Open for Business March Profile: Michelle Vanderlaan

Open for Business March Profile: Michelle Vanderlaan

Some people seem to be born with an entrepreneurial spirit, and Michelle Vanderlaan, owner of Sugarcup Trading and 16 Suitcases, is one of those people. As an undergraduate at the College of Charleston, she was tapped to work for IBM. She worked in the corporate world for a number of years after college, but Vanderlaan says, “I knew very early on that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. […] I’ve always had that entrepreneurial interest and drive.”

When Vanderlaan became a mother, she says, “I had to make a decision about whether to continue in the corporate world because I traveled extensively.” She did choose to leave her position, but she kept very busy by sitting on not-for-profit boards. Eventually, she launched a large project as the co-president of Holmes Elementary School. After leading focus groups and gauging interest (which was high), she went forward with helping Holmes achieve Zero Waste status. Vanderlaan consulted with Gary Cuneen of Seven Generations and with others. She wrote four grants to fund the project and was awarded all of them. “I was shocked!” she says.

Things changed quickly. The community went from a parent participation rate [in Zero Waste] of “maybe 3% or 4% to over 97%,” Vanderlaan says, because the students shared their enthusiasm at home and got their parents involved. Vanderlaan started to receive invitations for speaking engagements about how to take schools to Zero Waste. Finally, a filmmaker caught wind of the project and made a documentary focused on the kids’ point of view.

Vanderlaan stepped back and said to herself, “If we can get kids this excited about recycling garbage, what if we could get them excited about recycling their toys for reuse?” Soon she started a trading post within Holmes, where students brought in gently used clothes and toys, and made use of trading cards to keep track of swaps. This trading post planted the idea for Sugarcup Trading, Vanderlaan’s Marion Street shop that she opened seven years ago.

Customers of and visitors to Sugarcup know that it’s packed with eye-catching children’s clothes, accessories and toys. In addition, the trading element remains as there is a Trade Lounge for gently used clothing and Red Tag sales periodically, the proceeds of which are donated to one of eight local charities Vanderlaan works with regularly. Being eco-friendly and giving back to the community are two key elements of Sugarcup’s mission.

Over the years, Vanderlaan heard frequently from parents that their children were sizing out of Sugarcup Trading and were missing the carefully curated products there. When her own daughter hit age 13, Vanderlaan decided to take the leap and open a new store right next door: 16 Suitcases. In focus groups, she heard from her customers and advisors that they wanted contemporary women’s clothing that is “on trend, current, fresh, updated, comfortable, quality, and, even more importantly, [on] price point,” says Vanderlaan. 16 Suitcases, open now, checks all these boxes with beauty and grace. Vanderlaan does all the buying for both stores, often traveling to New York and other places to find items that are on trend and unique.

Just as Sugarcup with its trading element and commitment to the environment and the community is more than “just a boutique,” so is 16 Suitcases. One can shop in 16 Suitcases by simply walking in and choosing items, paying for them in the store. Another way to experience this special place is by coming in and having a fitting by a stylist. You can then order “suitcases” to be delivered when you wish—16 per year. Your suitcase will include items chosen just for you, some of which will not be available in the regular shop. Keep what you like and send the rest back.

I asked Vanderlaan what advice she would give to a small business owner hoping to open in Oak Park. She had four tips. 1. “Location, location, location.” It matters where you are within the Village, so think about what you want to sell and find the right spot. 2. “Find your tribe”—and she cautions that these people who really believe in you and get your mission may be other than those you expected. Keep looking and you will find them. 3. “Give back.” Vanderlaan has built robust giving programs into her business plan and it feeds everything she does. And 4. “Hire the very best people.” Her businesses thrive, she says, because of her incredible employees who bring so much expertise and dedication to the work.

On April 1, 2017, 16 Suitcases will officially launch several exciting components. One is the subscription box service. Another is a curbside option, where you can call or order online and drive by to pick up a wrapped or unwrapped item, brought to your car. Third is ecommerce, “leveraging technology to the hilt,” Vanderlaan says. Purchases online and in the store will be possible with your phone. Finally, its website is going live very soon.

Whether you are shopping for a grandchild, a friend, a spouse, a daughter, or yourself, treat yourself to a trip to Marion Street. Sugarcup Trading and 16 Suitcases, nestled side-by-side, offer a rewarding and unique retail experience. Keep your eye on these two companies and their founder, Michelle Vanderlaan: here is where the leading edge in retail lies.


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