Business Dynamos

Black women are making inroads in the world of business. Like these three, you can tap exciting markets and achieve entrepreneurial success.

bridal house nestled in New York’s fashion district is the brainchild of its founder and president, Amsale Aberra, who started her business on sheer gut instinct and necessity. While planning her 1985 wedding to former HBO programming executive Neil Brown, Aberra surveyed all the rhinestone, bead and lace laden gowns that abounded and saw nothing that whetted her appetite for a minimalist bridal gown. This prompted the Ethiopian native to design her own. A year later, she turned something old into some-thing new.

By shunning the overly ornate wedding gown designs of the past and bringing forth classic, clean and sophisticated versions, she fulfilled the wedding dress dreams of many women. “There were questions in my mind about whether there was a demand for such a dress. I thought, was I the only one who wanted a simple gown?” says 44-year-old Aberra. “I took no formal surveys, but asked married people and those in the bridal industry who showed an interest.” It all began with a $13,000 full-page ad in Bride’s Magazine featuring only a photo of one of her dresses, her name and phone number. The phones rang off the hook the week the magazine hit the stands. In 1986, Aberra — with the business insight of her Harvard M.B.A./J.D. husband and $50,000 of their own money — launched Amsale.

Aberra, who now has an 11-year-old daughter named Rachel, developed her penchant for stylish clothes as a child growing up in Addis Ababa. She and her sister regularly made their own clothes. The daughter of an Ethiopian government minister, Aberra left home in 1973 to study political science at Green Mountain Junior College in Vermont. When the Ethiopian government was toppled only months after her arrival in the U.S., her father was imprisoned, abruptly ending her flow of funds.

She moved to Boston, which has a large Ethiopian population, and worked several odd jobs to raise money to continue her education. In 1981, she completed her studies at Boston State College and then pursued her love of fashion by enrolling in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1982 with a degree in fashion design, Aberra became a design assistant at Harve Benard.
Her defining moment came in 1990 with her first account with the country’s largest wedding dress retailer, Kleinfeld’s in Brooklyn, New York. “I remember the excitement of the merchant who ordered all 12 pieces of the collection and said that if I didn’t have the money to fill additional orders, they would provide it,” recalls Aberra.

“We partner only with stores that put the customer first and have a history of high-quality servicing,” she says. Customers order gowns which range in price from $2,000 to $4,000 — from the retailer, who then puts in the order with Amsale. When the dress arrives at the store, the retailer tailors it to the customer’s specifications.

“Out of 12 vendors in our bridal salon, Amsale ranks among the top three,” says Beth Sperling, bridal manager at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. “Her clean, simple designs

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