Ashley Lauren, photograph by Sarah Whiting
When Ashley Lauren was 15, she had a bad hair day. Wanting to be both classy and different, Lauren embellished a gold headscarf with flowers and gems. She wore the scarf to school and found herself the center of attention. Other students wanted similar scarves and started placing custom orders. Lauren turned a profit, which paid for her school lunches, and the experience paved the way for what is now Diva Rags and Suavé Clothing, a Minneapolis boutique that sells custom clothing, shoes and jewelry.
Service on display
A trip to Lauren’s store reveals that merchandise is not the only commodity available, however. A spirit of community service is also on display, evident in the food, meeting rooms and library that Lauren offers to customers and neighborhood youth who come by her shop. Now 24, Lauren feels she has a social responsibility as a business owner. “I love people, I love uplifting people,” Lauren explained. “[My business] is all about how I can help [customers] have a brighter day. It goes beyond the dollar.”
“I use my clothes as a pied piper to put positive messages out there,” Lauren continued, referring to inscriptions on her clothing such as “Believe,” “Dream Big,” and “Prayer is Potent.” So many clothes objectify those who wear them, Lauren added. “I got really tired of seeing that, and so I started covering [women] up. There’s kind of a dash of feminism in there,” she grinned.
Lauren’s concerns for others have deepened over the years, and the store’s mission has evolved to reflect that. “My business has changed, become more clear to me,” said Lauren. “I’m more serious about what I want to do. It’s not just about fashion anymore, it’s about using fashion to make change.”
Lauren also uses her interpersonal skills to make change. Referring to her deceased grandfather Danny Davis, a community activist in Minneapolis who advocated for youth, Lauren sees herself keeping his torch lit. His picture hangs in her store on her self-described “shrine of angels,” along with photos of other mentors in her life who have passed away. “I want to make history as a business that is also an activist in the neighborhood,” Lauren declared. “I want my movement remembered as a way to create a better atmosphere in the neighborhood.”
Lauren does this by being a welcoming place for neighborhood youth to gather. Whether she is talking casually one on one, inviting kids to be live mannequins or hosting a meeting about HIV/AIDS education and ordering pizza for those who come, Lauren connects with kids in a positive way. She also teaches entrepreneurship classes to youth through community education at the Richard Greene Central Park Community School in Minneapolis.
“I always ask kids what they want to be when they grow up,” Lauren said. “And then I ask them how I can help them get there.”
Lauren is quick to give credit to those who have helped her business succeed. She is currently a student at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, where she is in her second and last year of pursuing an individualized degree in leadership, entrepreneurship and community outreach. Even more inspiring, however, is her mother, Lynn Coleman. “I love my ‘momager,'” Lauren exclaimed. “She’s my life coach and my moral support. She’s always pushed me to live my dream.”
There have been plenty of challenges along the way, Lauren admitted. “I’ve had to grow a thick skin and be strong, and be positive when the negative comes,” she said. “Because of male dominance in business, I’ve had to project strength and individuality. I can’t always be emotional. I must be assertive and straightforward,” qualities that don’t come easily to Lauren. “There’s too many negative people,” she continued. “I want to be that sunshine.”
Longtime customer Adriene Thornton recognizes Lauren’s commitment to youth. One day she noticed that her 10-year-old daughter was deep in discussion with Lauren about her own desires to be an entrepreneur. The next thing Thornton knew, her daughter and Lauren had hatched a plan for the girl to operate a lemonade stand at the store. “This women doesn’t know me from Adam,” Thornton said, referring to Lauren. “But she really wants to be there for the kids. It’s not something you see often enough; she is so into giving back to the community, and it is something that attracts me to her business.”
With all the pressures of running a business, attending classes and mentoring kids, one might think Lauren would eventually run out of steam. She hasn’t yet, and when asked where she gets her energy from, she quickly responded, “God.”
“Some days I’m so tired,” Lauren admitted, “but something keeps pushing me to keep on going. It’s definitely my spirituality. You’ve got to have prayer, and you’ve got to be humble,” Lauren said, explaining her recipe for success. “I want to live comfortably, not become rich. If you can pay for the groceries, if you can pay the rent, and if you can treat yourself once in a while, I think you’re doing well.”
FFI: Diva Rags and Suavé Clothing, 1832 E. 42nd St., Minneapolis, www.divaragssuaveclothing.com