Even though there is nothing funny at all about what she has to say, Deb Stanzak laughs sometimes when telling her story because people don’t believe it’s true. Sometimes, she doesn’t even believe it herself. “It feels so far in the past, it’s as if it had never happened and then sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. I look back and the reality of what I went through hits me, and all I can say is ‘wow, how did I get through that?’”
Stanzak swears that everything that led to where she is today began when she was ten years old. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, the young Stanzak was crazy for sewing. It started with dolls’ clothes that were given to her by a relative; she was intrigued they were handmade. She even made a bathing suit that held together for an entire summer of days in the pool with friends. That bathing suit started her love for sewing.
Her career got a kick start at 16, when she applied for a job at Sears during high school. “I was turned down when they saw how old I was but as I was walking away the lady called out to me. ‘I see you like to sew. Are you any good?’. I told her I had made the clothes I had on. ‘Can you show me more?’ So I ran home and gathered all the clothes I had made over the years, and promptly got a job as the assistant to the sewing instructor in the Sears Sewing School. It was like winning the lottery!” she recalls with a laugh.
Stanzak attended Kent State but transferred to the Wheeler School in Pittsburgh where she got an associate degree in fashion merchandising. After college, she began working as an assistant fabric buyer for the May Company, a chain department store. Over the next 17 years, she moved around in the retail world until finally signing on as Director of Stores for Fibres, a 5-store chain of all-natural fabric clothing. Her husband, Gary, stayed home and watched their son, Jaime, while Stanzak took to the road.
After five years, Gary became restless, even after taking a part-time job, and wanted to return to work full-time, but he felt he couldn’t do that with Stanzak traveling to the extent she was. “I had been a Consultant with Mary Kay [a direct sales cosmetics firm] for 11 years and selling make-up while doing my retail day job. It was more of a hobby than anything. Gary suggested I might be able to build up the Mary Kay business, and that we could take out a home equity loan to make up the difference in salary.”
So in January 2001, she relented. She quickly recruited the 30 associates needed to become a Director at Mary Kay. But three months after Stanzak resigned from Fibres to launch her Mary Kay career, Gary was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood in the bone marrow. He was given 3–5 years on paper. “It was terrifying. We were on his medical insurance. We didn’t know how long he was going to be able to work, but on the positive side, they had caught it early.”
Gary surpassed expectations and only took leave from his job in 2007 when the cancer finally reached his spine and caused paralysis. He died within a year. Ten days later, his father followed him.
It was devastating for Stanzak who had already lost her brother, Ron, to complications from diabetes four years previously, followed shortly by her mother, Mary, who passed away from congestive heart failure. The pair had lived together and been in and out of hospital regularly over the years. In the span of three years, Stanzak and her young son lost everything. It was particularly difficult for Jaime as his father, uncle and grandmother and grandfather had been the ones to look after him while his mother was on the road.
Not surprisingly, the 49-year-old Stanzak suffered from adrenal gland burnout. For years, she had been running between doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, and clients. At a much needed visit, in May, 2008, her chiropractor observed how bad things had become. “He asked me straight up, ‘You can’t continue like this. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?’ I said ‘I don’t know, but I can’t go back to retail, that’s nights, weekends and holidays. I need to be there for Jaime. He’s only 11 and has lost all the people who raised him. I told him about a project I had worked on earlier, and he said ‘Next time you come back, I want to hear how far you’ve gotten with that.’ So I left feeling a little inspired and thinking there might actually be a light at the end of tunnel.”
The project Stanzak relayed to her chiropractor was one that was always at the back of her mind but buried deep in her closet. When her brother Ron had been on dialysis, he had suffered a lot from the cold. “About a third of your blood is outside your body when you are hooked up to the (dialysis) machine, and your temperature is kept low to keep germs at bay. He always wanted blankets but it was so awkward with all the ports. So I thought, ‘I’m a seamstress and a retailer, I can fix this for him.’”
Stanzak made Ron an outfit: a zippered, fleece jacket with port openings in the arms. “He wore it in treatment and all the other patients wanted one. I remember he kept badgering me to make more and sell them, but I was so exhausted I told him to drop it, I had no time for that with a sick husband, sick mother, and in-laws who were not doing well. The weekend he died, he told me, ‘I understand how busy you are, but promise me you will do this.’ And I did, I really did but I got so overwhelmed by it and by everything that was going on in my life, I just had to put it away.”
Following her chiropractor visit, Stanzak was true to her word and picked up the project where she had left off. She had a prototype and even a logo, and with personal experience of how the garment could help anyone getting infusion therapy, chemo or dialysis, she reached out to nurses to get feedback. The response was extremely positive and as a result she resigned as a Mary Kay Director, staying on as a Consultant so she could focus on the business.
For the next two years, Stanzak worked on her project. She partnered with her former Fibres employer, Bill Smith, and in the summer of 2010, the pair were ready. They launched a “port-able” clothing line named in honor of her brother: RonWear. She took out a home equity loan against her house to buy supplies, start production on 500 test units, and pay a business consultant. A factory in Allentown, PA, produced the first units – jackets and matching pants made from stain and fluid repellant material with hidden zippers and other innovative designs – which were a raging success. “Within a few short months, we sold out of everything!” Stanzak recalls.
But RonWear hit a major roadblock when its small Allentown factory lost and was unable to replace its zipper sewer. Stanzak priced four other US-based factories but it was cost-prohibitive so she turned to a Chinese manufacturer. “I saved 50% on production costs but by the time I found the new supplier and received the first shipment, 15 months had passed. So we were out of business for well over a year after we had sold out our first production run. We had to completely start over and then Bill got lung cancer and had to resign.”
Can it get any worse you might ask? “Well, my dog died of bladder cancer shortly after,” Stanzak laughs with little irony.
In the meantime, with funds running out, Stanzak applied for a Chase Mission Main St grant. “I had four days left to apply, at 2 am I pressed submit and didn’t think too much more about it until I found out I won. Ironically, I was broke, we were living on my husband’s social security checks. I was just doing RonWear, not working, and we had no income coming in because we had no product. The day before I won the grant, I was sitting in the welfare office for six hours waiting to apply for food stamps. I was so mortified that it had come to that, but I had so much faith in the business, I had to do what I had to do.”
That grant was “a little bit of a miracle” for Stanzak and, today, RonWear Port-able Clothing is in its third funding phase. “We know what we are doing now, we are seeking partners to launch new designs, fill in the shipment, broaden the age range, and pay for marketing, advertising, and trade shows.”
But the 56-year-old is not sitting on her laurels. “I’m working part-time in retail to bring in some money while we are seeking funding. My son is in college and I have five consultants … I have bills to pay. But I’m living a fine life. I’m healthy and I’ve got the most amazing son I could ever have. It’s been a really rough seven years, but I would do it all again. My faith has carried me through everything.”
- Don’t be afraid to pursue a dream or idea that you feel strongly about. You can find the money and the time. There are many creative ways.
- Expect that you won’t know everything. People said, “How did you know what to do?” I didn’t. I asked, researched, networked. I joined business support companies like Score and COSE (council of smaller enterprises). Years into it, you still are learning. Listen to all suggestions then choose what works for you at the time.
- Networking helped me a lot in finding suggestions from people who were sometimes seeing my product from a different vantage point than me. It also led me to finding support staff and leads to customers.
- Never leave the house without business cards, brochures and keep them in your purse and car with samples.
- Tell everyone what you do. Work it into a conversation. You never know who needs your product or who they know who does!
- The answer is always “no” unless you ask! Ask a lot.
- Giving up is not an option. You will know when to throw in the towel. But along the way there will be adversity. Expect it. Plow through it and move forward. Every big entrepreneur has a story to tell and it’s not always pretty!
- When creating, buying or designing, it’s not about your personal interest or taste. It’s about what the consumer wants/needs. Do focus groups and talk to those who will use your product to find the best features and benefits to incorporate.
- And the most important of all–go with your gut. If it doesn’t feel right–it’s not. Listen to your intuition–regardless of who it is or what it can get you. Every time I went against my gut instinct, it was a wrong decision.