Sisterhood is Good for Business

Female Mardi Gras krewe members share how the perks of joining in on the fun extend far beyond the parade route

Mg Iris Open

 

When Krewe of Muses members Nori Pritchard and Lizette Constantin had the idea to start their business, NOLA Craft Culture — a business built around glitter — they needed a bank loan. The first bank they tried essentially laughed them out of the office.

Pritchard said it was only when they consulted banker and fellow Muses member Liz Broekman that they were taken seriously. Broekman directs Fidelity Bank’s P.O.W.E.R. program, which stands for Potential of Women Entrepreneurs Realized. The program is focused on supporting and empowering women at all stages of their entrepreneurial careers.

“I’ll never forget, after we pitched our idea to her (Broekman) and told her our plan, she grabbed my arm and looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘We are SO going to do this.’ And at that moment, we felt like, we really are!” Pritchard recalled. Before too long, NOLA Craft Culture had SBA seed money and a pathway to opening their shop in 2019.

“All three of us wouldn’t have met without Muses,” Constantin said.

It’s no secret that Mardi Gras means business in New Orleans. The last full-on Mardi Gras — yes, that one, the super spreader of 2020 — had a huge economic impact on the city, to the tune of $1 billion generated by an estimated 1.4 million revelers, according to a report on NPR’s Marketplace. While it’s too soon to know just how 2022 is going to go for the city, as the owners of NOLA Craft Culture can attest, participating in Carnival can deliver more than just social cachet. For some women krewe members, joining in on the fun can also have a positive effect on their bottom line.

 


Mg Craftnola

NOLA Craft Culture

“In this digital world, we could all use a little more handcrafting in our lives.”

That’s the opinion of Nora Pritchard and Lizette Constantin, the two women behind a business idea that could only find the support it does in New Orleans. Inspired by a love of decorating shoes for throws in the Krewe of Muses parade, Pritchard and Constantin launched NOLA Craft Culture in January 2019 with the goal of providing a space where patrons can come and express themselves through crafting.

Located in Mid-City, NOLA Craft Culture acts as a shop — which provides a unique array of crafting materials — an educational facility offering multiple classes, a workshop, rentable craft storage area, private party space and even an indoor art market under the proclamation, “It’s not just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle!”


Taking a leading role

In a slice of art imitating life, for many years, women were in the background of Mardi Gras, left out of decision-making and kept in their place during parades and balls, with male riders and krewe organizers running the show. The first all-female krewe, the Krewe of Iris, was founded in 1922 but didn’t parade until 1959. After that, it wasn’t until attorney Staci Rosenberg founded Muses in 2000 that the next all-women krewe was formed. Rosenberg refused to listen to the naysayers who said it wasn’t possible for a female krewe to parade on a weeknight in New Orleans.

Over two decades later, there are now female krewes of all stripes, with Muses, Iris and the Krewe of Nyx leading the pack in membership numbers. And the field is ever-expanding. From the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale — founded in 2013 as the first Carnival krewe by and for women of color — to the Women of Wakanda — a sub-krewe of the Krewe of Chewbacchus that first marched in 2019 — women know their place in Mardi Gras and it’s at the head of the line.

Although founded primarily as social clubs, the sisterhood among female krewe members runs swift and deep and extends year-round, not just during Mardi Gras season.

“I always look out for my Muses,” said Broekman, whose network is wide. “As I’m introducing women to each other, of course I’ll say, ‘and she’s a lieutenant in Muses,’ yet another tie to bind us together. Immediately the question of ‘Have you started your shoes?’ comes up. It’s fun — we have our own language. And of course, we want to do business with each other. We know who does what and want to support them. Giving business back to our members is important.”

 


Mg Lizbroekman

Liz Broekman
Director of Fidelity Bank’s P.O.W.E.R. program
Muses member


 

The Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale is currently working to launch a website for the URL mkfemmefatale.org. One of the features of the new design is to highlight Femme-owned businesses every month.

Co-founded in 2013 by Gwendolyn Rainey — a learning advocate for the Children’s Defense Fund — the krewe is built on a solid foundation of community activity, networking and philanthropy. A dozen women rode in the krewe’s first year, a mix of judges, lawyers, educators, doctors and independent business owners.

“We knew we could lead and bring a different perspective and sense of community to Mardi Gras culture,” said Dr. Takeisha Davis, president and CEO of New Orleans East Hospital (and also the current Femme Fatale president). “But we didn’t know what that would really look like. We were interested in more than Mardi Gras — in partnerships with our network and community.”

That sense of community is philanthropically oriented. Krewe members give back year-round, volunteering at local senior centers, partnering with schools, and nurturing and mentoring young women — “future Femmes” — in everything from cultural traditions to etiquette. Supporting Femme businesses in multiple ways is viewed as a natural outgrowth of the sisterhood.

“Whenever we have events, we consider who has a venue we can rent, or a catering business or an event-planning service. As we grow and a request for proposal comes up, of course we want to offer opportunities to our members. That’s very important.”

For Kim Lewis, who founded Ole’ Orleans in 2018 — the city’s only winery that happens to also be owned by a woman of color — networking with her krewe members is essential. Lewis, who besides belonging to Femme Fatale is also associated with NOMTOC, Little Rascals and Zulu, has found other krewe members, both male and female, to be happy to help.

“It’s funny, but since we are all masked you never know who you are riding with or what their real-life connections might be,” she said.

When she needed to get the zoning changed on her winery on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, former City Council member Jay Banks who represented District B and is also a former Zulu king, helped guide her through the process.

“He gave me the information I needed to be on the right path,” she said. Lewis has also held krewe events at the winery and placed plenty of wine orders.

“One thing leads to another,” she said.

 


Mg Takeishadavis

Dr. Takeisha Davis
President and CEO of New Orleans East Hospital
Member of the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale

 


 

Embracing their power

“We absolutely cross-pollinate in business to support each other,” said Wankeeta Jackson, who, along with a few of her friends, was inspired by the movie “Black Panther” to start the Women of Wakanda, named for the fictional country in sub-Saharan Africa that is home to the Marvel Comics superhero. Established in 2018, the krewe includes about 35 women who marched in the 2019 Chewbacchus parade.

“We wanted to create a space that is specifically for women and those who identify as women and are descendants of the African diaspora to be creative and participate,” said Jackson. “For some of our members, this is the first time they ever dressed for Mardi Gras.”

For her day job, Jackson works in the philanthropic and nonprofit world as owner of Jackson Magnolia Consulting. She said she was surprised at the breadth of professional women drawn to the group.

“We have a food scientist, doctors, social justice advocates, women from all walks of life,” she said. In addition to connecting with each other, members also contribute their business expertise to the krewe, which uses the catering services of member-owned Beaucoup Eats restaurant, the special-effects makeup artistry of Nola Creative and the talents of Afro House music spinner Funke, the DJ who supplies the music during the parade.

It’s not just parade and art-related krewe connections that matter, however, according to Jackson, who noted that several krewe members have bought their homes with real estate agent Lydia Cutrer, an inaugural member who runs The OWN Life, a real estate consulting business.

“One of the main reasons we created this krewe was to build a resource sharing list,” she said. “At this point it’s an informal kind of network, but we believe it adds value to support our members in this way.”

 


Mg Emilyshaya

Emily Shaya
Restauranteur
Krewe of Dead Beans

 


 

Glitter to Spare

Head upstairs at NOLA Craft Culture to the community craft space and there’s no telling what you might find. Glitter in massive amounts is a given, but there might be a Mardi Gras Indian working with beads and feathers, Muses members transforming shoes or kids working on a school craft project. Nora Pritchard and Lizette Constantin dreamed up the idea for the retail store and craft space because of their own personal frustration trying to purchase supplies online that weren’t quite what they needed.

“There was nowhere to easily buy supplies and [to] work,” said Constantin. “Of all cities that needs a place like this, New Orleans sure did.”

After fellow Muses member Broekman helped them secure a business loan, the pair committed to their business, despite having two PhDs between them.

“I didn’t think I’d take a hard left turn to glitter with a degree in clinical psychology, but that’s what happened, said Constantin.

Pritchard was working in the biomedical field at St. Jude’s in Memphis and moved back home to start a family.

“I felt like I wasn’t giving either my family or my career my best self,” she said. “Being a stay-at-home mom works with our business.”

The two women have had two Mardi Gras seasons since they opened in January 2019, but the shop stayed busy even during the pandemic, thanks to crafty folks stuck at home who were looking to get creative.

“We felt like we caught lightning in a bottle with the store,” said Constantin. “The cooperation and mentoring that happens with all kinds of different people in the craft room is so gratifying. Whether people are working on headdresses or shoes or glittering purses, there’s a sense of camaraderie and sharing that takes everybody to the next level.”

Of course, it’s a given that Muses are frequent customers.

“There’s so much we can learn from each other,” said Pritchard. “We take care of our community, which is all about women helping women.”

 


Mg Plushappeal

Plush Appeal

As VP of Plush Appeal, a business that supplies dozens of krewes with throws, Alyssa Fletchinger has seen it all. Founded by her father in 1989, the Mid-City business credits Mardi Gras with about half its revenue, thanks to an endless supply of whoopie cushions, cups, toilet brushes, lip glosses, plushies, light-ups and anything else you can imagine imported, packaged and then delivered, often in the wee hours, to waiting parade floats.

“We joke that if you can dream it, we can make it,” she said. About 40 people work at the 4-acre warehouse location, with round-the-clock shifts taking over as Carnival draws near.

After the pandemic and Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the business, Fletchinger said she is beyond ready for the joy of a real Mardi Gras to occur in 2022.

“It feels like one thing after another, from labor shortages and production problems to shipping issues. We did a lot more online sales during the pandemic and managed to keep all our employees working, but it’s been tough.”

Fletchinger embraces the chaos.

“Mardi Gras trained me for sleepless nights, she said. “We’ll be ready.”