In order for this to be my main source of income I had to reach a larger audience. So I started selling on Ebay and quickly became a power seller. Then I became an early adopter with my own e-commerce website.
Just two years after operating the business full time, I received a special achievement award from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling over 100,000 pounds of mannequins in one year. Currently we recycle about 1 million pounds of mannequins a year now that we recycle on a national versus local level.
In summary, my small business is making a big impact, I enjoy what I do, and I have a wonderful team of people that I employ.
Back to Tina Turner for a final remark. When she was 44 (the same age I was when I started my business), she released her breakout song “What’s Love Got to Do With it.” But to get to that level of success, she had ignore the nay-sayers who felt she was a “has been.” Tina had the persistence, strength and ability to reimagine what she COULD be. She makes me believe in making the impossible, possible. I love her for that.
Hopefully I, the Queen of Mannequins, will have an opportunity to meet the Queen of Rock and Roll. Until then, my Tina Turner Barbie doll will have to suffice.