Several factors had to come together for Yolandra Rodgers to experience the success she has selling hard-bottomed baby shoes through her home-run business Tippy Tot Shoes.
First, there was her mother.
“She was a surgical technician at Baptist Downtown, and she had five children, so she had to have additional income,” Rodgers said. “She became a hair stylist. She instilled in me the idea that some day you’re going to have to have something to fall back on, that one source of income is not going to cut it.”
Then, there was Rodgers’ entrepreneurial spirit.
“It started as a passion in college, being an entrepreneur. I just had to figure out what it was I wanted to do,” said the Master’s degree grad in management and leadership.
Most importantly, there was her daughter. Thank goodness her daughter took a little longer to learn how to walk.
“She was approaching her first birthday, and I went to the doctor,” Rodgers said. “The doctor said she would walk in her own time, but to get healthy, supportive shoes; get hard-bottomed shoes.”
And thank goodness hard-bottomed shoes were hard to find.
“I thought, ‘That’s it,’” she said.
It took several years to find a designer, a manufacturer, and to get together what her customer-base was interested in, but these days Rodgers is mailing out baby shoes all day to parents across the U.S. and Canada.
Yolandra Rodgers hopes to open a fulfillment center that will employ eight to 10 employees. (Lesley Young) For shoe options, there’s the regular white walker, then there’s color options pink, brown, navy or black, and exotic textured leather to look like eel skin, ostrich skin or alligator skin.
“I got a lot of feedback from my family members and church members,” Rodgers said. “When I put my first post out there on Facebook, I got a lot of messages about colors. I let the customers tell me what they wanted to see.”
She works with several manufacturers and tanneries that produce high-quality baby shoes. Using Memphis’ strong logistics infrastructure, Rodgers sources and ships the products.
Rodgers sends off about 200 pairs of shoes a month with a hike during the holidays, all using the online platform Shopify, an e-commerce platform for owners of small businesses.
“I swear by Shopify. They’re 24/7 and offer web developers, app developers, consultants, back-end administration, copyright,” Rodgers said. “I’ve spoken at forums for them.”
Rodgers did have some trouble on the front end getting banks to back her.
“I specifically made it a point to get my credit in order, and it was still a challenge,” she said. “I went to bank after bank after bank, and still met with rejection,” she said. “There are more women tapping into small business than any other group, more so African-American women, and it’s a real challenge to get working capital.”
Finally, the nonprofit organization LiftFund, which is based in Texas and works in about a dozen other states, approached her about a small business loan.
The 20-plus year-old organization partnered with Rodgers for an educational event at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and it was that, along with some FedEx recognition, that really gave small business owner some traction.
“A FedEx marketing rep saw my shoes on LinkedIn and contacted me and said I’d be great in the FedEx small business contest,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers entered Tippy Tot Shoes in the contest, and while she didn’t win, her product was advertised on multiple platforms via the contest and she was invited to be an ambassador of the program.
“My shoes were on pamphlets and the website and I had to post on social media about it every day, so it really brought brand awareness, and I was able to connect with other small business owners,” she said. “From there, my business just took off.”
The latest in her steady stream of successes is the opportunity to travel to New York for the Inner City Capital Connections culminating conference. ICCC offers educational and financial opportunities to inner-city businesses across the nation.
“I will pitch my idea to some investors [in New York], and they pair you with a bank and they will come and look at properties in Memphis,” the South City resident said.
Her idea? A fulfillment center that will employ eight to 10 employees and get as many shoes out per day as they can handle.
A locally-grown business in South City, an area that touches South Memphis and the southeastern edge of the Downtown core, would be a boon for the neighborhood’ economy. Rodgers said she’s inspired by locally owned businesses of South City’s past, such as Robilio Grocery, Vance Flower Shop and Bakers Shoes.
“South City is my stomping ground rooted from thriving stores within the community that once inspired me to become the businesswoman I am today,” she said. “But I’m not looking for a store. I want to meet production.”
Rodgers says she’s not alone. There are leagues of designers, artists, cooks, and other owners of small businesses just like her who just need something like LiftFund to get them moving.
“Memphis has to do better. Get together a group of donors and set up the criteria that the business owner has to meet. There are so many who are looking for an opportunity to get just a little bit of money, $500 to $1,000. That’s a lot to a new business owner,” she said.
“My business has longevity; there will always be babies. And these shoes, they did away with them, but now they’re back and better than ever,” she added.