She was so good at making pretty, new dress designs out of her old dresses that she almost lost her school’s financial aid. Yolanda Diaz had earned a scholarship to pay for living costs and transportation to attend high school in the Mexican city of Chihuahua, and like every teenager, she wanted to have lots of different clothes to wear each day. Once, though, she was called into her principal’s office and told her there would be no more aid, because such scholarships weren’t for rich families who could afford so many new dresses for their daughters.
Yolanda wasn’t rich, of course. She’d just learned how to sew and design new clothes growing up poor in her small town some 500 miles south of El Paso. Still, the principal didn’t believe her, not until she put Yolanda to the test: “If you make dresses, then you make one for me.”
So she did. As a result, the principal was so impressed she helped Yolanda get her start as a clothing designer. One of her first jobs was creating stylish uniforms for an expensive private college. No problem, right? Except there were 500-some students, and each needed three uniforms.
"They needed them in three months," Yolanda remembered her exasperation. "It was amazing for a first opportunity, but I had no experience, no idea how to do sizes. I put an ad in the paper for help. I worked at night, and my helper thought I knew what I was doing."
Fake it until you make it, Yolanda agreed.
She delivered those uniforms on time, and a new business was on its way.
Designing clothes for online success
Today, as the one-woman owner of Omaha-based Little Miss Fashion, Yolanda produces two design lines a year of bold colors and soft, stretchy material for girls to play in style and comfort available through the popular Seattle-based daily deal site Zulily.
She displayed her designs in the spring and fall at Omaha Fashion Week for three years before she got her big break. But it took financing through the Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) and the SBA Microloan Program to make it happen.
Zulily, in need of vendors and designers for fresh products for its customers, liked what they saw of Yolanda’s collection on display at a show a couple of years ago. She was happy that they wanted some 1,500 pieces, and found a factory back in Mexico that would manufacture her designs, but the thrill of new business made her think back to when she started her business in her home country.
“I have made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned from them,” she explained. “One of the big ones was lack of money, as I tried to make everything myself. You cannot. I remember I made my samples and took them to a store. They liked them and they wanted a big order, but I couldn’t make it myself. I didn’t have the material and I did not have the money to get it. So I couldn’t fulfill the order, and then the store didn’t want to deal with me anymore. After that, I said I will buy the material first, then make samples, then sell.”
SBA Microloan program provided the capital for growth
Problem was that “she was literally down to her last dollar,” said Vicki Wilson, executive director of OSBN, and with nothing to spend on the raw materials needed to meet the order from Zulily, “she was running out of time.”
Yolanda explained it takes a week to send a sample to Mexico to manufacture, two more weeks to schedule and promote the sale on the web site, another five weeks to get the purchase order for the site and another month before she'd receive payment. The $20,000 microloan provided the working capital her business needed; since then the business has grown to an average of $10,000 a month from online orders, "and customers always ask me to notify them when we have new styles," she added.
Her small sample-making warehouse off 50th Street buzzes; on a typical day a visitor will see bolts of bright cloth draped across a large table and remnants filling shelves, sketched-out design ideas for future styles on bond paper taped to the walls, and along the far wall a sewing machine that gets a lot of work. This is where she's come up with nearly 140 different styles for sale online, and invents 20-30 new ones for each subsequent sale.
And to prepare for each of those sales, Yolanda sends her design and materials to her factory in Mexico, where they'll manufacture at least 100 dresses for each style and send the merchandise back to her. That's when the frantic work begins; she'll have 48 hours to slap bar codes on as many as a thousand separate pieces and ship the lot to Zulily's warehouse. No worries: she has her husband and son willing to put in those long hours to help.
She admitted it was a lot of hard work "and faith" to become successful after coming to the U.S. more than 15 years ago. "When I started my business here, I worked another job at night in a specialty finishing shop making boxes," Yolanda said. "It took two years just to save the money to start making materials and to pay the people at our factory in Mexico to make merchandise for us."
Trade restrictions cramp her style
Little Miss Fashion is in the process of getting its own web site and plans to have a special collection in time for Christmas, although at present Yolanda said she's limited in her designs; popular winter clothing materials such as fleece and fur aren’t available at a price that fits her budget. It's complicated, but the bottom line for her means using materials outside the U.S., Mexico and Canada would put her afoul of trade barriers and would prove too costly.
She recently finished an accelerated program in entrepreneurship at Gallup University, and sends promotional packages to boutiques across the country with brochures on Little Miss Fashion and sample garments to help drum up business. Moreover, she's given back to the community, volunteering as a sewing teacher at South Omaha-based Catholic Charities' Juan Diego Center, finding and hiring talented women as independent contractors. Perhaps one of them may pursue the dream Yolanda had some 20 years ago.
"I have a little sister, she was maybe four or five years old when she looked up at me and would say, 'I would like to have clothing like you,'" Yolanda smiled, explaining how she came up with the name for her business. "She loved looking like me, so I started making clothes for her. I still think of her when I make my designs."