T-Shirt Designer Shari Neal Explains How Empowering Black Women Can Be Great For Business

In only a few years, Chicao-native Shari Neal has turned her t-shirt side-hustle into a successful small business. Since its launch, Bon BonVie’s sleek designs and empowering messages have become blogger favorites. (Like everyone else, we adore the Brown Skin Lady tee.) Shari and Bon Bon Vie prove that uplifting Black women can provide the foundation for a successful company.

We talked to Shari about her company’s quick rise, remarkable growth, and exciting future. Read our interview with rising fashion star below:

FH: Where did the idea for Bon Bon Vie come from?

SN: Well, for me the idea was very simple. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I was working at the time as a web developer, and I had a creative void I needed to fill. I thought about expanding my creative design work, and then I thought, “I like t-shirts. Everybody likes t-shits.” I thought it was a perfect way to be creative - to do design and do fashion at the same time.

FH: Once you came up with the t-shirt idea, what kind of research did you do?

SN: I did so much research. For me, one of the most important things was coming up with the name. The name kind of fell into my lap. I remember a few years earlier a friend of mine introduced me to the song Bon Bon Vie by T.S. Monk. I really liked it when I heard it, and I remembered it when it was time to start my business. The song’s lyrics really spoke to me. It was about working a 9 to 5 and feeling like you’re being worked to death and feeling like you wanted to live the good life. I felt like that would be absolutely perfect for my brand. Next, since I knew absolutely nothing about starting a business, I did a ton of research about business planning and lots of research on the t-shirt industry and ecommerce. I had to learn how to get an accountant, have proper bookkeeping and all that. I basically had to start from scratch

FH: Were there any books or resources you found particularly helpful?

SN: Yes, there were quite a few. Escape from Cubicle Nation by Pamela Slim was a great reference for me. That was the book that helped me take the leap to quitting my job. Having a job and having my business was getting to be too stressful. Reading that book helped me put things into perspective and helped me realize that this was a viable idea and I could really make this work. There was another site: AndreaAyers.com. She started a t-shirt line, and she had a lot of information about how to break into that and outlined a lot of the steps you should take to have a successful t-shirt business.

FH: At one point you worked a full-time job as well as run Bon Bon Vie on the side. What type of work were you doing?

SN: I was working as a web developer at a pharmaceutical advertising agency. Mostly doing websites – a lot of flash animation that sort of stuff.

FH: How did that work and your educational background help you in creating this company?

SN: I think working a 9 to 5 of any kind teaches you structure and how to talk to people and deal with people. That was definitely beneficial. Being a web developer definitely helped me when it came time to building my website and knowing exactly what I wanted.

FH: It sounds like you had the entrepreneurial bug in you even as you had a very stable career. Do you think some people are just born entrepreneurs?

SN: Yeah. I don’t think entrepreneurship is for everyone. Some people really enjoy structure. Some people really enjoy going to an office all day, and that’s fine. I find that a lot of times for creative types having to be somewhere at a certain time and be restricted is very stifling. For me, that was the main reason I knew that I should try something else. There was so much I was missing during the day. Having my own business I can make my own hours and do whatever I want - whether I feel like working at noon or I feel like working at 2 AM

FH: At what point did you decide to leave your job and pursue Bon Bon Vie fulltime?

SN: I left my job in August 2011.

FH: How was that transition for you?

SN: It was interesting. At first it was very scary. I was at that job for 5 years, so I didn’t know what the future held. I had some savings, so it was less scary on the financial front. I just didn’t know. It was all in my hands at that point. It was exciting yet scary.

FH: What prompted you to leave your 9 to 5 for good?

SN: It got to the point where I enjoyed working on my business more than I enjoyed going to work. I take pride in what I do wherever I’m working. It got to the point where I wasn’t able to put 100 percent in because I was trying to put the effort I once put into my work into my business. It got to the point where I knew I had to pick one.

FH: You picked and Bon Bon Vie has been successful in large part because you seem to have a strong idea of who Bon Bon Vie is for. What differentiates your company from the other t-shirt companies out there?

SN: I definitely have a strong brand identity. I feel like my shirts represent the good life. I try to bring that out in everything that the brand does. I feel like the positive messages I put out on my shirts are nothing new, but it’s the positivity along with the fact that I take a lot of pride in the design, and I wouldn’t release anything that I wouldn’t wear. I put a lot into the shirts, and I try to research what my customers would like and so far that’s worked for us.

FH: Bon Bon Vie has a really strong empowerment vibe. Was that planned?

SN: Yes, that was definitely planned. You can make a lot of money not going the positive route. For me, Positivity was something very important. It’s what I want to spread along to my customers.

FH: Bon Bon Vie has experienced incredible growth in, what seems like, a short time. What kind of marketing did you do to first get your name out there?

SN: When I first got started, I called in every favor I had. I asked every friend I had who had a blog to blog about my shirts. I didn’t know what was going to come of it, but it turned out very well. One of the first things I did was post a coupon code on blackgirlwithlonghair.com. I designed that site, so I asked Laila. I also put a banner ad on her site. Because of that, I had sales the first day I put my site up which was amazing

FH: Were you surprised by how Bon Bon Vie has taken off?

SN: I was. You never really quit your job to start a business if you think it’s going to fail. At the same time, there’s always that fear of “What if no one buys my shirts. What am I going to do?” I expected it take off, but I was also afraid that it would. I always had that faith that it would

FH: You mentioned that as an entrepreneur you had to teach yourself skills. What’s the most important thing you’ve had to teach yourself?

SN: Definitely that you will make mistakes. Mistakes are ok. No matter how much research you do or how much planning you do, things will go wrong. You have to tell yourself it’s going to be ok.

FH: What has been your biggest failure so far with Bon Bon Vie?

SN: I don’t know if I would call it a failure, but I kept both my job and my business for too long. There were periods where I would get completely burned out and my business wasn’t getting enough attention as it should have.

FH: What motivates you?

SN: I know deep down I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to do whatever I can to continue doing this. I love the freedom that entrepreneurship brings. Paying my bills is also important. That definitely motivates me. I love being able to make something from scratch and watch it be successful. Walking down the street and seeing people wearing my shirts is such an awesome feeling.

FH: You’ve come a long way. Where do you see Bon Bon Vie in 5 years?

SN: In 5 years, I definitely hope Bon Bon Vie is still going strong. I’d love to have larger distribution. I’d love to branch out into other things -- not just t-shirts but other types of fashion.

Check out Bon Bon Vie’s latest collection!

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