Kent teacher awarded scholarship for retail dream
FELTON — Central Elementary School music teacher Ciara Smack is a seamstress at heart, and with a scholarship from one of the international leaders in textile printing, she’s hoping to take her online retail shop to new heights.
Smack was one of five quarterly winners of Stahls’ Pure Imagination Scholarship, which provides a year of one-on-one business coaching, a heat press and marketing materials. Stahls’ — a global company that offers pre-cut letters and fabrics and equipment to decorate clothing or other materials — launched the scholarship effort earlier this year to raise up small businesses and emerging entrepreneurs in challenging times.
“I was honestly shocked when I was told I won this, but then I became elated,” Smack told the Delaware Business Times. “It’s not so much the items, although the heat press is great. But with more education, I think it will really help me take my store to the next level. I’m honored that Stahls’ chose me, especially seeing that we’re offering something a little different.”
Smack has been an educator for 19 years, but about three years ago she started using her craft to brighten up the classroom. Cute Creations by Ciara offers T-shirts branded for educators, mugs and tumblers and more. She started making school spirit shirts, but in 2018 she started making an innovative product that solves a grim problem teachers now face: a door curtain.
“Back then, we were at the height of active shooter drills. It’s policy to cover up your windows so that the intruder doesn’t see in,” Smack said. “I was using black construction paper, but I kept thinking there must be a better way to do this, and to do it in a way that complements the room.”
The door curtains, designed at 10 inches by 40 inches, are designed with polka dots or stripes, and all can be tied up with a ribbon. Some are even made with themed fabric, like one patterned to look like fish scales.
“Stahls’ judges said they never had heard anything like this before, and it was such a creative product,” Smack said.
The curtains were selling fast before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down. In the early days of the pandemic, Smack found herself with a little more time on her hands and started investing more in her side hustle. By the time school went hybrid, she had stocked up her inventory and started seeing the door curtains fly off the shelves. Between June and today, Smack has sold 749 curtains.
“Teachers are planners, so they’re always thinking ahead to next year. In the summer, they’re starting to think about what they will need to start the school year, no matter if we continue in a hybrid format,” she said. “The door curtains are a huge market that no one really thinks of, but teachers do want to be safe and prepared in those cases.”
Stahls’ first started a small business fund as a one-time award to a fellow T-shirt business that is looking to break into larger success. Stahls’ itself was founded by A.C. and Ethel Stahl in a Detroit garage in 1932, now it’s a multi-million-dollar company with divisions in equipment manufacturing, sports equipment and more.
But due to overwhelming interest the Stahl family decided to name five winners each quarter, with 21 total winners in all. By the third quarter, 15 scholarships had been announced.
“The pandemic has taught us many lessons, for starters, people are finding creative ways to make money at-home,” Stahl Family Business Fund President Dan Stahl wrote in a blog post. “Our company has grown and changed since my great-grandparents started a business in their garage, but one thing has remained the same – our commitment to supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs, whether they started their business five years or five months ago. If you dream it, you can do it.”
Pure Imagination Scholarship winners are awarded the A2Z Swing Away Heat Press, a year of one-on-one coaching sessions with Stahls’ experts, materials and a marketing kit. Looking to the future, Smack hopes that she can leverage these tools to rejuvenate her T-shirt sales and continue to Cute Creations by Ciara.
“My ultimate goal is becoming a one-stop shop for parents and educators looking for decorating and apparel needs, and with a little work, I believe I can get there,” she said.