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When It Comes to Style and Substance, the Little Hat Workshop Has Things Covered

There aren’t a lot of businesses like Andrea Leiser’s Little Hat Workshop. She started the business making hats because they’re fun and she liked the creative outlet, but Andrea quickly learned that her product served a greater purpose when she met a cancer patient at a holiday crafts fair. Now, in addition to being stylish headgear, the hats provide comfort, support, encouragement and, yes, a healthy dose of good fashion for women who need it. The hats also provide financial support: Andrea works with an organization that uses the hats for fundraising and she donates a percentage of her sales to cancer-related charities.

As inspiring as this work is, it isn’t always easy. Andrea, who won second-prize in our Make Your Idea Happen contest, entered so she could get help taking this business to the next level. We spoke with Andrea to learn what inspires her to keep making more happen for women in need.

Tell us a little about your business: What gave you the idea?

I have always made things by hand, and I love to make gifts that make people smile. At a holiday show, one of the docents, Rita, said she had purchased a hat for a friend of hers, Pat, who had cancer and had lost her hair. Rita told me that the hat had made them laugh and that her friend loved it, explaining that she learned that when you lose your hair, you need a smaller hat. Apparently, the hat fell completely down over her friend’s eyes and they laughed until they cried. She thanked me for giving them a special moment together, as her friend was gravely ill. It gave me the idea to make different sizes, including children’s hats.

Pat told me that hats are now a part of her life, since she has been sick a long time and lost her hair some time ago. She said that she sometimes changes hats several times a day just to change her mood, that hats often make her happy and that she loves the hats I make. She explained that hats for cancer patients are mainly purchased through catalogs and hospital boutiques, so they have limited venues for purchasing and they are expensive.

I thought a lot about why that should be the case and decided to do something about it.

What a wonderful thing for you to do. It sounds like you’re selling more than just a hat.

Indeed. For a woman, losing your hair is one of the toughest parts of the cancer process. So these accessories are not just functional, they are emotional. I wanted my product to be fairly inexpensive and accessible enough for a person to have several — just like any other fashion — in a variety of styles and colors.

This year is the 25th anniversary of my father’s death; he was my age when he died. Pat had said to me that family, friends and faith were where she found strength. Just like Pat, these were the foundation on which my Dad built his conviction to live as long as possible and enjoy every minute. It might sound clichéd, but there were little symbols, trinkets that he carried around with him: an angel symbol, a heart, etc. I designed a little pocket on my hats that would hold little charms that would help to remind those going through treatments that they were not alone — that family, friends and faith were right there with them to help give them strength.

How do you define success? How will you know when you’ve achieved it?

I think I’ve achieved step one of what I would call success, but what it has done is created step two and step three, etc. One idea has led to another – and now I am excited about taking things up a big notch to help women not only in southeastern Connecticut, but nationally.

When my hats and accessories are available nationally, at a mainstream venue like Target, when losing your hair doesn’t mean you have to wear “one of those hats” that call out “Cancer Patient,” when I have helped someone with cancer feel just a little better for the day, when I can contribute on a regular basis to organizations that will figure out an end to cancer...then I will know I have achieved what I have set out to do.

How do you make more happen?

It takes complete commitment, the confidence that you can make it happen — and constantly learning so you can be as competent as possible. It takes energy and a whole-person commitment of body, mind and spirit to something you believe in.

What is one item that you can’t run your business without?

I couldn’t run my business without my smartphone; I use it for absolutely everything! I sketch designs, get directions, Skype clients, make electronic lists, set reminders for meetings — the list goes on and on. It would be great to have a little larger-format smartphone so I could do even more on this versatile device.

Other than your customers, what inspires you?

There’s a Web site called The daily affirmation, called Notes from the Universe and written by Mike Dooley, says you don’t need to worry about how you’ll realize your goals or the end result but to just continue to take small steps every single day, to believe in yourself and your dream and to follow your intuition.

What role does Staples play in helping the Little Hat Workshop succeed?

For a long time, I have thought of Staples as my business partner. I worked with teachers and students for about 10 years, and Staples was often either the last stop of the day or the first trip of the morning before a workshop to pick up extra supplies. I was always greeted with a smile and a “how are you,” and it was always appreciated. (A big shout out to the New London, CT, store!)

In addition, I’ve been a member of your rewards program for a long time and have saved up my rewards certificates to either buy ink when our cash flow was tight or saved up for something special — like my Arc notebook, which I love. What a great business tool to keep me organized.

If you could go back in time to the day you decided to start your business, what would you tell yourself?

  • Breathe.
  • It will take longer than you think; be patient.
  • It will take more energy than you think; take care of yourself.
  • Some days will be frustrating; don’t turn those experiences or feelings into “stop signs.” Keep the green light on.
  • Smile.
  • It will be worth the investment, more than you even know. It’s worth everything you put in!

Staples Products to Help Make This Idea Happen:

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