Buy Black: Bon Bon Vie Apparel
Independent business owner Shari Neal grew tired of her 9 to 5. So tired to the point that she decided to leave her lucrative role as a Web developer to sell T-shirts.
Right. We know how that sounds, but it turned out to to be one of the best decisions Neal ever made. As the owner of the popular online retail site, wearbonbonvie.com ($28-$40), Neal says she now caters to thousands of customers worldwide.
JET sat down with the 31-year-old Chicago native and entrepreneur to discuss her new venture, the many challenges of owning your own business, and her commitment to serving consumers of color across the globe.
JET: Shari, let’s start with the story of how Bon Bon Vie came to be.
Shari Neal: I started it around 2010 and business started really picking up around 2011. I was at a job that I didn’t really want. It felt like my key to escaping was entrepreneurship. I was never the type of person who just wanted to work for somebody so I just decided to take a leap.
JET: Bon Bon Vie is a very interesting name choice. How’d you come up with it?
SN: There’s a song by TS Monk of the same name and I really like it. It expressed how I was feeling at the time and in the song, he talks about working a 9 to 5 and just not being very happy with it. And Bon Vie means “good life” in French, so it just all kind of came together for me.
JET: Out of all of the things in the world to sell, why T-Shirts?
SN: (Laughs). At the time, I had like a really big graphic T-Shirt obsession. I mean, there was other stuff I was into—like jewelry, but T-Shirts were that one thing that whenever I went to a store, I would always go straight to that section. I was always a collector of graphic tees and the more T-shirts I collected, I just realized it was kind of a capital market for women of color and I felt like that was a gap that I could sort of fill. It was a little easier at the time because there wasn’t a whole lot of people selling T-shirts like they are now. I targeted the natural hair community, Black women specifically, and they were just receptive.
JET: What made you choose to market towards those who vibe with the natural hair movement as opposed to a broader audience?
SN: I wanted to target the Black community. I always felt like there are all these products that target everyone. I just felt like making that niche and it just felt very natural and authentic to me. I feel like it was something that I knew a lot about, and I just felt like it was something that I needed.
JET: I remember all of that because I’m a fan of your T-shirts and I also remember feeling heartbroken in 2012, when you announced that you would no longer be selling them. What happened?!
SN: Yeah. I was going through some stuff. I had quit my job and moved to Connecticut and while I was out there, I started having some health issues and my body was going all out of whack. It was just one of those things that spiraled out of control. I didn’t have health insurance and I was feeling even worse, because I was paying all of these out-of-pocket medical costs and it just got to the point where I was like, “You know what, I love running this business, but I think I should just step back and take a break and just kind of reset.” So after that, I got a traditional job back in Web development again and did that for a little while.
JET: So you’re working this job, life happened, but now you’re back. What made you re-launch the business?
SN: (Laughs) Well. I think the main catalyst to me quitting my job again was that I got pregnant, got engaged, I had all of these major life changes happening again, and I never saw myself as a stay-at-home mom. But as soon as I got pregnant, I just wanted to stay home with my daughter. I wanted to be home with her and raise her. On top of that, being a mom is a ton of work. You know, I talked to a few working moms I knew and having a baby and a full-time job is also a lot of work. So I figured this would be the time to do my own thing again.