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Entrepreneur alumna shares start-up experience

| Thursday, April 24, 2014

Saint Mary’s College alumna Vanessa Cooreman Smith shared her entrepreneurial experience as the owner of Flourish Boutique, a woman’s clothing store located in Granger, Ind., with students Wednesday during a lecture co-sponsored by the business and economics department as well as the Career Crossings office. 

“The mission of the store is to help women flourish — hence the name — in fashion, so looking good providing women with clothes that have a special flourish or flair, but also on a deeper level, ” Smith said. “It’s part of my goal to help women beyond their appearance.”

Smith said her story is one of determination and persistence in a time of economic turmoil. The 2004 graduate majored in art and minored in education during her time at Saint Mary’s.  

“I had a love for everything artistic and creative, but I also had an entrepreneurial background,” Smith said. 

Smith said nearly every one of her family members owns their own business. 

“I knew what it required to be a small business owner,” Smith said. “I knew it was a large part of my life, and yet I had this passion for fine art.”

Smith said she struggled to satisfy her interest in varied career paths that seemed to occupy opposite ends of the working spectrum. Finding a way to combine these two parts of her life posed an interesting challenge, Smith said.

“I felt like I didn’t fit wholly into either world at times,” she said.

It was not until her junior year, when Smith began working at Inspire, another boutique in the South Bend area, that she realized she wanted to pursue a career in the fashion industry, she said.

“I enjoyed the marketing aspect of the boutique, organizing the merchandise and coordinating outfits,” Smith said. “I could see the potential. 

“You’re dealing with profit margins and all those things and it was a nice combination. I had an awakening where I realized that fashion was a way for me to satisfy my love for art and still be in the business world too.”

Smith, who now receives a consistent profit margin of 10 percent, said she had an awakening that paid off.

“Ten years later I am a wife and a mom and also the proud owner of Flourish Boutique,” she said.

The journey to success was hardly fluid, Smith said. She said experiencing the difficulties of starting her own business posed challenges on multiple levels.

“As with any new business, I was headed for some trials,” Smith said. “The success rate of start-ups is very, very bleak. Most go out within five years, regardless of the industry. Retail is notoriously worse.” 

Prior to launching her own business, Smith needed money, she said, so she worked for her father’s real estate company and saved the necessary funds.

“In some ways it felt stagnant,” Smith said. “I was working in real-estate and regularly thought to myself, ‘Okay, this is not fashion.’ 

“Even though I felt frustrated, I was planning and I was researching and I was learning. It wasn’t the same industry it’s all the same kinds of things I deal with now.”

After three years of saving, “It was just a burning fire inside of me and I really had to get going,” Smith said. “My dad, who was my mentor, was telling me ‘Do what you love and the money will follow.’ If you pursue your passion it will give you the energy to do what it takes to be successful.”

After writing a business plan and researching small business loans, Smith opened the store in 2008, just two months before the recession hit the stock market. She said she received a small business loan, which she augmented with consignment.

When the impact took its toll on her personal business and her family’s realty business, Smith and her husband had to sell their home, she said. Flourish really took off when Smith launched their online store in 2011, three years after the store’s grand opening, she said. 

“Last year at this time we had five thousand Facebook fans, now we have 60 thousand Facebook fans,” Smith said. “We’re up year over year [in sales] 60 percent in store and 200 percent online.”

Smith said Flourish has been featured on CNN and appears regularly on noteworthy Pinterest contributors and other fashion bloggers’ websites. Flourish also received the South Bend Tribune’s readers’ choice award for clothing boutique, she said.

“We hope one day to turn Flourish into a mega-boutique,” Smith said.

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