Long hours are nothing new for Shawnda Cook and Shannon Redden.
Between them, the sisters have seven children and work full-time jobs in Fort Myers. But that busy schedule is not stopping them from pursuing their dream of opening a beauty supply store in Lehigh Acres, a vast unincorporated development in east Lee County.
Already, the sisters have saved $6,000, enough to cover the lease on a 2,000-square-foot shop in a center on busy Lee Boulevard. But they need about twice that amount to stock and open the store.
Cook, 36, and Redden, 24, analyzed the market and they say the opportunity is there. Their analysis revealed that nearly half the population in Lehigh Acres is ethnic, and census figures show that segment of the population has grown 21% in the past year. Ethnic women who need to buy specialty hair-care products now must travel to Fort Myers or order online.
The sisters estimate the average family will spend $100 a month on hair care, though Redden says she spends that amount every week. For the amount she spends on hair care products, Redden says stores in Fort Myers should treat their customers better. “I always feel rushed when I'm in there. You don't feel welcomed,” she says. “We plan on showing them how it's done.”
In Lehigh Acres, their closest competitors are the big pharmacy chains such as Walgreens and CVS, but Cook and Redden say those chains don't have the selection or customer service they plan to offer.
The name of the store promises customers how well they'll be treated: DIVA Status Hair & Beauty Supply. “Every woman is a diva, and we want to make them feel like a diva when they come in,” says Redden, who emphasizes the word “diva” is in capital letters.
Cook says they also plan to deliver products to local hair salons. They're targeting stylists who need hard-to-find products and make last-minute purchases.
The sisters say their strengths complement each other. Redden, who has been a hair stylist for eight years in her spare time, will select the products to sell and recommend products to customers. Cook can sell too, but her strengths are managing the finances and handling the paperwork, she says.
Isaiah Bryant, an uncle who once owned a shoe store called City Girls in Fort Myers near the Edison Mall on Cleveland Avenue, is their mentor. “He's very excited for us,” Cook says. “He told us not to give up and keep pushing. If one door closes, walk around and open another.”
But finding enough money to open the store has proven to be the toughest challenge. While very supportive, friends and family don't have money to lend them because of the economic downturn. “Everyone is struggling right now,” says Cook. “We're willing to give a portion of our business to an investor.”
Banks won't lend to small startups that really need the money. “We haven't applied for a loan,” says Cook.
Cook and Redden say they aimed to have their store open by Easter, traditionally a busy holiday for hair stylists. But their need for additional capital means they delayed their opening to later this summer. “It's so close, yet so far,” Cook chuckles. Redden's biggest worry: a competitor might take their idea and open a store before they do.
Both sisters work full time and care for their families. Cook has five children ranging in age from 4 to 17 and works as an office supervisor for the Fort Myers office of All Children's Hospital. Redden has two children, ages 7 and 3 (the eldest is disabled), and works in the human resources department of the Lee County Clerk of Court.
Even after Diva Status opens, the sisters plan to continue to work full-time, at least until the store is profitable. Between the two of them and flexible hours, they figure they can mind the store six days a week. They acknowledge it won't be easy. “But it'll all be worth it in the end,” says Cook with a knowing smile.