On the wall of Team Blonde Jewelry, in large, black letters, is a quote attributed to Epictetus: “Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.” On the surface this quote serves a seemingly obvious purpose for a jewelry store, but its significance to store owners Jayne Ertel and Heidi Vance, runs deeper.
Ertel and Vance, who have been friends since their freshman year at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, never expected to co-own a small business, let alone a jewelry store. Prior to becoming familiar faces on Madison Street, Ertel and Vance found success as an accountant and a lawyer, respectively, working at large corporate firms.
“This is an accident,” said Vance of becoming a small business owner. “Jayne was a workaholic and needed a hobby.”
Ertel had acquired the skill of twisting metal into earring loops, and had a box of beads, so making jewelry was the natural answer. From there the pieces began to fall into place.
The pair participated in a few art shows and found a positive response to their work. That was combined with, as Ertel described, “frustration with the bureaucracy with the corporate world.”
In accordance with Vance’s self-described “risk-adverse mentality” – which she said came with being a lawyer – the business grew in small, calculated steps. It wasn’t until the Team Blonde logo was painted on the wall that Vance acknowledged that the store, and her new direction, were official.
Ertel and Vance are not the only business owners on Madison Street who have changed the course of their professional lives. The Team Blonde owners are joined by Augie Aleksy of Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore and the Brown Cow’s founder, Connie Brown.
Aleksy attended school to study history but ended up working as a trust officer. He worked at a bank for eight years before being laid off in 1990. Aleksy was forced to quickly decide on his future, as he had a 6-year-old child at the time.
“I liked the idea, but never really planned on owning a store,” he said.
Nonetheless, Aleksy conducted a survey and found that opening a history and mystery bookstore could be a successful venture. Aleksy decided to pursue his passion and opened up his own shop. Ironically enough, the former banker revealed he was most anxious about having to operate a cash register.
“I had never been a [bank] teller, and I wanted to make sure I did everything right,” Aleksy said.
Aleksy leaves no doubt that the switch he made was the right one.
“I like that when people come to the store they want to talk to me,” he said. “At the bank people came in and wanted to speak with someone else.” Also, as a small business owner he has been able to interact with several celebrities. Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore has welcomed stars such as Peter Allen and Sir Peter Ustinov, allowing Aleksy and his young son to talk candidly with them.
“Where else could that happen,” Aleksy quipped.
For Brown, building an ice cream parlor wasn’t as much about passion as necessity. While working for the corporate marketing firm Accenture, the team Brown managed was downsized from 22 employees to just three, and was still being asked to do the same amount of work, she said.
“I really loved my job and the people I worked with, but I wanted to spend more time with my child at home, and that wasn’t going to be possible,” Brown said. She wanted to be in Forest Park, but felt that it was missing a key component: an ice cream parlor. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” she said.
Her transition did not come without its low points. In 2004, as Brown was set for her grand opening, she was informed that there were issues with the board of health, and that she was going to have to push the date back. “I was sitting on the floor of the store crying,” said Brown, who admitted that starting her business was “a bit of a leap of faith.”
However, the village of Forest Park assumed liability for the store and Brown was able to have her grand opening.
“That is when I knew I had done the right thing and done it in the right place,” Brown said.
Brown’s previous career in corporate marketing and her current one as an ice cream parlor owner may seem completely unrelated, but she contends there are significant advantages to the experience she has.
“I learned how to orchestrate a large-scale marketing effort, although the budget now is the size of a nickel,” Brown said. She has had to adjust her managing style slightly, however, because the teenagers she works with require a different kind of help than her coworkers at Accenture.
For Ertel and Vance as well, the experience gained in the corporate world has been enormously beneficial to their jewelry business.
“People say to me, ‘Too bad you don’t use your law education,’ but law school really is a way of training your thought process. I use law school every day,” Vance said.
The freedom of owning a business can be both liberating and terrifying, but it is not something any of these individuals would change.
“I like the challenges and corresponding consequences of owning a business, doing things my way,” Vance said. “It’s different when you are under someone else’s thumb. Now we get the feeling of accomplishment of a job well done.”
Ertel said she was looking forward to working less, but has found that she works much longer hours as an entrepreneur, and for less money. At the bookstore, Aleksy agreed that the money isn’t always great, but he’s much more content.
“There are concerns with bill payments in any job,” Aleksy said. “Why not do what you like?”
Never in a million years did Brown think she would have the job she does today. As a child, the service industry was even held over her as a punishment for not working hard enough, she said. Every time she brought home a bad grade her father made her practice asking imaginary customers if they would like fries with their order.
“I don’t know what he would think now,” Brown chuckled, “but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”