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From dorm room boutique to store front, this Peoria business owner defies age limits associated with entrepreneurship

BreAija Bryant (middle) at the grand opening of her store B2the9s with Peoria Mayor Rita Ali (right) and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Joshua Gunn
BreAija Bryant (middle) at the grand opening of her store B2the9s with Peoria Mayor Rita Ali (right) and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Joshua Gunn

Being a college student is difficult, as is running a small business. And doing both at the same time is not a challenge many are willing to take on, especially when your storefront doubles as your dorm room.

This is how Peorian BreAija Bryant first began her business B2the9s Custom Designs in 2014.

“Going into my junior year I decided to start a clothing line, so I did all the steps and became a sole proprietor, got my resellers license and found vendors…did a lot of trial and errors and I took my business back to Western with me after the summer, and I did a boutique right out of my single dorm room,” Bryant said.

B2the9s is now a gift store located in Northwoods Mall with a focus on customization, as well as a do it yourself option that allows customers to craft meaningful gifts for all occasions. The store also offers clothing like dresses and jackets, as well as National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC) items and paraphernalia.

“I am one of three verified national vendors that we have, so I decided to make them a little section in the store for them to be able to come in, grab things that they need and go,” explained Bryant.

NACWC was founded in 1896 and is the first African American women's organization in the United States. Bryant was one of the founders and vice president of the chapter at Western Illinois University during her time as a student there.

Bryant found herself incredibly busy during her college years at Western Illinois University. In addition to being vice president of NACWC, Bryant was also a full time cheerleader as well as the social media representative for the group, a theater student, and president of campus Girl Scouts. She loved being busy, and continued to seek out new opportunities.

“I had thoughts of doing a business because I had a deal with my parents that I would not take on a part time job while there because I did so much, and I thought starting a business is kind of like a really good loophole,” said Bryant.

That idea was put on hold after Bryant received some tragic news at the end of her first semester sophomore year.

“I came home, and the next day one of my best friends passed. It was extremely hard, so I decided to stay home for the second semester…kind of reevaluated some things with what I was doing and my life…I said, you know what, while I’m home, I’m going to make some adjustments before I go back to Western for the start of junior year,” Bryant recalled.

From there, Bryant told her mother, who was also a business owner, that she wanted to start her own business. Her mother quickly gave her the green light, and B2the9s was born that summer.

“When I went to my dorm, my mom helped me set it up, and we set it up to look basically like a boutique. I had a red chaise lounge, I had mannequins…I loved it. I put mirrors up everywhere so when people came to buy they could see what it looked like…I brought all my inventory…I really did my research…what was so great about all of it was that I used Square, and Square was free,” Bryant said.

Within the city of Macomb, Bryant said there weren’t any places around to buy trendy women's clothing for things like cheerleading events, going out with friends, or formals. This lack of options quickly made her dorm room the hot spot for quality, fashionable items, especially around homecoming.

“That’s kind of when I blew up…I had 20 people in one day calling…people were literally coming on any off time I had…I was almost sold out and I had so many things…I did not expect it to be that busy,” said Bryant.

Of course, Bryant says as the beginning of the school year calmed down, she definitely experienced slow business times as well, but as a college student, anything helped.

After graduating with a degree in political science communications and theater, Bryant worked a series of jobs at various places while maintaining her business on the side. Years later, after having children and being dissatisfied with her work, she decided to take the leap, quit her job, and devote all of her time to B2the9s Custom Designs.

“I felt like the best walkability for marketing and everything else was Northwoods Mall...I had seen the space in December…I went ahead, put my deposit down. I got my keys in February, and then it was just hit the ground running from there,” Bryant explained.

Bryant outside her storefront in Northwoods mall
Bryant outside her storefront in Northwoods mall

The store had its grand opening in Northwoods mall on April 16th, 2022, 8 years after its dorm room launch. While Bryant said she loved her college experience and feels like it was the right path for her, even though she isn’t working in the field she thought she would be, she wants to make sure other young entrepreneurs know that college isn’t for everyone.

“It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to decide if I’m going to be a business owner, which anyone can do, I’m going to be a business owner…college is not for everyone, and that’s okay…there’s other ways to live your life and be happy and make money. Just do what you want to do, and entrepreneurship is a big part of it. Small businesses are ruling the world right now. I want them to know you can gain these skill sets right now. You don’t have to wait. There’s no age limit on business ownership,” said Bryant.

She said this message is especially important for kids in Peoria to hear.

“I feel like sometimes they get down on themselves because they feel like eh, Peoria is a little bit of nothing, and there’s Chicago, and there’s these places and that place, and it’s not just about the place you come from. It’s how you make it better…Peoria is growing still. We still have a lot to offer, and you can be a part of that,” Bryant said.

In an effort to provide high schoolers in the area with a hands-on opportunity to learn these entrepreneurial skills, Bryant is partnering with the Peoria Public Schools Lights On program to allow students to work in her store, while also earning minimum wage. With Bryant’s mentorship, they can choose to focus on disciplines such as sign making, t-shirt designing, running a store, and more.

Bryant said the biggest takeaway she could provide to kids who are potentially standing in similar shoes she was in 8 years ago, is to ask for help.

“There are so many people who have skill sets, and it’s not a stolen skill set, or something that someone doesn’t want to give to someone else. I have so many things that I self taught myself, and I wish I'd asked someone or found a mentor to teach me how to do these things,” Bryant said.

While asking for help or asking someone to teach you something new can be intimidating, chances are the person you’re asking is going to be thrilled that you thought of them, and generally, people are eager to pass down any knowledge they can to younger generations in order to support a brighter future.

B2the9s Custom Designs is open Monday-Saturday from 11am-8pm, and Sunday from 12pm-6pm on the lower level in Northwoods Mall.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.