Many other countries have squashed the virus and are getting back to normal. If they can, we can.
Science is real, and I have faith in our scientists and doctors. I truly believe hope is on the horizon.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Quinn Williams, President and Founder of Saint Louis Closet Co.
At the age of 25, Jennifer Q. Williams had no money or business experience but was determined to change people’s lives through custom organization. She decided to drop out of graduate school, finance herself with personal credit cards and a Small Business Administration loan, and start her business. In 1991, Jennifer opened the doors of the first locally-owned, woman-owned, floor-based custom closet company in her community.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Coming from St. Louis, I feel like I have to start with what high school I attended. It’s silly but essentially a tradition: Kirkwood High School, class of 1984. Saint Louis University was my next destination — not too far from home. I earned a B.A. in Communications and Public Relations, which helped me to envision a company that would serve the needs of my community. I opened the doors of Saint Louis Closet Co. in 1991 and never looked back. My husband, Matt, is a fellow entrepreneur, and we have two children, Matthew and Hallie, who both attend Vanderbilt University.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
In October 1995, I was invited to participate in the Midwest Regional Economic Conference, which was hosted by former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. There were nine states represented, with four attendees from each, and I was one from Missouri. This was the coolest thing ever. Joined by just 35 other small businesses, I knew I had to meet the President. After a long productive day, I quickly bolted to the front of the room and held out my hand to President Clinton. By the time Secret Service jumped into action to stop me, I had already introduced myself and Saint Louis Closet Co. We discussed the closets in the White House and he felt he could use my services. Unfortunately, this was before smart phones, so I don’t have a selfie. I have always looked at it as a catapult to taking every opportunity I can when it presents itself. You just never know what might happen next (like COVID-19!).
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I implemented a monthly giveback program (Closets for a Cause) through my business right before COVID-19 hit. It’s a comprehensive program for charities located in the St. Louis community, which we have been giving back to since opening in 1991. Closets for a Cause recognizes, supports, and donates to a single charity; each month, a percentage of all sales are donated back to whomever we select. By collaborating with nonprofit organizations, I hope to also raise awareness through blog posts, social media, and emails to our current and past customers. I want to inspire the wonderful and generous community of St. Louis. During COVID-19, these charities are in more need now than ever.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Matt Williams, my husband and fellow entrepreneur, is truly my go-to for all business support, ideas, and questions! He owns TKO DJs, a company he started in high school when he was 15 years old. In 1994 (three years after I opened my business), I was perusing the St. Louis Business Journal during Small Business Week and noticed a story about Matt — the Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Missouri. I said out loud, “He’s cute, he’s young, he runs a business, and I’m going to meet him!” I bought a ticket to the luncheon honoring him, introduced myself, and he invited me to sit at his table. We began a professional relationship, meeting for lunch and coffee to discuss and collaborate on the ups and downs of being young and owning your own businesses. Several years later, we were engaged.
One bit of advice I give to fellow entrepreneurs is to surround yourself with supportive people along with those who are experiencing the same things as you. You don’t have to marry them, but keep them close. These are the folks that will tell you their honest opinions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
COVID-19 has put a whole new spin on 2020 and it’s one that we never expected. As a business owner and a mother, it was impactful. Keeping my two children (ages 18 and 20) on a schedule during “the new normal” tested my patience, my ability to adapt, and my willingness to keep going despite the uncertainties of the future.
For my daughter, it has impacted her senior year of high school — her last season of lacrosse, prom, and graduation. For my son, his college internship was cancelled, his sophomore year in college was cut short, and he is worried about what his junior year is going to look like. Suddenly, we were all stuck at home together without any practice schedules, carpools, graduation parties, or summer internships to worry about.
This was a huge challenge for me, as my business was still operating during the entirety of the pandemic (and still is), and I had to juggle the kids and their “new normal.” I’ve also been working to keep both my employees and customers safe on a daily basis. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’ve had to wake up earlier to still get my daily walks in, which allowed me to stay sane and really think about and focus on how to get through each and every day. I had to keep my kids focused on the blessings that they have and not focus on what they were missing out on all while simultaneously re-vamping my business with safety protocols to operate within the state, local, and CDC guidelines.
At the end of each day, I’ve felt exhausted and yet challenged to wake up the next morning and tackle the obstacles that would be thrown my way.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
The biggest challenges I face today with my business are the same as many small business owners (women and men) — how to operate a business safely during a pandemic. Keeping all the safety protocols such as cleaning and sanitizing, face masks and hand sanitizer, social distancing, and so on in place, while operating a successful and profitable business that can keep my employees working and support their families.
So many small businesses right now are shuttered and have gone out of business. I’m one of the lucky ones — I know it, but it’s stressful and hard.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I try every day to put on my happy face and have a positive attitude. I know that it’s up to me to make each day flow smoothly. This is unchartered territory so none of us really know what is right or what is wrong. We are doing the best we can with the resources we have and the information we are given.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
“Working from home” is a phrase we all have heard so much of this year. Some associate it with relaxed hours, less productivity, and lots of breaks. I like to tackle it with some tips to be better equipped and productive:
1. Designate a space just for work. Keeping your workspace separate from your “home space” will help you associate your work with staying focused. Bringing your laptop to the couch or working from bed can cause some major distractions! Distractions can stretch your day longer than usual, bogging you down with longer hours.
2. Keep your hours consistent. Depending on your job, this could be more or less challenging. Making sure that you are working during the same times each day can help you keep work and play more separate.
3. Take breaks. Don’t forget to get up and stretch your legs! It’s easy to let time fly, but giving your eyes a break from screen time and pumping some blood through your legs can help with muscle fatigue and headaches later on.
4. Personalize your space. Create a space that feels enjoyable to be in by painting the walls or decorating with inspiring photos. If you’re spending a lot of time there, it might as well be inviting!
5. Stay organized. My favorite tip! Keep your work tools and supplies handy and accessible so you don’t spiral out of the zone when you need to reach for something. File your pertinent papers, label them, and take inventory once a month of what needs to be stocked or organized.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
We have adapted, just like everyone else, and have tried to make the most of our time together. It’s surely time we will never forget as a family. What is important to keep in mind is that no matter how old they are, our children will always look to their parents, and we still serve as their role model when the ship starts to rock.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1. Many other countries have squashed the virus and are getting back to normal. If they can, we can.
2. Science is real, and I have faith in our scientists and doctors. I truly believe hope is on the horizon.
3. All the amazing environmental improvements that have happened during our downtime have possibly helped make the planet safer for my children and, hopefully someday, grandchildren.
4. The time spent with my two college-aged kids this summer would have never happened without COVID-19. This is valuable time and memories we wouldn’t have had without quarantine. Our relationship with our children was strengthened and we savored every minute with them.
5. I strongly feel that this time and this virus have caused us all to think outside the box for ways to connect and live. It’s caused my family and me to slow down and definitely appreciate our relationships more.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
1. Remain positive for your loved ones, even when you’re feeling anxious. I know that my children will always look up to my husband and me, so we have to stay calm, take the reins, and move along with confidence.
2. Take breaks from the news and your phone. While it’s good to know what’s going on in the world, there’s always the possibility that you will start to experience information overload. Your brain needs to reset like a computer when this happens. Get outside and be active.
3. Clean out your closet. Sometimes we just need to distract our minds from our worries and that’s okay! Set goals for yourself around the house like organizing a specific space. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as checking off a task on a to-do list.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
Here’s the thing about customer service — An unhappy customer will become a loyal consumer if you fix their complaint and do it quickly. 80% will come back to you if you’ve treated them fairly and that percentage increases if you respond immediately. Every day we have the chance to transform our mistakes into returning customers, even RAVING FANS — the kind who will tell other people good things about our business.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!