Entrepreneur and “goal digger” Carmen Veal followed her dream and launched her handmade clothing startup in 2008. Since then, she has launched an event planning company and essentially created a brand for herself. Carmen spoke to Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about her entrepreneurial evolution and how she sets and achieves her goals.
NAN PRICE: Have you always had an entrepreneurial drive?
CARMEN VEAL: I’ve always had the entrepreneurial streak, yes. I never really sought out to be an entrepreneur, no.
NP: When and how did you launch your first business?
CV: In late 2008, early 2009 I realized that the job I wanted—which was to create a clothing line for women—didn’t exist in Connecticut. If I really wanted to do that job, I had two options: I could either move away to work in the fashion industry or I could try and create something here in Connecticut. And that’s what I did. I officially became an LLC in 2009.
NP: How did you prepare to launch the business?
CV: I’ve always loved sewing and fashion. My aunt taught me to sew when I was 13. When I was starting the business, I went to an instructor to help me perfect the craft. I also read books about some of the industry terms. But the most important thing I did was volunteering.
NP: How did you make inroads?
CV: Mostly through social media. I did some research and sought out local organizations and individuals that were already established and I volunteered my time to help them with production and fashion and trunk shows. I feel like experience is one of the best teachers, and hands-on experience is even better. I gave my time in exchange for the education and the connections I was making. That really helped me pull it all together before I hit the ground running on my own.
NP: You were basically building your own internship and creating your own portfolio experience.
CV: Correct. It was a great learning experience and I was able to put it on my resume too. Based on my experience, when I needed interns in the future, I knew what approach and structure to help them have the best experience.
NP: It’s been eight years since you launched your first startup. A lot has happened since then.
CV: My journey has evolved. I no longer make clothing at all. I did for three or four years. In 2014 I spent pretty much the year phasing the company out. It took a little time, because I had clients and I had some annual and quarterly events, so I still had to execute. I wanted to leave that role as clean as I could without just walking away from it.
NP: What caused you to realize it was time to pivot?
CV: It was too much for a one-woman show—handling all the logistics of running a business, producing events, and creating clothing. I had all this experience making clothing, I didn’t have any experience running a business. And, as I’m sure you’ve heard from other entrepreneurs, it is a challenge to balance the business side of business, the personal side of business, and then whatever it is that you offer.
After a few years, I recognized my strengths and weaknesses. I knew that if I was going to keep up with this business, I needed to bring in people to help me with the parts I wasn’t great at and allow me to focus on the parts where I shined—making clothing and producing events.
NP: You ended up transitioning into event planning. How did that happen?
CV: I began to see that I really loved the production side of the events more than making clothing. Even before I started my company, when I volunteered I really loved event production. I didn’t realize I enjoyed it more than making clothing, because in my mind, the clothing company was always my dream.
The transition happened when I accepted the fact that running the clothing company was too much. It was a lot of work to sell the clothing and keep people coming back. I needed to go back to the drawing board and find a way to make it sustainable. Because, at the time, it wasn’t sustainable.
I brainstormed by writing down pros and cons. On the pro side, so much had to do with the event production part. I was good at the experiential marketing piece, so I thought I would just do more of that. I started phasing the company out—putting on events to sell everything I had made. It wasn’t about making new product or continuing my role in the fashion Industry, it was about merging out of the fashion industry.
And then, in 2014, I got approached by the City of Hartford. Members of the Economic Development Division asked for my assistance with the iConnect program, which was a government-funded grant to help local artists and entrepreneurs. They asked if I would help them put on an event to close out the two-year iConnect program
NP: How did they find you?
CV: I asked them the same question in our meeting! Basically, they had heard of me because I had managed to do such a good job marketing my fashion company and events. They told me they thought I did a great job at marketing and bringing people together and thought I was the best person to help execute what they wanted to do.
It was a great opportunity! I successfully pulled off the event. After that I thought: Now I know I can really do event planning! The money was awesome, but it was the event production and having people see the value I offered that made me realize I could actually do this as my next thing.
NP: I’m sure the iConnect project helped you connect with a lot of local people. How did you build your clientele?
CV: It was networking. I was always networking since day one. I went out shaking hands and introducing myself to people. I had also made a lot of connections when I worked in the fashion industry, so, it was easy for me to gain clients and gain those experiences.
NP: You had the event planning company going. And then you started a blog.
CV: I had cut off all my chemically relaxed hair. My hair was growing back, and it was a texture I’d never experienced. I was learning what products and techniques worked and didn’t work. I need to archive it, so I started a blog to document what I was learning. It was basically a virtual diary. I started getting likes, comments, shares, and re-posts. I thought: What is happening?
NP: You had tapped into a niche and you hadn’t even realized it.
CV: Exactly. Granted, my blog is called Brown Skin Women. It’s for women of color. And specifically, it has to do with ethnic hair. So, I tapped into this world of women who were also embracing, or wanted to embrace, their natural hair, but they didn’t know where to start or what to do. They were actually learning from my blog.
Fast-forward about a year, out of curiosity I posted a blog saying: The energy online is so amazing I would love to feel this in person. Would you all come to an event in Hartford? I planned the event thinking maybe five or so people would show up. And that would’ve been fine. More than 30 women showed up! I was completely blown away.
At the event, asked one question: What do you want to see moving forward? The response was more events. These types of events weren’t happening in Connecticut. They were popular in New York, Boston, and L.A., but not here.
NP: A huge a-ha moment for you.
CV: Correct. I thought: I’m an event planner I have this blog and I could plan events for the blog. I’m going to try. The next event I planned was an afternoon brunch. Essence magazine reached out to me and asked if they could feature the event. I’ve been featured in Essence magazine three times about these events over the years.
I’ve been able to use Brown Skin Women to source my target audience. I pull together consumers—every day women like myself—and then also amazing brands. At the events, I have vendors paying me because they want to sell their products and services to my audience. And then the consumers want to access the information, they want the products, and they want to utilize the services. I’m right in the middle taking money from both sides. That is an amazing stream of revenue.
NP: Are all the events held in Connecticut?
CV: Yes, across Connecticut. My focus areas are Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford counties. I have small events, which are a great way to continue meeting women and introducing them to the network. And then I have an annual expo that caters to hundreds of women and vendors with speakers coming in from all over the world.
I also do event planning for a corporate client that has events in 86 cities across the country. I handle the operations and strategizing. I have staff in all those cities, so I manage that staff. It’s huge. I have other smaller clients, but they don’t have events as often.
NP: Let’s talk about your other venture. You created what you call “an academy for intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs.”
CV: I had people following my blog and social media, not because they cared about the events or the content I was sharing on my blog. They were following me because they wanted to know how I did it. How did I get from point A to point Z? What steps did I take?
I wanted to be able to answer those questions. And women were asking if I could be their mentor. To be completely honest, I don’t have the time.
I thought: There must be a way I can somehow compact this information and share it with them. I knew I needed to create like a strategy, take everything I’ve learned from my experiences, get it out of my head, and package it. So, I created Goal Digging Women.
The goal is to help intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs align themselves and their brand goals. It’s based on what I coined as CLIMB: customer experience, leadership, investments, marketing, and branding.
I love that it starts with customer experience, because it’s always how you want your customer to feel. You shape all of what you do based on that and you create strategies based on the customers’ feelings paired with the product or service you offer.
And then leadership focuses on what it means to be actual leader—knowing your strengths, weaknesses, and leadership type. How do you deal with your team? How will you establish the company culture?
Investments involves investing in yourself as a person—self-care being really important—and then investing in the business, because you can’t have a business that grows and sustains if you’re not putting money into it. That’s what it boils down to. Money and educational resources, taking classes as often as you can to polish your skills.
Marketing obviously is huge, because if you don’t market your product you’re not going to sell it.
And then the branding part. How do you effectively brand so your marketing works and it is impactful for the investments, the leadership, and ultimately the customer?
I break all that down with Goal Digging Women and provide courses to help women define their mission, their values, and their vision for their business. I explain how to break it down so much that you develop your brand identity, which allows you to put marketing campaigns together. But without taking all those steps, you will not be able to go from point A to point Z successfully.
NP: How are Brown Skin Women and Goal Digging Women connected?
CV: They are connected by the source. With Brown Skin Women, it’s basic. I blog about my experience with natural living. That’s for fun. I’m generating revenue because people are reading it and they’re interested about what I’m writing. And then there are people who own a business, or they want to own a business, and they want to know how I did it.
That’s where Goal Digging Women comes in. And that’s another source of revenue. It’s passive income where I don’t need to do any work. I did all the work to get it up and running and I did all the recordings. It’s automated. Once someone becomes a member, they can immediately access the content. I don’t need to do anything with that. The only thing I need to do is update the blog content, which I share as often as I’d like. I blog on a whim, but I focus primarily on the event planning.
So those are my three focuses. Event planning, the Brown Skin Women blog, and Goal Digging Women. And I have the tiers in which they fall in level of significance and importance.
NP: There is so much on your plate. How do you stay focused?
CV: Organization is absolutely key. I’ve seen people fail with businesses. It starts with the entrepreneur. It’s really up to us to determine how far we go or how much we are set back.
There have been times where I’ve been set back, and I’ve wanted to give up. I feel like every time that happened it was because I was all over the place. I was doing too much. I wasn’t focused. Granted I have three pretty significant things going on, and I spent a significant amount of time creating a structure in each area, so I have time dedicated to them.
Getting clear about my goals and defining every necessary step to achieve them was key to helping me get to where I am.