Black boutique owner celebrates 20 years in business, shares tips for success

Lu Spaine, owner of Zumi Collection in Des Moines, Iowa, reflects on Zumi’s 20th anniversary and shares advice for aspiring business owners.

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Zumi Collection

Owner: Lu Spaine

Business: Zumi Collection, clothing, accessories, wholesale, online store

Address: 1141 42nd St. Des Moines, Iowa 50311

Phone: (515) 277-4629

Merchandise: Women’s clothing, jewelry, bags, scarves, accessories, holiday ornaments and decor, a line of wholesale merchandise, gift certificates. Zumi Collection features jewelry and gifts that are certified fair trade. Visit Zumi.com.

December Holiday Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday – Saturday.

11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Email newsletter: Call or visit the store to join Zumi’s monthly email newsletter.

Zumi on Social Media: Facebook Instagram

Awards: The Urban Dreams 2005 Minority Business Owner Award; the Westside Chamber of Commerce 2019 Citizen of the Year Award; the Iowa Ivy Foundation and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Iota Zeta Omega Chapter, 2020 Ivy Impact Award for Exemplary Service to the Greater Des Moines Community.

Lu Spaine wanted a business name with meaning and character to represent the goods she sold in outdoor markets on the weekends in Los Angeles, California.

“So, I prayed and meditated about it and Zumi is the name that came to me, and I added collection,” she said.

After Spaine, a former engineering manager at IBM was downsized, the Iowa native returned to Des Moines. She began working as a business analyst and sold clothing and accessories from Africa, Asia and South America part time at the Downtown Farmers Market. Over time, she developed a following, which led to requests from friends and customers to open a brick-and-mortar store. But that wasn’t really a part of her plan, she said.

Just like with her business name, Spaine prayed about whether she should open a store. She wasn’t at Corinthian Baptist Church on the day the minister delivered a sermon about the Prayer of Jabez, but a friend told her about it, and it changed her life. She started reading a book about it, praying the prayer and within days, a location for her store had emerged.

“You know when you’re in your purpose because things just kind of start flowing,” she said.

Lu Spaine, owner of Zumi Collection, opened the store, which sells women's clothing and accessories, on Nov. 1, 2001. She's celebrating 20 years in business in Des Moines. Photo by Black Iowa News.

The thought of opening a store was scary at first, she said. For the opening, friends helped her tag, iron and fold clothes for the store, which is located in the Uptown Shopping Center at 1141 42nd St., in the Drake Neighborhood and near Waveland Park neighborhood. The store opened on Nov. 1, 2001.

“It took off, and people just really loved what I was selling, and it kept getting better and better,” she said.

Spaine, who graduated from Drake University with a master’s degree in public administration, gets goosebumps talking about the evolution of Zumi Collection. Spaine has her own clothing line that is manufactured in Thailand. She also wholesales merchandise. She has traveled to Ghana, Venezuela, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Korea and several other countries in search of merchandise and vendors, she said.

A mix of prayers and blessings have led to an “amazing” 20 years in business, she said.

“The first three years or so were pretty lean,” she said. “Which is not a bad thing because you learn how to manage money."

Fast forward to 2020. The coronavirus pandemic struck businesses – especially Black businesses – hard. Spaine had to reduce her staff and close for eight weeks. Sales tanked. Even so, her staunch supporters continued making online purchases. She said a Paycheck Protection Program loan and a grant from Polk County helped Zumi Collection persevere.

Shop for gifts at Zumi, which has extended hours through the holiday season. Photos by Black Iowa News.

As Spaine reflects on 20 years, she is thankful for faithful customers and new ones. Since the store opened, she has employed nearly 25 people – half of them African American women.

“They’ve gone on to do some wonderful things so that's been a real blessing in having the business – developing relationships with some of the young women and doing some mentoring,” she said.

Black Iowa News asked Spaine to reflect on the store's success and share advice for aspiring business owners.

Black Iowa News: What are the factors that have contributed to the store’s success?

Spaine: “For one thing being a niche. There are not many other stores around that sell the kinds of things that I sell. Location, location, location. I'm in an area that is more cosmopolitan. It’s very diverse, and the people here have an appreciation for other cultures. So that's a part of it, and just making sure that I managed the business appropriately.”

Black Iowa News: What does it mean to you to be celebrating 20 years? Did you ever imagine that?

Spaine: “No, I never even thought about it. I think that it's wonderful. I'm glad to be here because even though I wish more African American people knew that I was here, than do, and I wish more supported me than do. I do have a lot of good support, but I just wish there were more. I'm glad to be here as a role model because people can see that if you manage yourself and manage your business properly, you can be successful. So, from that standpoint, that's what I think is important about being around for 20 years.”

Black Iowa News: Your stock comes from Africa, Asia and South America. Can you talk a little bit about why you focused in on those particular areas and how you find vendors and products for your store?

Spaine: “I think it's important because we're always talking about being interested in diversity, equity and inclusion, and the more people see and understand cultural differences, the more comfortable they become with them, especially when they can see the beauty and the creativity and artistry in what people produce around the world. They’re not so stuck in their head – made in America – that only good things are made in America. So, I think that's important. As far as how I find vendors, over the years I’ve traveled. I go to trade shows. There’s a whole Fair Trade Federation that has lists of different fair trade vendors.”

Black Iowa News: Why is fair trade meaningful to you?

Spaine: “Fair trade in particular is meaningful to me because there's so much exploitation of workers and child labor. And fair trade is about making sure that workers are paid fairly, that they work in safe working conditions and there's no child labor involved. So not everything I sell is certified fair trade, but a lot of it is.”

Black Iowa News: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a Black business owner and how have those issues changed over the 20 years?

Spaine: “It's very difficult to say definitively that problems or issues are because I'm a Black business owner. That's really hard to prove. But you do think that. But here’s what I think: I think that it takes far too long to get a loan – especially a secured loan. I think it takes far too long to get that. I also kind of feel that it's difficult to get employees because I don't think a lot of white employees want to work for a Black woman and that's just my feeling.

I don't really think it's been an issue as far as getting customers because customers don't come here if they're not interested in other cultures and the kind of things I sell.

I have twice set up a booth at several trade shows. The ones that stand out are where I had a white woman, who was one of my representatives, staff the booth for two days, and I did it the other two days. The days when she was there, good orders were placed. When I was there, very few buyers stopped to look at my booth.”

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Black Iowa News: What advice do you have for aspiring business owners?

Spaine: “The first thing is to get your own financial house in order. That doesn’t mean you have to have three years’ worth of savings saved up for expenses, but you do need to get your credit rating to at least 700. You need to know how to manage money and not be thrown off course by whims of this kind and of that kind. So that’s the first thing. Get your financial house in order. Decide what you want to do and research it. I’ve seen people open restaurants who have never worked in a restaurant. They don’t understand that it’s not just standing in the kitchen and cooking and putting food on a plate. There’s a whole science behind managing a restaurant. Front of the house, the kitchen, the line, all of that stuff. So, get experienced in whatever it is you’re trying to do. Build a following in some way. Like at Farmers markets or craft shows or online. Then write your business plan. A lot of people get freaked out by it. But it’s just a common sense process of sitting down and thinking through what you want to do and writing it down on paper. Because when you get it down on paper, it starts to look differently than it does in your head. Get a mentor. I would highly recommend the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families’ Financial Empowerment Center. They’re very good about sitting down with people, helping them, first of all, to work through their own financial situation, if that’s necessary, and then referring them to other places where they can get help. They also have a business bootcamp. Keep your books in order. And keep your cash flow in order.”

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