(Left to right) Naomi and Constance Lee
(Note: this is the fifth in a series of stories on UAFS alumni entrepreneurs. If you are a business owner and a UAFS alumni and would like to have a story written on your business, please contact email@example.com)
Sisters Constance and Naomi Lee have always been close. When Constance, the older sister by three years, got a job as a waitress at a local restaurant, Naomi got her work permit at age 13 so she could bus tables alongside her. As kids, the two spent a summer in Michigan detasseling corn, an experience they describe as “horrible” but are able to laugh about now.
During the rehearsal for Constance’s wedding, the priest joked that he was afraid he would say “Constance and Naomi” rather than “Constance and Kent,” simply because of how often the two’s names were grouped together.
“From day one, we’ve just always been close,” Constance said. “We’ve just always enjoyed being around each other, and everyone has always seen us as a pair because we do everything together.”
So when Constance decided to start a clothing store, it went without saying that Naomi would be her business partner.
The result was Indie, a fashion boutique that initially opened on Rogers Avenue before relocating to downtown Fort Smith this spring.
With the store, which sells a variety of women’s clothing and accessories, the two sisters want to provide a fashion-forward boutique for Fort Smith.
“We try to stay on trend as much as possible,” Constance said. “We try to carry basic pieces because they sell well, but we want to bring in unique items too that you’re not going to see in every other place in town.”
Constance had the idea to start the business after a one-year stint in Oklahoma, where she disliked the rigid corporate structure of the department store chain where she worked.
“Everything that I had wanted to do wasn’t what I thought it was once I got into it,” she said. “I disliked the corporate atmosphere, and I wanted a job that gave me more independence to do what I wanted to do.”
Not just that, but she missed Fort Smith – and her sister Naomi – as well. When she moved back, she thought about what she wanted to do with her life, and had been dwelling on her dream of opening a fashion business.
Ultimately, the support of her parents made her decide to take the leap of faith.
“My dad jokingly made the comment that we are already young and poor so we might as well do it while we have nothing to lose,” Constance said. “But it really is true. I recently got married, and thankfully my husband is very supportive also because it's hard – financially, physically, and mentally – to open a business. I kept thinking that if I waited and we had kids and more responsibilities that I would never take the leap for fear of not being able to help support a family and pay bills and put the time and effort I want to into a family.”
There was cause for hesitation for the two sisters to start a store together. Going into a business venture with a family member was risky, as it had the potential to ruin relationships in addition to possible business failure. But the only qualm Constance had about Naomi joining her in opening Indie had nothing to do with potential squabbles.
“Constance was asking me if I would make it to work on time,” Naomi joked. “That was the only thing she was hesitant about. She knows I like to sleep in.”
Instead of a detriment, Constance and Naomi saw their familial bond as a strength, in part because the sisters complement each other as polar opposites. Where Constance is shy, non-confrontational, and girly, Naomi is outgoing, candid and hip. Where Constance enjoys marketing and merchandising, Naomi likes paperwork.
“We are total opposites, but we pull from that,” Naomi said. “If there’s a delay from one of our vendors, Constance will have me call them and ask what the hold-up is. We are always thinking about our strengths and weaknesses and make tasks for each of us based on what we’re both good at.”
Accompanying their differences in personality are distinct tastes in fashion, which helps them relate to a spectrum of customers.
“I have a more feminine style, and Naomi is more edgy. But that’s good, because we can bring a mix into our store since not everyone has the same taste,” Constance said. “Even working with customers, we can relate to different ones, and that helps us cater to a wider variety of people.”
But the most important key to their success as business partners is honesty and quick inclination towards forgiveness. During their interview, Constance and Naomi laughingly admitted they had gotten into an argument that morning.
“We’re fine now. When you’re sisters, it’s like, ‘Whatever, I still have to love you,’” Naomi joked. “But if we were just business partners, it would be different.”
“It’s harder for me to address issues sometimes. So for me, having a family member made it easier to talk through things,” Constance said.
Just as the sisters rely on each other to be successful, they also rely on the education they received from UAFS. Constance, a 2014 graduate, earned a degree in media communications, while Naomi is still a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership.
Naomi’s dual designation as entrepreneur and college student ensures she stays busy, but being a business owner allows her a unique platform to apply her learnings from the program.
“I’ll learn something in class, and then I’ll tell Constance we need to implement it in our business and tell her how it’ll help us,” Naomi said. “I’ve learned a lot about incentives and how to get people to work harder, and what makes coming to work worth it for them. We’ve worked on that with some of our employees.”
For Constance, she pursued a media communications degree out of an interest in the field but has found plenty of areas for application as the owner of a boutique.
“My degree has been invaluable as I’ve been marketing the company and even as I’ve been reaching out to different businesses and people to help grow our store in terms of making connections,” Constance said. “A lot of my classes were geared towards social media, and the classes at UAFS really prepared me build an online presence with Indie.”
They’ve also seen intangible benefits of attending UAFS – namely, through a community who supports the university and its alumni.
“UAFS graduates stay around here for the most part, and they want to give back to students,” Naomi said. “And I think with me being in college and Constance being an alumni, with both of us opening a business, a lot of people wanted to be supportive of that.”
Naomi and Constance see the future of Indie in expansion to other cities and expanding online offerings, although they also want to keep their Fort Smith location.
“We have a lot of ideas for how to reach out to people all over the nation who shop online,” Constance said. “Fort Smith is a great area, but there are so many possibilities when you reach out to millions more. I think a good online presence helps with expanding brick and mortar locations also because your name is out there.”
But no matter what challenges the sisters face, with the business and in life, they will face them together – even if Naomi moved away.
“I'm married to a guy I met at UAFS who is from the area, so it was easy for us to plant our roots here,” Constance said. “Naomi has any possibility ahead, and we both know that. There is the possibility of her moving one day, either for Indie or to spread her wings and try something new. I'd be sad if she moved, but we would talk every day, just like when I lived in Norman, and keep in touch. Nothing would change our friendship.”