From boardroom to boutique. Downtown Raleigh business owner wanted 'something more.'

Emily Sexton owns The Flourish Market in downtown Raleigh.
Emily Sexton owns The Flourish Market in downtown Raleigh.

Emily Sexton launched The Flourish Market in the fall of 2015 in a uniform delivery truck, selling fair-trade clothing and accessories. Now in a downtown Raleigh storefront, the business has placed more than $750,000 worth of orders to artisans around the world. Here, Sexton talks about how her corporate skills paved the way for her success, and why it's so important to help others.

Q: You opened The Flourish Market with the goal of providing dignified work for marginalized people. What inspired you?

A: I’ve always had this love of wanting to help plug people into a bigger purpose. I was working for a Swiss investment bank straight out of college. I lived in London; I worked in Poland, Singapore. But what was cool about living in Europe was that I got lots of vacation, which I used to volunteer to help nonprofits. Right around my 30th birthday I had a midlife crisis, and I thought, “I’m climbing the corporate ladder, but I think I was made for something more.” I quit my job, and everyone thought I was insane. Before you know it, my husband and I were exchanging a large amount of cash in a sketchy bank parking lot for an old uniform delivery truck.

Q: How did you attract customers?

A: One of the things I learned in corporate is that you don’t want to tell people what not to do; you want to give them an easy solution of what to do. I could say, “You’re buying from sweatshops.” Most people know that when they buy a shirt for $7, so we filled the truck with these amazing goods (at a good price) for people in our community to change their buying habits.

Q: When you decided a few months later to open a storefront, you invited 20 women to write their fears and insecurities on the walls where the dressing rooms would be. Why did you do that?

A: When the dressing room curtains close, there’s so much in that moment. People are undressing, they don’t normally love their bodies. ... We wanted them to know that’s OK, and we see that and feel that with you. What’s cool is on our dressing room wall now are truths from women of our partner group — our artisans who are from the U.S., Nepal, Mexico, India, Peru, Ethiopia and more.

Q: What kinds of circumstances do your artisan partners have?

A: One of the women in Nepal from our bestselling clothing line Elegantees, since she was born a girl, was looked down upon, never put through school. She was told she wasn’t worth opportunity. Her name is Rojina. What’s so interesting about her story is that she was trafficked, was rescued and went through a restoration program and now she’s a seamstress. She now trains the new women who are coming in. It’s more than just teaching women how to sew; it’s teaching them life truths about themselves. She’s changing the way people think about women in her culture. Her family is proud of her now.

Q: What is your business model? Is it tough to sell fairly made goods and make a profit?

A: There are a few challenges. The first is the price point of clothing. I knew people couldn’t pay $350 for a dress. Some people felt nothing fair trade was resonating with current trends. The third challenge was the expense with shipping.

So I wondered, can I take something at a successful price point, that’s actually on trend and put it all on one site where people can buy it. Most of our clothing is between $30 and $60. It’s super accessible and that’s because we don’t have huge mark-up. We’d rather be higher volume in giving people more work than marking it up by four or by eight times (the original price). Also, we never run sales; other boutiques run 70 percent-off sales and, for us, we just don’t do that. We can claim the worth of our products and the worth of the women on the other side of them ... and we can still flourish as a business.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Emily Sexton — Tar Heel of the Week

Born: Smithfield

Residence: Downtown Raleigh

Family: Husband Chris

Education: Studied business at Elon University

Occupation: Founder and CEO of The Flourish Market, 713 Tucker St., Raleigh; theflourishmarket.com

Fun fact: She wanted to be a Britney Spears backup dancer in college.

Up next: In October, The Flourish Market will launch a style concierge service similar to Stitch Fix.