Anja Tyson | Sunday September 9th 2018
Sherri McMullen is a force to be reckoned with. A relentless supporter of women designers, a worldwide hunter for the most compelling and emotional finds for her devoted client base – and beyond all that, a wonderful, inspiring friend – we sat down with Sherri this summer to talk about her path to entrepreneurship, becoming a mother while running her company, and what women really want when they shop.
Ten years after setting down her retailer roots in North Oakland, and just ahead of expanding her business to downtown Oakland this Fall, she shares her story with us here.
Photography by Tamu McPherson
ATPB: McMullen has been in business nearly 11 years, which is no small feat for an independently-owned specialty store. Reflecting on this, what are some of your most major landmarks since opening your doors in 2007?
SM: I opened McMullen in my early 30’s after working in corporate retail for over a decade. I started writing a business plan for McMullen 5 years before I opened. I had every detail about my future store in my plan – financials, marketing, competitive analysis, pricing strategy. I ultimately executed on every element of that plan, including a strong focus on building customer relationships.
I opened McMullen during a recession and some thought I was crazy to open that year, and some couldn’t understand why I was opening in Oakland. I would hear, “Why not San Francisco?”
Many of my clients today have been shopping with me since the very beginning – 11 years ago – so I know we did something right. We have embarked on this amazing journey together, and I’m so proud of that. I’m proud that I’m a black woman bringing luxury fashion to a city that is rich in black culture and history, and that I’m now able to expand my footprint here. I’ve been able to give opportunities to other young women of color who are looking for entry to the industry, but unsure of how to start or execute on their vision. I’m committed to doing more of that.
ATPB: You have exceptional personal style and an eye for detail. As your business grows from a small, intimate boutique into an internationally-recognized shopping destination, how do you keep the company true to its roots in your point of view?
SM: It’s mind-blowing, it’s crazy and I’m extremely humbled to be recognized in this way.
When I opened my store, I wanted to create an environment that empowers women through what they wear. I strive to stay true to that each day.
I have always been inspired by the beauty of women. Part of that comes from growing up with a strong, beautiful mother and having four sisters in my life whom I respect and admire so much.
Every decision I make about my business stems from my admiration of strong women. I am drawn to female designers because they inherently understand the female body. They also understand the idea of taking care of one another.
Before I opened McMullen, my friends and I were regularly shopping in San Francisco, but yearned for another kind of shopping experience. I wanted to create an environment that had beautiful clothing and offered great service. There is nothing like a woman stepping out of the dressing room confidently with a smile, knowing she looks and feels good in what we have chosen for her.
Customers want a relationship with a boutique, and that gives us the ability to connect designers with our customers on an intimate level. This is why I started my business and why I left department stores.
ATPB: Can you tell us a bit about your life before McMullen? How did you enter fashion?
SM: What was my life like before McMullen? I barely remember!
I worked as a buyer for corporate retailers for about 10 years before I opened my business. My buying career started at Neiman Marcus through their executive development program. It was a competitive program where they selected about 15 people from all over the country and taught us how to be buyers. I came from a finance background and always excelled at numbers, so the analytical piece came naturally for me. It was great training, and I later moved to San Francisco to further my buying career. I was a textile buyer for Pottery Barn Kids, where I helped create the brand, traveling the world, working with manufacturers to create beautiful product. I was also able to open retail stores, which gave me the confidence to do the same.
ATPB: What made you take the leap from the world of corporate buying to opening your own store?
SM: The corporate world taught me a great deal; how to work with others, how to manage projects and people and see other viewpoints. What I wasn’t prepared for were the politics, the cut throat mentality, which opposed my instinct to work more collaboratively. I didn’t want to play the BS game, I just wanted to work hard and be recognized for my work. After being passed up for a promotion, I started writing my business plan and some years later, I became my own boss.
ATPB: Is there any one obstacle since opening McMullen that you are particularly proud to have overcome?
SM: Starting a business requires sacrifice and hard work. It also requires financing, which is particularly challenging for a sole proprietor. Being a black woman, opening a retail business made it that much harder – I couldn’t obtain financing from the banks. I was told that retail was too risky, and I didn’t have much collateral to use against a loan. I had some savings, but needed much more, so I went to friends and family. I was able to open the business, pay off my note holders in 3 years and move forward. Over the years, I’ve needed cash and investments, but found it hard to secure financing. It took almost 10 years of being in business to be able to get the financing I needed to expand my business. Studies show that in the search for financing, women are judged on how much they have grown and their performance, while men are judged on their potential to grow. Many times, women will not ask for help, scared of being labeled as needy, incapable or not strong enough. What I have learned is that I can’t be afraid to ask for what I need (and beyond).
ATPB: What have you learned from your failures?
SM: Since I have been in business, I have faced challenges and setbacks; however, I don’t see them as failures. I have learned that there are many things that can happen that are outside of my control, and I have learned to stay focused.
ATPB: Have you had a mentor in your time in the industry, and have you mentored anyone? How important do you think this experience is, and how do you recommend seeking mentorship at any point in your career?
SM: I must say, when I first opened McMullen, I didn’t have many mentors in my industry who were doing the same thing as I was doing, and who fully understood what I dealt with on a daily basis. I felt isolated in the beginning, and, to some extent, I had to lay the groundwork on my own; however, being in business over the last decade, I have fortunately developed relationships with people in the industry who have provided invaluable guidance in specific areas in my business, Tamu included!
I know that mentoring is critically important to help inspire and guide young creative minds. Through mentoring, I have greatly enjoyed helping young women and men interested in fashion pursue their dreams. I also sit on the advisory board for the Oakland School for the Arts fashion department, which gives me the opportunity to speak with students about their goals and their plans.
ATPB: You are known for introducing the Bay Area to new and interesting collections from around the world. When buying around the world for the McMullen girl, what are you looking for?
SM: I am mostly inspired by designers who tell a story through their collections. I find beauty in texture, interesting shapes and timeless fashion. Our customers want pieces that they can enjoy for years, not just a season or two.
I am also drawn to designers who are conscientious about how they are manufacturing. We have designers who work with women that also teach other women a skill, so that they can feel empowered to take care of their families.
ATPB: Are there any collections you are particularly excited to be bringing in this season? Or collections you have carried forever that you continue to fall in love with?
SM: There are so many designers that I’ve carried for years and respect so much. I’ve been carrying Tibi for 11 years, and we have grown together. Amy is a smart businesswoman, and I admire how she runs her company. I continue to fall in love with collections like Ulla Johnson, Rejina Pyo, Ryan Roche, Jacquemus and, since my recent trip to Copenhagen, brands like Ganni and Stine Goya have captured my interest. They are colorful and easy to wear, and a range of sizes and ages can wear these brands and feel good.
ATPB: You are a champion of women designers and black designers, a topic you discussed on your panel last winter with Tamu (along with Rajni Jacques of Teen Vogue and Amy Smilovic of Tibi). As a prominent black female business owner, what do you feel are some of the most pressing improvements our industry needs to make to support the success of both women and black designers?
SM: I was over the top excited to see so many black women on the cover of September fashion magazines. Over the years, I have seen more representation in the industry, but we still have so much more work to do. It’s not enough to be inspired by my culture if you’re not supporting my culture in ways that can create real change.
I make it a point to see black designers whenever I can, and when it makes sense for my business, I buy the collection. I lend support by always representing black women in our look books and on our social media. Black women have very high spending power in the US, yet some designers don’t represent black women in their campaigns or on the runway.
We are opening a new store in downtown Oakland this Fall and I will have brown mannequins in the store and in the windows. They don’t exist. Can you believe they don’t exist? I want every brown girl to walk by my store and see themselves and know that they matter, that they are being represented, and I will always champion for more blacks in fashion.
The dearth in diversity shows up on many fronts in this industry. For example: how can we find more black designers? How will we be able to support them if we don’t know about them? We need more blacks contributing to projects and sitting at the table making decisions about who gets support and funding.
There have been many times when I am sitting at fashion shows and I don’t see people who look like me in positions like mine. Why are there so few black buyers at fashion shows reviewing the collections? I want to see more people like myself, who are making buying decisions and have spending power and want to support young talent. If there were more of us in these positions, we would be demanding a more diverse mix of designers to view and ultimately buy for our stores.
ATPB: In the midst of running your business, you also became a mom to your gorgeous son, Frederick. How have you adjusted to motherhood as a small business owner, and especially how do you manage being a single mom with a thriving brand?
SM: This question makes me emotional, because everything I do is for my son. I always wanted children and put the idea of having children on the sideline – I focused immensely on growing my business and I did just that. Later, I fell in love and Frederick was conceived. I knew my whole world was about to change.
I worked up until I delivered (and I mean the same day). After giving birth to my beautiful son, I was in the hospital working. I was terrified that my business would fail while I was away. My staff managed the store, easing my anxiety and my customers understood that I was taking time off. They respected it and my team encouraged it.
However, I couldn’t fully take time off from work, so I would take my market appointments via Facetime while breastfeeding my son. When I was ready, and Frederick was 6 weeks old, I brought him to work with me. I fed him at the store while working with clients in the dressing room. I had him in a baby sling and he ate and slept at McMullen every day. I made it work. I didn’t know any other way to do it as a business owner. From an early age, Frederick traveled with me. When he was three months old, he came to market with me in NYC and Paris. We traveled alone, and I remember having so much stuff with me- strollers, car seats, diapers, wipes, change of clothes, towels, overloaded with baby things. I laugh now when I think back on it. Now, we travel as light as possible.
Being a single mom is not easy, but motherhood is not easy, so I never want to make it seem as if my “load” is bigger than someone else’s. We do what we can as mothers in the best way we know how. I have been exhausted beyond belief and never really knew my own strength until I became a mother. I can do anything (with very little sleep) – I can host a conference call all while changing diapers and breastfeeding.
I will say that I have an incredible bond with my son and love spending every moment with him. He wakes me up in the morning, we have breakfast together and then we start our day. Being a business owner has allowed me the flexibility to be with him when I need to during the day and to travel with him for work. I’m so grateful for that.
ATPB: Can you share with us some of the ways you take care of and connect with yourself? How has this practice changed as your life has transformed over the years?
SM: Self-care is so important for me. I take the time to exercise, get massages or facials when I need to and generally, take quiet time for myself. I grew up watching my mother meditate, and we knew that was her space. We respected that. Over the years, I have learned to enjoy quiet time and when I do spend time outside of my son or work, it has to be with people who are truly dear to me. I have learned my time is precious and I only spend it with people I love.
ATPB: What is next for McMullen?
SM: Expansion this fall to our new location in Oakland! Beyond that, a few more stores. It’s been a dream come true, and I’m focused on living my best life.