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What does it take for a Bulgarian mom-trepreneur to start a business in the US?

Hi, I am Valeria Green, and I am the founder and CEO of CHELA Marketplace. CHELA is a two-sided online fashion marketplace where independent designers can open a shop and start running their own virtual shop on CHELA. 

During Women’s History Month when we all celebrate women’s achievements throughout history and  across nations I wanted  to share a little bit  about starting a career in the fashion and retail space while raising my two kids Roman (5) and Noah (2)

Moving to the US

My entrepreneurial journey started in 2014 when I permanently moved to the US from Bulgaria. As excited as I was to move to a country with so many opportunities, I very quickly realized I had moved away from my closest people – my family & my friends. I had to start everything all over again. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I intuitively knew I should dedicate my time, my most valuable asset to something I really enjoy doing. I know I can make money but I can’t make up the time I spend doing something I am not passionate about. 

I told myself: “If I can’t build a career in the fashion industry in a country like the U.S, then where can I ?” I shouldn’t miss that opportunity. Of course, I still have a very long way to go. It’s a never-ending process of continuous improvement.   

Just a few months after I came to the U.S I found out I am pregnant with my first son. I was really scared. I didn’t have the opportunity to grow myself professionally, yet. As a native Bulgarian in our culture mothers has 2 to 3 years of maternity leave, just for comparison in America it’s an average of 12 weeks! Luckily I had the luxury to stay at home with my son until he turns 1 year. However, soon I realized I have enough time in my hands to do something on the side.  

My path to fashion

While being a stay-at-home mom I also became a sales rep for a jewelry company. I would host weekly trunk shows in my apartment with my 6 months old baby boy. I would invite my neighbors or sometimes even set up a table with all the jewelry outside my apartment complex. 

Honestly, I didn’t make it for the money. I just felt the need to get out, talk to people and get out of my comfort zone. Later on the jewelry company, I worked for went bankrupt, which was unfortunate, but I knew that this was just a stepping stone for me. 

I wanted to become a fashion personal stylist. A friend of mine one day mentioned Nordstrom – one of the biggest retail stores in the US. Next thing I know I was at the store with my baby in the stroller looking for a manager I can talk to about job opportunities. I approached one lady and told her a  little bit about myself and she handed me a business card with the manager’s contact information. A  month later I was hired to work as a sales personal stylist in the luxury clothing department.  

I am sharing all of that because I think if you set your mind for the things you want and take action you will get there. Don’t wait for things to happen, make them happen.

After months of working there, I later became a VIP assistant personal stylist where I worked directly with the top VIP stylist in the entire company. I had the privilege of traveling on private jets with customers who were getting the best in class styling & shopping experience. What I learned working in the luxury fashion retail industry is the importance of providing an outstanding customer experience & service and managing relationships with your customers is key. It’s not that somebody else can’t come up with a cool outfit for you, being a personal stylist is much more than that. It’s about the relationships you build with these people. 

Branching out on my own

My next career journey after I left Nordstrom was starting my own clothing brand- VG Collections. I traveled to three continents to meet with independent designers working for big well-known luxury brands. I was shocked by how little we know about the people who actually make these clothes. I came to realize many of the pain points that these designers were dealing with, but also saw how big brands were exploiting them to induce poor practices, which are causing 93 million tons of textile waste a year. Seeing this first hand through VG Collections, sparked an idea – what if I could develop a platform that can further empower these designers to sell directly to consumers while enabling consumers to shop more responsibly made clothing at scale?

 This is when the idea for CHELA sparked. A marketplace for independent designers. 

Of course, it was just an idea. I was focused on growing my brand at this moment. 

In 2019 I started opening popup shops at malls in the Pittsburgh area. I opened a pop-up shop at the mall during the holiday season when I was 9 months pregnant with my second boy. People who work in retail know how intense December month is. It’s like Black Friday every day for 30 days straight. The passion and commitment I had growing my brand really made these intense and very dynamic moments very enjoyable. In the slow days at the mall, I would start selling my clothing line on multiple online marketplaces. I became very good on some of these platforms but also identified some of the disadvantages on these platforms. This brought back the idea I had for a marketplace for independent designers. 

Investing in your growth will open more opportunities

In January 2020, I knew I needed a change. I wanted to challenge myself even more. I got accepted to study Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Katz business school. A few weeks later I took part in a competition called Randall Big idea.This competition is an experience-based learning opportunity for Pitt students with Big Ideas who enjoy working in diverse teams to bring those ideas to life. 

Out of more than 70 teams, my team and I got to the finals and won the prize for best video at the Randall Big Idea Competition for the idea that I had for CHELA Marketplace. 

As we all know 2020 was a very challenging year, and definitely full of uncertainty. But what taught me is that things can change very quickly and we have to learn how to adapt and sometimes make decisions quickly and move on. This being said there couldn’t be a better time for CHELA. Even before COVID, consumers’ shopping behavior and values have changed. On the other side, independent designers and brands are all looking for digital alternatives to bring their businesses to life. This is why in June 2020 I decided to apply for one of the top accelerator programs in the U.S, called AlphaLab. We got accepted and this is when CHELA was officially born. 

Just one year since the competition we took part in we have 7 brands on CHELA Marketplace and over 1000+ products of unique clothing made by independent designers from around the world. Our mission is to grow CHELA into an unstoppable marketplace, where we empower talented independent designers to reach new heights. 

Why am I sharing my story is because it’s really about taking small steps, and watching them begin adding up to big results. Think of all your experiences, no matter whether they’re good or bad, as a library of resources that is available every time you need a piece of wisdom. Experience is your best teacher, a powerful source of knowledge tailored specifically for you. Use it as an asset to create the life you want.

Happy Women’s Month! 

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Valeria Green is the founder and CEO of CHELA Marketplace. She has experience in Product Development, Creative Direction, Communication, Brand Building and Technology.