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Her Business Started As A College Side Hustle And Grew To Be The Next Big Thing In Retail

There’s a lot of focus on how fast fashion brands and chain stores like H&M and Zara have changed the landscape possibly forever, and how they have impacted smaller brands and stores. But there is something to be said about entrepreneurs who have worked their way through the fashion and retail industry and found ways to make their small businesses thrive, and even see them grow exponentially in ways many would never have thought possible. It says more about the hustle of the person behind the business than it does just the brand itself, and for Johanna Zlenko and The Closet Trading Co., this couldn’t be more true.

Johanna began running the luxury consignment store while she was just a freshman at University of California Santa Barbara as a side hustle, but little did she know that hustle would become her full time focus. Fourteen years later, she has opened four more Southern California locations, including Santa Monica, and is now beginning to expand nationally. Founded in 2003, The Closet Trading Company is Southern California’s premier resale and consignment destination offering a carefully curated collection of popular contemporary brands and designers.

We spoke with Johanna to learn more about her journey as a thriving and successful entrepreneur, and some of the hurdles she had to overcome along the way.

What was the spark that helped form the idea for The Closet Trading Co. initially?

I grew up in San Francisco, and we had some really awesome vintage and resale stores in the City. In high school, hunting through these stores for the perfect 70’s bell bottoms and blazers was a favorite pastime. When I moved to Santa Barbara for college in 2003, I found that there were not a lot of resale shopping options, so when I got the opportunity to help open a vintage boutique later that year, I jumped at it.

Were you studying business at the time or was The Closet Trading Co only meant to be a part time gig for you?

I was actually a Global Studies major, although I do wish I had taken a few business classes! The Closet Trading Co was only meant to be a temporary project, and hopefully a way to help pay my way through school. I never imagined that it would last beyond college, much less 16+ years and counting.

Fourteen years later you have opened 4 stores across Southern California. How have you stayed motivated in the retail sector despite the industry changing so much with fast fashion, online shopping, Amazon etc?

The changing retail landscape has helped to motivate me to keep pushing forward. Fast fashion and e-commerce are resulting in unprecedented environmental damage and waste. Growing a sustainable business that extends the life cycle of garments and accessories is more important than ever, and expanding TCTC nationwide will enable us to make an even more significant positive impact.

Can you share any struggles you faced along the way as a young woman starting her own business?

As a young woman, I found it challenging to be taken seriously by commercial landlords in negotiating the retail spaces that I was looking to secure. With time, I learned the importance of surrounding yourself with a seasoned team that can help to boost your credibility in these situations.

We’ve read some depressing stats about the lack of funding female entrepreneurs seem to land when looking to launch a business. What was your experience in the funding area, and how did you stay positive despite any setbacks?

It was difficult to get funding in the early years, but I attribute the challenge more to age and lack of experience than my gender. With time, I learned that it would take many more “no’s” before getting a “yes” but that each of these rejections was a lesson and a chance to hone my concept and improve my pitch. These experiences may have been hard on my ego, but ultimately they served to better my business.

With so much focus on ethical and conscious fashion these days, how do you incorporate this into your product? 

I am passionate about TCTC because our concept is inherently sustainable and socially conscious. We buy and sell secondhand goods, so we do not contribute to the manufacturing and transport of new products. Moreover, our products are sourced locally, brought in by members of the communities in which our stores are located. This means that we are not using all of the packaging required to ship products, so the total waste produced by each of our stores is about 12oz a day – one tiny wastebasket!

What advice would you give other young women who feel undervalued or underestimated because of their gender or age when trying to launch a project or business? 

We all have factors that work for and against us, in life and in business. Focus on your strengths, and keep in mind that setbacks are part of the journey. Look for resources that can help support you, and educate yourself as much as possible before making important decisions.

Who are your female inspirations/role models and why?

My number one female inspiration and role model was my grandmother. She was the strongest and most fearless woman I’ve ever met, and she didn’t let anything or anyone intimidate her. She taught me to be creative, resourceful, and kind, and to see challenges as opportunities.

This content was originally published here.

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