Sneaking into her mother’s closet, Mercedes Hernandez couldn’t resist trying on her blue satin jacket. Though the fourth-grader was far too small for it, she loved wearing it to school anyway.
Her passion for fashion had emerged.
A little over a decade later, that love has flourished into her own business. Hernandez, who had done modeling as a child and worked in retail while in high school, last summer opened Bow N Arrow, a bohemian-style clothing store across the plaza in downtown Cotati.
Today, the shop is a lively spot, frequented by students on the hunt for trendy but affordable fashion.
“I got really lucky with the location,” she said, noting its proximity to Sonoma State University about 2 miles away. She tries to keep prices low for students, many of whom are about her age.
“It’s crazy, especially when I hear people talk about the store,” said Hernandez, now 22. “I didn’t picture myself being able to do this. I thought it was so unrealistic because of my age.”
Unlike generations before her, who started in retail shops and later opened a website, Hernandez first launched the business online when she was just 19. She was waitressing at the time at a burger joint in Santa Rosa, saving her tips in hopes of one day opening a brick-and-mortar store.
Sales online were booming. Hernandez, who received a business entrepreneur certificate from Santa Rosa Junior College, spent most of her spare time filling orders and stocking up on inventory. But she wanted to interact face-to-face with customers.
“I wasn’t satisfied with selling online. I love the in-person connection (and) styling customers,” Hernandez said one afternoon at her store, which she was able to open with her savings and a microloan.
She now has plenty of time to interact with customers. Although she has three employees, customers usually can find her at the register or arranging the clothes and décor around the store.
A thrifty shopper herself, Hernandez refurbished secondhand furniture and decorations for her store. For example, she purchased two old glass counters for $20 and, with the help of her father, added pieces of wood from their weathered backyard fence to give them a rustic feel. She picked up driftwood from the beach to hang clothes.
“She’s very disciplined. She has the drive,” said Marcos Suarez, business diversity program manager for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Suarez helped connect Hernandez with various resources, including the microloan lender, Working Solutions, after she approached him early last year. Impressed with her work ethic and determination, he invited Hernandez to speak at the Latina Business Summit, an event staged in November by Suarez and members of the Small Business Resource Network. About 200 women, mostly Latinas, attended the event at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where several Latina business owners shared their stories and discussed ways to support female entrepreneurs.
One of the most important things they need is access, Suarez said — access to information, resources and capital.
“Access is key to being able to have a successful business,” said Suarez, a former president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
While he doesn’t track the total number of Latina-owned businesses in Sonoma County, Suarez is seeing more women come through his door, seeking advice for their startups. Over the last decade, Sonoma County has seen rapid growth among Latino-owned businesses, which have ballooned from 4,000 businesses in 2007 to just over 5,000 in 2012, the latest data available from the county’s Economic Development Board.
Nationwide, Latina-owned small businesses are on the rise. In 2007, Latinas owned just under 790,000 small businesses. California alone had some 205,000 Latina-owned small businesses, according to a report by Los Angeles-based Hispanas Organized for Political Equality.
It’s a number Suarez expects will continue to grow.
“They see that there is opportunity for them to have financial independence and be successful,” Suarez said. “Latina women are very strong and determined.”
Hernandez said she hopes to inspire other young women to pursue their dreams. She’s spoken to high-school entrepreneur students and served as a mentor at her alma mater, Windsor High School.
Her message to the students is simple.
“You’re not too young to accomplish what you set your mind to do,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @eloisanews.