Retail entrepreneur grows her stylish brand from her living room to two successful stores
by Cheryl Rice
Photos by Shana Sureck
When Gleyann Fontanez came to the United States as a teenager, she didn’t speak English. Raised in Juncos, Puerto Rico, she knew she had a lot to learn if she was going to succeed in her new home. She graduated from Bulkeley High School in Hartford and went on to attend Capital Community College—all while mastering a new language and learning to adjust to a new culture. Her real dream, though, was to open a clothing business to serve the members of her adopted community in Connecticut.
She originally trained as a social worker and she started selling women’s fashions right from her living room on the side. She knew she was on the right path. “I love business, and I love to help people,” Gleyann said. Although it was a big financial risk, she decided to open a storefront in Hartford three years ago, Latinas Fashion, and it wasn’t long before she found significant help in reaching her dream.
In late 2016, Gleyann was selected as one of the small business owners in her Parkville community to receive a Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area (NRSA) award. Since 2012, a portion of her neighborhood has been designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as an NRSA, which falls under the Federal Community Development Block Grant program. Although it was not a huge amount of money, the award is referred to as a “micro-grant”, it was enough to help her gain some marketing traction and feel secure in growing her business. “I am so very blessed,” she said. “They helped me get a website and take pictures, and I was featured in Connecticut Magazine.” The grant allowed Gleyann to leave social work and focus full-time on her new store.
Another benefit of the program was that Gleyann was referred to the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center for additional business training. “I met Shelli McMillen and she told me everything about how the Center works and what they could do to help me.” Shelli McMillen is the Center’s Program Manager for Marketing and Technical Assistance. She worked with Gleyann to help her take advantage of the Hartford Small Business Technical Assistance Program (HSBTAP).
HSBTAP expands on the Center’s counseling and training offerings to provide additional assistance to motivated business owners in the startup and expansion phase. Qualifying Hartford small businesses and startups benefit from one-on-one time with business advisors and technical experts, as well as small group seminars. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all plan for program participants. A full assessment is conducted, goals are set, a commitment contract is signed, and small business owners begin work on a customized blueprint to move their company ahead.
Professional assistance covers a broad range of topics, including marketing strategy, website improvement, business plan development, financial management, legal issues, operations, hiring, and contracts. Participants in the program increase their knowledge and confidence level and report better outcomes on their path to success.
Gleyann combined the skills she learned at the Center with her inherent love of working with people and providing great customer service and top-quality merchandise, and it has been a formula for business success.
“I have a lot of regular customers, some who come in every week,” she said. “It’s a small shop, but we have a lot of love!” Her store specializes in fashions from Colombia, but Gleyann says that her customers come from all walks of life. “It’s a great diversity of race, and I like that,” she added.
At a time when so many retailers are hurting, Latinas Fashion has actually expanded to a second location in New Britain. That store is managed by Gleyann’s husband, who is also her business partner in the Latinas Fashion enterprise. With two children in the mix, a 13-year-old and a 16-month-old baby, the couple has a full plate. “There are some headaches, no lie!” she said with a laugh. “There will always be ups and downs, but I have to keep going. This is my dream and God is good!”
Gleyann’s dream includes a vision for bettering her community at large and growing her business is a key part of that. “My main goal is to create jobs in Connecticut,” she said. “I want to help people like me, immigrants who might not speak English yet. Creating jobs for them is so important.” According to her company’s mission statement, she is committed to continuing to expand, becoming a national and international company, and an industry leader.
Gleyann credits Shelli and the rest of the staff at the Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center for giving her guidance when she needed it most. The resources, many of them free, helped her as a new entrepreneur, and she believes they can help others, too. “You can be successful in the United States, and you can have what you want,” she emphasized. “Even if you don’t know the language, just keep working and fight for your dream!”