Alumni Profile: Ashlie Hadden, '09
Fashioning Big Opportunities
It's no surprise to see a sea of red in downtown Lincoln on Husker game days. For nearly a year, however, downtown Lincoln has been a sea of orange.
Construction is everywhere – from the Capitol, to campus, to the Haymarket and beyond. Few streets have been left untouched by the expansion in recent months. While the growth ultimately means good things to come for Lincoln (the new Pinnacle Bank Arena and Haymarket development for example), the construction has had some people worrying about the immediate effects on downtown businesses blocked by navigation troubles, slow traffic and limited parking.
But for Ashlie Hadden, downtown business owner and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) alumna, the sound of jackhammers and the rapidly changing skyline in front of her boutique, Embellish, is business as usual.
"Construction has been around since [Embellish's] inception. It's hard to tell what kind of effect it has had," pondered Hadden, glancing around her shop.
Hadden graduated from UNL in 2009 and opened Embellish in 2011 amid the rise of the downtown construction. When asked how she envisions projects like the new arena will affect her over the next several years, she adopts a hopeful grin.
"Five years is a long time from now – so much has changed for me already in the last nine months!"
The construction noises and blocked streets only remind Hadden of the exciting possibilities opening up as the city develops. For the last year, as construction has boomed, so has Embellish.
"I get giddy thinking about it," she said. "We have a vibe that's on a small scale now, but we already have a certain amount of people that shop here because they want something different. That pool will grow as Lincoln does."
Embellish specializes in apparel, home décor, gifts and accessories for young women and young professionals who, as Hadden said, "want something special."
Unique items line the racks and shelves of the shop – apparel that caters to young women interested in the latest styles in the fashion industry and blogosphere, as well as specialty gift items designed for Embellish's demographic. While her initial focus may have been apparel related, Hadden also makes an effort to cater to other needs of her customers.
"I consider myself a lifestyle brand. I don't only look for apparel, but gifts and décor also – I want to capture everything about [my] target market's life, not just fashion."
For young female professionals in their 20s and 30s, major lifestyle changes often include starting families. This has meant expanding Hadden's selection of specialty gifts to include items for babies, kids and moms.
"I'm learning more about what departments are profitable and where money should go… I have a soft spot for kids – there's a lot of really great stuff on the market now for children."
The decision to branch out and experiment with different departments aside from apparel reflects Hadden's general business philosophy.
"The key to being successful is to never get too comfortable where you're at," she said. Challenge yourself. Learn more about things you don't know about."
It was this same desire for a challenge that got Hadden on the path to business ownership more than a year ago. That, and a little advice from dad.
"I was in my early 20s right out of school thinking, ‘what am I going to do with my life?' I visited with my dad and he said, ‘If you could live out your dream without money being an issue, what would you do? See what will happen if you write a business plan.' After that, I spent time at home writing and making business contacts," explained Hadden.
"Embellish opened in August of 2011. Between working and planning, it took about six to nine months of preparation."
Hadden had a background in business and fashion merchandising from her experience at UNL. She started in the interior design program before switching to the College of Business Administration to study business with a minor in textiles and design. Class projects and opportunities at UNL piqued her interest in joining the Lincoln business community.
"I had a class project where we worked with the Downtown Lincoln Association. Learning how they helped the retail community in this area was really cool," she said. That project got [my interest in small business ownership] ticking."
Three years after graduating, Hadden not only runs a successful business, but also takes the time to give back to the university and community when she can. This means giving guest lectures at the business school, meeting with business and advertising students to help with projects, and most importantly, hiring students to give them first-hand experience in the industry.
"I have three part-time employees right now. All are students in fashion merchandising and fashion journalism. One just graduated and is going to be a buyer for the Buckle. It's kind of sad to see my first one go."
Hadden had tremendous success recruiting her students from the Textiles and Design program at UNL. Within a few hours of the college sending out an e-mail to students, Hadden had more than 25 applications for the job.
"I have resumes come in constantly," she said. "It takes some standing out to me personally to be considered. If I needed to recruit again, I would definitely go through the textiles program. I get really great applicants who want to learn. They understand that this isn't just a retail job – it's more than that."
For now, she hopes to continue to earn customers from game day traffic and looks forward to Lincoln's prospects for the future.
"They're structuring the Haymarket to attract the young professional demographic, which is the heart of my target. That market is so big in Lincoln … Nebraska is becoming a place where people are appreciative of things that are different. There's a really strong creative class here."