Special Guest post by Amy Reeves Robinson | StartUp Cup Thought Partner and Northwest Arkansas StartUp CupMentor.

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How does a daughter with a major in Political Science along with her mother, a retired Hospice Director, turn a hobby into a local economic engine and fashion clothing line? With skill, passion and a little help from StartUp Cup, of course!

I had the opportunity to coach Leah Garrett and her mother, Lou Reed Sharp, during the Northwest Arkansas StartUp Cup, on their business, Olive Loom. Winners of the 2012 Cup, Leah sat down with me to discuss the journey she and her mother have taken over the past few years in developing their company and how it’s grown since their win in November, 2012.

Lou was the Director of Circle of Life Hospice for 18 years. After leaving, she took her love of care giving a little closer to home when started caring for her own mother. In her new role, she found she had time to start sewing again. “She sewed all of our clothes when we were kids. It wasn’t something new, but it was something she hadn’t had time to do for a long time.” said Leah.

Leah saw the amazing pieces her mother was creating and started to bring it to shops and then the local farmer’s market in Fayetteville, AR. Leah began helping Lou and, although she already knew how to sew, her skills improved exponentially with the constant practice she acquired as the demand for their bags, aprons and other goods grew. Soon, there was more sewing than they could keep up with, creating the perfect opportunity for them to outsource to local artisans they knew were looking for work. This was in 2010, during the still down-turned economy, and they realized they were also helping those they employed make ends meet. This soon became a strong thread in their business model as they developed their socially conscious company and lived by the mantra that “small businesses have power to change economies for people and their communities.”

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So, now what? That’s what Leah found she was asking herself as their hobby began to transform into a business. Leah’s political sciences background was telling her, “…to look at the micro vs. macro. We knew we wanted to be at ground level helping communities and this created a struggle with how to be a for-profit or non-profit company.” Fortunately, they heard about the StartUp Cup in Northwest Arkansas and they entered. “I love to compete and this lit a fire that got things going,” Leah states excitedly. It was a challenge to articulate the full concept of the company at first but she says, “

[The questions from the judges] helped get us over some hurdles and put some thought into our process.” Leah and Lou honed their idea using the Business Model Scorecard and support from coaches. The process gave them the courage and confidence in their ability and they grew their capacity to 20 women during the course of the competition. “Having the judges who are business leaders in the community, give affirmation that this can work gave us confidence. Having people believe in you makes a big difference.” says Leah.

The company quickly evolved. “[Participating in StartUp Cup] really brought things out of the abstract and into reality for us. Now we have a lot less talking about doing things and a lot more doing things!” A concrete tool Olive Loom still uses from the Business Model ScoreCard is the timeline which helps them with their milestones and to determine when and where things need to be delegated.

Olive Loom’s confidence and business organization has grown so significantly through and since StartUp Cup, that they recently launched their first line of clothing, fromJane. Their line is based on their Olive Loom core philosophy of social consciousness by “women creating comfortable, well-fitting clothes for other women who want to look their best while showing concern for supporting their local community and wearing eco-friendly apparel.” Their designs are

“made by hand in the homes and communities across the United States” and “fromJane clothes are designed to fit, flatter and last. Our look is contemporary, our commitment to quality is classic.”

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And what is the advice from Olive Loom to new StartUp Cup participants to help them gain the same level of success? According to Leah, “The trick is not just writing the plan but doing it. Making real progress through the course of the competition. Make changes based on judges suggestions, but stay true to your vision by listening, weighing the options and ultimately making your own decisions.”

How did being part of the StartUp Cup change life and perspective for Leah? “I feel more empowered to do things. If I want to do something, I can. And still, I woke up the other day and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I run a business!’”

Congratulations to Olive Loom on their 2012 NWA StartUp Cup win. We look forward to hearing more stories of success to come from them in the future!