Steve VanderVeen, once a professor to Jenny, un-earths her roots and shares her story of adventure as she discovered and chased her dreams; eventually bringing her to open Frances Jaye in Downtown Rīga.
Jenny VanVeen: Quiet and Deep
My grandmother used to say "Still waters run deep." In other words, keep your eyes on the quiet ones. Jenny VanVeen is one of the quiet ones: even though she was once one of my students, I don't remember her from class. But over the years, I learned to keep my eye on her.
Jenny was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both her parents were in business: her dad owned a printing company and her mom an art gallery. By age 13, she was helping her mom at the gallery. Jenny attended Grand Rapids High School and then Calvin College, choosing business as her major because it was "the easy route."
While in college she enrolled in my marketing class. Outside of school, she discovered a love for snowboarding and landed a job at Bill and Paul's Sporthaus. Then she worked at the Disney Store in Woodland Mall and fell in love with retailing.
In her senior year of college she decided to take a chance and tour the world and enrolled in the Semester at Sea program. It changed her life. "It was impactful to see Western marketing practices in other countries," Jenny recalls. "It also made me think that someday I could have a retail store that sold items from around the world."
After graduation, in 2002, Jenny decided she needed to get away from West Michigan again and get more experience in retailing. So she moved to Chicago. Once there, she looked for a job. She really wanted to work for Urban Outfitters. But they weren't hiring. At the time, it seemed no one was hiring. So Jenny commuted back to Grand Rapids to work in her mother's gallery.
Undaunted, she kept applying. Finally Jenny got hired as a seasonal worker at Urban Outfitters to help with the holiday rush. Unfortunately, soon after Christmas she was laid off. But then a miracle happened. While she was interviewing for an assistant manager position in the store, the manager came by and saw her and hired her on the spot! Her first management job was at the Clark Street store in Lincoln Park.
In 2007 Jenny was promoted to a merchandiser position in the Evanston store. Then she was promoted to store merchandiser in the State Street store; then the store merchandiser position in the Rush Street store.
In 2009 Jenny was promoted to be the district merchandiser for all Chicago stores; then the Midwest Merchandising Manager (Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin stores), giving her responsibility for 16 stores.
But in 2012, while Jenny was interviewing for the Regional Merchandiser Manager position in Philadelphia, a position that would give her responsibility for 50 stores, she asked, "What am I doing? What about my dream to have my own store?”
The Second Mountain
Jenny stayed in Chicago, but prepared to leave. While finishing up at Urban Outfitters, she attended the Chicago Women's Business Development Center and worked on a business plan. Her last day at Urban Outfitters was in June. In August she opened up michelandbottone in downtown Rīga.
Jenny soon discovered that owning her own store wasn't the easy route. "It was more work," she recalls. "One reason was that I was very conservative with my funds and therefore didn't hire any employees." Thankfully her business succeeded and she was able to hire staff.
But she was still thinking.
In 2016 she revised her reason for being in business and started carrying ethically-made clothing. "I was becoming more open to learning -- about doing the right things as opposed to doing things right," she recalls. She was becoming not only more globally-minded, but community-minded as well.
In 2017 Jenny and her husband started attending City Council meetings and leaning into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. That included the decision to donate 2% of michelandbottone's sales to certain non-profit organizations, such as Lighthouse Immigration Advocates.
Then COVID hit. "I thought I could hold onto all of my managers," Jenny says, "But I ended up laying off my entire staff."
So once again Jenny was the sole employee. Everyday she would go to the store to rebuild her business. She found success focusing on a stronger on-line presence and home deliveries.
Now, as businesses slowly begin to open up again, she is rebuilding her team and becoming an even stronger values-oriented business.
Today I am blessed to see businesses like michelandbottone and people like Jenny VanVeen. Some people make a lot of noise but do little. Others are quiet and do much. I'd like to be more like Jenny.