Melissa Hinnant of Grace and Lace
How a Reluctant Entrepreneur Came Back to Her Roots and Built a Business by Finding Purpose in Response to Heartache
Written by Kat Cox
Interviewed by Kim Weeks
Photography by Leslie Hodge
Many of the most famous American businesses were built by families, passing traditions down through the years to build empires. Melissa Hinnant came from a family of entrepreneurs, and though she tried to fight it, eventually, the former real estate agent became one herself. She calls Grace & Lace her "accidental business."
"Both my parents are entrepreneurs, my grandparents were entrepreneurs, and their parents were entrepreneurs, and so are all my siblings. I think if I tried to run from it I don't know if I could. I had no intention of starting a business," Hinnant says.
Hinnant’s successful retail business, which has been featured on Shark Tank, arose from a personal tragedy. Early in her marriage, Hinnant was hospitalized for a difficult pregnancy. While bedridden, she needed to find a way to keep her hands busy.
"I had to do something," Hinnant says. "I couldn’t just watch TV all day, so I began knitting and sewing and creating baby blankets."
Knitting became more than a distraction during her hospital stay. As she grew more and more enamored with knitting as an act of creativity and creation, the foundation of her business was laid.
Sadly, the baby girl was born prematurely, and Hinnant and her husband lost their daughter soon after her birth. The sewing and knitting that Hinnant had turned to as a distraction during her bedrest became an artistic outlet for her grief.
"Through that loss and through that pain, I continued to sew, I continued to create, and I really began to heal," Hinnant says. "Knitting and sewing were things that I learned to do while I was [at the hospital], and I continued to do it after her loss."
Hinnant established a small Etsy shop to sell her creations. Shortly after her difficult loss, she had the idea to sew some lace on a pair of boot socks. At first, she made them for herself to wear but later realized that strangers really loved them.
"Everywhere I went, people would stop and ask me where I got my socks," Hinnant says. "When I said, 'I made them', strangers would ask, 'Can you make a pair for me? Can I buy them from you? Here's my number.'"
As the number of strangers’ email addresses and phone numbers accumulated in her junk drawer, Hinnant’s husband, Rick, encouraged her to put the boot socks online to see if they would sell there. When Hinnant added the bootsocks to her Etsy shop the response was almost immediate, and she received more than 500 orders. In that moment, Grace and Lace was born.
Because it took five hours for Hinnant to finish a pair of boot socks, she knew she would either have to find a way to get orders out in a timely fashion or she’d have to return the money and tell the customers she couldn’t fill their orders. It was then that the entrepreneurial spirit that had been passed down in her family through generations kicked in.
"I started hiring my friends and neighbors, all of my stay-at-home mom friends," Hinnant says. "I taught them how to sew, taught them how to make boot socks and before we knew it, we had a business on our hands."
As she hired more friends and neighbors to serve more responsible and important roles, it became clear to Hinnant and her husband that they needed to take the business seriously. It wasn’t just about stay-at-home moms making extra cash; it was about supporting a growing number of full-time employees. In a bold leap of faith, Hinnant quit her job in real estate and convinced Rick to sell his landscaping business to join Grace and Lace as chief executive officer.
Building the company came with its share of challenges. Grace and Lace wasn’t necessarily as straightforward as it sounds. Though things did happen quickly, success didn’t come easily. Hinnant believes the initial tragedy out of which the company arose helped prepare her for the difficulties that confronted her as a novice business owner.
"Owning a business requires you to accept the fact that you're going to have hurdles to overcome. Our hurdles began from the loss of our daughter and the business was a response to coping with that tragic loss," Hinnant says.
The other hurdles came as Hinnant had to scale the rapidly expanding business. Suddenly Grace and Lace had 50 employees, and knowing that it was up to her to ensure these employees could feed their families created a new fear of failure for Hinnant.
"If the business wasn’t successful, that could possibly leave them without a job," Hinnant says. "I felt the weight of that, and I continue to feel that fear."
The fear manifests almost daily, with Hinnant wondering if she will be able to continue to make a profit selling her products and if she will be able to keep up with customers’ desires for new products. But these fears are just hurdles, Hinnant says, and she knows she can get over them. "We find a way to keep forging on," she says. "It all comes back to the passion of how the business started, and why we started, and who the business is benefitting."
The motivation to provide for her employees isn’t the only thing that keeps Hinnant overcoming those hurdles. The revenue from Grace and Lace also provides a philanthropic benefit; a portion of the profits goes to help build orphanages in India.
Hinnant’s desire to help orphans in India stems from her summers as a teenager, when she would visit different countries on mission trips. While her friends were poolside, she was helping the poorest of the poor, many of whom didn’t have access to clean drinking water. Her senior year of high school, she traveled to northern India, where she worked with one of Mother Teresa’s homes and the orphans living there. The poverty in India was worse than any she had ever seen before, and it instilled a need within her to help the children of India as much as possible.
That desire to help the children who touched her heart never left Hinnant’s mind, and it gives her joy to know that Grace and Lace provides funds to build and staff orphanages for those children with the greatest need.
"Never in a million years would I have ever guessed that I would have been blessed with a business that would be able to fund and support the building of orphanages in India," Hinnant says.
Donations from the Hinnants and from Grace and Lace have helped to build seven orphanages, as well as a Freedom Campus, where girls ages 13-18 learn a useful trade such as jewelry making or hair cutting to help them support themselves. This in turn helps the girls avoid being swept into the sex trafficking industry, where so many young girls in India having, no other means of support, are forced to make a living. The company plans to fund several more Freedom Campuses over time.
Grace and Lace business continues to grow, moving beyond selling bootsocks on Etsy toward a goal of becoming a $100 million company, thanks to a mixture of Hinnant’s creative juices and Rick’s operational savvy. The real trick is in Hinnant allowing herself to dream and in realizing the value of customers who were receptive to her ideas. "I love to create products that women love to wear," Hinnant says. "That’s what drives me."
Hinnant says that she let her creativity blossom first with products—boot socks, leg warmers and scarves—that were one-size-fits-all and not particularly risky design-wise, because she understood that she had no history in retail, merchandising, or design. Once she was able to hire people who were professionally trained in design, she was able to create products based on her vision and to trust her employees to bring that vision to life. Understanding her limits but refusing to be held back by them was another manifestation of Hinnant’s natural entrepreneurial spirit.
Grace and Lace currently sells women’s clothing online as well as in over 3,000 boutiques. Hinnant has planned pop-ups to test the waters before moving into a brick and mortar flagship retail store in Austin.
Through her entrepreneurial journey, family is the cornerstone of Grace and Lace. Hinnant appreciates the freedom that being a business owner gives her. It allows her to spend more time with her family, and she is constantly working to extend that freedom to her employees. She has a passion for hiring moms and giving her employees flexible hours that allow them to work while their children are in school and to leave at 2 p.m. to be home with their families.
When it comes to advice for other entrepreneurs, Hinnant says: "Don't waste your pain, but let your pain transform you. Really, if you're driven by something more than just your day-to-day, if you're driven by something more than just your clock in, clock out, you'll find a way to get there."
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