Alumni Spotlight: Tara Gondek

August 6, 2014
I Am UAA: Tara Gondek. Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

I Am UAA: Tara Gondek. Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

B.B.A. Finance ’09
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Fun Fact: Occasionally, brides-to-be will use Skype and iPads to bring Outside family and friends into Tara’s bridal boutique for fittings.

Alaska is a challenging environment, with its craggy peaks, crushing temperatures and high shipping costs on custom wedding dresses. Yes, even small wedding boutiques face their share of challenges on the Last Frontier.

UAA alumna Tara Gondek, along with her friend and business partner Beth Stamm, decided to take the plunge in November, opening the doors to Bateau Bridal Boutique at 1083 W. 25th Street in Anchorage. Owning a small business is a lifelong dream for Tara, who truly can’t recall when she first wanted to open her own business—it’s been on her mind that long. She and Beth brainstormed several ideas over the years, but Tara’s own bridal experience led her to open Bateau. Fresh off her own wedding, she knew the opportunities in the market.

But the idea needed some help. She couldn’t go to the other Anchorage bridal shops for advice, nor could she ask counterparts in the Lower 48 with no understanding of Alaska’s unique needs. Thankfully, the combination of a finance degree, advice from UAA’s Small Business Development Center and a mountain of determination led her to the big day last November, when she finally opened the doors to her very own small business.

Some things old, some things new…

Tara and Beth independently refurbished their retail space before opening in November. Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

Tara and Beth independently refurbished their retail space before opening in November. Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

Bateau Bridal Boutique, for those not in the nautical know, takes its name from the French word for ‘boat.” After careful consideration (and thorough research of copyrights and trademarks), they opted for the unique name as a nod to both their Anchorage roots and to the glam bateau neckline popularized in the 1960s by none other than Jackie O.

With a name in place, they moved on to the building blocks of business like licenses and loans. With a stack of business cards and an arsenal of confidence, the duo set out for a biannual wedding showcase in New York City. “We didn’t have a storefront. We had a business license, and that was it,” Tara said of the successful trip, where they met face-to-face with many of the custom designers they now partner with.

Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

The next step was the location. “Finding a good place for a retail storefront is extremely tough in Anchorage,” Tara said. Thankfully, they were able to purchase a building in Spenard and open shop free from the stress of leasing rental space. The property, built in 1947, presented its own set of challenges and charm for the aspiring business-owners. When Tara and Beth took over the space, they changed everything except the bathroom’s surprisingly tasteful leopard-print wallpaper. The space now boasts warm walls, hand-sanded wood floors, racks of cream and pearl gowns and lines of handmade veils suspended from twine-and-birch struts. A closer look at the comforting decor shows the numerous touches of an aspiring small business, like the “shop small” doormat, tables brimming with clean stacks of local business cards and black-and-white frames featuring Tara’s grandparents on their wedding day.

“Everything we put into the business was our own,” Tara said of the operation.

Alaska advice

A few of the accessories on display at Bateau Bridal Boutique. Photo by Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Accessories on display at Bateau Bridal Boutique. Photo by Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Tara and Beth prepared for the realities of small business ownership with help from the Alaska Small Business Development Center (SBDC), a UAA-hosted program providing free nuts-and-bolts advice to small business owners looking to launch, expand and innovate. The program is built to assist budding entrepreneurs throughout the state whether they attended UAA or not. After drawing up a plan, Lynn Klasset, their business advisor at SBDC, helped them make it as watertight as possible. Through free one-on-one consultations, the crew at SBDC helped them extend their plan five years into the future and access the information they needed to get off the ground.

Tara credits her UAA education for playing a role in her business as well. “Having a finance degree helped tremendously,” she said, “being able to do all the financial statements, plan everything out, knowing where to go for resources. That was a really big help.”

Her courses in marketing, corporate finance and managerial presentations prepared her well for the world of income statements and balance sheets. “It does help when you have to start from scratch and build financial statements for a business that doesn’t even exist,” she acknowledged. “If I didn’t have that background it would have been a big struggle.

Building a business…

Veils handmade in Bellingham, Wash. hang from the ceiling in the fitting room at Bateau Bridal Boutique. Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

Veils handmade in Bellingham, Wash. hang from the ceiling in the fitting room at Bateau Bridal Boutique. Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

To separate Bateau from the competition, Tara and Beth decided to focus on custom designs and accessories. “We have a couple bridal shops in town, but they didn’t fill everyone’s need,” Tara explained. “The styles we are carrying Alaskans used to have to fly out of state to get.” The majority of their bridal gowns and accessories come from designers in the U.S. and Canada, cutting back turnaround time and increasing the potential for customization. It certainly helps that Tara and Beth know their designers personally, even placing framed photos of their partners in the nooks and crannies of Bateau’s quartz sandstone fireplace.

“That was really important to us,” she said. “We didn’t want to work with designers where you have no relationship and you’re at their whim.”

That personal touch extends to their customers as well. “We are by appointment only, so we focus on just one bride at one time,” Tara added. “You have the entire shop to yourself so you don’t have to worry about people walking in. That’s our main focus, as well as the designers that we work with.”

… and adapting to busyness

Weddings are glamorous. Opening a small business is not. For nearly a year, Tara and Beth have been regularly rolling through seven-day work weeks, clocking 40 hours at their day jobs (Tara works in finance, Beth in communications) before heading to Bateau to meet customers for one-on-one fittings. “On the weekends we’re usually open at least eight hours, if not longer. I do want to have one job some day,” she laughed.

Thankfully, she understood the grinding schedule when she first opened the business. “It’s a big struggle because you want to be able to put every minute you have into your business to help it grow,” she commented. “But honestly you can’t expect to pay yourself for three to five years. You have to give your business time and you have to put everything back into your business if you want to be successful.”

Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

The fitting room at Bateau Bridal Boutique. Photo by B. Weiss Photography.

The clean face and welcoming environment of the boutique belie any behind-the-scenes struggle. Tara will readily admit opening a small business is no casual undertaking, and working two jobs seven days a week certainly doesn’t ease the process. But the immense effort clearly has its rewards—for example, building a business with her close friend, renovating a local building alongside her husband, finding support from her community and implementing her degree in an immediate, firsthand way.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without the help and support from our family, friends and the community,” Tara said. “Owning a business in Alaska is something special because of the support system. Some of the most influential people in my life are from connections made at while attending UAA. We honestly couldn’t have opened our doors without the support and insight from others.”

There’s a lot to be proud of, and the reminders come in the satisfied smiles of her boutique’s glowing customers. “When you see the bride find a dress that works for them and they didn’t have to struggle, when they were able to find something in Alaska with the people closest to them, when we have that personal relationship with our designers so if [our customers] need something extra we’re able to help, [when we] can complete their entire look instead of them stressing out and trying to find something through Etsy or running down to Nordstrom or hoping it all works together in the end,” she takes a deep breath and smiles. “That’s, for us, the most enjoyable part.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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