Victoria Halsell is an expert on buying local. Even if that means traveling across the world for her products.
The Proviso East High School alumna works with both local artists, some in Lincoln Park and Wheaton, along with international artisans. Her business travels have brought her to Mexico and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
"We try to bring in small batch product, as opposed to mass produced product…we want product made by local artisans, they can be international…my job during my buying trips is to bring product back to Illinois," Halsell said.
The 42-year-old owns two stores in Elmhurst. Originally Halsell, along with her business partner, started out in Plainfield. Over time she realized she wanted her stores to be closer to one another. Halsell got one better – her artisan gift store, Victoria's on Main, and her toy store Main Street Candy & Toys, are across the street from each another.
Halsell didn't need to organize a focus group to test out her wares, she already had an in-house service – her four children.
"My children have routinely gone with me on my travels and assisted me with picking product, which is great…I kind of see what they take to and what keeps their attention," she said.
Her products are suitable for infants and older. During last year's Christmas season, many of her customers bought robotics gifts for college students studying computer science.
"You want valuable play things that have a purpose…that are stimulating and educating your child," Halsell said.
Before Halsell became a connoisseur of educational toys, she was an engineer.
While a senior at the University of Illinois, where she earned a degree in information systems with a minor in business, Halsell was recruited by Lucent Technologies, a telecommunications firm. She said she was involved in designing wireless networks for companies such as Verizon and AT&T.
Halsell said she also filed 25 patents at Lucent.
"I have 17 patents. I would say half of them are by myself and the other half I did on a team with other engineers," Halsell said.
She pointed out the lack of female representation in engineering, especially among minorities.
Halsell and her colleagues fought back against this reality by forming a female-only group at Lucent, where they jointly conceptualized ideas for inventions and applied for patents.
She still has a few patents pending and the last one was approved in 2005, Halsell said.
Although Halsell loved her job, she was ready for a career change after 10 years at the company.
But then Halsell's father died. He was her original inspiration to buy local.
"My father was a big-time entrepreneur account. He always shopped local…the butcher, the car repair man," she said.
Halsell took time away from the company to help her family during the difficult time. In 2006, the French mobile device company Alcatel merged with Lucent.
"We'd gone from 111,000 employees across the world to about 35,000 and so a lot of that work collapsed onto those of us that were left…I was working 60, 70 hours a week," Halsell said.
She was forced both into a system engineering and product management role.
The stress of the merger and her father's death took a toll on Halsell. Even though Halsell's colleagues begged her to come back to the company, she knew it was time to leave.
But Halsell wasn't completely without a plan.
About two years into her career at Lucent, Halsell completed her master's degree in computer science and engineering with a focus in telecommunications at DePaul University.
Despite her advanced education, Halsell didn't have a clear path forward.
"I was trying to think of something long term that I wanted to do that would allow me to be at home with my children…and what would be fun? So, then I started thinking about kids and science," Halsell said.
Halsell admits she is a drill sergeant when it come to her kids. She's never hired a nanny, preferring to take care of her kids herself. Halsell wakes up every morning at 5:45 a.m. and immediately attends to her children, who range in age from seven to 19.
She's also a vegan and a gym rat to boot.
Halsell admits it isn't easy to maintain the life she does but she has some advice for women who are ambitious both at home and work.
"Find other women like you…I had to learn that as well, right, 'cause we think we can do everything ourselves…the worst thing you can do is to try to seek advice or help from someone who is not living your life," Halsell said.