The Power of Business Love


Most entrepreneurs are uniquely passionate about their “baby”, their ideas put into reality, their notions and master plans. This baby becomes in essence one of the loves of their lives and they work hard at making it grow. It is the core of what they do. This is their business.

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I am one of them and over the past eleven years, I have been told as a woman not to admit I have what I call Business Love. It is an idea and concept I have practiced for the last five years with such relish. So, this week, I decided to talk about in this blog.

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Love is an enduring emotion, it is what we are “built” for but we are only allowed to love people, animals, and for some, things. A business does not fit into any of these three categories, so, it’s relegated to the notion of work or what you do for a living. It is something you either enjoy or not. Not really love.

I love my business and I claim it as Business Love. It is one of my deep passions. I treat it as such. I love and respect it. And it’s been an eleven year old relationship.

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Business love is about passion, spirit,  and creativity. It is what brings joy and pain too. It rides the way of the waves with highs and lows. There are good days and bad days but you don’t want to walk away easily from it. And quietly as it is kept, it has a contract, one you have with yourself.

This love makes you rise very early and stay up late. It is what makes you eat junk food, miss family events, and other commitments. Admit, you have been there. And it’s not just for the love of money, it’s for the business.

Business love is what makes you talk to complete strangers, but you call them investors. And they make you lose your mind and a piece of your business. Oh, this love is about sacrifice.

The power of business love is in the eye of the beholder. It shifts things quietly or dramatically. Sounds familiar? It’s Business love and you have it. Admit it. And enjoy it, you are an entrepreneur.

The Grind: First Quarter Assessment


Every April 30, I do my first quarter assessment where I look backwards and forward to see the state of my business, the state of mind and my updated business plan. The quater ends for me on March 30, but with taxes due around April 15, I wait a bit to do my assessment.
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This is my reality check, a time to face the truth and an opportunity to redirect my business. It brings me joy to see what has occured positively and sometimes pain to see what has failed that I will need to abandon, change or tweak.

If you are a new or old business, this rhythm does not change. You begin great ideas and then you implement them and sometimes they work spectacularly other times, they are a mess. But rather than beating yourself over the failed idea, assess them to see what happened.

A failed idea may be one that’s not timed well, funded sufficiently or staffed well. I keep some of them in my “tested” box, but only those I have studied and understood well so I can redeploy at another time. The rest, a majority, I throw away.

In 11 years of doing this, what I have learned is that I have 3 more quarters of business to make a change, expand ideas and release new initiatives from this assessment. And each quarter after, I am fine-tuning the ideas.

To be able to do any of this assessments,  you must have begun the year with a map and idea plans. They are, in essence, your guidebook. For me, they are what makes things work and give me the opportunity to be able to change midstream. What’s your grind really about if you don’t understand the importance of assessing if it is working or what has been successful. Think about it.

Channeling Change and Scaling Growth


In 2011, I sat down to do a deep dive of my business and its future in relationship to where and what I felt it needed to be. There were two key concepts and outcomes that became obvious to me: Channeling Change and Scaling Growth.
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After 7 years of just one store, it was clear that the business had to change and grow. As I look back at that critical time, I am reminded today where I have been and what it took to get here. I remember starting with the executive summary of my original business plan and expanded it to take the long view by
implementing another 5 year plan and a 10 year plan.

I am now heading to the end that second 5 year timeline and it is in that realm, I am sitting to revisit what I have accomplished and not achieved. This requires a serious indepth analysis of what has been done and not been done will enable me assess and evaluate what to fine tune for the next 5 years and what to add or subtract from the plan.

This process is part of my end of yearly quarter reporting which is essential for the basic business planning process. How are I doing? Or more specifically, how is Calabar Imports doing?

The best I can say is that the first part of the plan called for an extensive expansion into locations and in 2012-2015, we did just that, moving from 1 to 4 stores. So, basically, whave accomplished the difficult tasks of opening the stores. We have met the challenges of change and are now dealing with scaling our growth into the four new stores. Each venue and location has its particularities, nuances and present different situations and opportunities.

The second part of this process has been most challenging and sometimes tricky -staffing the stores to give me time to manage the expansion. So many books have been written about staff in the retail industry, some true, some exaggerated and others not true but the real truth is good staff stay for a year or two a you are on the path to their next future thing.

The third part of the process is to increase revenue, expand events in each store and open up new sections of the business. Revenue increase require a three-pronged strategy: increase and diversify must have products, match price points of products sold to neighborhood, and increase social media activities and online sales.

Last year began an extensive process of doing events in all the stores. And it has continued as an integrated part of the stores. This process has gone through trial and error but it has been able to yield results that have been focused on building awareness of the store. These events have created a distincrive brand identity in the market and most importantly has attracted attention to the business.

This year, the focus will be on opening the last two sections of the business: gallery and showroom. These two distinctive models of business are part of the business plan and have been the carefully thought through to target audience, growth and opportunity. April saw the opening of the gallery and June will be the opening of the showroom. Each model is tricky and after almost 12 years of studying both, the plan has targeted an under-served audience.

Channeling Change and Scaling Growth can be difficult in any business but it is vital to do it to stay competitive and relavant in the global market. As I begin the next five years, I am more cognitive of what the challenges and opportunities are in my future.

Chasing Dreams and finding Reality


Chasing Dreams and finding Reality

I was born a dreamer of two risk taking parents who came from risk taking parents. This is my legacy, my ancestry, and I know no other and cannot claim to be what I am not. It is some of the reasons I became an entrepreneur. I am happy in this mode.

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I am a dreamer born in the once small city of 200,000 people called Calabar in Nigeria, which is now 3.3 million people. It is this city my parents made home to my brothers and I. It serves as both my home base and my spiritual base, from my childhood where I blossomed and from which I have the happiest of memories. This city brings a smile to me, even after 31 years away, I carry it in my soul and it bears the name of my business.

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Today, I honestly can say I am a New Yorker, for I have lived here most of my life, almost 29 years of it. I am an unapologetic Brooklynite, another place that has my heart and soul so interested, with unbashful love and affection. It is the place where my dreams are hatched and where they have been made. I am by default a child of a writer and journalist so the dream state I engage in always has a reality.

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As I leave Brooklyn often and head to Harlem, I am reminded that my mother was born here in Harlem Hospital, so many years ago. I am reminded of her life in Harlem, the Bronx and New Rochelle. I dream that I am re-walking her steps and her parents, on the streets they transversed.

I am reminded that these three are my Harlem legacy; they may have left, my mother into Nigeria with my father and my grandparents into Jamaica but the almost 20 years for my mother and the 30 years are echoed in the words and stories from my mother of their lives here.

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Chasing Dreams and finding Reality is what Brooklyn and Harlem are to me. I started in Harlem as a student of architecture and I have returned with Calabar Imports, my retail enterprise. It is Brooklyn that I chose so long ago to be my home, it was about being in a livable city.

What my dreams become are the realities of my life. They come from my soul and speak to desires of my ancestral trajectory of my future. My grandparents made this path, my parents carved their layer nd further enhanced it; now, I am only adding to it.

This path, my legacy, is an ancestral vessel. It is my heritage crossing two continents. I knew it when I felt I was different and never followed others. I knew it when I became an entrepreneur. My soul honors it and this choice. It is the “me” that I am. It is my reality.

Synergy, Alliances and Affiliations


I begun the year with three simple rules: Grow, Experiment and Share. It was not a new way of being but a commitment to my life’s work.

GROW:

Years ago, Deirdre Scott, Executive Director of the Bronx Council of the Arts, a good friend and colleague and I discussed Africa with the explosion of its people arriving to the Bronx. We wondered out loud about it and in time, we came to several dialogues on doing an exhibition at Longwood Gallery. This was the roots of Bronx: Africa.

It became an opportunity to grow for both LeRonn Brooks and I, to define and mark our footprints in this territory. It was also for the artists selected a place to convene their work under a platform that talked about Africa in a contemporary way and stretched the imagination.

Most importantly, it gave Longwood Gallery and the Bronx Council a way to bring in a new audience, an African one. Bronx:Africa arrived to grow ideas, concepts, and most importantly, to educate the Bronx and New York City about Africans and to educate Africans about what the Bronx Council can offer to Africans. This project spoke directly to synergies, alliances and affiliations.

EXPERIMENT:

As a creator and catalyst for change, I often conceive projects years back and wait to release it because the timing when it was developed was not right. That is the case for The Gallery at Calabar which I quietly launched in April at Calabar Imports in Harlem.

It is a space to experiment with ideas about African art, a place to convene a community and most importantly, a place to sell the work of African and African diaspora artists. It is also a space of curating work with a particular perspective and a collaborative space to let artists speak. These spaces are slowly disappearing in New York City, and it’s important to make it available. I look forward to creating synergies, alliances and affiliations for this space.

SHARE:

Since the advent of Facebook, the word “share” often gets used frequently but to do it in the context of one’s life work is challenging and requires finding people who really understand it as a way of being.

I have been lucky to bring several people into my realm who are sharers. It is how I got to curate the Amref Artball. A good friend shared “me” and my expertise. Apparently, I came highly recommended. I am not surprised but it’s nice to say it publicly. My work and ethic speak volumes. In the months so far, it has revealed what synergies, alliances and affiliations can do to grow an idea.

These three concepts embody the way I have been working but it is vital to recognize how they work for me. Life is about experiences and they make my life fuller. What are your synergies, alliances and affiliations?

From architect to magazine designer to educator to curator – Atim Annette Oton


In his latest Four Corners column, Jon Daniel talks to multidisciplinary designer Atim Annette Oton.

That three week gap…too busy to write


02-25-2015It dawned on me today that I had not written about anything the last three weeks. And it made me a smile because this is how the life of a entrepreneur sometimes plays out. I am not sad or unhappy about it – I just know this was at the bottom of the “must do” pile.

What happened the last three weeks? Well, a funny thing called Calabar Imports busy season business happened – between events, criss-crossing across the four stores, updating Facebook and Instagram and events.

Today has been the almost first day that I can honestly say I have caught up with 85% of things I have to get done by Thursday – my beginning of the week day. How? It comes down to Priorities. The 15 % are important but they do not make or break the weeks. What I learnt this week is that doing events are vital and there are most about relationship building.

This week went by so fast, it’s almost Thursday – a few highlights – besides getting stuff done – taking time away from Facebook, making time to talk and call friends – these simple things are why I have two days off.

The week’s trials. It’s almost Christmas – not sure I am ready for any of it. Just got over Thanksgiving and still on the mission of building the Harlem location into it’s full scope, a community space and a store. Two projects this week almost complete – expanding our mailing list and working on 2016 events up until April 30. It’s always nice to plan early but sometimes surprised that when I ask this early, a good number of people are not quite prepared. What to do? Move on to the next person. Time is vital and being prepared is essential.

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Beginning to think about time off for a week in January – closing all stores so we all can rest. Because my one question today: Where did the day go?

Ownership as a Concept – Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports


Week Three – The Holiday Season is fast approaching:

This week was a mixed one.

The first lesson was having a staff take ownership of a store that needed ownership. Sometimes it takes a person a while to get there – I typically see it in less than three months, and it happened this week in just that time frame. I am delighted by this and what it does for me as an owner of Calabar Imports – is simple, it lightens my load so I can work on other things and pay attention to the holiday season that seems to be speeding up, quicker than I hoped.

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The second lesson was to actually re-listen to myself as I took time to build a new project concept that is related to the growth and capacity needed for Calabar Imports. This is in part to continue to reinvent the brand and build our capacity as market forces are changing; and we have to be more dynamic as a company. This was the week to do that reading in full detail about 2016, forecasts, changes and also what opportunities they would be. I looked at fashion forecast again, imports and labor issues, currency fluctuations and war across the globe. In my business, all these things affect the price of manufacturing – thus, the cost of clothes and goods. This is the time when I decide if I should change the countries where I order from, who I buy from as prices go up and down, whether it makes sense to make in one country versus another. All high risk decisions, but all carefully analyzed.

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The third lesson is so simple: everything happens in its time. I conceptually know this and have been saying so to myself often. This week, several realities lined up as they should. I cannot reveal all the details but time will make it apparent at Calabar Imports. In preparation for January and February, I access what will happen with the weather again, another look at the Farmer’s Almanac to see if it makes sense to bring in spring clothing earlier or latter. Oh, that winter blues reminds me that we might have that snow again and it is time to get salt to all the stores again; and yes, I need two shovels this year.

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The fourth lesson this week is about mentoring. I talk about it and actually do it regularly and this week – it was about reinforcing and building two young people. A young designer who had become wary and disappointed with the fashion industry. All it took was showing him a path to beginning a process of transition from school to the real world. So, often when I was at Parsons, this was the role I played – listener and strategist. The second was a young person who made a decision that now has delayed a lot of possibilities. Sometimes, we take these stances and stick with them and hurt ourselves more. It makes sense then but it puts us on a real rot. Both young people were in the world of fear and were not risk takers. If I could bottle a risk-taking juice that keeps me raging to do more or to jump, I would be a millionaire today.

October and early November in retail follows patterns, it slows down for a bit and for me at Calabar Imports, this is the time to catch up with building an event calendar for 2016, looking at staffing and setting up a system to train new staff as I will be adding more staff for more flexibility yet again. It’s an ongoing process, I remind myself. All in a week.

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Sunday and Monday came too fast but finalized a collaboration with International Coalition of African Fashion. It’s been on my mind to collaborate with them but also to help them grow. Each year, I do about 3-4 collaborations – they are specifically targeted in fashion and retail. This is where Calabar Imports is situated. I often have to state that to people who ask me to go outside that realm. After almost 11 years, I know what I am focused on. And as I say it, this reminds me that I have yet to plan our anniversary for December. Another to do item for next week. Check back to read more here next week. And please share this blog.

The week ended mixed, sales up; one less staff on one day, and one more staff to add to the brand. It is the daily grind as a retailer at Calabar Imports, I spent time figuring out the next move and what bit I have to change or secure after I thought I was ahead.

That Week of Ginger Tea – Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports


Last week, I began Chronicles of My Retail Life, a weekly series of blogs about what’s happening with me at Calabar Imports. It’s a short synopsis of the life of a retailer in Brooklyn and Harlem from day to day events, insights on what happens in the store and what ideas are implemented and dropped. This is week two. And I am inspired by what feedback I got so far, some of the designers and store owners who have read this have reached out to say good idea or thank you for giving a new insight. One even asked if they could borrow the idea – I said yes as it is not a new idea nor does it belong to me. It is the intention to give ideas away, partly but really, it’s my journal of making note so I clean return to re-examine it.

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I spent the week with a lagging cold and sniffles and I started the ginger tea regiment I know works. My typical schedule of getting items to all stores was not an option, instead on Thursday and Friday I hibernated and rested. Nothing like sleeping in the middle of the day to make you realize what a cold can do, it knocks the wind out of you. As an entrepreneur, you must know your body and read its signs to take time to deal with it before it breaks down. It needs rest and it does need to stop sometimes. So, instead of running around and getting product to all the Calabar Imports stores, this was the week of planning and figuring out some extra things to do for the six months.

Planning on Thursday through Ginger Tea

This week, planning projects for Calabar Imports fell into three categories: events, designers and social media. On Thursday, I developed a road map for events in November to September and identified who would make a good partner and who needed an opportunity to establish and grow themselves. The goal was simple, designers, artisans and makers need a time and place to sell, market and meet new customers. And rather than just popups, I would return to the old traditional trunk shows with designers who were ready to make things happen for themselves. For me at Calabar Imports, these shows get me to see new product to bring into the store from that designer, build a relationship with a designer and get them to understand what is possible.

The trunk show events for some designers are a home run if they have been busy marketing and showing their work in some many ways: online, markets, shopping events, social media, emails, and in other stores. The combination makes the end result a good start, but the other key is having the products in sizes needed for clothing in particular.

Ginger has begun to work:

Friday was spent looking at designers whose work would fit as part of the Calabar Imports brand. Social media was a place to start as I have already identified them last month but needed to sit and look at the work closeup. I was able to narrow my list to about 20, some are in New York, others outside.  After about two hours, I went on to nap again. That Ginger tea was definitely working. To be sick in the winter with a cold is a pain, so I do my best to get rid of it quickly.

Saturday – back in the groove:

Taking two days off this week and being under the weather has made me lose time on getting merchandise – so as I got to Bed Stuy to spend the day, I reconstructed my options for the week; I would need to get merchandise into the stores on Tuesday and spend Wednesday on Franklin Avenue redesigning it again – some changes were needed and also time to look at what I needed to do with the lights.

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Saturday in the store was a mix of searching for lights and getting to see what products needed to be brought into the store – this week – jackets, sweaters, scarfs and gloves became a priority. I had delayed ordering scarfs and gloves because October is tricky as the weather keeps swinging from from 30 degrees to 70 degrees. It’s always like this – so this year, I decided that gloves and scarfs would start arriving in November. The jewelry for the holiday season had begun to arrive – I would sort them out too on Tuesday.

This week, I made a commitment to Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival, I would host the Nollywood movie showing. So, I left the store earlier and heading to Long Island University to watch the film, Jimmy Goes to Nollywood and close it out with a panel discussion. A late dinner after kept me out until midnight – I had a meeting with a candidate in an incubator – to discuss next steps. Some days, you make exceptions so that the next generation begins a business in good stride.

Sunday was Harlem – and I left early after buying candy for Halloween – yes, that kind of day. But is become obvious very early that the day would not be about doing anything on my agenda. It was a day for others – new product from Ghana came in, a series of meetings about a cafe and several phone calls about an event in September. By 6pm, the day had disappeared, so the best I could do was set up the new product, change the space and do bills for the store – only two major bills were left – suppliers and rent. Monday would be a good day to do those.

Monday – my last day of the week

A good neighbor in Harlem brought me chicken soup, and it helped me on Monday – my body needed that soothing. I finalized bills and began to layout a calendar up for the confirmed events and also to see when products would be in – my last product delivery for the year December 20, just in time for Christmas. I noted that several Kwanzaa candle packs were already sold, I would order more on Thursday and Sage too – all the stores were out of it. It is the season. The train to Brooklyn from Harlem was an interesting one, I had forgotten that after 9 pm, the subway traffic gets more interesting and bizarre.

As I end the day on Monday, I am finally in better spirits – that cold is gone and that ginger tea worked. I will be buying some more ginger this week. It will again be in everything I eat and drink this winter season. Funny, I am reminded of garlic too. Until next week, please come back and read the third part Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports.

Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports


This week, I launch, Chronicles of My Retail Life, a weekly series of blogs about what’s happening with me at Calabar Imports. It’s a short synopsis of the life of a retailer in Brooklyn and Harlem from day to day events, insights on what happens in the store and what ideas are implemented and dropped. This series will be written every Tuesday and will contain some discussion on the changes and growth we are experiencing. Some customers and people will not be named but initials will be used to protect some of their identities and privacy.

Week One: October 14-19

I begin my week on Thursday after taking two days off – I call this day the first of my travel days as I spend it going to at least two stores to update windows, bring in merchandise, talk with staff and new initiatives. I begin it on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights where all our merchandise arrives each week. This is Calabar Imports’ headquarters.

At the head quarters, I sort out what merchandise has arrived and place them into four piles. Each store gets one pack of items or what I feel best fits that location. We are in four different yet similar locations in Brooklyn and Harlem. The one thing I have not added to this process that staff needs to do is log in all merchandise in the Square system that is now available in all stores.

Franklin Avenue:

Crown Heights is interesting – This is Heloise’s store – she is the point person there and runs it in her own special way. I have been her child too long to know not to interfere – but there are days I try to. This is the store that we relocated our Washington Avenue store  to after the fire and it is the store where I began to plan to expansion and growth of Calabar Imports into 4 stores.

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I leave Franklin Avenue and head for Boerum Hill to the Third Avenue Store, this was the third store we opened after the fire – in a new neighborhood that I watched for a year. It was a pleasure to open this store here as it was something that was missing on this strip. Third Avenue is the smallest of our stores, it’s cute and quaint and comes with the contrasts of New York extremes – the Gowanus Houses and Extreme Luxury Apartments on one side. So, imagine the customers we get. All good, but it is REAL New York.

Boerum Hill: Third Avenue

At Third Avenue, I do the window on Thursday – use the new clothing and new products that come in to showcase what we have and what’s new. The challenge is to keep this inviting for the two exteeme demographics, it’s a balancing act.

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This store is in proximity to the heart of Brooklyn – and in the midst of the development of hotels in proximity to Barclays and Atlantic Center, and two blocks from Atlantic Avenue. This is the store I have to bring my innovative ideas and I will be looking to partner with others to do some creative things here. After I finish with Third Avenue, I decide if the day is not gone to go home to do some more marketing or to head to Harlem or Bed Stuy. This week, I went on to Bed Stuy – it was important to re-examine that store. Ariel is now fully settled into Third Avenue – I think this pace has given her time to ponder her goals and what next. Sometimes you make your business a place for your employees to take their time and grow themselves, build their careers, finish school and make their next move. That was what my first job in the US did for me. I hold that memory dear and a learning lesson.

Tompkins Avenue:

I love the journey from Third Avenue to Tompkins, I intentionally take the B52 bus as it weaves me from Fulton Street through Fort Greene into Bed Stuy. It is in this bus where I write my to do list for the next week after reviewing what’s on the list for this week. These days – my to do list always has 7 items – one item for each day of the week. I have found that has been the solution to all my best laid plans. If I achieve one item a day – I have done a lot. And if I do more – I have over achieved. I use to have 10 things a day – and accomplish 2-4 – so it became clear that the list did not work and so a new approach was discovered. I celebrate getting one item done each day – I am much happier and my list does not pile up. It’s the simple things that make life so easy. It is on this bus I remember the B52s band and hum their songs often.

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When I arrive at Tompkins – Cassandra is at helm of this space. If you have not me Cassandra – I would say a trip to Bed Stuy is a must on Thursday and Friday. Like my mother, Cassandra is a retired teacher, she loves her freedom and working at Calabar gives her time to be out of her apartment – meet new people and help grow a business, she made that commitment to me a year ago, and I value that. At Tompkins Avenue, we sit and talk about what happened last week, what needs to be accomplished this week and month and also when she plans to travel again. Yes, scheduling is a conversation I have frequently with the four women I work with and my business partner. Each of us have lives outside the store and making sure everyone gets to do the other parts of their lives or businesses is vital to a working ship like Calabar Imports. Some days it is a challenge – other days – it works out so smoothly. I typically head home after a few hours to actually cook dinner – yes, I do cook – usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But this week, I head up to Harlem to get ready for Women’s Writers of the Diaspora hosted by Celesti Colds Fechter.

The Weekend:

Saturday for me is in Bed Stuy while Sunday and Monday are in Harlem and these are the days I work in the stores. I chose these two because there are the event spaces we have and I am looking to grow that part of our business into a community asset. I think space is a premium but it belongs to a community who exercises the use of it. And my spaces belongs to the communities we are based in. It’s getting them to see its value and buy-in to ownership of it; it’s an interesting puzzle for communities that are usually challenged about rights and ownership. As someone who has acquired space, I know how hard it is to get and see that providing access to it is crucial for those working on creative endeavors. I made a decision to do it sometimes for free depending on the individual, project or idea – and other times for a small fee so that the individual owns and sets value to it. The key for me is simple – are you going to give this gift to someone else for free too, it’s just that simple. Free is not free but it’s growing someone else besides yourself.

By Monday in the stores, I have re-calibrated and worked on several new initiatives, this week was to begin the Holiday marketing campaign, send out newsletters and engage all social media parts of the company. I have taken over the social media part of the company after a year of a staff running it. The goal here was to re-brand it – as both an educational forum and a sales platform. It’s a lot of work and hectic but it’s vital as I plan to build it to a complex and defined platform for the business. My day ended late on Monday and as I complete this first blog today, I am please to say that it has been a good week, so please join my adventures: Chronicles of My Retail Life, follow me and share this blog with others today.

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