Starting Your Own Business: Advice from Dr. Susan Fiorito

From owning her own business to teaching numerous college classes on retail, business and merchandising, Dr. Susan S. Fiorito, currently the director of FSU’s Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship, has years of experience in business and higher education. A Florida State alumna, she earned her M.S. in Administration and Supervision of Secondary Schools at Barry University and her Ph.D. in Merchandising from Oklahoma State University. Now, she is giving us insight into how her passion for clothing and retail launched her career, and what it takes to become an entrepreneur in today’s technology-driven world.

Her Campus (HC): What does your current position entail?

Dr. Fiorito (DF): I can’t wait to come to work every day. A typical day for me includes lots of meetings. I meet with people to talk about the school, I speak with faculty about any concerns or new ideas for classes, and we have curriculum meetings. We’re also working on building a graduate program. I don’t teach anymore though; the last two years I’ve only taught in Florence and London, but during the year I’m busy running the school.

We now have 31 people teaching for the school and 700 students, and this is only our second year. Once we have a graduate program, we’ll be a College of Entrepreneurship, the first in the world. Most universities’ programs are tied to the business school, but ours is separate. I’m working hard to build a graduate program because I think another year or two of school helps students figure out and narrow down what they want to do.

HC: What was your first entry-level job?

DF: I loved my first job! I was a cashier at a Grand Union grocery store my junior year of high school. I’m one of seven children, and I used to make my own clothes and clothes for my younger brothers and sisters. In order for me to get money to buy fabric, I had to work. In my next job, I worked in the fabric department of a JC Penny and made all their model garments. I’d make them in my size so that I could wear them after they were displayed on the mannequins. I also started working as a flier in all the different departments: children’s, men’s and home furnishings. When I came to study at Florida State, I worked in the JC Penny here in Tallahassee.

HC: What prompted you to get started in retail?

DF: Growing up, our next door neighbor, Shirley, made all of her clothes and upholstered her own furniture. I wanted to be able to do that too, so I started sewing by hand and teaching myself how to make clothing. Shirley gave me her sewing machine when she bought a new one. I also took Home Economics classes in middle and high school where they taught you how to sew, and I just loved it.

HC: What was it like running your own business?

DF: My first husband and I opened a retail store selling wholesale leather and retail jeans in Atlanta. I’d make wallets and I design leather and suede vests. I taught high school there too, which was where our income came from while we started our business. My last two years living there, I taught at the Fashion Institute of Atlanta.

Running my own business was great because every time I walked into our store, I knew that every success we had was a result of the decisions I made. All the displays, merchandise, decorations and service were my choices. As opposed to being in a department store where you just have one job, in your own business, you make all the decisions.

I started sewing jeans for free. I was there one day and a mom came in with three little boys needing their pants hemmed. It’s really hard to sew denim on a home sewing machine especially when it’s tripled and the seams are so bulky. So I told this mom that I had a leather sewing machine in the back and I could hem all her children’s pants for free in five minutes. Then we started altering jeans as a service, on the spot, free of charge for all our customers. We put another jean store in the mall out of business without even reducing our prices, simply because no other businesses were hemming pants for free. At back-to-school time, my hands were blue from all the indigo dye as I was in the back hemming jeans all the time. We ended up opening four stores total.

HC: Is there any advice you could give to students looking to start their own business?

DF: Entrepreneurs need to figure out what their skills are and think, "how can I use my skills to solve this problem?". Solving a problem helps not only the customer but also makes the business owner competitive. A lot of entrepreneurs are using their skills to solve customer, community or even city problems because they have the knowledge to do it.

I would advise students to figure out what area of business they’d want to get into. Working in an industry that interests you allows you to make mistakes on someone else’s money, not your own. Then, when you figure out the ins and outs of the industry, you can begin to think about opening your own store. After that, it’s all about finding the right location or gaining an online presence. It’s all about using knowledge you gain from college and from working in a business – you have to seek out answers to questions, along with having the drive and creativity to do it. The hard part is utilizing technology. It gives you a bigger reach, but also tons of competition.

HC: What about women looking to promote a brand online/through social media?

DF: Bloggers or influencers not only have a style, a skill or an interest, but they interpret it in such a way as to grab people’s attention. They say things very briefly, articulately and have a sense of what’s going on–they’re trendsetters. And not all of us can do that! It all comes down to your skill set. With bloggers, they are best at interpreting information and being able to tell a story. You have to love it, and that goes for anyone who excels in a particular area.

HC: Any other advice for college women figuring out a future career?

DF: You have to get into something you love. Back in the sixties, women were limited to being a homemaker and marrying in their twenties. Now, women can do whatever they want–they can have a job, children, a huge career and balance it all. Someday we’re going to have a woman president, and we’re never going to go back to men after that because she’s going to do such a good job. Now, everything’s possible.