Yolanda Coleman signed a lease on a new retail space in downtown Racine, and two weeks later found out the breast cancer had returned. She forged ahead. Then, nine months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Still, she forged ahead.
Coleman started and sustained Plush Clothing, a clothing boutique for full-figured women – two thirds of the retail clothing market – with the help of financial support from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), both of which have supported the business since she launched in 2019.
“My whole mission is for women to be their best by looking their best,” she said.
On Thursday, SBA honored her with the 2012 SBA Wisconsin Women in Business Champion Award.
“This award means so much to me. And I’m so grateful. I don’t believe that I would be here without the SBA and without the help of WWBIC,” Coleman said in an interview after the award ceremony, which was attended by Racine Mayor Cory Mason and US Senator Tammy Baldwin.
Also honored on Thursday was Marthia Bell, founder of Living Made Easy homes in Milwaukee. She was given the 2023 SBA Wisconsin District Director Award. Living Made Easy, which owns four supportive living homes for people facing issues like mental illness or addiction.
The company broke ground Thursday on a new adult day care facility that will serve up to 30 people at a time.
Entrepreneurs leverage experience
Both Coleman and Bell started their businesses after long careers working for others. Coleman managed big-box and specialty retail stores for 30 years; Bell managed inclusion and compliance in the construction contracting industry for more than 20. Additionally, Bell’s family owns a number of rental properties in Milwaukee.
In fact, it was in one of those duplexes that Living Made Easy first began offering supportive living for people with alcoholism in 2016. Over the first few years, she expanded to provide supportive housing in three locations – all rented.
“I became a business owner without having any healthcare experience. Loving the challenge,” she said. “I went to school and I got certifications and I learned and people were consulting with me. And here I am today with an amazing crew, an amazing team.”
The pandemic galvanized her to expand, she said. Watching her grandmother die of COVID prompted her to “change the narrative” in healthcare.
With loans from SBA and WWBIC, her company bought and renovated the homes, markedly improving the conditions for both her clients and her 20 employees.
A PPP loan through SBA also helped her keep people on payroll.
“We bought homes and made them look like a model house on the block,” she said. “Their money went to good purpose. SBA don’t know what they did for us. They changed our lives … (WWBIC) didn’t have to give me anything. But they did. They believed in us.”
Bell said taking care of employees is a priority; she provides monthly job training as well as help finding housing and banking, and has recently added a 401(k).
“If you keep your people with good quality of life, they’re going to care for people with the same tenacity that you’re giving them,” Bell said.
Coleman is also helping fellow entrepreneurs though BePlush Collective, a shared retail space where five woman-owned businesses ply their trade.
“I feel as though there’s so many people out there who want to start their businesses, but right now, things are so expensive, overhead is so high,” she said, “I feel like if I can help anyone, by coming together as a collective, to make their dreams become their reality, that is what I’m gonna do.”
Both Coleman and Bell have big plans for the future, too.
Bell expects that the new adult day care center will expand her staff from 20 to about 30. She also hopes, within the next five years or so, to open a residential facility with around 24 beds.
Asked where she’ll be five years from now, Coleman said, “I’ll be at a ribbon cutting of my fifth location. That’s where I will be.”
She said she hopes to expand outside Racine with both Plush Clothing as well as the BePlush Collective.