Boutique sets women up for success

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Scarf opened a thrift shop on the West Bank in February.

Ethan Nelson

Cedar-Riverside’s newest thrift shop offers little in the way of walking room — it’s overflowing with clothes and dotted with counters full of shoes and jewelry — but it has just enough space to bring together the young women of the West Bank.

For young women living in the neighborhood, opportunities to learn practical skills in the community can be hard to come by. In 2011, 16 women formed the Sisterhood of the Traveling Scarf to change just that.

The Sisterhood, a group of high school- and college-aged women of East African descent, trains women in business and opened a thrift shop on Feb. 28.

Called the Sisterhood Boutique, the shop sells gently used women’s clothing and employs group members.

“We don’t have a lot of opportunities,” said Khadra Fiqi, a high school senior and founding member of the Sisterhood. “This is something to give back to the community and to get us involved in the community.”

After seeing a group of young men from Cedar-Riverside open its own coffee cart in the Brian Coyle Center, Sisterhood of the Traveling Scarf members wanted a similar opportunity. Under the guidance of volunteers and business owners, the group learned about marketing and customer service.

But the project initially lacked a clear focus, said Nasteho Farah, a member of the Sisterhood and high school junior.

It wasn’t until former University of Minnesota student Laurine Chang got involved that the group really got going.

“Everything came together with Chang,” Fiqi said.

Chang, the Youth Social Entrepreneur Coordinator for the Brian Coyle Center, studied political science at the University from 2009-2012.

Young women in Cedar-Riverside feel they don’t have as many opportunities to get involved as men do, Chang said, but the boutique is a way to connect them to their community.

“The girls were culturally restricted from male-dominated programs,” she said. “… This boutique sets these girls up for success.”

The group began accepting donations of clothing and accessories to build up an inventory, and then worked on getting a location at the African Development Center of Minnesota.

Still, they had trouble finding enough money to support their efforts.

Mary True, associate director of the Center for Service, Work and Learning at Augsburg College, got involved in 2013, guiding them on the business side of their project and finding Augsburg MBA students to write business plans for the store.

“I’m committed to seeing it successful,” True said.

Before the store’s doors were ready to open, the clothing donations were so plentiful that True said she had to keep much of it at her house.

“Mary’s been our biggest advocate,” Fiqi said.

Soon after True got involved, word spread.

The Sisterhood got a grant from Women Investing in the Next Generation, part of the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s Women Giving program. It also received funding from the Sundance Family Foundation and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota to help pay for mirrors, office space and the $7.25 hourly wages for Sisterhood Boutique employees.

The Sisterhood Boutique is open Monday through Saturday. Within five years, Chang said, group members plan for the store to make enough money to run without the help of grants.

True said that she hopes more Augsburg and University of Minnesota students get involved as the store grows.

“There are so many opportunities for students to volunteer in marketing or accounting or donating,” she said. “It’s a great asset to have just steps away from Middlebrook [Hall].”