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Fall 2008 Retail With a Mission

Boston’s Northeastern University School of Technological Entrepreneurship recently studied what drives entrepreneurs to launch new businesses. Nearly two-thirds said they were motivated by innate desire and determination, rather than by their education or work experience. Nichelle Powers is one of those entrepreneurs.

“From the time I was a kid with a lemonade stand, I knew I wanted to make and sell my own products,” she says without hesitation.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that years after leaving her lemonade stand behind, Powers could be found earning extra money in college by selling her original handmade jewelry and other crafts to fellow students. She loved making her own products, “and the great reactions I received made me feel so inspired,” but she was lacking one thing every entrepreneur needs: a clear vision of where she was headed.

“I knew I wanted [a business] that would showcase my art and inspire other artists,” she says. “I also knew I wanted a store that was centrally located. I toyed with the idea of doing something for so long, but sometimes your own thoughts get in the way of your actions.” Other times, something serendipitous happens that turns once-scattered thoughts into a clear plan of action.

On a routine day in Cleveland, Ohio, the catalyst for action arrived in Nichelle Powers’ life. As she was walking past a new mall under development, in a flash she saw her future store unfold in her mind’s eye. “The [mall] was still under construction and it was a hard-hat area, but I knew this was my place,” she recalls. Right then and there, “I decided I was just going to do it-to forget about any naysayers and throw caution to the wind. I had no business plan and hadn’t mapped out anything. But I was totally inspired.”

When the new center opened, Powers launched her first cart featuring her handmade jewelry and crafts. The business did well, until a large area of the shopping center closed and sales dropped off. Instead of dampening her enthusiasm, the experience gave Powers renewed confidence in her ability to succeed.

Regroup, refocus, relaunch

“After the first cart experience ended, I started traveling and doing art shows,” Powers explains. She learned a great deal about which designs consistently drew buyers, what aspects of her jewelry they liked most and which pieces had the most potential to land the big sales. “It was during that period that I met [Specialty Leasing Manager Michelle Moss] from Tower City Center in Cleveland-and I was inspired again to try retail.”

imageIn November 2006, Powers opened Anahita’s Palace, a cart at Tower City Center that featured arts and crafts, her jewelry, original photography and unique home accessories. She named the cart after Anahita, the Persian goddess of creation.

Shoppers were drawn to the cart’s unique products, especially the younger crowd. As the holiday progressed, Powers felt increasingly sure of her ability to grow her business over the long term. In fact, she says, “I knew I wanted more. I knew I could fill a 10,000-square-foot store.”

Less than a year later, just as the 2007 holiday season was getting underway, Powers opened a Tower City Center inline-also called Anahita’s Palace. The new 4,800-square-foot inline gave her the room to expand her product lines significantly, including artwork in various mediums, more photography and jewelry, plus clothing and a wider range of home d√©cor items.

Her husband, Leroy Stowers, a photographer and artist, contributed. a significant amount of original work to the store’s initial stock. When the shelves were filled, Nichelle was thrilled to see how well the Anahita’s Palace cart had translated into a dynamic new store. But like all entrepreneurs, she couldn’t be sure how her new store would be perceived in the market until the doors opened.

Shoppers loved the new store right away, says Specialty Leasing Manager Michelle Moss. The store’s products were “a refreshing array of worldly merchandise, where you can create your own style for any age,” which created a certain excitement in the mall.

“Today, with so many national chain stores, the desire to shop at¬†a boutique is very appealing,” Moss says. “Anahita’s enables you to create your own eclectic¬†look by blending apparel¬†you may already own, with unique accessories. The store is filled with an assortment of jewelry, purses, apparel, scarves, shawls hair accessories, as well as an eclectic mix of home accessories-all¬†affordably priced.” The store quickly built up a healthy repeat-customer base.

Giving back

imageAlthough many entrepreneurs care for the communities in which they operate, Powers took it to a new level when she opened her second Tower City Center inline earlier this year called Philanthropy Accessories. The 2,000-square-foot store, about 40 feet from Anahita’s Palace, has two missions: one retail and one philanthropic.

From a retail perspective, Philanthropy is similar to Anahita’s with a lot of handcrafted products, art and unique home and fashion accessories, but the Philanthropy products have a “more mature” focus, a strategy designed to expand the company’s customer base to include more baby boomers. Sales are not necessarily the top priority at Philanthropy, though.

Not only do the Powers donate a portion of profits to local youth groups, but they also run a recurring 12-week training program that gives local kids ages 14 and older the chance to work part-time at the store. There, the Powers help each member of the team develop solid skills in areas employers value, from core basics like being dependable to more esoteric things like using creative skills to solve everyday business problems.

“We teach them entrepreneur skills, inventory terms, things they can take with them if they want to run their own business some day,” Powers says. “The experience enhances them culturally and helps them build confidence. We’ve found that if we pay them a little attention, they learn how to respond to people better.”

Powers recalls a 14-year-old girl with terminal cancer who realized her stated dream of working in a retail store by becoming part of the Philanthropy family before she died. “That was a very powerful experience that brought us all closer together,” Powers says.

Three locations cross-selling

imageAs the cart and two stores have grown, Powers has brought in additional artists to generate sales, keep inventory fresh and help artists develop. The stores now stock beads, silversmith objects, clothing and natural stones, plus gardening items, paintings and sculptures. The cart obviously holds less stock, but helps drive business to the inline stores.

“The cart is a small sprinkling of their store merchandise,” Moss says. “Customers are drawn to the cart, as it carries lots of jewelry and purses at low prices. The cart is an excellent tool¬†to get¬†shoppers¬†to shop their inline stores.”

Three venues in one center might intimidate some retailers, but not Powers. “The whole idea was to do something grand, something different than the usual,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t do that with just the one cart, so the stores encompass everything.”

The cart is used as an empowerment zone for women, similar to how Philanthropy helps empower youth. “We work with different organizations throughout the city that connect us with women going through transition,” she explains. “We hire them and talk to them about what it takes to be successful. Often, they just need to be around people who can pick their spirits up and empower them. Sometimes people get caught up on making ends meet, and they miss all the positives that surround them.”

Powers is deservedly proud of her success so far, but hopes to expand beyond Cleveland. “I’m looking at a location in Buffalo, [NY], because the place I found there is centrally located, much like the shopping center in Ohio,” she says. “There are two hotels nearby, restaurants and a rapid-transit station that lets off right at the front door.

“Wherever we go, we will want to implement stores that carry the most original products we can design and find,” she says. “But we will also incorporate those other elements, the empowerment of women [and youth].”

In the few years she has been operating her growing and successful business, Powers says she’s learned a lot about herself and her entrepreneurial skills. “For one thing, I learned how to get out of my own way,” she says with a laugh. “I found that once you get up close and personal with an idea, you can really take off from there.” During start-up, it can be easy to doubt yourself, she says, but it’s important that entrepreneurs believe in the strength of their ideas: “Sure people will wonder to themselves, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ I say, ‘What if it does?’”

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Dan Bennett

Dan Bennett is a Las Vegas and San Diego-based freelance business writer. He can be reached at .

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