Nisha Blackwell was putting herself through nursing school when she was laid off for the third time. Adding insult to injury, she was set to attend the first birthday party of a close friend’s daughter just a few days later. Now, she wouldn’t have enough money to buy a gift.
“That’s when I looked around and I said, ‘What do I have?’ I had a sewing machine still in a box, still sealed,” she told CBS News. “And I had this bag of thrifted clothes.”
Nisha had fabric and a sewing machine, but she didn’t actually know how to sew. So she took to YouTube, and video by video, taught herself.
“I was literally typing into YouTube: How to turn a Brother sewing machine on. How to thread the bobbin,” she recalls. “I probably didn’t make a stitch until midnight and this was in the hot summer when my house did not have air conditioning. I remember just sitting there, just sweating to death, but so determined to make this thing for this party.”
She ended up making a box of hair bows. And went to the party, anxiously anticipating how people would receive the fact that they were handmade.
“It felt like it took forever to get to my gift,” she says. “I was so anxious because I kept imagining that these hair bows would just be like pieces of fabric that came out, because I was like I must’ve done something wrong. But the reverse happened. She poured them out onto the high chair and literally like I just remember all of the parents coming up to me like, ‘Where’s you get them? How’d you do that? Can you make me some?'”
She left the party with six customers and started fulfilling orders immediately.
“Then we started hearing feedback from our customers like, ‘Hey, I could get hair bows really anywhere. The hard thing is shopping for boys.'”
Blackwell pivoted the business to bow ties, set it up to be sustainable, and began training other women from her community to produce the product.
“I’ve always been really, really embedded in community,” Blackwell tells CBS News. “My grandmother was a leader in our community and I watched her serve so many years, making sure that people were OK. My grandmother was definitely my inspiration for making sure that I am looking back and helping, and making sure that I’m not just doing something that is solely benefiting me.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Blackwell and her company, Knotzland, were already set up to help mothers, students, retirees and other creative people in their community make money from home. She pivoted the company once again and started creating face masks.
“As a Black woman business owner, it’s not easy. I don’t have a lot of accessibility to a lot of things that maybe my White peers have, but that has not stopped me from continuing to try,” she says. “It may take longer. It may be a marathon, but it’s so so worth it.”
Not every ending can be tied up with a bow. But in Nisha’s case, it can be crafted into a bow tie — and she says that’s an absolute blessing, especially at a time like this.
“I hope that people take from my story that the tools to transform your life are right in front of you,” Blackwell says. “We can use technology for bad or we can use technology for good. And using technology for good is the ability to, you know, pull up YouTube and learn, teach yourself a new skill. It’s never too late to start. It’s never too late to follow your dream.”