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Big Business Comes in Small Packages, Too

If you are in life stage: Preparing for Take Off Posted June 27th, 2013
By Kathryn Sollmann

What does an honors finance and accounting major at Georgetown do after donning cap and gown? “I did what all the smart kids did”, says Katie Sanford, sitting in the clothing and accessories store she now manages with her mother. “I went after the most obvious big business opportunities, interviewed with big banks and then landed up with a big entry-level job at JP Morgan.”

Though it is clear that 27-year-old Katie is very much a confident and independent young woman, she admits photo-3that she followed many of her peers on the prestigious path to Wall Street, thinking that in the shaky economic times of 2008, she was fortunate to be courted for a high-paying job.

In her analyst role at JP Morgan, she was considered a high achiever sure to scurry up the corporate ladder. The ascending rungs were clearly marked: analyst, associate, vice president and managing director. But when Katie looked up the ladder, she began to lose interest in the climb. She did not feel passionate about building client investment portfolios and did not want to just go through the motions of a job.

At a time when people were desperately hanging on to their jobs, Katie decided to throw caution to the wind and leave the big Wall Street world behind. She felt a pull toward her mother’s store—a popular, eclectic, fashionable shop called Chou Chou in Wilton, Connecticut.

For many years Katie had been part of her mother’s successful entrepreneurial venture—working part-time while she was in school. Unlike the prescribed activity of a bank, she loved the way you can shape your own business. And she found the world of fashion more compelling than stock market ups and downs.

To the great surprise of her friends and colleagues, Katie shed her business suit and started a reverse commute from Manhattan to her mother’s store. At first she faced many misconceptions—some assumed she was fired and forced to join a family business as a last resort. Others thought she was biding her time until something bigger came along—saying “Isn’t that cute that you’re working for your Mom”.

In a relatively small space, however, Katie has found a big and challenging venture. She and her mother now manage two stores (the newest, Petite Chou Chou, featuring children’s shoes), and carry more than 25 lines of mid-range designer shoes, clothing and accessories.

Though a business on Main Street rather than Wall Street can give every bit as much career fulfillment, Katie notes that it’s not a walk in the park. “It’s a 24/7 venture that demands a wide range of skills and vast financial resources.” Her mother is the sales maven at the front end of the business, and Katie is at the back-end making all aspects of the business run. Her years in banking were not for naught: she draws on much of what she learned to create process and structure for a business that grows and grows.

Now that Katie loves what she is doing every day, what’s her advice for recent college grads or other women who may think they have to follow a traditional path? “There’s great value in experience at a large well-known company, but that’s not the be all end all. Don’t overlook opportunities at local companies—your own ventures or those of others–that can give you broader and often much more interesting experience than a narrowly defined corporate job.”

In this job market, that’s sage advice—especially for would-be retail entrepreneurs. “Starting a retail business comes with a huge time and financial commitment—and you need to know what you’re facing.” Before Katie left banking, she had actually lived and loved the life of retail. “No one should own a shop until they have worked in a shop,” she says with a knowing smile.  —KAS

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