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Supporting Community Through Fashion: Stylish LeNese Boutique

Stylish LeNese BoutiqueStylish LeNese Boutique

According to a February 2024 report by CNBC, “Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S. They make up less than 10% of the U.S. population, but they’ve emerged as the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs.” U.S. Census figures show African-American women have majority ownership in more than 1.5 million businesses with over $42 billion in sales.

This ground-breaking entrepreneurial trend describes Cincinnati small businesswoman Shawnte Barker, owner of Stylish LeNese Boutique, located on the recently revitalized commercial thoroughfare of Whetsel Avenue in the historic Madisonville community.

Shawnte Barker Founder of Stylish LeNese Boutique
Shawnte Barker Founder of Stylish LeNese Boutique

Shawnte’s story, while unique in its particulars, has all the hallmarks of the conventional successful entrepreneur, people with a vision who possess the motivation, innovation, and determination to overcome whatever challenges or obstacles confronting them to achieve their commercial objectives.

In Ms. Barker’s case, Stylish LeNese Boutique was launched in September 2019, less than six months before the first COVID-19 case was discovered in the United States. This added a daunting layer to the usual set of challenges facing fledgling entrepreneurs.

The business plan that guided her steps into business ownership, a plan she had dusted off and updated after originally conceiving it seven years earlier, had to be practically abandoned while Shawnte pivoted, playing the hand she was dealt as skillfully as any astute gamer.

A native Cincinnatian, Shawnte departed for New York City after graduating from the University of Cincinnati, College of Art, Architecture, and Planning (DAAP), where she specialized in Fashion Design and Merchandising, confident she could compete with the best and brightest from around the world who annually descend on the Big Apple to make their name in the Fashion industry.

The same confidence and competence Ms. Barker applied to establish Stylish LeNese Boutique served her well at the start of her career in Manhattan, snagging her first job at Polo Ralph Lauren as an assistant sweater designer before moving on to design for New York & Company.

From there Shawnte expanded, refining her expertise by working for such major fashion houses as Nine West Jeans, Anne Klein, Jessica Simpson, and Catherine’s/ Lane Bryant. She also plied her trade on behalf of major retailers like Macy’s after interning for iconic stores like Sears, American Eagle, and Neiman Marcus.

Perhaps unbeknown to her at that time, Shawnte Barker was in the early stages of her preparation to become a successful fashion apparel entrepreneur. Since Shawnte had conceived the idea for a business years earlier, she had the foresight to plan towards her eventual brick & mortar opening by wading into her business initially via e-commerce. Taking into consideration the logistics of designing and producing her fashion line while operating a physical venue, Ms. Barker prepared a work plan to build her business incrementally. That thoughtful process positioned her to maneuver more flexibly when COVID sidelined the U.S. economy six months after Ms. Barker’s Stylish LeNese Boutique grand opening. Resilience.

Shawnte BarkerShawnte Barker

Shawnte reveals that she founded her business in part because she wanted to impact the established fashion industry, whose practice was scaling down apparel sizes skewed toward petite images at the expense of the majority of women’s shapes in the real world.  

Barker was apparently referring to curvy, more voluptuous women and women whose shapes have been affected due to health or illness. She insists that every woman deserves to look and feel beautiful.

Her vision of what her business should be for her customers is not singularly defined as a place where merchandise is transacted. As a business owner in the community where she lives, Shawnte presents her establishment as a community gathering place where her neighbors can certainly indulge their tastes in fine apparel but also congregate, getting to know each other’s families and addressing ways to help meet the community’s needs.

Ms. Barker’s own successful bout with breast cancer is a huge motivator behind her commitment. Stylish LeNese Boutique supports the American Cancer Society and other worthy local causes. She schedules neighborhood fashion shows occasionally, showcasing her latest styles modeled by ladies from her community and among her customers.

Shawnte has been known to donate gift packs to women in her community whose physiques had been affected due to health issues which she’d heard about through the neighborhood grapevine among customers visiting her boutique.

Shawnte Barker decided to finally become a business in 2018 after her employer announced a major downsizing by establishing an online Shopify store and, over the following year, slowly built a framework to support her boutique.

She shared that on her first visit to inspect the storefront, she would soon come to own, she experienced a similar sense of confidence she would succeed there that she felt when she first committed to establishing Stylish LeNese Boutique.

Asked what advice she might give to someone who might be considering a comparable business, Shawnte unhesitatingly replied: “Infrastructure. As you develop your business plan, be thinking about administrative infrastructure, especially an accountant.”  Barker explained how she discovered this vital lesson when she needed to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) during the pandemic, explaining that the legalese and qualifying criteria required an expert.

The atmosphere at Shawnte’s boutique is a welcoming, comforting center for community engagement and is bolstered by a variety of non-traditional services she provides that appeal to a wider clientele than the typical modest high fashion women’s wear establishment.

Partly inspired by the need during COVID to expand revenue-generating activities to supplement business lost to the pandemic, Ms. Barker offers alterations, tailoring, repurposing, and upcycling, the practice of repurposing good clothes that may no longer fit or are no longer in vogue, for instance turning a dress into a skirt or long pants into shorts.

Shawnte also schedules Saturday sewing classes for kids and adults, teaching them basic clothes-making and apparel repair techniques they can use at home. Men are invited and do attend, fulfilling Barker’s vision of what her small business should be, a neighborhood hub for conducting commerce while befriending and serving the community.

While Shawnte Barker’s positive business and social interactions with her neighbors are routine and instinctive to who she is, as a female African American entrepreneur, she continues to mirror the expansive trend currently defining her demographic. Along with winning business practices, a culture is growing along with how women like Shawnte conduct themselves, which in turn is great for business.

Nielsen has reported that “42 percent of Black adults expect brands they purchase from to support social causes. That’s 16 percent higher than the total population,” indicating that patrons who spend with conscientious entrepreneurs see the investments those entrepreneurs make in their communities as an indirect return on their investment.

And while all this is happening, while Shawnte is following her heart and as well as her business mind, she is in an industry that is expected to experience strong and steady growth. McKinsey & Company, an American multinational strategy and management consulting firm recognized as an authority, indicates that “Black Americans’ spending on apparel and footwear is expected to increase to $70 billion by 2030. This growth rate, estimated at about 6% per year, is part of a broader trend of increasing Black consumer spending, which saw a record $1.6 trillion in 2021.”

Your Turn

The story of Stylish LeNese Boutique shows that entrepreneurship is a journey of continuous learning and growth. If you’re facing a knowledge gap in your quest to start a business, remember that there are resources and mentors available to help you. So take the next step, whether it’s enrolling in a course, attending a workshop, or seeking guidance from experienced entrepreneurs in your community. Is there something stopping you from taking that first step? Let us know in the comments and we can try to connect you with the right resources.

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