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A New Route to Success

Elena Brennan, designer and founder of Bus Stop Shoe Boutique, reflects on how the pandemic upended her life but not her drive to succeed.

Dear Elena,

Never in your wildest dreams would you have believed, as a little girl, that you’d experience a pandemic in your lifetime. In your mind, those were terrifying tragedies of bygone eras. Remember at the Hornsey School for Girls, when you learned all about The Great Plague of London, which began in 1665 and, in just 18 months, killed an estimated 100,000 people—almost a quarter of your hometown’s population! That was one scary lesson for a child to absorb. Now, here you are, at the end of 2021, and your happy life as a shoe designer and the founder of Bus Stop Shoe Boutique in Philadelphia, proudly in its 14th year, has been upended by another pandemic. It’s been raging for nearly two years. It’s killed millions worldwide. It’s changed your life entirely and forever.

But in February 2020, all seemed normal in the world. You travel to Milan, Italy to attend the Micam show, where you shop the latest Fall/Winter ’20 collections. The day after you return, however, a new virus is all over the news. Specifically, reports about a devastating outbreak in Milan! With the fear of the unknown shaking you to your very core, you self-quarantine for two weeks. Every night in bed your heart pounds as you fear the worst. A month later it gets scarier. You are forced to close your store for three months which, as a small business owner, is the scariest thing you have ever done. You have no idea what to expect. Is your livelihood as you know it over? What happens to your loyal employees?

During lockdown, you spend hours worrying and planning. But planning for what? You don’t really know. There is no pandemic playbook readily available for shoe boutique owners. In the meantime, you commiserate with friends, family and colleagues on how this is affecting you emotionally, physically and financially. Daily life has an eerie edge to it, yet the lockdown is oddly somewhat peaceful too. You reflect often on when you first opened your store and dealt head-on with the Financial Crisis. Those were a scary couple of years filled with many unknowns. But you persevered! It gives you a ray of hope amid this darkness.

Meanwhile, it quickly becomes a virtual world—something that’s been so foreign to you up until this point in your life. Remember after you first moved to Philadelphia, when you actually penned hand-written letters to your family and friends back home? You miss doing that, as so much of daily human interactions is now done through email, texting and video. But you learn to adapt, communicating and conducting business virtually with the best of them. You attend virtual seminars, trade shows and workshops. You host virtual shopping events. You encourage customers to buy e-gift cards for future shoe purchases at the boutique (online or eventually in person), using the proceeds to retain your staff. You even throw a virtual party to celebrate Bus Stop’s 14th anniversary! While you had no choice but to run your business virtually, you successfully convert to an online format—without compromising customer service. Once again, you find a way to succeed! You emerge from lockdown smarter and savvier. Best of all, Bus Stop is better positioned for success going forward.

Still, the pandemic can hit where it hurts, as your love of travel is put on hold. Remember summer school holidays spent in Cyprus catching up with relatives? That gave you the travel bug where, pre-pandemic, your favorite and frequent destinations included Spain, France, Italy, Australia, Taiwan,
Hong Kong, Japan, Africa, Iceland, Lithuania and the Greek Islands. However, as 2022 dawns and vaccines are more widely administered, you hope to hit the road again soon for business and pleasure.

A new year also brings with it designing the latest Bus Stop X collection in collaboration with All Black Footwear. You feel energized to design a new collection—one that features bold and colorful snakeskin print leather uppers. It’s called Anew and symbolizes shedding one’s skin and starting over post-lockdown.

Indeed, a sense of a renewal fills the air. The pandemic is by no means over, but the light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t appear to be a freight train bearing down on you. Looking back and ahead, you are supremely grateful to your loyal customers, whose support means you’ve been able to retain every employee! Speaking of which, you are forever grateful to your team of strong women who help run your business every day. You couldn’t survive without them! They are true friends.

In parting, keep the faith that this pandemic too shall pass. Hang in there! If you stay optimistic, work hard and, above all, never lose sight of yourself, you will persevere. Last but not least, never take anything in life for granted!



P.S. It feels really good to write a letter again.

The April/May 2024 Issue

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