UMSL PMBA alumnus opens fair trade shop
Peru native Julio Zegarra-Ballon is no stranger to retail. Since moving to the United States with his wife in 1990, he’s worked in that field. Climbing the corporate ladder at Macy’s and then Brown Shoe Company was a natural progression for him. But opening his own store didn’t seem to be in the cards until what Zegarra-Ballon refers to as “the perfect storm” occurred.
“I started a career in retail, not knowing that would be my future career,” said Zegarra-Ballon, who earned a professional master’s degree in business administration in 2013 from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “But one thing led to another, and I got a promotion and another one six months after that. I stayed, thinking I would get a real job later. But I was lucky enough that this was my real job and retail is what I was meant to do.”
In the fall of 2014, while still fully employed as a merchandise planning specialist for Famous Footwear, a division of Brown Shoe Company, he opened Zee Bee Market at 3211 South Grand Blvd. in St. Louis.
Zee Bee, coined after a nickname of his last name, sells fair trade artisanal products.
But this didn’t just happen overnight.
Through his connections, both personal and professional, he began volunteering with a fair trade organization called Partners for Just Trade in St. Louis.
“They work and have been working with Peruvian artists for years and within the fair trade movement. What it essentially means is that they help them manufacture and import their products into the United States, and in the process they get paid a fair wage,” said Zegarra-Ballon.
Then in 2012, while working full time at Brown, volunteering with Partners for Just Trade, attending classes at UMSL and raising a family, Zegarra-Ballon stumbled upon his “perfect storm.”
“I am growing professionally in a retail environment, I understand the cycle of buying, the marketing, everything,” he said. “I am volunteering with this organization that is giving me all this incredible information about the work they have done and how they are impacting lives in this social contact. And then I’m taking classes at UMSL that are helping me overcome all those objections, all those fears I had for so long about ‘No, no I can’t do this because’ … I had no excuses anymore.”
He started small. He took $1,000 out of his family’s savings account to buy product from a few fair trade suppliers. He used an eight-foot folding table and traveled around to farmers markets and events. Within six hours of his first event, he sold more than half of his product. He reinvested it to buy more product. Less than two months later, he had replaced his initial investment back into the family’s savings and was continuing to earn capital.
2013 rolls around and his customers seemed to want more.
“I started to hear, ‘I love this, where is your store?’” he said. “It was pretty clear they wanted a store.”
Still being fully employed and loving what he does, Zegarra-Ballon knew he had to approach the idea of a brick-and-mortar store the same way he did with the mobile business – slowly.
He started small, did his homework and talked with people. Because he lives in the Shaw neighborhood in St. Louis, the business district of South Grand Boulevard seemed like a perfect fit. In September, a space became available, but it needed some work. It’s only a 800-square-feet, but he knew it just felt right.
“To me, being an entrepreneur is about having the power to build a business that makes a difference and about doing something unexpected. Zee Bee Market does that,” he said. “Most of the things we buy are mass-produced, and customers don’t get any say in how they were manufactured or how the people that made them were treated. Fair trade items are handmade, and they stand for equality. They stand for dignity. They stand for beauty.”
Zee Bee Market opened its doors in the fall of 2014, and business is continuing to grow. Zegarra-Ballon said he’s working with new artists everyday to find new products to feature in his store. He’s always interested in helping and giving back.
St. Louis Mosaic has taken note, naming Zegarra-Ballon as the Immigrant Entrepreneur Contest winner for the St. Louis region. He was then named the winner of the WE Global Network’s “A Day in the Life of an Immigrant Entrepreneur” contest.
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