ECU graduate Safranek rises to the occasion to open business
Before the trees began to shed their leaves in early fall, Ashely Safranek was preparing for a buying conference in Atlanta to order spring items for her newly opened boutique.
“You have to stay several seasons ahead in this business,” she said.
A recent graduate of East Carolina University, Safranek set out to chart her path with a bachelor’s degree in business management. Because the degree offers many different avenues, she said she struggled deciding what to do after college. But she found direction through the opportunities available at ECU, a supportive community on and off campus, and real-world experience.
With a mind for business and an eye for style, Safranek launched On Trend Collections in March — just before graduating. Earlier this fall, she opened the doors of a physical space inside Artisans Decorative Accessories & Fine Gifts in Greenville.
“On Trend Collections offers a wide range of products including clothing, shoes, accessories and handbags — products that allow customers to discover their signature style and be comfortable in what they’re wearing,” said Safranek.
Launching a small business right out of college may sound daunting to some. But, Safranek says the education, experience and guidance she received at ECU gave her the knowledge and confidence to embark on the journey.
During her junior year at ECU, she participated in an entrepreneurial-focused internship program, RISE29. The program, facilitated by the Office of Economic and Community Engagement and in collaboration with the Miller School of Entrepreneurship, partners students with small businesses throughout eastern North Carolina. The goal of the program is to grow the number of jobs supported by small businesses and to increase the likelihood of their long-term success.
“Both semesters, I was able to learn, evaluate and adapt to the business world while helping actual businesses with their needs. We were assigned tasks that helped them further expand, improve their marketing strategies or find the right employees,” said Safranek.
“When I was going through the RISE29 program, I actually had another online business of my own. So, going through the program while working with other businesses and thinking about things from my own perspective as a small business owner, I was able to apply in the real world all that I was learning. It allowed me to create more connections in the business world as well,” she said.
While Safranek was helping guide small businesses for the RISE29 program, she also worked with the long-standing establishment of Artisans to grow their engagement as their social media manager.
Artisans is a 12,000-square-foot building that houses 75 independently owned businesses. For nearly 30 years, local entrepreneurs, artists and crafters have been able to rent sections of space to sell their items. Safranek said it’s a good option for anyone just starting out with a business or wanting to dip their toe into owning a small business. Renting a space in Artisans provides visibility and an established customer base without the risk that comes from opening a separate storefront. She said it’s a popular place to shop, especially during the holiday season.
“Artisans has everything from food, clothing, accessories, home décor and more. During the Christmas season, we have a whole courtyard full of Christmas displays. It’s like the North Pole. It’s truly amazing. There are tons of activities and food so moms can shop while the kids stay entertained.”
Safranek said once she started working at Artisans, it became clear she wanted to start her own business. But it was a decision she might not have made without her experience with RISE29 and the support of the ECU community.
“I don’t think I would be where I am without RISE29. It definitely gave me the confidence,” she said.
“I know others who went through RISE29 and are also opening their own businesses. So it’s really nice to be able to surround yourself and come out of it with others who think like you and are supportive and driven and have that ambition,” Safranek added.
Though she’s from the much larger city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Safranek felt Greenville was the perfect place to open her store.
“I don’t think I would want to open a small business anywhere else. I have the support of friends and family in my hometown, but it’s not as tight knit of a community as Greenville. The people here are so supportive, ECU is right here, and with all the new up-and-coming things that seem to be picking up, it’s just a great area to start my career,” she said.
“It has truly been incredible since the store launch, and I’m still amazed by all of the love and support I’ve received from being open just a few months.”
RISE29 program director Tristyn Daughtry said, “Ashley is the embodiment of what the RISE29 program was meant to achieve. An entrepreneurial minded student that is able to assist small businesses throughout eastern North Carolina, all while developing her skills and her own business — and we were able to retain her here locally. We are so proud of her achievements.”
Dr. Sharon Paynter, acting chief research and engagement officer, and Mike Harris, interim dean of the College of Business, are the co-visionaries behind RISE29. “Mike and I created RISE29 with ECU’s mission in mind. We wanted an innovative program that offered a great combination of supporting student success and strengthening regional transformation. Ashley’s hard work reflects the benefits that materialize when driven students engage with enthusiastic community partners,” Paynter said.
Safranek hopes to grow her business in Greenville and to one day be able to have her own warehouse, as online shopping demands have increased. The proud Pirate also hopes to inspire others who are considering becoming small business owners.
“Starting a business is not easy, and no one will tell you it is. You’re constantly faced with new challenges. But if you stay focused on your brand and find what makes your business or product special, everything else will come together. In the end, it is 100% worth it,” she said.
Her advice to students: “Get into RISE29 to connect with staff and other business-minded people. It will make a huge difference when you graduate. It clears your mind and gets you on the right path.”