One For All

“I had to be very proactive in addressing this recession before the bottom fell out,” says Princess Jenkins, founder of The Brownstone, a women’s fashion boutique in Harlem. So in November 2008 Jenkins invited a group of designers that are regularly carried in The Brownstone to her store for a meeting. When they gathered, Jenkins presented them with a proposition: to form a partnership and collectively host a series of promotional events around the city.

Agreeing to meet and contribute $100 a month to fund the initiative, Jenkins and the women Traci Lilly and Norma Lilly, Adrienne Lockett, Sandy Baker Harriet Rosebud and Denise Goring, who design jewelry, hats, and clothing–formed an informal partnership with the intent of creating “a highly visible fashion footprint in Harlem,” says Jenkins. The goal was to drive sales of their individual wares, collectively, by driving business to The Brownstone.

Strategic alliances are an important and economical strategy. However, such collaborations are only as strong as both the purpose and the players. “Partnerships depend on cooperation,” explains Leonard Greenhalgh, professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “You have to have common objectives, your mission statements have to be compatible, and there must be trust between the parties.” Luckily, such was the case with Jenkins and her partners.

Last April the women combined their expertise, resources, and client lists to host about 150 people at the partners’ first fashion show and shopping experience. A $35 ticket to the event included a show, hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, and a $25 gift certificate for the day. Each partner walked away from the event with professional photos, a video, dozens of new customers, combined ticket and merchandise sales in excess of $25,000, and enough positive buzz in and around the community to continue driving customers to The Brownstone through the harrowing months to come. Teaming up for vendor booths at citywide events as well as a holiday gift catalog followed.

“Other businesses in the community were shrinking back because of the bad economy,” recalls Jenkins. “But, through partnering together, we stood out in a big way.” Sales at the 850-square-foot boutique increased by 25% compared with sales from the previous year, rounding out to a little more than $325,000 for 2009.

Greenhalgh, also director of Tuck’s programs for minority- and women-owned business enterprises, believes that businesswomen tend to form these types of collaborative relationships more easily than men. But he adds that the idea of working with someone else can be challenging for any entrepreneur. “In general, entrepreneurs don’t like being dependent on other people and, not surprisingly, they have a tendency to keep to themselves, making good alliances difficult to find.” The particulars of any business alliance should be put in writing and signed by all those involved to ensure agreement.

Jenkins says the partners’ challenges were typical of any group. “Things like consistency, dependability, accountability, and not being afraid to have an open and honest dialogue when things go awry become very important.” The group continues to meet once a month and plans to continue the partnership.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.