Jamenda McCoy of Bellē Up
Chicago-based maternity mogul Jamenda McCoy doesn’t have the typical résumé of a boutique owner. Instead, the former lawyer (and state trooper) prides herself as a master in the art of multitasking: McCoy opened her boutique, Bellē Up, for new and expecting mothers while she was still practicing at one of the most prestigious law firms in Chicago.
“Balancing” these two demanding careers simultaneously wasn’t working for Jamenda (or providing for much of a balance at all), so she decided to focus on Bellē Up full-time. Now, Jamenda fills her days ingraining herself in the Chicago fashion community and spending quality time with her children. Today on the Everygirl, find out what makes this small business owner tick, and just what went into that decision of switching out her briefing documents for the business of maternity fashion.
Full Name: Jamenda A. McCoy
Current title/company: President and CEO of Bellē Up Maternity
Year you began Belle Up: 2009
Educational background: B.A., Interdisciplinary Studies (Sociology, Philosophy, Political Science), University of Missouri - Columbia; J.D., Northwestern University School of Law
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
This was a phase of life that actually just runs all together for me. I think the answer is technically the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Prior to graduating, I had been working during the day as a bank teller and at night as a waitress at a local 24-hour restaurant right off a major highway, where state troopers frequented. A couple of them were convinced that—with my social sciences degree, athletic background and people skills—I'd make a great trooper, and they convinced me, too. I completed the rigorous application process (including background checks, psych evals, physical exams and testing, etc.) and was selected as one of a handful of women in that year's class. I ultimately decided to leave the Academy, because what I really wanted to be was a lawyer, not a law enforcement officer. I left the Academy and returned to the bank as an investment management and trust administrator, sat for the next LSAT exam and the rest is history.
What went into your decision to go to law school?
It wasn't really a "decision" as much as it was a self-fulfilling prophecy mixed with a heap of blessings along the way. I told myself that I was going to be lawyer from about age five. As a “poor” kid from Chicago, then being raised by a hard-working single mom, I didn’t know any lawyers. In fact, at age five, I didn’t know anyone who had graduated from college with a four-year degree, let alone from a professional school. And I, admittedly, had no idea what lawyers did or what it would take to become one, but at the time, that was of little consequence. Several years later, my mother married my dad and, all at once, I knew a college graduate and going to college became a requirement for me, instead of an option. As I grew older, I still didn't have any appreciation for what lawyers did every day, but it became clearer what I needed to do to reach my long-time goal, and believe it or not, once I learned what Northwestern University was (I was maybe 11 or 12), I told myself that that's where I would go to law school.
What was it like being a litigator for a powerful law firm? Did it ever make a difference that you were a woman? What advice would you give to girls contemplating going to law school?
For a time, I worked for one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, but to call it “powerful” would mean that I believed the hype. I didn’t. Lawyers are people; human beings with families, feelings, bills and responsibilities. And the vast majority of lawyers I worked with are good people; really smart, really good people. Even the biggest “rainmakers” are just people. Most of them worked really hard to get where they are, they serve their clients well and they get paid handsomely for the job that they do. But they all put their pants on one leg at a time—just like you and me. And those who are truly worth their weight in legal fees will tell you this. Working for this firm was a job; one that I tried really hard to perform well at, but a job all the same—nothing more, nothing less.
I don’t think being a woman made a difference, per se, at any of the firms I worked for. Law firms are a client service business. This means that as a law firm lawyer, your worth is measured by the quality of your work and the billable hours you spend doing that work—whether you’re male, female, transgendered, Black, White or brown. So, no, (in the vast majority of law firm environments) it doesn’t make a difference that you are a woman, but you may notice a difference when you decide to utilize your “woman parts”—namely, your uterus. The unfortunate reality is that having, and rearing, children does not often align nicely with a woman’s ability to bill hours at the same rate as her male counterparts; which, in turn, does not align nicely with her career trajectory at a firm.
Having said (or written) all of this, however, I would tell girls that there’s more to the practice of law than law firms. I would tell them that there are few (if any) degrees that are more rewarding and/or versatile than a law degree. I would encourage them to talk to as many lawyers as they can—because there are a lot of us out here—to gain a somewhat better understanding of the wide range of possibilities. And then, if she’s still committed, I would tell her to go for it. Because, let’s face it, professional schools are far too expensive these days to go haphazardly. I would warn girls, however, that the job market is super-saturated and incredibly tight right now, so finding employment upon graduation may be harder than it was for me ten years ago. The journey won’t be easy, but if it were, everyone would do it!
What changed for you as a lawyer when you became a mother? What advice would you give to someone juggling the same responsibilities?
Everything changed when I became a mother. Everything, except the way that law is practiced in large law firms. I was a completely different person attempting to live the life of my former self. Here I was, a girl who had worked hard, been tremendously blessed and ultimately got many of the things that I had worked for (despite the naysayers—several of whom told me quite bluntly that I “should aim lower” or that I “would never amount to anything”). Yet, I wanted more! But I couldn't just walk away; I couldn't just "quit." Not on this thing I had dreamt of since I knew how to dream. It took a while for me to get there, but ultimately, I realized that it’s okay to evolve; it’s a long journey from ages five to 35, and it’s okay to want different things for myself today than I thought I wanted then. So, here I am, with new dreams and all new possibilities.
I would, and do, tell women juggling similar responsibilities as me to do whatever it is that is least likely to leave them with regrets! There's nothing worse than a life filled with regret or “could’ve-should’ve-would’ves.”
Going from practicing law to running your own maternity clothing store is nothing short of a gargantuan career change. When did you decide to start Bellē Up? Where did the inspiration come from?
It's actually not as big of a leap as one might think. The practice of law prepares you for so many different paths, including (or perhaps especially) entrepreneurship, but often the law firm is the path of least resistance. My husband and I first began tossing around the idea of opening a maternity boutique when I was pregnant with our first child and began shopping for maternity clothes in 2006. I was frustrated that there were no maternity stores in or around our neighborhood—a wonderful, family-centered community on Chicago’s south side. I was also frustrated by the type of clothing I found when I did come across decent maternity wear. The clothing was mostly casual, weekend wear. But I wasn’t one of those moms who could live in cute designer denim and trendy tops; I needed those, but I also needed everyday business-casual attire, conservative suiting and formal gowns. And, I needed it all in a size 10 to 12! Easy, right? Not so much! So, there I was, trekking across town to waddle into a cute-sy, trendy maternity boutique and/or shopping online and being consistently met with disappointing results. Each one of these experiences helped me to design my (future) store in my head. By the time my husband and I began to revisit talks about opening a store in earnest (in mid-to-late 2008), I pretty much knew what I wanted the store to be and the shopping experience I wanted to provide moms-to-be.
Give us a sense of what it took to build Bellē Up from the ground up. How did you go about getting investors, and overcoming the huge financial hurdle of starting a product-based business? What advice do you have to others when facing the same hurdles?
My husband and I may disagree on some things, but one thing we’ve always agreed on is that when we put God first and we work together, we’re an unstoppable team! Breathing life into Bellē Up is but one (albeit a pretty big) example of that teamwork. We opened the store on my birthday in December 2009. It was at a time when the bottom had fallen out of the market and getting a traditional bank loan or small business loan was virtually impossible. But we knew that it was the right time and place for Bellē Up, and I knew that the economy was so bad at the time that there was no place to go but up; the thought was that if we could weather that market storm, we could make it through whatever came next. So, we didn’t get a traditional bank loan or investors. Instead, we made the commitment to invest in ourselves and our community and we injected all of the start-up capital ourselves.
I know that our being in a financial position to put the required capital into the business was a huge blessing and that everyone will not be able to do this. My advice to those who are not in a position to do this is, first, be ready to contribute something—it’s hard to ask people to invest in you and/or your ideas if you don’t show a willingness to put in what you can. Be ready to put your money where your mouth is. Second, do your homework (e.g., how much money you will need, what you need it for, how you plan to repay it, etc.). Whether you are pitching to a bank or a family member or friend, know your audience and deliver your business plan accordingly. Finally, whatever you do, don’t give up! Every rejection is an opportunity to improve your pitch and fine-tune your business plan.
What was the most challenging aspect of starting a business? (i.e. website development, product development, finding retail space, legal or financial side of starting a business, hiring staff, etc.)
I am pretty risk averse by nature, so the most challenging part for me was committing to starting the business in the first instance. In July 2009, my husband surprised me with a piece of paper: a business license in the name “Bellē Up LLC”! It was official. There was no turning back from there. I became a machine. For the next six months, I survived on coffee (shout out to my local Starbucks!), adrenaline and new-mommy sleeplessness (I had given birth to our second child in September 2008). I assembled a team of awesome people and together, we feverishly prepared for opening day. Opening day was the best birthday present EVER.
Are there any applicable skills from being a lawyer that you applied when you started a company?
Most of the skills involved in studying to become a lawyer and practicing law are transferable to just about any profession. As a lawyer, I am trained to analyze problems and find the best possible outcome (which, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily synonymous with “winning”). No matter how hard I try to suppress her, the lawyer in me rears her pretty head quite a bit. For example, during our first year in business, all of our vendors were, of course, new to us and they each had different retailer agreements that they required their retailers to sign. The vendors were surprised that I actually read the agreements, and a couple of vendors were even more surprised, because I refused to sign their agreements, containing one-sided terms that they considered “standard” and had never been questioned.
I still read every contract/agreement before I sign, sometimes make modifications and at times, I even point out loopholes and inconsistencies in the agreement to the vendor I am working with (especially if it’s another woman-owned business). I also research matters thoroughly, negotiate terms, navigate employment issues, prepare lots of written materials and am extremely comfortable connecting with individuals and audiences. I attribute most of these things to my legal training. I’m a lawyer. I carry this with me, for better or worse. It’s just part of who I am.
How was it balancing being a lawyer with running Bellē Up (not to mention running a family)? How long were you working both jobs? Share with us some of your struggles and your successes.
Let’s be clear: it would be a mistake to call it “balancing.” Those who know me well have often heard me describe those years as “my life as a circus clown”; I was “juggling,” not “balancing.” For three years, I juggled the life of a wife, mom, practicing attorney and business owner. I juggled with the realization that I had no choice but to keep moving, because if I stopped moving, it would all fall down. My days ran into my nights and my nights into days; I pulled more all-nighters in those three years than I had in all of my school days combined. But what kept me going was doing what I had to do (at the office) so that I could eventually do what I loved to do (be my own boss).
We would get the kids off to school in the morning, then I would work a 10-hour+ day at the office, come home to read bedtime stories and give goodnight kisses, put in another hour or two of legal work, and then start Bellē Up work for another 4-6 hours. During the last year that I practiced, I was also doing a considerable amount of work travel each week. But I spent the wee hours of the morning designing BelleUp.com, finalizing purchase orders, corresponding with vendors (which worked well for vendors in Europe), creating ads and much more.
My biggest “success” though, was being smart enough to know that I couldn’t do all of this on my own. It truly does “take a village” to raise a child, to keep a marriage positive and even to run a business! I have an amazing support system in my personal life that keeps me uplifted and grounded all at the time. As for Bellē Up, I was blessed to find a spectacular store manager and team of employees who saw, and stayed committed to, my vision for the store. I’m wise enough to know that without God and the help of my “village,” I wouldn’t be half the “Every Girl” I am today.
Was there a single deciding factor in leaving your practice to build Bellē Up? When was the tipping point? What advice would you give to someone contemplating a major career change?
The life that I was living was not sustainable long-term. My kids were missing “mommy,” and my arms were getting tired (from all the juggling). I joke about it now, but one day we were on a plane with the kids returning from a family vacation, and my son and I were talking about what he wants to be when he grows up. Since both of his parents are lawyers, naturally, he said lawyer first. I responded by challenging him to pick something else. (I encourage my kids to think outside the box and be who they are, not mini-mes, blindly following the paths my husband and/or I chose for ourselves.) He said (quite loudly), “You’re right, mommy, I don’t want to be a lawyer!” He went on (still quite loudly) to explain, “because lawyers work all the time... they never have time for their kids.” He laughed it off and went on to tell me how he wanted to be a police officer instead. But, that moment is one of those that is forever etched in my memory. I was equal parts mortified—as I got the disapproving side glance from the women sitting in the rows in front of and behind us, who I imagined were issuing me the “Bad Mom of the Year Award” in their respective heads—stunned and crushed. Sure, our son has a flare for the dramatic (as most kids do), but his words struck a chord. I knew in that moment that something had to give and that being “super woman” was completely overrated. I resigned from my firm a few months later.
As a store owner, what is your goal for Bellē Up customers?
Our community and customers have never ceased to amaze me. My goal is to return the favor. I want every customer to be pleasantly surprised with a superior shopping experience. I want customers to walk into our store and feel like they have stepped into a private shopping excursion, with whichever member of my sales team who’s working that day as their new “BFF.” I want my customers to have a Michigan Avenue shopping experience with a small business feel; that means all of the service elements and fabulosity and none of the pretention or the hassle of driving downtown!
How has Bellē Up evolved (or continue to evolve) as a brand? Are there features the store offers that it didn't originally? Any plans for the next year?
Bellē Up continues to grow by leaps and bounds. I vividly remember three years ago—as boxes of merchandise were being delivered to my living room, because the store build-out had not progressed as far as I had anticipated—being worried about how I would fill a 2,500 sq. ft. space with fashionable, diverse offerings. We began with about ten maternity designers and no baby items to speak of. Fast-forward to today, where we now carry over 50 brands, including a well-edited collection of maternity, nursing and baby apparel, gifts and gear. Yet, with nearly three years under my belt and far more time to dedicate to the boutique than I’ve ever had before, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up!
Over the next year, I will work to deepen relationships in and around the communities surrounding Bellē Up, by partnering with more local businesses to bring educational and social programs to moms-to-be, parents and families. I also plan to take the fashion elements of Bellē Up beyond the four walls of the store, by pooling together a dynamic team of wardrobe stylists to help moms and moms-to-be become the image that they want to project.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Wow, if you knew my 23-year-old self, you’d know how loaded of a question this really is; it was a time of exciting new beginnings in some respects and the beginning of the end in others. As for advice, I would tell my 23-year-old self that “when people show you who they are, believe them the first time!” I’ve learned through the years and many disappointments that people may make tweaks and changes here and there, but very few make changes that affect who they are at the core. I would also tell my younger self to treat people the way they want to be treated. There’s only one me, so treating people the way I want to be treated is often ineffective and just plain misses the mark. I want to get to know people, understand what makes them tick, and treat them accordingly. Sure, it’s a far greater effort, but it leads to deeper, more rewarding, relationships. Finally, I would remind my younger self that everything comes at a cost and that one’s integrity is too high of a price to pay… for anything.