Making Her Mark – Influential Women Business Owners: Lauren Leblanc-Haydel

Winning the Great T-Shirt Battle of 2010

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Source: bizneworleans.com

Lauren Leblanc-Haydel had something most single mothers with three young kids would love: job security. After six years as an on-air personality at a New Orleans radio station, she landed a position as the creative director of the Louisiana Farm Bureau, a solid job that provided her with benefits, a phone and even a company car.

But Haydel wanted more. “I had a belief that I could create a better life for my children,” she says. So when her 2009 tax refund arrived, she knew she wanted to start a business with the $2,000. Still, she was a little hazy on what the business would be. At first, she thought about selling makeup. Finally, she settled on making T-shirts, an idea her boss at the Farm Bureau thought was ridiculous, considering that there was a huge number of vendors selling T-shirts to tourists who flocked to the Big Easy. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” she says.

Getting ‘Fleurty’

Haydel, however, had a steadfast belief that she could stand out with V-neck shirts and other female-friendly cuts reflecting, as she puts it, “the culture of New Orleans.” It all came together when she was sitting on her porch and a name for her company came to her that embodied the spirit and zest she hoped to capture: Fleurty Girl.

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Source: ClearWare

She rushed to her computer and registered the domain name. While the company didn’t have a business plan yet, it got off to a good start: After launching the company’s site, she sold out of her T-shirts within 30 days.

It wasn’t a quick rags-to-riches story, though. Haydel had to make plenty of compromises to pursue her dream, such as moving to a smaller house and having her children give up their individual bedrooms. She was working 14- to 18-hour days. But the biggest challenge came soon after she opened her first storefront six months later. Almost immediately, she found himself being sued by the National Football League. The New Orleans Saints were set to appear in the Superbowl. Haydel was one of a number of entrepreneurs who sold T-shirts emblazoned with the team’s slogan, “Who Dat?” The NFL rained cease-and-desist orders down on her.

“A woman who took a chance to make a better life for her and her kids by celebrating the city where she grew up” – Haydel has a chat with Harry Connick Jr.

Standing Her Ground

Haydel had no trouble with the idea of sending the NFL a royalty payment, but she was caught in a tug-of-war with another company which also claimed to own the phrase “Who Dat?” The origins of the phrase is debated in and around New Orleans, but it had been around for decades. For local football fans, it became a popular abbreviation of, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints” when fans chanted for their team in the Superdome.

Haydel, who originally sold T-shirts from a building she rehabilitated after Hurricane Katrina, was something of a tornado herself. With her astute understanding of media, she managed to get an avalanche of publicity when the NFL came after her.

Stories appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, the Times Picayune. She appeared on national TV shows, which loved the David-and-Goliath story of the 4-foot-11 single mother standing up to one of the biggest sports league in the world.

Attorneys offered to represent her for free. Louisiana Senator David Vitter sent the NFL a letter telling them to back off. The NFL finally did, issuing Haydel an apology in the bargain.

Haydel says that people, especially independent-minded New Orleanians, admired the local who stood her ground. However, she bristled against the common belief that the controversy and publicity from the NFL lawsuit made her business. She says the suit hit her at a time when she had no money, and almost sunk her.

Onwards & Upwards

With steadfast determination, her business kept going — and growing. Today, the multi-million Fleurty Girl sells not only shirts, but also dresses, jewelry, books, wedding gifts, art and items for the home. Many have a unique, local flair, such as the “Mardi Gras Fan Tassel Earrings.”

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Source: fleurtygirl.net

Last year, Haydel opened her seventh location at the Louis Armstrong International Airport. At the same time, she bought fellow New Orleans T-shirt retailer Storyville. Storyville also got a cease-and-desist order from the NFL in the great T-shirt battle of 2010. In addition to purchasing the company’s line of T-shirt designs inspired by New Orleans, she hired her competitor’s three employees.

To top it off, the same year, Haydel married Ryan Haydel of Haydel’s Bakery.  Haydel’s Bakery is a three-generation Big Easy institution.  This union made them something of a power couple in the city. Haydel says her idea of being a power couple is both of them working 10-hour days — Ryan comes home smelling like king cake, and her arms are tired from folding T-shirts.


Editor’s Note: Megy’s story is one of a four-part series celebrating women business owners throughout the month of March.  Take a look at the other inspiring stories in the series: How I Built My Own Business After Cancer and Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom


Making Her Mark – Influential Women Business Owners: Megy Karydes

Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom

As the managing director of marketing at Chicago’ massive Merchandise Mart, Megy Karydes knew she wanted a change. She spent almost every month traveling, overseeing some of the biggest

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Megy Karydes in Cyprus, August 2018

trade shows in the world.

“I felt like I was at the point where, I’d done everything I needed to do,” she says. “It didn’t feel challenging anymore.”

With two children under the age of two, Karydes left her job and launched her own business. Karydes Consulting is a C-corporation in Chicago. It offers marketing, communications, public relations, and media relations services to corporate and nonprofit companies.

At the same time, she also launched her career as a journalist. Learning how to balance being a journalist, a marketing and public relations consultant and a mom is a lot. Here’s how Megy does it.

Making the transition

Start by identifying your audience and your unique selling proposition to let potential clients know what you can offer based on the kind of work you want, Karydes says. When she decided to start her own company, the first thing she did was email her entire network of contacts to let them know.

“As soon as I sent out that email letting people know what I was doing, I immediately signed two clients.”

Over the past decade, Karydes’ business has grown to include major clients such as The Morton Arboretum, Union of Concerned Scientists, Heartland Alliance, McCormick & Company spice, and Meredith Corporation.

Vetting potential clients

Her advice to new business owners: hone in on both the type of clients you want and don’t want. It’s important to interview potential clients to make sure they are a good fit for you.  Just as much as the other way around.

Although Karydes wanted to focus much of her work on nonprofits, many didn’t have a large enough budget to make some potential clients a good fit. To ensure business viability while fulfilling her need to work with nonprofits, Karydes began focusing only on mid-to-large organizations with budgets of a million dollars or more.

“It’s important to me to determine that early on,” she says. “I don’t want to fall into the trap of just accepting a client and find out when we begin working together that we’re not seeing eye to eye.”

To vet potential clients, Karydes starts by asking “What are you trying to achieve by trying to hire someone like me?”.  To do her job right in media and public relations, Karydes needs access to sources, imagery, B-roll video and the ability to quickly get in touch with an executive if a reporter wants to do an interview.

If Karydes feels like she has the expertise to work and help a potential client achieve their goals, she then asks the following questions:

  • How available will you be for me?
  • How do you prefer to be contacted?
  • Are you prepared to provide me with the necessary material in order to do my job?

“These questions are so basic.  But when you ask the questions, it puts the onus on them to understand that I can only do my job as well as I can if I get what I need from them,” she says. “They almost forget that. They almost feel like if they hire someone like me, they can just hand over everything to me and wash their hands from having to do any more work. That’s never the case. We need to be a team for this to work.”

“If executives are difficult to reach, because they are constantly traveling or don’t check their phones, it makes it a lot harder for me to do my job,” Karydes says. “That’s a problem. If I have a reporter who needs to do an interview, thenI’ve lost that opportunity and potentially alienated that reporter.”

Managing motherhood

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Megy and her son, Alex.

Karydes’ son Alex, who is now 12, was only 10 months old when she started her own business. Her daughter, Chloe, who is now 14, was less than 2 years old.

Running her own business has given Karydes the flexibility to work the type of hours she wants and still be available for her children.

“I was fortunate that my mother was able to take care of my kids full time while I worked. I realize that is not something that’s common, but it was so integral for me,” she says.

Her advice: Since finding affordable (and safe) daycare can be difficult and time consuming, it’s important to do it early on.

“It’s easier said than done, because our country doesn’t necessarily value that kind of role,” Karydes says. Because of this, she suggests involving your children in your work when possible. For Karydes, that meant bringing her children, even when they were babies and toddlers on business trips. She did this especially when she was writing travel stories.

“For the longest time they didn’t even know about kids menus,” she says. “We went to so many restaurants we just let them try the food from our plates. They couldn’t read the menu so they didn’t even know kids’ meals were even an option which has made them become much more adventurous eaters.”

More importantly, it’s helped open her children to different cultures and other ways of life. Even if it’s just in another neighborhood in Chicago.

“It’s a good reminder for them that they don’t live in a bubble,” she says. “But they’re part of a bigger community.”


Editor’s Note: Megy’s story is one of a four-part series celebrating women business owners throughout the month of March.  Take a look at the other inspiring stories in the series: How I Built My Own Business After Cancer.


Making Her Mark – Influential Women Business Owners: Michelle Mekky

How I Built My Own Business After Cancer

“I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to start my own business, if I didn’t have cancer,” says Michelle Mekky, the CEO and founder of Mekky Media Relations.

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Credit: Michelle Mekky

Michelle Mekky dreamed of owning her own business, but the financial risk always felt too great. For years, she’d held senior positions at various public relations firms. She was a loyal employee, she says, who worked late nights and weekends, running international business campaigns.

She’d been working 80-hour weeks, raising two kids, and putting off her annual exams. When she finally went to the doctor, she was told they’d found something, possibly a fibroid mass.

“But I was told it was probably nothing,” Mekky says.  But after seeing an oncologist at the University of Chicago, Mekky was told there was only a 10 percent chance the growth was benign.

Mekky underwent a seven-hour surgery and awoke to learn she had ovarian cancer and a full hysterectomy. “It was such a traumatic experience for me, but it was the turning point. I didn’t immediately start a new business. But it gradually led me to wake up that I had to take more control over my life and go down a new path.”

After returning to work, she switched agencies in the hopes of finding a better work-life balance. In less than a year and a half later, she was laid off from her new position.

“I went home and looked at my family,” Mekky says. “I don’t know which was harder, recovering from cancer, or being told that I just lost my job and having to decide what am I going to do next.”

Life After Cancer

For the next seven days, Mekky’s husband would ask her, “Did you think of a name for your business?”

“Finally I said maybe just maybe I need to do this.”

She went to see a mentor to figure out why, with over 20 years of experience in the business, she felt tentative. Mekky knew she had connections within the industry and could achieve great things. Her mentor asked a simple question: “What’s holding you back?” Then Mekky’s mentor wrote her a check for $10,000, as a loan, and told Mekky to start her business.

“I thought, if she believes in me this much, I’d better go find a bank and start a business account,” Mekky says. “It was the birth of Mekky Media.”

Building Her Business

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Mekky used a lean canvas model to reflect on her unique value proposition and how she could provide solutions to client problems she was seeing. She created an S corporation and hired what she says was the key to starting her business: a great accountant and attorney.

Mekky did competitive research on what other people in the industry were saying about themselves.  From there she had to figure out how she could stand out in a crowded field of agencies and consultants. She knew from years in the industry that her personal attention and creative storytelling made her stand out.

“I quickly realized people hire people,” Mekky says. “They don’t necessarily hire a business. It’s the human behind the business that people are hiring.”

It led to 800 percent growth in her business in two years, she says.  This growth netted an invitation to join Forbes Agency Council, a well-known organization of business owners and executives of advertising, creative, public and media relations agencies.

Mekky soon began netting clients such as Abt Electronics, nonprofits like Susan G. Komen Chicago and GiGi’s Playhouse, as well as companies and individuals in the hospitality, fitness and financial service industries.

In November 2018, Mekky was awarded the 2018 Stevie Award for Women in Business with a bronze medal for Entrepreneur of the Year.

“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial bug in me, but I always felt too much obligation that I had to support my family, pay the bills and this was too risky. Having cancer forced me to do something outside of my comfort zone and now I’m also able to take care of myself and create the environment I’ve always wanted to create.”

Michelle Mekky Accepts her Stevie Award


Editor’s Note: Michelle’s story is one of a four-part series celebrating women business owners throughout the month of March.  Take a look at these other inspiring stories in the series: Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom.


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