Young, with no exciting job prospects, feeling somewhat trapped in a dead end? Why wait for the universe to give you a chance? Some take matters in their own hands and make their own luck. It takes a strong personality and a lot determination, someone like Belgium-born entrepreneur Nele Moens aka “#bawslady”.
In 2011, Nele founded one of Antwerp’s most popular independent concept stores, The Public Image, almost on a whim, on the impulse to “just get out there and do something”, with what she now looks back on as complete naivety for the sheer amount of work ahead.
Why tell her story? Rather than looking up to a fortune 100 leader, here is an ordinary woman who, in her own little way, did what she could to empower herself, and from her 120m2 HQ inspired others, especially women to believe in themselves.
Starting an independent business is a brave venture, especially at the age of 23, without any experience or relevant training. Still, she believed that she could fill a gap in the market by providing for the ‘alternative’ social circles she was herself running in. Established as a streetwear store for girls (or as she likes to call them: “chicks with balls”), her objective was to “offer anything but, what was already available elsewhere”. The store didn’t follow any mold, standard business or development plans but instead one rule: to stay true to herself.
The authenticity of the store resonated with the pubic and as time progressed The Public Image grew in popularity, not only due to the distinctive selection of clothes and accessories on offer, but because Nele’s magnetism, openness and personality brought people back to the store time and time again. The first year was difficult, the store not generating enough revenue for Nele to live from (Nele had to take on other jobs), but she persevered and took more risks, moving to second larger location so that by the third year she could make a comfortable income. Still, the reality of a small business owner is tough: 60 hour weeks, searching for new products, organizing regular events, and principally, social networking, which undoubtedly contributed to The Public Image’s success.
Nele wanted to give customers the best shopping experience she could offer: taking her time, serving free coffee, chatting with clients, etc. Music also played a big role, as she realised, a determining factor in shaping visitors’ first impression of her store. The Public Image therefore had its own YouTube channel playlists with songs Nele had picked up or suggested by customers.
The shop became her space, genuinely infused with her personality. This is what drew people in, from ages 12 to 75, resulting in regular scenes à la “Empire Records”, with customers literally singing and dancing in the store, opening themselves to her, sharing their stories as if they’d known each other forever, or spontaneously promoting their favourite new clothes through selfies on Instagram.
Why did this happen? Not just because of the music, but essentially because the customers could see Nele as more than a shopkeeper. Beyond being friendly to her customers, throughout the years, by being “an awesome hostess”, Nele became their friend, developing a strong emotional connection that few, if any, corporate marketing plans could instigate.
To pay tribute to her customers’ support, Nele developed her own hashtags: #Customerlove and #Bawslady.
#Customerlove became her own simple way of “giving back”, recognising that without them, there wouldn’t be a store. She also wanted to thank them for being her daily inspiration for everything she did regarding the shop and for promoting the store and its products better than any professional model ever could.
#Bawslady came from the joke of being called a “boss lady” on Facebook. It stuck with her and she started using it to encourage other women to run their own businesses, and to show her support for the many self-employed girls she knew and got to know, including British cosmetic scientist Florence Adepoju, founder of booming make-up label MDMflow.
This ‘homegrown’ network of fellow female ‘bawsladies’ gave Nele valuable and realistic advice, something she felt very much needed, but often lacking when running a business, especially as a “rookie”. They inspired her to “keep kicking ass and never give up”. The #Bawslady hashtag went somewhat viral in her community and beyond, turned into the slogan of a t-shirt label and a club night for women…
Respected as an entrepreneur, Nele was invited to talk about her experience at various events. She also received a fair amount of press, including a four-page spread in Elle Belgium in which she was referred to as “an inspiring woman”. Indeed, Nele wasn’t shy to use her experience to advise others to follow the three rules she swears by, figured out through her own path of trial and error: to live in the now, always trust your gut and not to wait for things to fall into your lap because as she says, you’d be waiting a long time. “If you want something done, then go do it” is her motto.
4 years after embarking on this adventure, Nele chose to chase new dreams and sold the store to a trusted successor. In October 2015, she moved to LA to live out her married life and start a new career (including being the West Coast event organiser and communication manager for MDMflow). Nele’s retail days may be over, but she keeps fond memories, and remains, for many in Antwerp, a missed local figure. Who knows whether her road will be paved with gold, but once you’ve met her, you feel confident that her journey will take her far, inspiring others along the way…