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Faces of minimum wage: Boutique owner back to the drawing board

Editor’s note: Minimum wage workers protest nationwide, pleading for hikes at federal, state and local levels. Businesses fear potential harm from such a mandate, predicting layoffs and higher prices. In Chicago, some aldermen sought a $15 minimum; a city panel held hearings and proposed $13 by 2018, and the City Council on Dec. 2 approved an ordinance bumping the minimum to $13 by 2019. In Illinois, the debate went to voters on the Nov. 4 ballot with a nonbinding referendum seeking support for a hike to $10 from $8.25 per hour. It was approved by 67 percent of voters statewide and 87 percent in the city. The Chicago Sun-Times talks to area low-wage workers and small-business owners in a series of stories. We invite you to follow our Faces of Minimum Wage series for more in-depth coverage in words, photos and video.

Chiquita White started working when she was old enough to get a summer job for teens.

She was 14, and whatever she brought in, she turned over to her single mother to help put food on the table, keep lights on and rent paid in their West Side apartment.

She was an only child, born when her mother was 19. White’s mother struggled not only to make ends meet but to shepherd her daughter down a different path.

That shepherding took the now 38-year-old White from a nearly two decades-long career in health care claims processing to realizing a dream of opening a small business.

In October 2005, she opened Kiwi’s Boutique, an avant-garde retailer of fashions for men and women, in a Wicker Park strip mall. A year later, she moved Kiwi’s to its current corner storefront location in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood.

“My mom always had the struggle of holding down several jobs to make ends meet. A lot of times I had to do without. When I started working, I cried when I had to give up my check,” White recounts. “I’d say, ‘I wanna go to the movies.’ She’d say, ‘Do you want food on the table?’ I’d say, ‘Well, yeeaah.’ It helped me learn the value of a dollar.”

Her mother’s lessons stayed with her when she embarked on the journey to open Kiwi’s.

For the first seven years, White held onto her full-time job — logging 14-hour days commuting to Westmont to work for someone else, then back to Kiwi’s to work for herself.

In 2012, Kiwi’s was able to sustain itself, and White quit her job.

Besides White, her staff consists of one full-time employee who earns $12.50 an hour. Fashion student interns from schools such as Illinois Institute of Art fill the gaps.

Scrupulous with her business plan, White, a statuesque, soft-spoken woman, was preparing to hire a second full-time employee this year.

That went out the punctiliously arranged picture windows of her storefront when Chicago passed its city-only $13 minimum wage hike on Dec. 2.

“Where I’m at right now, I couldn’t absorb paying a second full-time employee $13 an hour, plus paying myself. It puts me in a bind,” White says. “But I’m all for it. Small businesses help grow communities. You want single moms from the neighborhood to be able to come work for you, not have to travel to make a living for them and their children.”

The city’s ordinance, affecting some 400,000 Chicagoans, increases minimum wage to $10 an hour July 1. It then gradually will rise to $13 an hour by 2019.

“Reaching my ninth year in business, I really wanted another full-timer, to free me up to focus more on helping grow the business. But some of the things I’d projected for 2015, I’ll have to go back to the drawing board, based on the wage increase,” she says.

The state’s minimum wage remains at $8.25 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

“When I started with my full-time employee 4 1/2 years ago, I hired her on at minimum wage because that was all I could afford. But I gave her a weekly clothing allowance to compensate, and a raise every year,” White says. “I had to lower what I pay myself in order to pay my employee more. When you find the right person, you want to keep them.”

White and her husband live in Kiwi’s gentrifying neighborhood. Husband Michael Wilson, a real estate property manager, frequently can be found behind the counter after work.

“It helps when your spouse shares your vision,” White says.

On a recent day, she is helping a stylish young man who has entered the shop. Charming and disarming, she soon has the man chatting as if to a longtime friend. He leaves laden with bags, and White perches to chat on a leather couch bookending rows of clothing that call you in eye-popping hues, sleek blacks, denims, leather and Lycra.

The off-the-runway garbed mannequins draw in a woman and her son, for whom handbags and bling beckon. Soon, the woman is sharing her life story with White, and promises to return.

“As a little girl I knew I wanted to help people, to make them feel good about themselves, but I didn’t have a specific profession in mind,” White says. “This tied in perfectly. People shop when they’re happy, shop when they’re sad. It’s retail therapy — if I can buy myself that one little thing, it’s going to make me feel better. At Kiwi’s we want to give you that shopping experience. That’s that thing that’s hard to find.”

White’s business grew out of a personal passion.

Obtaining her associate’s degree in criminal justice from College of DuPage and a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science at National Louis University, she chose neither field — working 14 years in claims processing with one firm, two years with another.

“I’ve always been a boutique shopper who had the struggle of finding clothing to fit my body type. One day I thought to myself, ‘Other women must have this problem too.’ That’s how the idea for Kiwi’s came about,” White says.

It germinated. White learned all she could about running a business and a boutique.

“Then I reached out to some boutiques in Chicago, asking the owners if I could possibly volunteer at their boutique, or if they would mentor me. The response wasn’t good,” she says. “Many people see you as the competition, as opposed to what it really is, which is just helping someone learn and grow and develop their own ideas and dreams.”

She eventually found a mentor in noted shoe vendor Nicole Wheatly of Nchantment Shoes, shadowing Wheatly in her business for about a year before forging out on her own.

She still remembers that grand opening.

“I was so excited, nervous. But that first day was phenomenal. When you’re new, everyone wants to come and patronize your business. My numbers were great! After that is when reality sets in. You’re sitting in your shop wondering ‘Where is everyone?’ ” she says.

Cash-strapped, she had no marketing budget, but she wasn’t prepared to sink.

Researching creative marketing, she came up with a “Girls Night Out” concept, offering discounts, light eats and themed punches, and partnering with other diverse vendors.

“It was successful, spread like wildfire and carried me through the month,” she says. “Nine years in, it’s only in the last two years that I’m starting to see the light.”

So the initial $15-an-hour wage proposal that came before the City Council terrified her.

“I understood it. To make it in Chicago, you need $15 just to be able to afford a roof over your head, and I agreed they deserved it,” White says.

“But I felt small businesses should not have been included, or should have been put in a different bracket from corporations that have tons of traffic and tons of customers we small businesses don’t have,” she says.

“The average mom-and-pop business cannot afford to pay $15 an hour. If I could pay myself $15, I would have left a full-time job and 14-hour days behind long ago. But $13 is reasonable. I’m paying almost that already,” she says.

“And I’ll get by without hiring a second employee. I don’t have a choice but to make it work. I’ve come way too far not to make it work. If I have to go back to putting in 14-hour days or hire more interns, I’ll do it,” she says. “I didn’t understand having to work and turn over my check as a child. I thought my mother was the worst mother in the world. Today, those struggles growing up help me keep things in perspective.”

Chiquita White is the owner of Kiwi’s Boutique at 1015 S. Western. | Jessica Koscielniak/Sun-Times

Merchandise is displayed at Kiwi’s Boutique. | Jessica Koscielniak/Sun-Times