Editor’s note: We are proud to have Champaign Surplus as a chambanamoms.com sponsor. Need a last-minute gift? Champaign Surplus is the place to head this week, with gifts available for the whole family.
Meet Shira Epstein, the third generation co-owner of Champaign Surplus, the area’s top destination for outdoor clothing and gear. Although she recently returned to town to join the family business, Shira is no stranger to entrepreneurship, having built up her own graphic design business over the past decade. In addition to her business acumen, Shira also inherited from her parents a true passion for the outdoors and nature, and in her spare time she loves to backpack and hike. Shira and her husband Dan are the parents of baby Jacob, who turns 1 next month.
See why we think Shira Epstein is a mompreneur to know — and don’t miss out on this special Champaign Surplus coupon for chambanamoms.com readers!
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
Totally crazy and much too short, of course — just like for every other working mom out there! But to be more serious, I am quite fortunate to be able to arrange my schedule so that I’m at Champaign Surplus working on the business 3-4 days a week, and at home with my little guy the other days. Not that my Champaign Surplus brain and world ever turns off! Just like with any entrepreneurial enterprise, there’s always a business trip, vendor order deadline, marketing item, staffing need or other To-Do that needs to be addressed and spills over into evenings and weekends. It can be challenging, since the juggling means I cant do everything to the full level I’d like to. But all in all, I’m lucky to be able to have the best of both worlds.
Q: Your son Jacob is not yet a year old. How has he influenced how you view the store and its future?
Entirely! Though Jacob was just a hopeful thought at the time, starting and raising a family in Champaign-Urbana was definitely one of the reasons my husband Dan and I made the move back to buy the business in 2010. As a mother now, I do find myself increasingly nostalgic about the family-owned, multi-generational enterprise. I loved growing up in this community, and being a child of the store — and I hope my son will feel the same way. My brother and I spent lots of time here as kids, playing in the warehouse or under my dad or grandpa’s desks. When we were on break from school, I’d sometimes stand behind the front counter with our longtime managers Theo and Patricia and put customer purchases in bags or help count the year-end inventory. I doubt I was much actual help — but it definitely made me feel special and part of the family business! I then worked at the store throughout high school and over summers during college. But what’s been especially nice through the three generations of Champaign Surplus is that there’s never been pressure on the next generation to have to continue the business. My grandparents truly viewed the store as a means to provide for the family and enable their four children to pursue an education in anything they wanted. My parents were exactly the same way. While I knew they’d love for me or my brother to come into the business, they always encouraged our own career interests. I want it to be the same for my kids… that Champaign Surplus is a very special part of their lives which provides for them financially, as a backdrop for fond experiences and life lessons, and allows them to pursue their dreams. Of course if they then end up wanting to become ‘Generation 4′, that would be wonderful, as well.
Q: Did you ever imagine you would come home to Champaign to run the family business?
I didn’t, actually. I was one of those lucky people who was entirely happy with what they chose to get their degree in, and absolutely loved my career as a Graphic Designer in Chicago. In fact, most of our family and friends assumed that it would be my brother Jonathan, who studied Wildlands Management and Long Range Planning and is a City Planner in Lakewood, Colo. But the store was a constant and appealing option in the background for me. After 15+ years of being what I call “creative on-demand” for my clients, I was getting a bit burned out and started to think a career change might be a treat. And as my parents started to consider their exit plans for retirement, it was very difficult to think of Champaign Surplus ceasing to exist. When I met Dan, who shared both my passion for the outdoors (and outdoor gear we sell at the store) and the desire to be entrepreneurial and work for ourselves, and when our two skill sets were the right combo for the business, it all just seemed to align perfectly.
Q: What are the challenges — and rewards — of working with your mom, dad and husband?
There are some challenges, of course. We each have very different work styles and have had to find ways to make that work for everyone. I think the biggest challenge may be that even when you are at home you never entirely stop talking about work. But the rewards are much more prevalent. Neither my grandparents nor my parents had any trouble working together. Dan and I talked at great length before we made the decision to purchase the business about the dynamics and whether we thought it would work. And it does! It’s been nice learning the ins and outs of how the business has run from my parents, and then to be able to bring our fresh perspectives to complement and build on that amazing 60-year foundation. I think what is the most special and rewarding about this latest generational transition is that each of the four of us have a totally different skill set that meets an important need for the store.
Q: You have owned your own graphic design business for many years. How have you merged that passion with your current role?
In lots of ways. Dan jokingly calls me the Marketing & Design Department. But, it’s pretty much true — and I love putting my design and marketing strategy skills to use for the store. When we first arrived, I designed our new logo and updated branding for the store, and started to apply it to our public-facing efforts like the launch of our new eCommerce website in July 2010, new building awnings and paper shopping bags. Basically, I handle all our many ongoing design and marketing efforts, including the website, all of our advertising, customer communications and mailings, in-store signage… you name it. I also continue to work on projects for Trillium Creative clients, which I very much enjoy.
Q: Do you have any advice for other women/moms who want to their own businesses?
One very important key is that you have to love what you do. If you’re not passionate about the business you’re starting, it will be impossible to get potential customers and vendors excited about what you are doing, or to keep the fire in your belly when tough challenges arise, hours are long or you’re having to sacrifice time with your family. I’ve been super lucky in that I absolutely loved running my graphic design firm and I love this new adventure of running Champaign Surplus. Another piece of advice is to be realistic and really do your research in advance. As a graphic designer, I worked with many start-up entrepreneurs over the years that came to me for their branding, all excited about their new business idea. I was amazed at how many of them hadn’t adequately researched their industry or competitive landscape, completed a proper business plan, or defined clear goals. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities and be passionate enough about the endeavor to not be entirely risk-adverse. But you also have to come from an informed place.
Q: What have been big sellers this holiday season – and do you have any recs for last-minute shoppers?
The major standout category for us this holiday season has been everything outerwear. Specifically jackets and coats from The North Face and anything featuring Columbia’s Omni-Heat technology. We were also excited to bring back a Kids’ outerwear selection this year. It has garnered a great response, so we’ll be able to continue and expand the Kids’ offerings next year.
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