How Ebony Swank went from high school drop-out to double-digit millionaire
Being a high school drop-out still carries a stigma. Nationwide, it is estimated that some 5.1% of students do not graduate. Ethnic minorities and students from lower income families are disproportionately affected: those from a lower socio-economic background are 5 times more likely to abandon their studies.
It’s not merely about numbers or staggering estimations – it’s a common reality, faced by many young adults who otherwise would have enjoyed a different trajectory in life, perhaps.
Drop-outs who became knock-outs
Despite the statistics, some high-profile entrepreneurs have bucked the trend and excelled regardless of their educational record. Richard Branson is reported to have quit school at age 15. He went on to set up a multi-million dollar empire—Virgin. Aretha Franklin, the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sang her way to success after leaving school at the age of 15.
Ebony Swank, owner and founder of Swank A Posh, identifies with the trail blazers that choose entrepreneurship over traditional education and wrote their own success stories. Back in the mid 90’s, when Swank was ditching classes, she seemed like an unlikely candidate to become a top fashionista.
Detroit City, where Swank grew up, had an average graduation rate of just over 30%. The odds were already against many brilliant and eager children from the start. Raised by her hardworking single mother, Swank took some time figuring out her path as she struggled with truancy and ended up having to leave school uncompleted.
She eventually attended School Corps—an adult education program—but soon dropped out of it too. Despite the many obstacles jumping out at her, giving up was never an option and she kept pushing forward, relentless in her strife for bigger dreams.
Not long after leaving the adult program, Swank had her first daughter. The pressure to provide an income was crushing and, in her own words, Swank had to “wheedle her way into jobs”—a testament to her persuasion skills and business acumen.
Fashion led to financial freedom
She progressed through the ranks and became a Financial Analyst, eventually landing a job that paid $70,000 per annum. Alongside her ‘day job’, Swank also owned a hair salon. One day, a chance conversation with a door-to-door clothing saleswoman opened Swank’s eyes to the potential of fashion. Apparently, the lady was making $5K every weekend.
In a seminal moment, Swank realized that fashion was her route to financial freedom. She sourced clothing from a supplier in LA and set up her first store in a local mall. Although the concept was sound, the fledgling store was crippled by a huge rent and soon closed.
Where others would have recoiled and given up, Swank treated the failure as an expensive business lesson. She reduced her costs, streamlined the operation and re-launched. Swank A Posh was born.
Describing her approach to business, Swank comments: “I’ve never had any loans, always cash on delivery (COD), then I reinvest the money as it comes in. I got to know how the UPS system worked—3 delivery attempts then 5 working days to collect.”
Pay attention to the details
The entrepreneur’s strict financial management coupled with her keen eye for detail has set her company up for significant growth. She says: “I’ve always been a detail-oriented person and paid attention to how people walk, what they eat and what they wear. So, when it comes to businesses, I pay attention to how they present themselves.”
“Abercrombie and Fitch, for example, appeals directly to teens. Inside the stores, they have sweet-smelling candles. Although the vibe in my stores is different, I decided to introduce candles to help people relax and enjoy the shopping experience. Everyone associates the scent with my stores“
“Juicy Couture was another huge inspiration for me. I was intrigued by the demographic of the average shopper. Young black girls were buying a lot of merchandise there. They were prepared to spend top dollar, too.”
Clothing for everyday girls
Swank realized this was the market she should target. She asked: What are the customers’ needs? What she discovered was there was a burgeoning market for curvy ladies, who were being totally overlooked by fashion brands.
“My products and my whole marketing approach center on relatability. My online marketing strategy was inspired by recollections of the old-fashioned infomercials that used to run on late night TV. I’ve resurrected that idea of using ordinary members of the public, with everyday bodies, because it resonates with the women who love my fashion.”
Investing in people
Indeed, Swank is determined to keep herself grounded. In spite of her financial success, she has a hands-on approach to everything, because she wants to stay connected to real life. She designs clothing, takes her daughter (Alaya) on business trips, trains her daughter in all aspects of the business, communicates with her clientele and regularly visits the stores.
Given her own struggles, and educational disadvantages, she is keen on empowering those who work with her regardless of their educational background. She explains: “Kyra, who started while she was in high school, and has no college education, used to earn $9/hr. Through sheer hard work and natural business acumen, she moved up to making $75K per annum.
Soon, she’ll get a promotion and will rise to a six figure income. I also relocated a team member, who happens to be my cousin, from Houston to Detroit. Due to the phenomenal success of the stores there—growing from $2.4 million to $6 million in one short year—she was rewarded with a share in the business.”
A growing legacy
The two physical stores, however, are only the tip of Swank’s business empire. Her online business is reputed to make over $36 million per year. When questioned about the success of the business, Swank is coy and self effacing.
“Someone once offered me $1 million for a 50% share. At the time, the total turnover was about $2 million per year. I figured it must have potential. Rather than sell, I worked extra hard on the strategy, getting my product into people’s faces. Especially SuperGa (Super Stretchy) jeans, which I use as a lead magnet, based on price point.”
Even at this stage in her life, newly-married, Swank finds it difficult to step away from her business—she’s a self-confessed ‘workaholic’. However, she also realizes that it’s important for her self-development to take time out, to focus on future goals and step away from the day-to-day concerns. She says, “Now is a perfect time to rest, reignite my sense of creativity, and dream new dreams. I want to breathe, relax and enjoy everything I’ve achieved.”