'The Hatch' helped launch unique line
Budding designer a product of BGSU entrepreneurial program
By Matt Markey
At this moment, Elsa Vogel ’15 could be working at a major design firm, assisting with projects as an entry-level designer, and be blessed with the security of drawing a regular salary in a field she loves. But that plan runs contrary to the entrepreneurial spirit that has energized her to this point - and that will likely carry Vogel to success in the design field. She resisted the temptation to take that entry-level post following graduation, and instead chases dreams that won’t fit inside a conventional career plan.
“I interviewed with a design firm in Cincinnati, where I had done an internship,” she said. “I went down there and started the process, but then I decided to take myself out of the running. I realized I had to pursue my own ideas and build my own business, or I would always regret never having tried.”
So Vogel is venturing out on her own, taking chances while placing a sure bet on the person she knows best - herself. That is the fabric entrepreneurs are made of, and this one has it in an endless array of patterns and colors.
With her 2015 Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design in hand, and a cadre of ideas that stretched to the horizon, Vogel moved back to her Michigan hometown of Holland following graduation and undertook the greatest design challenge of her young life – taking “Elsa Leigh Designs” from a vision to a reality.
While some might view the move as a treacherous step off the career cliff, with no assurances that a soft landing was even possible, Vogel saw it as a gravity-defying exercise that she had been anticipating for years.
“Some of my professors at Bowling Green would always talk about the entrepreneurial spirit, and how some people just have it while others don’t. Looking back, I think I’ve always had this in me, even when I was younger,” she said. “I don’t think I imagined this being a full-time gig - I kind of assumed I would get a job with a design firm and have a small business on the side - but then I realized I had to chase this. It’s part of me.”
Vogel credits the innovative entrepreneurial program at the University with supplying her with the confidence to make such a seemingly bold move. Although not a business major, she took part in “The Hatch”, a business start-up program sponsored by the College of Business Administration and open to students across all majors. The program is modeled after the popular “Shark Tank” television show. Working with her mentor Paul Hooker ’75, the owner and former CEO of the luxury linen company SFERRA, Vogel spent an intense 10 weeks developing a business plan that could then be pitched to a panel of investors.
Vogel’s concept was for Pieces of Me – a web-based application that would offer people the experience of creating a clothing pattern unique to them and then applying that pattern to wearable clothing and merchandise. She envisioned Pieces of Me serving as a visual representation of an individual's personality, while also bolstering their self-confidence and self-esteem.
“I think what really sparked the drive to go out on my own was The Hatch. It gave me the confidence to know I could do it,” she said. “The opportunity it presented was huge, because I didn’t have the chance to take a lot of business courses, but here I was getting a crash course in marketing, accounting and all of the other aspects of setting up and running a business.”
So somewhere along the way, the enthusiastic and talented young designer became a budding business mogul. And her design firm, Elsa Leigh Designs, was born.
“The Hatch made me realize that a concept is one thing, but making it happen is something completely different,” she said. “It was a dose of reality, but it came in such a way that it equipped me with the confidence to go out on my own.”
That crash course behind her, Vogel pitched her Pieces of Me proposal to potential investors on campus in front of a crowd of about 2,000 people, and was one of the winners of The Hatch. Initially daunted by the task of appearing before a large audience and some titans of business to tout her concept, Vogel found the experience to be “exciting and a real vote of confidence from business leaders and my peers.”
After graduation, Vogel rented space in downtown Holland to house her business, did some freelance design work to support herself in the interim and continued to craft the launch of Pieces of Me. She entered an entrepreneur competition in Grand Rapids and won that, and then went to work developing the 32 icons that will form the foundation of the Pieces of Me design program. She conducted market research, put out a video on social media that shows the Pieces of Me process behind the scenes, hired a couple of interns to work with her while they earn college credits, and very soon she expects to start taking orders for her initial product, metal bracelets.
“Every minute is a learning experience. In my entrepreneurial classes the professors talked about needing to pivot, and they were right,” she said. “Running your own business is a fluid thing, changing from day to day, and it is exciting to think about what is happening next.”
Vogel said she is juggling myriad roles simultaneously and finds being an entrepreneur both challenging and demanding, but she does not regret her decision for even a moment. She launched her first product on March 24, and she is not looking back.
“Now that I am working for myself, I have found that I can’t stop. This has given me all the more confidence to keep pushing forward,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but I can tell you that I have no fear about it. I actually thrive on that - thinking about what potential the future holds.”