As the U.S. Small Business Administration’s assistant administrator for women’s business ownership, Erin Andrew is the director of the SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership. She oversees the...
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Office of Women's Business Ownership
Pauline Lewis didn’t fully realize how life-changing one introductory class at the Women’s Business Center/SBDC in Springfield, Va., could be when she signed up several years ago. But, burned out by the corporate world, the Malaysian-born Pauline had the beginning of an idea growing, and the class nurtured it. Within weeks of taking the class, she had quit her job as a successful international market researcher and headed east — far, far east — on an exploratory backpacking trip through Vietnam, looking for ideas and opportunities.
At one point, Pauline was invited to observe a women’s cooperative. “From the moment I stepped into the small house where eight women were sitting in an embroidery circle, I knew that I wanted to work with them,” she said. “I knew right then and there that I would have a company that incorporated embroidery, for women by women.” In fact, she wrote into her business plan that she would work only with women-owned businesses and female artisans.
However, as Pauline traveled and sought opportunities, she was introduced only to business men. Then one day she saw the work of designer Le Thi Hong Tu — better known simply as Hong Tu — and Pauline knew she’d found what she was looking for. Hong Tu worked with groups of embroiderers north of Hanoi who painstakingly embroidered intricate designs by hand. This was exactly the kind of quality Pauline was looking for. It took time and a lot of “convincing, cajoling, and coaxing” for Pauline to win the trust of Hong Tu and the other women, and to persuade them to work with her, but eventually they formed an alliance that benefits them all.
Like most businesses, oovoo experienced some bumps in the road to success. For example, the first order of handbags arrived looking very different from the samples — the fabric colors weren’t at all the same. A dismayed Pauline managed to persuade some of her customers to accept them, but she had to sell many at a steep discount. From then on, she learned to choose her fabric sources carefully to ensure consistency in color and quality, important for a line that sells for between $35 for a cell-phone case to as much as $250 for a handbag.
Today, Pauline co-designs, markets, and sells her unique products through hundreds of boutiques, galleries, museum stores and mail-order businesses across the country — she just signed with J. Peterman — as well as on her own website at www.oovoodesigns.com. The company has won numerous awards and has been written up in TIME magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Inc. Magazine and many other media sources.