MARLO THOMAS
03/27/2013 10:58 am ET | Updated Apr 01, 2013

Laid Off Exec Turns Team Spirit Into An $8M Fashion Empire

One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a woman who loved fashion and sports. When she was laid off from her job, she seized the opportunity to create her own line of stylish clothing for sports-loving women. Today, you can find her creations on sports fans throughout the country and at the Super Bowl -- and she never has to worry about losing her job again. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

Growing up with two brothers and a sports-loving dad, from the age of eight, Elizabeth Turley spent her weekends in the stands at Penn State, cheering for her hometown team. Everywhere she looked, fans were decked out in t-shirts and hats -- but girly girl that she was -- she’d opt for something a little more stylish, but always in the team colors.

“Just because I wouldn’t wear a t-shirt,” Elizabeth laughed, “didn’t mean I loved the team any less, and not just Penn State, but pretty much any team! I just loved sports.”

But when it came to her career, Elizabeth’s love of fashion came first. She landed a marketing job at Chico’s in Fort Meyers, Fla., and helped to build a chain of 500 stores. She then moved on to Coldwater Creek, lured not only by the company’s direction, but by their location in Sandpoint, Idaho.

“We’d always lived by the water. And we loved to hike and ski. We’d drive 800 miles to find a mountain trail. So when I looked at the company’s website and saw the pictures of Sandpoint, I couldn’t call them quick enough. There was a beautiful lake with 360 degrees of mountains. Seven weeks later, we were living there.”

And once again, Elizabeth was part of a winning team. Together, her team took Coldwater Creek from 66 stores to 350 retail outlets across the country, putting the company into a completely new league. And on the weekends she’d hit the slopes, which were just steps from her front door.

But what she couldn’t see coming was a game-changing play, which would catapult her straight back to the campus where her love of sports began -- and into a business worth millions.

“The company was doing great,” Elizabeth explained, “but then the recession hit and business began to slow down. I’d never been let go from anyplace I’d ever worked, but I watched four rounds of layoffs and the writing was on the wall. I was the next to go.”

And there she was, further than she’d ever been from the country’s fashion districts. Elizabeth found herself on the sidelines.

“At first I was really panicked,” she recalled. “I was living in the kind of place I’d always dreamed of, in a beautiful home, and I didn’t want to leave. And there were a lot of people in the same position. The company had hired an outplacement firm, to help some of us get back on our feet, and I found myself surrounded by bankers and IT people, really successful people who were without work.”

“That was the moment I knew that I didn’t want to ever be in this position again. I was going to create my own job -- my own company -- and I was going to find a way to create jobs for others.”

And that’s where fate stepped in -- disguised as a University of Florida Gators fan. “A week later, I was back in Florida, sitting in a friend’s kitchen. They were die-hard sports fans, you know, the kind that buy all the hats and jackets, even the license plates! And her daughter asked, ‘Why doesn’t anyone make anything cute for women to wear to games?’”

“I began to think, ‘Why hasn’t someone done this?’ I spent three months trying to answer that question. I thought if it wasn’t out there, there had to be a reason. All I could find was college kid stuff with team logos plastered on the back side. There was nothing for the more fashion-conscious fan.”

So Elizabeth decided it was time for a good old-fashioned road trip -- not to follow a team, but to follow the fans. She went to 26 different college campuses and talked with sororities and alumni associations -- and pretty much every woman that walked by -- about what they’d like to be seen wearing in the stands.

“It’s amazing,” she said with a smile, “just how much women like to talk about clothes. There’s never really a barrier there. I‘d walk up to women on the street and say, 'I love your jacket, can I feel the fabric?' and that would immediately start a conversation!”

And those conversations led her right back to her home in the mountains of Idaho, where she began looking at fashion trends and sketching out ways she could combine the latest styles with team logos. And she brought in another fashionista she knew well -- her 35-year-old daughter, Michelle, who shared her mother’s love of sports and style and was thinking about leaving her work at a private equity firm for something a little more fun.

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It Ain't Over: Elizabeth Turley

The pair took their ideas to a pattern maker and it wasn’t long before they had 15 samples -- an array of sweaters, flirty skirts, faux fur vests and skinny jeans -- just waiting to be embellished with a little team spirit. Team Turley was ready to get in the game -- if only they could get in the door -- the big door of college sports.

So the mom and daughter went back to where it all began -- Elizabeth’s home town of State College and the campus of Penn State. They rallied their fans, which included an aunt who’d had 50-yard line tickets for 50 years and, with a little networking, won a meeting with the school’s licensing company.

“There we were -- in the meeting that could make us or break us. And the first thing they said is, ‘The female market is the hottest, but we’d rather give the opportunity to our current licensees -- the people we know can meet the demand.’ That’s when I felt my heart hit the floor and thought we’re not going to be able to get in here -- that it was just a courtesy meeting.”

“But then they looked at our samples and the one woman at the table full of men turned to us and said, ‘Oh my God, these are great. We’re going to help you.’”

And that’s where the real work began. They may have been in the door, but they weren’t quite in the game yet. They needed at least 10 schools to sign on before they could begin to manufacture. And then there was the money.

“It was a huge investment,” Elizabeth said. “We took a credit line against our house, my husband and I liquidated our IRAs. Everyone warned us what a huge risk we were taking and questioned why we would do this at this point in our lives -- how we would ever rebuild our savings.”

But just when Elizabeth and Michelle began to wonder if they were going to make it, they found some unexpected coaches eager to help them with a game plan.

“I found this guy on LinkedIn, who was an angel investor, but he was also part of a group of entrepreneurs that housed a free business incubator. They were on the other side of the state, 450 miles away in Boise, but that wasn’t going to stop me. And when I got there, all they wanted to know was how they could help.”

It wasn’t long before the women had local investors and were able to begin manufacturing. They named the company Meesh & Mia -- after Elizabeth’s sports-loving daughters -- built a distribution center in Sandpoint, and created 49 new jobs. Within two years, they were spreading the school spirit at 160 colleges throughout the country.

And that was just the beginning. With college sports under their belt, the women decided it was time to graduate to an even bigger arena, so they took their designs to the NFL. And last fall, they heard the words every football player and every fan has ever dreamed of --‘You’re going to the Super Bowl!’

“I kind of stuttered for a minute when I heard it,” Elizabeth remembered. “It took my heart an hour to slow down.”

Elizabeth and Michelle were invited to design an official NFL SuperBowl collection for women that would be sold on sporting websites and at the big game. And by January 18th, they were on their way to New Orleans with heat presses, logos, and enough fashions and fixtures to create their own pop-up store.

That weekend alone, Meesh & Mia sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fashions. And today, the two women are running an $8-million-dollar business. While the mother and daughter team are always gearing up for the next big game, Elizabeth also has her eyes set on a different kind of trophy -- a foundation that will help other entrepreneurs achieve their own dreams.

“I was lucky enough to find the right people,” she said modestly. “Every step along the way, there was someone who said, ‘I can help you.’ If you have a passion, you have to follow it. And you have to believe there will always be someone who will help you.”

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