Ever fantasized about starting a business in your basement? Meet four 914 designers who turned homegrown cottage industries into successful companies.
Four 914 Moms & Their Home-Grown Businesses
What mom hasn’t fantasized about starting a business in her basement (or, like Lillian Vernon, at her kitchen table)? These four women actually made their entrepreneurial dreams come true, turning their cottage industries into successful companies.
By Laurie Yarnell
Photography by Chris Ware
striking gold: handmade yoga-inspired jewelry
Mauri Pioppo of Bedford ✻ Founder of Mauri Pioppo
Age of Biz: Six years; No. of Employees: Five (including self); Scope of Business: Not available
Mauri Pioppo, a single mother of a 12-year-old daughter, came to Westchester to study dance at Purchase College. Pioppo toured as a professional dancer until 1995, when she began a career as a full-time yoga instructor. (She still teaches at Katonah Yoga, Rippowam Cisqua School in Bedford, and to private clients like actress and film producer Gianna Palminteri and her husband, actor Chazz Palminteri). In 2001, she turned her creative energies to designing jewelry. “I was just being playful,” she says. “I was just putting things together, almost like staging a work—but in jewelry.”
It was only by chance that her avocation turned into a vocation. While vacationing at her family’s Bethany Beach, Delaware, beach house in August of 2001, Pioppo popped into Sole, one of her favorite local jewelry stores, wearing some of her own designs. She walked out with her first order: $1,000 for her rings and necklaces. Soon after, she got an order from the South Moon Under retail chain located in Maryland and Virginia. Her fledgling business really took off after two of her designs were mentioned in InStyle magazine in the winter of that year. “A fact-checker from the magazine called to tell me about it while I was driving carpool on a little country road in Bedford,” she says. “I pulled over to the side of the road and started crying. When the piece appeared, I was bombarded by calls from all over the world.”
Today, Pioppo has an office in Manhattan with two full-time jewelers, an office manager, and a production manager. The line, sold in 80 stores across the country, including Fred Segal in Santa Monica, and locally in Wilson & Son Jewelers in Mount Kisco and Landsberg Jewelers in Rye Brook, has also been featured
in Town & Country, The Knot, Marie Claire, Allure, People, and Glamour.
it’s in the bag: handcrafted totes & laptop cases
Suzanne Fonarow of Pound Ridge ✻ Founder of Lap Sack
Age of company: Three years; No. of Employees: Four (herself, plus three part-time salespeople
as needed); Projected sales for 2007: 2,000 laptop cases, totes, and accessories
Necessity really was the mother of invention for Lap Sack founder Suzanne Fonarow. “My son had gotten an expensive laptop that he didn’t want to just throw into his backpack,” she says. “When I went online, I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t a businessman-looking black nylon case. So I whipped up my first fabric wrap prototype on my home sewing machine.”
But what she whipped up for her son had his friends inquiring: where could they get a laptop case like his? Still, it wasn’t until she caught a segment on Oprah about successful women entrepreneurs that it dawned on her that she too could become a successful businesswoman.
Fonarow launched her business in 2004 with less than $10,000—money she borrowed from a family member. Today, Lap Sack cases, totes, and accessories are available in more than a dozen different styles and in various patterns and sizes. They retail from $25 to $500 and can be purchased through the company website and at gift shows.
bowling ’em over:
hand-painted wooden bowls & accessories
Soli Pierce of Cortlandt Manor ✻ Founder of Sherwood Forest Design
Age of company: 13 years; No. of Employees: One (plus 15 freelance artists); produces 2,500 bowls, 2,500 serving forks and spoons, and 400 trays and candlesticks annually;
Single mom Soli Pierce, an artist and architect by training, wanted to work but she didn’t want to leave her son alone with someone else. “I wanted something where I could stay at home with him and use my talents,” says Pierce. “Then, one morning, I woke up thinking I’d try using wooden salad bowls as a medium.”
She painted a variety of bowls with different designs—and began to sell them at local crafts fairs. At one, much to her delight, a Nordstrom buyer fell in love with her bowls—and somehow, despite a five-year waiting list, got Pierce a spot in the New York International Gift Show. There, buyers signed up for her bowls—including the Nordstrom buyer who placed an order to supply 27 Nordstrom stores with her products.
Today, Sherwood Forest Design is still headquartered in Pierce’s house, with a small barn used to house inventory; all of the company’s artists work from their own homes. Its products can be purchased through the company’s website or at some 300 boutiques, including Wendy Gee! in Larchmont and Cliffhanger in Bronxville.
lounge wizard: knitwear
for at home & out-and-about
Debra Schoenau of Larchmont ✻ Founder of Polkadot USA
Age of company: One-and-a-half years (since re-launch); No. of Employees: One; Projected sales for 2007: $250,000; www.polkadotusa.com
In 2000, after spending a decade at home raising three children, Debra Schoenau was ready to re-enter the workforce. She had worked in the fashion industry and, after countless shopping trips with her daughters, believed that a lingerie line for teens would sell. She secured a $200,000 loan from a family member, designed a line of teen lingerie, and launched her company, Polkadot USA. Five years later, however, she had to shut it down. The company’s overhead costs, she explains, were too high (though started in her home, Polkadot USA was soon moved to offices in Manhattan), and the company was too dependent on department stores, many of which were slow to pay her, she maintains. “But I loved the industry and missed it, and I thought I could do a good job a second time around. ”
After lots of research, in March 2006, Schoenau re-launched Polkadot USA. “I brainstormed with people in the industry, sales reps, and financial advisors.” She was told to start her venture very small and to focus on one category “that I love most and do best,” she says. “For me, that was higher-end contemporary loungewear for women sixteen and up.” She continues: “I knew I needed to have one order in a good store before I could sell into the better specialty stores. I knew I was going to make it when I sold a few thousand pieces to Saks.” Eventually, her product line made it onto the shelves of hot specialty store Fred Segal in Los Angeles.
Schoenau’s line consists of individual mix-and-match pieces including camisoles, cardigans, chemises, dresses, and pull-on, flare, and crop pants that can be used as sleepwear or loungewear, all in a super-soft poly-rayon blend. Items retail from $52 for a camisole tank top to $110 for a nightgown. Polkadot USA continues to be based in Schoenau’s Larchmont home, with collections produced in a factory in England that manufactures knitwear for such high-end designers as Marc Jacobs. Polkadot sleepwear is sold at Saks and about 50 lingerie stores around the country, including Bella Fiore in Larchmont.