Coming to America: Liberian Immigrant Now Detroit Business Owner
'I saw so much opportunity'
This article and video is part of a series on Detroit entrepreneurs. See the rest at www.mackinac.org/Detroit.
From the moment she stepped foot in America from Liberia at the age of 11, Tracy Garley knew she wanted to own a business. Now at the age of 27, she finds that her dream has come true.
“Coming from Liberia, I came from a country that had nothing, so coming to Detroit, Michigan, I saw so much opportunity,” said Garley.
She opened a retail shop on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, which she calls Zarkpa’s Purses and Accessories. The shop features unique, affordable handbags, jewelry and clothing, including items from her native country in West Africa. She has put her heart, soul and savings into the business and refuses to let the challenges of running a retail business in a city emerging from bankruptcy get in her way.
“The culture has always been there. The diversity and the businesses. People are falling in love with this city but I fell in love with it when I just first came here. And I was just like ‘wow,’ I want to be a part of Detroit. I want to be a part of the new changes,” Garley said.
Since moving her business into the Woodward location in March, Garley has experienced not one, but two break-ins. The city has taken away the garbage can that had been by the bus stop in front of her location, she says, so she’s had to deal with litter. Someone stole the air conditioner from the roof of her building, which made for some hot days in the summer. She was ready to call it quits until her family talked her out of it.
“I called my mom, and she said, ‘Tracy, this is only the beginning, the devil is busy. Keep your head on strong. Don’t give up,’” said Garley.
Garley got her first taste of entrepreneurship from watching her family. Her aunt, who arrived in the U.S. several years before her, owned a catering business. Her mother opened a shop after the rest of the family immigrated to the U.S. Gurley worked in the shop as a teen and when she left to become a student at Michigan State University, her mother encouraged her to put her sales skills to work. Garley saw an opportunity.
“Purses and accessories. Every woman loves purses and accessories.” But, she said, “it's crazy how much people pay for purses. You would not believe it.”
Garley began to scour wholesale markets looking for affordable items that could express what she calls “purseonality,” purses that were different enough that they could be a signature item to express a woman's personality. She started hosting purse parties in her dorm. When she ran out of room, the university, to her surprise, allowed her to hold sales at the student union.
After her friends saw her selling in the union, they asked her how she got that opportunity, she told them “I just asked.”
After graduation, Garley moved back to Detroit, where she devoted her full attention to the business. She knew it would be a challenge, not only in Detroit, where people traffic is still scarce, but also in the bricks-and-mortar retail industry.
To succeed, she has had to be imaginative. She holds “pop-up” shops, allowing outside vendors to sell in a section of her store. She holds events at the store, teaching customers about style.
She says that to be an entrepreneur she needs to have different sources of income, so she tries to create something different every day.
While she concentrates on marketing, Garley said it would help if the city could do its part in helping her succeed. To deal with the litter, she put her own garbage can out on the street but then discovered it would cost her $70 a month to have a private hauler take the trash.
Her store doesn't generate much trash, she says, and she would like the city to help out every other week or even once a month.
She also wishes Detroit Public Schools would sell the boarded-up and graffiti-covered vacant building next door, which has not exactly been a customer magnet.
In spite of the challenges, Garley is finding success. In the six years she’s been in business, her gross sales have quadrupled. This year, she is hoping to double that performance. Still, she is under pressure to keep operating expenses to a bare minimum. For assistance, she uses student interns. In exchange for free labor, she teaches them the fundamentals of running a shop.
“So far, I’ve learned that it’s not easy,” said Dray Sow, an intern. “You have to be really focused and actually put your mind to it so you can make it successful. Because if you just leave it there,” she said, “no one else is going to do it for you.”
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.