‘This is it’: A small business owner’s grand opening amidst the COVID-19 shutdown

It was supposed to happen this week.

Shalonda “Pinky” Saunders was planning a grand opening for her girls and women's clothing shop, Sew Pinky, on South Calhoun Street near downtown Fort Wayne.

Pinky has run the business out of her apartment and online for several years now, crafting custom outfits for little girls she calls “princesses” and matching sets for their mothers and aunties.

In 2019, Pinky graduated from Fort Wayne’s Build Institute program, preparing to open her first brick-and-mortar location.

Through Build, she got accepted into the Summit City Match program, which connects rising business owners with vacant storefronts on South Calhoun Street, infusing the area with new life and local character.

And when she stepped inside her cozy 350-square-foot storefront at 2320 S. Calhoun St., she just knew it was meant to be.

“I was in here maybe for two minutes, and I knew this is it,” Pinky says. “I found my little slice of pink heaven.”

Pinky spools the thread on her sewing machine.

Today, her shop on Calhoun Street is indeed a slice of pink heaven, offering sidewalk shoppers a glimpse in Pinky's whimsical world of stuffed unicorns and tulle princess dresses.  

If you could step inside, you’d see bubble-gum-colored walls and a rack of candy-colored garments.

The top rack is custom orders waiting to go out, Pinky explains, because while her new store is closed to the public for now with the COVID-19 shutdown, that doesn’t mean she’s not working.

“My process now is: Sew, sanitize, sew, sanitize,” she says. “What I’ll be doing is be making things here, and I’ll take private appointments until things clear up.”

A glimpse into Sew Pinky's window at 2320 S. Calhoun St.

But while her walls and spirits are rosy pink, it doesn’t mean Pinky hasn’t had her fair share of doubts in this mess.

The other night, she was listening to the news on the radio as she sewed, and she drove home from the shop feeling discouraged.

“I was like, “Okay, Pinky, you haven’t even had your official opening yet, and now you cannot even have it,’” she reflects.

Before long, she found herself wondering: What am I going to do?

“Everyone gets to that place, where you’re like, ‘Am I making a mistake?’” she says.

But as soon as she walked into her house, her phone rang, and when she answered, it was a new customer.

“She was like, ‘Are you open? Can I come in? I need something for my daughter?’” Pinky says.

“I told her, ‘We’re online, and I can help you.”

That was all it took to raise her spirits. One order, one day, at the right time made all the difference.

“It just kind of let me know that this is what you’re supposed to be doing,” Pinky says.

Pinky works on a garment at her shop at 2320 S. Calhoun St. (Photo series by Rachel Von Stroup)

Even before COVID-19, Pinky did about 80 percent of her sales online. She says that so far, things haven’t been slowing down with the crisis, so she’s still hopeful about the future.

“Even though I get like every entrepreneur where you’re like, ‘Is this a mistake?’ I feel like something will always happen—call it God, the Universe, whatever—something will always happen to let you know that this is what you’re supposed to be doing,” she says.

And while COVID-19 might present Pinky with new challenges, it's not the first challenge she's had to face.

***

While you might assume the name Pinky comes from Shalonda’s cheery disposition or her favorite color, it actually goes back to the day she was born.

“I was just pink,” she says. “And eventually, I turned brown,” she adds, laughing.

Today, her family and all her friends know her as Pinky—some of them don’t even know her as Shalonda.

Tutus on the top shelf are custom orders.

Pinky’s family is originally from Chicago, but her mother and other siblings have since relocated to Fort Wayne.

She moved here herself about 13 years ago, but she didn’t learn how to sew until 2011 when she found out her older sister was pregnant with a baby girl, and she decided to teach herself the craft.

“I thought: This is my chance,” Pinky says. “I just wanted my niece and me to dress alike, so I really started sewing just for us.”

Pinky finishes the waistband on a garment at her shop.

That very day, Pinky went out, bought a sewing machine, and taught herself how to make a dress. But sewing did not come easy to her at first.

“It was terrible,” she says, reflecting on that first dress. “It was literally the worst thing you will ever see in your life.”

But while she still doesn't show that dress to anybody, she says that she always held onto it as a secret reminder to herself over the years.

“Seeing the first thing being so bad, I wanted to improve upon that,” Pinky says.

And improve she did. By the time her niece, Yolanda, known as “Twinkie,” was born, Pinky was making colorful, frilly tutus galore, and when friends and neighbors saw them, they asked Pinky to make outfits for their little princesses, too.

Pinky prides herself in creating #princessapproved fashions.

When a steady stream of orders started coming in, Pinky’s family convinced her to start charging for the work, and the concept of Sew Pinky was born.

“I never really thought I was good enough to get paid at first,” Pinky says. “But having different people reaching out boosted my confidence, and it just grew from there.”

Before long, she went from making tutus to dresses, skirts, and eventually matching sets for moms and girls.

She found her niche in creating custom-designs that people couldn’t find anywhere else, and she tested all of her designs on Twinkie, who got to give them the stamp of #princessapproved.

“We cater to the princess and what the princess wants,” Pinky says. “You can go to Walmart and get something, or you can go to a high-end shop and get something, but as far as custom-made, there are no stores where you can find something this unique for a little girl in Fort Wayne and then something that will match the mom at the same time.”

And what started as a passion for fashion grew into a local movement of its own.

***

As a young woman in her 30s, Pinky began to notice that most of her peers and little princesses didn’t know how to sew.

While she saw the local art scene gaining momentum in Fort Wayne, she still felt like sewing was seen as a lost art.

“Most people, when they see me sewing are like, ‘Oh, my grandma sews,’” Pinky says, and the realization lit a fire in her belly to teach the next generation of girls how to sew, too.

Pinky uses bright colors and princess patterns for her clothes.

“I feel like this is a skill that everyone should have,” she says. “Even if it’s just hand sewing, or sewing a button, or fixing a rip in your jeans, it can grow into something bigger, just like it did for me.”

So around the year 2014, she started teaching sewing classes for little girls, using a curriculum she developed herself that takes them from a needle, a thread and a sheet of paper to operating a sewing machine by themselves.

The classes started in the craft room at Hobby Lobby, and when they outgrew that space, Pinky moved them to the Allen County Public Library downtown.

She taught the classes for free, too, because she wanted everyone to be able to participate.

“I think it’s something important for the girls to have,” she says. “It’s more than sewing, too. We sit and talk. They bring up boys and things like that. It’s all just encouraging them to be their best self.”

Pinky is a self-taught seamstress who teaches other girls to sew.

Around that time, Pinky started hosting beauty pageants with Sew Pinky, too, but they weren’t your average stand-around-and look-pretty pageants, she says.

“They’re performance pageants; You have to dance for these trophies,” she says, laughing.

Pinky held the pageants at the Allen County Public Library and got local businesses to donate prizes. She even had a panel of female role models in the Fort Wayne community act as her judges each year.

“I try to find women who the girls can see and think, ‘That can be me one day,’” she explains.

Her last pageant was on Mother’s Day in 2017, and it was a Mommy & Me pageant, showcasing Sew Pinky’s designs for princesses and their moms.

But while the pageant was a success, Pinky ended up taking about two years off of her business after that because her health was in poor condition. She was about 200 pounds heavier than she is today, and when she realized that she didn’t even want to make clothes for herself, she knew that she needed to get in shape.

“I figured, if I’m not healthy, I can’t run a healthy business,” she says. “I needed to get Pinky together if I wanted Sew Pinky to grow.”

After two years of hard work and weight loss surgery, she began to ease back into her business in 2019. That was about the same time she found out about new classes Fort Wayne was offering for entrepreneurs called Build Institute Fort Wayne.

***

In the spring of 2019, SEED Fort Wayne, formerly known as the Urban Enterprise Association (UEA), brought a few entrepreneurship programs to the Summit City based on their success in Detroit, Mich.

The first program was called Build Institute Fort Wayne, a cohort-based nine-week business education course, helping early-stage entrepreneurs hone their strengths and get plugged into the city’s ecosystem of small business support.

While Pinky was hesitant about enrolling in classes of any kind at first, she ended up being thankful that she did.

“That first day, I literally sat there with my head in my hands, listening, and I was like, ‘Have I really been doing business at all?’” she says. “I had so much to learn.”

Her instructor for the course was City Council representative and entrepreneur Michelle Chambers, who has experience running her own professional notary signing service, Downtown Fort Wayne: Signing Closers LLC, as well as the former boutique YVH (Your Virgin Hair) Boutique.

Pinky says it was Chambers’s firsthand experience as an entrepreneur that made her instruction so valuable.

“If it wasn’t for that program, I would not be where I am right now as far as being able to open this space and have my paperwork, my insurance, my accounting, and everything done,” Pinky says. “That class really prepares you from A to Z, and even afterward. They still have coaches and experts who come in and talk to you.”

The first cohort of Build Fort Wayne classes launched in the spring of 2019.

Through the Build Institute, Pinky got connected to her next opportunity: Opening a brick-and-mortar space for Sew Pinky through the Summit City Match program.

Modeled after Detroit’s Motor City Match, the Summit City Match works to activate the city’s corridors with homegrown businesses, connecting business owners who want space with building owners who want tenants.

And since Pinky saw her store for the first time, the rest is history.

Colorful garments adorn the walls at Sew Pinky's shop.

As she moves into South Calhoun Street this year, she’s been sending out messages to her new neighbors who seem excited about the arrival of another small business, she says.

“This is a busy area, so if you have a business that’s busy, that’s going to bring in more business to other places, and just keeping the area active,” she says. “It’s about making it a place where people are like, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on at South Calhoun with all of these people?’”

And while all of the people on South Calhoun Street are stuck at home for now, Pinky isn’t losing hope in the future's potential.

Day in and day out, she sits behind her sewing machine with pink cheeks and pink dresses and a pink glow all around her little slice of heaven.

“Stay calm. Stay calm,” she repeats to herself.

She’s been working and waiting a long time for this moment, and now, COVID-19 or not—“This is it,” she says.

Learn more

Follow Sew Pinky on Facebook, and shop on Etsy.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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