It's a chilly Friday evening in mid-December, and the staff of Sensual Steps is bracing for an onslaught -- the holiday Midnight Madness sale, when everything from glittery sandals to stiletto boots is 50 percent off.
Bronzeville boutique owner Nicole Jones is wearing a hot pink "shoe doctor" coat, a stethoscope and furry black boots. An intern is mixing lemonade in the kitchen.
The doors are set to open at 9 p.m., and Jones and Tabb are expecting hundreds of customers. Will they show up?
Growing sales and turning a profit are important to Jones, who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Sensual Steps. But it is just as important to Tabb, her only full-time employee. Tabb is Jones' right-hand woman, working in the store five days a week, handling Internet orders and going out on five or six nights a month in the store's Hummer to throw Heels on Wheels shoe parties in people's homes or businesses.
Tabb, 43, was unemployed when she began leaving her resume at Sensual Steps in 2005. She was looking for a job in the neighborhood that would be close to her children's schools, and she wanted a retail position because of her experience in department store sales. When Tabb saw Sensual Steps' pretty pink boutique at 4518 S. Cottage Grove Ave., she knew where she wanted to work.
"I was sure once I established myself they would love me, because I can sell," Tabb said.
Jones rewarded her persistence and hired Tabb at a rate of $8 an hour. Now she earns $13.25 an hour, plus bonuses. The job has allowed Tabb to pay for extras for her four children who live at home, including sports fees for her son. She also has become somebody important in the neighborhood. "When I drop my child off at day care, they say, 'Hi. I know you. You're Shoe Lady No. 2.'"
Jones is talking about having Tabb run a second Sensual Steps store somewhere on Chicago's North Side by mid-2009. She also is wondering whether Heels on Wheels could support a separate part-time or full-time employee.
It's a classic case of economic trickle-down.
As a black entrepreneur, Jones is helping reduce unemployment in Bronzeville by hiring local residents. But statistics show that black businesses often don't generate much in terms of employment. Of the 64,000 black-owned businesses in Cook County, only 4,000 have more than one employee, according to Urban League statistics.
That's one of the reasons the Chicago Urban League created the NextOne program, which is intended to put black-owned business owners on the fast track. Jones was one of 16 black-owned entrepreneurs accepted into the six-month pilot program.
"The reason we're focusing on entrepreneurs is job creation," said league President Cheryle Jackson. "As the number of African-American businesses grows, so do the number of African-American employees. It's a statistical fact that black-owned businesses hire more African-Americans than any other type of business."
Guidance, strategies welcome
As part of the program, the Urban League is paying for accountants, financial strategists and industry consultants. It also is giving each business owner an executive coach to help them manage the process.
Jones' coach is Francey Smith, a ginger-haired woman with a disarming manner who has worked at Bloomingdale's and has contacts in the retail industry. Smith already has made some concrete suggestions. The Sensual Steps' awning should have black letters so it is easier to read from a passing car. An in-store survey should have a space for customers' e-mail addresses. Nicole should prepare a SWOT, a grid that lists Sensual Steps' strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Some ideas are more radical, such as the suggestion that Jones pursue transvestites as a customer niche. Her sexy shoes and selection of larger sizes would be a good fit for male cross-dressers, many of whom are not price-sensitive, Smith said.
"When I suggested it, she didn't miss a beat. She recognized it as a segment of business. Her openness to accept what she doesn't know is refreshing," Smith said. "I don't perceive any arrogance or paranoia."
At a mid-December coaching session, Jones said she has been so pleased with Smith's input that she has hired an executive coach for Tabb as well. The coach turns out to be Audrey Johnson, Jones' older sister, a former IRS auditor who also has 15 years of retail experience.