Shannon Cohen launched her blog, Tough Skin, Soft Heart, back in 2014. Since then, it has evolved into a leadership book, podcast
, product line and now greeting cards, which will be making their debut in Target stores nationwide beginning Feb. 19.
Her journey hasn’t been simple, but serves as inspiration like the affirmations she’s known for on her stationery. “Girl you have greatness in your bones” and “shine on sis” are some of the words of inspiration you can find on her products.
She was on maternity leave with her son, unsure what to do with herself after being in the busy corporate world, when she began her blog.
“I imagined that the blog would be like this exposé to talk about the difficult things that we carry behind our titles, our smiles, and our roles. I just didn't want to fake ‘I'm fine’ anymore,” says Cohen. “I was like, am I the only one out here fake I’m fine-ing, or are you all fake I'm fine-ing too?”
It turns out others were — they began finding solace and support in Cohen’s personal story and after a year, Tough Skin, Soft Heart grew to about 3,000 subscribers.
She began being invited to speak at events, and it was November 2016 when she was giving a keynote for Blue Cross Blue Shield at Motor City Casino that really sparked her entrepreneurial journey.
Cohen was standing in the breezeway of the Casino as caterers were setting up for dinner when she saw an executive walking toward her. She was a Black woman dressed in a St. John’s suit, complete with red bottom shoes. “So, I’m looking around like where’s she heading?”
The woman asked Cohen where her product table was. Cohen responded that she didn’t have one. The executive then asked Cohen if she had a book. When Cohen replied no, the woman rolled her eyes and said, “the next time I see you, you better have a product and a book.”
With a love for words of affirmation and stationery, Cohen was always designing cards for her friends, people that inspired her or “warrior mamas.”
“I needed cards to uplift them on the days when they [felt] low,” says Cohen. “So what I used to do is buy blank cards and then, as my husband would say, I would fill them with books.” Her finished cards would be bursting with uplifting words of inspiration.
“So, when it came time to think about what products [I wanted to make], I was like do what you love, and put out into the world more of what you love. So, for me that took me to greeting cards and inspirational products.”
By April 2016 Cohen was hosting the launch event for her product line. She began doing pop-up shops and learning as much as she could about the greeting card industry. It was at this point when someone told her that she needed to get her product in a national trade show in order for business to grow.
The upcoming national trade show for stationery was in New York and it was going to cost about $20,000 for the booth and all of the materials to set it up. At that point, Cohen had a young son who had already gone through a year of chemotherapy. Upon saving as much as she could for the trade show, Cohen entered Michigan Women Forward’s
Dolphin Tank, a business plan and pitch competition for women entrepreneurs and she was a finalist. Her husband was in the hospital, but he pushed her to continue in the competition. In the end, she came in first place and pulled together enough resources to make it to the trade show in January 2019.
Among over 5,000 vendors, Cohen says there were only about 10 women of color, including three or four Black women.
“I’ve heard people say that the greeting card industry is a very incestuous industry. People build relationships and then they just kind of continue to do business with who they know and who’s familiar.”
It was at the end of the show, as many were packing up, when a woman approached Cohen’s booth. She ended up being the vice president of American Greetings. Cohen began having conversations with the company, flying out to the headquarters and ultimately, pitching her brand.
“That whole story is important because you know, while it seems sudden or it could appear sudden, it’s been a two-year journey,” says Cohen.
“Build slow and stay ready” is her advice for others. “By February 2017, my son was going through chemo and 11 months later, my husband went through a heart condition. I think sometimes when life happens, when life shows up in painful ways, I think we are so tempted to quit, versus slow down, recalibrate [and] build a little bit slower.”
She also follows a piece of advice from entrepreneur and innovator John Henry, which is to build in your blind spot. “I hadn’t even realized that the greeting card industry has blind spots. One of the biggest being representation and not having the voices of makers that reflect the changing demographic of the customer.”
“As with anything, this is a pilot and while I think Target definitely has proven that they’re an early adopter in the equity and retail space, at the end of the day, if they don’t make dollars, it [doesn't] make sense,” says Cohen. “I’m just grateful for any opportunity to show that brands like mine can be viable in a big-box retail space.”
Photos courtesy of Shannon Cohen
To read more on Shannon Cohen's journey including her first Q&A with Rapid Growth, please visit this link
. Cohen has also served as a fellow for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and published in 2016 an op-ed that provided a firsthand account of this work here