By Rhema Hokema
University of Chicago undergraduate student Deborah Umunnabuike's online vintage store, Avant Gaudy, was profiled in BusinessWeek’s 2007 list of 25 best businesses started by entrepreneurs under the age of 25.
When University of Chicago student Deborah Umunnabuike first launched an online vintage clothing store in the summer of 2005, she brought to her business a love of both fashion and challenge.
“We didn’t know much about market research, managing accounts, or shipping, but we did have the belief that what we didn’t know we could acquire. We did lots of research and lots of reading,” says Umunnabuike, 23, a second-year political science major in the University of Chicago College.
Umunnabuike and her sister Jessica, an undergraduate at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, founded Avant Gaudy after their quest for part-time summer jobs left them empty-handed at home in Columbus, Ohio. The Umunnabuike sisters later recruited Avant Gaudy’s third partner, University of Chicago alumnus Vincent Choi (AB ’06), who is currently pursuing an MBA at Illinois Institute of Technology.
A little over two years later, Avant Gaudy has had more than 26,000 visitors from over 30 countries, boasts a strong consumer base in the Midwest, and anticipates a growing cohort of international customers in upcoming years.
“We do have a growing market internationally and we want to hone in on that and try to understand what the interests are in Europe, Asia and Africa, and how it might align with what we offer,” Umunnabuike says.
Currently, most of Avant Gaudy’s items come from the Midwest. In the near future, Avant Gaudy plans on hiring international buyers to seek vintage items from across the globe. Umunnabuike expects to double Avant Gaudy’s consumer base within the next year and is currently planning promotional events for the Chicago area.
Running a full-time business while juggling the demands of a rigorous course load at the University is one of the challenges Umunnabuike opted for when she first came to Chicago.
“If I were doing this on my own, it would be impossible. But I do work with two brilliant partners,” she says. “I’m taking four classes this quarter and I plan on taking four next quarter.”
In the past, Umunnabuike has worked with MODA, the University of Chicago’s fashion organization, to organize trade shows and networking opportunities for students interested in apparel design and fashion. In 2006, she spearheaded DIY/Smashup Chicago, a day-long networking and trade show event that drew more than 200 young entrepreneurs and crafters to Chicago’s North Side.
Umunnabuike also works as an intern with the Forté Foundation, a consortium of business schools and top corporations that provide young women with resources and networking opportunities to pursue their business interests. Working as an Forté Foundation intern has enabled Umunnabuike to collaborate with “lots of interesting women who have been everything from Fundamental majors to econ majors” at the University.
In her community involvement both on the Chicago campus and within the greater Chicago area, Umunnabuike strives to share the principles of social responsibility she has learned through running Avant Gaudy.
“In the case of Avant Gaudy, we want to be socially responsible by essentially remaining competitive and leveling the playing field for young business people,” she says.
“In the future, I’m interested in organizing more networking opportunities, trade shows, where young business people, young crafters, can come together to make everyone’s businesses better, more competitive, more socially responsible.”