The IJ Clinic Helps an Entrepreneur’s Vision Take to the Street
By John Stinneford
Shawna Spencer is realizing her dream. For years, she has wanted to translate her love of fashion into a viable business opportunity. But as a single mother of two working a full-time job, the dream always remained just a dream—until now. With the help of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, she has opened her own shoe store in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago and is working to transform her vision into a sustainable business.
For years, Shawna has been interested in fashion. She met people in the industry, kept up with trade magazines and dreamed of opening her own store. Back in 1994, she almost did, even going so far as to register a business name and work on a business plan, but legal and financial obstacles always held her back.
IJ Clinic client Shawna Spencer is joined by John Stinneford, the Clinic’s assistant director, in front of her new store.
Finally, two years ago, she decided to change things for herself. She heard about a shoe trade show in Las Vegas and decided to go there to investigate the market. Getting into the show itself was quite an obstacle, since the trade association required each attendee to show that they were already connected to the industry. But Shawna found a way. She borrowed credentials from a friend who was a buyer for a major department store, and she was off.
At the show, Shawna met with shoe vendors from all over the world. Many were discouraging, telling her that she could “never afford” to buy from them, but she persisted, asking questions and observing how things worked. She even met with the president of the association, who told her she needed to work in a department store’s shoe department to learn the ins and outs of the trade before she could open her own store.
And so she did. While keeping her full-time job and raising two children, Shawna took a part-time job at Marshall Field’s shoe department, where she stayed until she learned everything they had to offer.
Finally, Shawna was ready. With help from a local micro-enterprise organization, she put together a business plan and approached the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship for help with her legal needs. We incorporated her, helped her find lenders, and helped her with her lease, licensing and other legal matters. Clinic students Santiago Alvarez and Michael Mullican from the University of Chicago Law School spent many hours putting her legal affairs in order and enabling her to open her store. And in September of this year, she opened Alise’s shoe store and foot spa. This store, named after Shawna’s daughter, is the culmination of years of dreaming, planning and working.
The events of September 11 have offered a new challenge to Shawna. Just as she was opening her store, consumer demand softened considerably, cutting deeply into her cash flow. But Shawna’s determination is as strong as ever—and so is ours. In a new initiative, the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship has paired Shawna with students from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business to help her with a marketing plan and to think of ways to strengthen her cash flow.
Shawna Spencer is just one of the many examples of courage and determination the clients of the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship have shown again and again. We hope and expect that she will soon join our growing list of success stories.
John Stinneford is the assistant director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago.