CU Boulder graduate’s business career selling wedding apparel draws on an arts and sciences foundation
Politics doesn’t necessarily draw a lot of pink-bow types, but Jillian Howison (PolSci’10), an unabashed “girly girl,” was mesmerized.
Growing up in the Cleveland area, Howison loved fashion, shopping and horses—she rode dressage on a Lipizzaner gelding, Brenna, who still lives with her mom. Even when she played basketball, she made a point to tie a pink bow in her hair. But when she saw the character of C.J. Cregg, press secretary to President Josiah Bartlet on NBC’s immensely popular “West Wing,” played by Alison Janney, she couldn’t look away.
“I wanted to be C.J. Cregg so badly,” she says. That interest led her to study political science, but she eventually channeled her considerable energy into launching a successful wedding-apparel business.
Howison, now 30, matriculated at St. Anselm, a small New Hampshire Benedictine liberal-arts college with an outsized political reputation, thanks to its quadrennial hosting of presidential debates.
But after a couple of years, Howison realized she wasn’t cut out for the political world and decided she wanted a broader, deeper college experience. Her father had recently moved to Golden, and when she visited Boulder, she knew immediately she wanted to finish her undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“Academically, I have always appreciated the huge university feel, coming from a small school with 2,000 people. Anything you wanted to do at CU or get involved with was right at your fingertips,” she says. “Whatever you are interested in, a club, a class or a speaker, and Boulder gets great speakers.”
At St. Anselm, Howison says, she was required to take just one science class, but even as a political science major, at CU she was required to enroll in a broad swath of courses across numerous disciplines. She counts a 500-level philosophy class as the most challenging, and most rewarding, class she’s ever taken.
She worked at Nordstrom department store while in school, and was a sales and marketing intern at Meritech, her father’s firm in Golden. Graduating into the weak job market that followed the 2008 economic crash, Howison was grateful to land a job with Meritech selling hand-washing equipment to food-processing plants, restaurants and hospitals, though it didn’t appeal to her girly-girl side.
“I learned a lot, selling something I really didn’t care about that much,” she says. “But going into food-processing plants in high heels and a dress was not exactly what I’d pictured myself doing!”
She later took over health and beauty and travel accounts for shopathome.com. After that, was hired by Search Monitor, where she continues as account strategy director, specializing in data analytics, search-engine optimization and other areas, with clients ranging from major retailers to large advertising agencies.
“I wanted more flexibility, and it’s been great,” she says. “I’m working from home with major retailers and ad agencies.”
Then, in 2015, her cousin Laura Seitz called with an intriguing idea. Seitz had been working as a manager for Bella Bridesmaids, a national wedding apparel company with dozens of franchises across the United States, and wanted to know if Howison would be interested in opening a franchise of the company with her.
“We’d always talked as kids about opening our own boutique,” Howison says. “We asked ourselves where isn’t there a Bella where there are lots of weddings, and where we thought we’d like to live, and came up with Scottsdale (Arizona).”
They visited the upscale Phoenix suburb in July 2015, wrote a business plan and won financing from the Small Business Administration. They bought their franchise in November, and opened in December.
“We definitely had to learn on the fly,” Howison says. “We don’t have a bookkeeper; I taught myself Quickbooks. I had marketing experience, Laura had retail.”
But neither had experience owning and operating a business, and Howison says her broad liberal arts education has served her well when it comes to adaptability and picking up new skills, whether it’s negotiating a lease, renovating commercial space or dealing with air-conditioning on the blink in the heat of a desert summer.
“The first year, we were not making any money,” she says. “But last year, we were up 28 percent over the previous year, and this year we’re up 30 percent on average.”
Owning their own business means being constantly “on call,” but Howison and her husband have found time to travel to such places as Croatia, Prague, London, the wine country of France, Oktoberfest in Munich and, most recently, Cuba.
Howison has many former St. Anselm classmates working in or around the political world, but she’s never looked back.
“If I’d stayed where I was, I would never have opened this business. The school I went to before was kind of like high school; you never left campus,” she says. “Going to CU has made me a proponent of bigger schools. I was able to schedule my classes so I could work internships. And there was just so much opportunity to do more than just sitting in a classroom.”