One of the reasons I started my website, is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about two women who found inspiration on the sidelines of their daughters' soccer games, and turned a simple idea into a flourishing business. – Marlo, Marlothomas.com
By Lori Weiss
It was a steamy hot California day, the kind that would lure many moms to the beach or community pool. But Gabrielle DeSantis-Cummings and Monica Hillman were happy to be cheering on the sidelines as their five-year-old daughters teamed up and kicked around a soccer ball, hoping to score big at their very first practice.
"We just made sure we had lots of water, for us and for them," Monica laughed.
"And juice boxes and snacks," Gabrielle added, "along with several changes of clothes!"
As the girls found their way around the soccer field, the moms found themselves racing to the parking lot -- making sure they had enough refreshments, each time the kids stopped to refuel.
"There we were, in our cute capris and the perfect shoes," Monica remembered, "running back and forth with plastic bags filled with snacks."
"We were getting more exercise than the kids!" Gabrielle added.
Having lived a block from the beach for many years, Gabrielle was used to just grabbing a couple of towels and going. But here in Yorba Linda, where her family had recently relocated, she was adjusting to a whole lot more than loading up a mini-van. Gabrielle had always juggled a career and kids, even running a forum for female entrepreneurs. Suddenly she found herself living in a community of stay-at-home moms. So when she ended up sitting next to Monica, a mom who worked in banking, they quickly bonded.
"We’d talk about different things than we did with the other moms," Monica said. "We’d still chat about the kids and shopping, but we’d also talk about business. I was just about to turn 40 and I kept thinking there had to be something more than showing up at an office and working for someone else. I couldn’t see myself doing that for 10 more years."
"And I hadn’t worked in an office since I started having children," Gabrielle interjected. "I was working, but I was running my own business from home, so I could plan my schedule around my kids. I could tell that idea was appealing to Monica. So that’s when I began to reel her in."
Gabrielle was looking for her next business venture and while she didn’t know what that would be, she knew that Monica would be the perfect partner. So day after day, as their girls would kick the ball around the field, Gabrielle and Monica would throw around ideas on the sidelines -- that is, until they realized they’d had the perfect one -- right in the palm of their hands -- since the day they met.
"We took a look around us and realized that all the moms had the same problem we did," Monica recalled. "They were all carrying their kid’s things around in ten-dollar Bed Bath & Beyond bags that had lots of pockets or plastic grocery bags."
"Or just stuffing things in their purse," Gabrielle added. "No one had a cute bag that could carry everything."
So, on her 40th birthday, Monica quit her job; and the next day, the two women sat down at her dining room table and attempted to create the perfect bag. Neither of them had any design experience, nor could they draw. But they knew what they needed. So they used what they had.
Monica started pulling out bags from her closet, looking for features she liked -- a zippered pocket or a special compartment for a bottle of water or cell phone -- and Gabrielle reached for supplies, not a pen and pad, not even the kids’ construction paper, but a stack of Trader Joe’s brown paper bags.
"We cut them up and began taping pieces of the bags together," Gabrielle explained, "creating shapes we liked and adding pockets so they’d be really functional. That was the only way we could translate our vision, so that someone more skilled than us could create real patterns."
"And then we set them up on the family room floor," Monica said with a satisfied smile, "and there we had it, our first collection."
But it takes more than scissors and paper to build an empire of bags. The ladies needed fabric. And they found their inspiration close by: this time, in Gabrielle’s mother’s closet. She had just returned from France with a beautiful oil cloth -- a material often used for tablecloths because everything wipes right off. It was the perfect solution for moms on the go. Now all they needed was someone who could sew.
"We asked all of our friends and they told us about a woman in town who made curtains and pillows," Gabrielle laughed.
"She was really crafty and willing to give it a try," Monica said with a shrug. "So we brought her the fabric, the zippers and our paper bag patterns and she made a few versions. They didn’t exactly stand up at first, but they were our babies and it was really exciting to see them coming to life."
It wasn't long before the two entrepreneurs were inviting their other friends over for focus groups, helping them pin down the fabrics they’d use in production. They eventually found a handbag manufacturer who helped them refine their first attempt. And 12 months from the moment they cut out their first paper bag pattern, they were ready to launch Gigi Hill, a line of bags that combines fashion and function and are sold exclusively at home parties.
"Throwing that first party was the scariest part," Monica said. "Our friends had been hearing us talk about this for a year and probably thought nothing was going to come of it. So when we saw everyone gathering outside, neither of us wanted to go out!"
But happily they did –- and on that that first night, Gigi Hill racked up more than $2,000 in sales. With a little success under their belts, the ladies were prepared to pick up the pace. Working on a shoestring budget, they continued selling the bags themselves, but also trained a team of 10 stylists to sell their wares at parties around the country. With each event, they learned more about what their customers wanted and slowly began adding to their collection and, ultimately, to their team.
"We now have 1,000 stylists in 50 states who are selling Gigi Hill bags," Gabrielle said. "But it’s not about the number of women, it’s their stories. Many of them have lost their homes and cars in the recession. This opportunity has shown them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
"We have one stylist whose only goal in life was to be a mother to her children," she continued. "But then her family lost everything and her husband was losing hope. She had to find a solution. And to hear that working with us was that solution -– well, that just leaves us in awe."
And as they’ve watched their company grow, others have too. Last year, a venture capital firm co-founded by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz took note of Gigi Hill’s success and invested $3 million dollars. And today, the company that began on a soccer field sells bags and accessories in 37 fabrics and 47 styles.
"My daughter likes to remind me that we wouldn’t have this success if it weren’t for her," Monica said. "And she’s right in more ways than she knows. I wanted to set an example for her and my son. I wanted them to see me take risks. I wanted them not to be afraid to fail. It took me 40 years to learn that lesson. You just never know unless you try."
"And that’s the best thing about getting older," Gabrielle said, reaching for her friend’s hand. "With age comes maturity and wisdom and patience. You just have to take a chance, give it everything you’ve got, and know that you’ll come out better on the other side."
To learn more about Gigi Hill, you can visit www.gigihillbags.com.
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