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Eight-year-old entrepreneur gets fancy with flip-flops

Ailani Forde, 8, is supported by her parents, Colin and Joselynne Forde, and her brother, Colin, at a recent NAACP banquet where she was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
Published Jun. 4, 2015

CARROLLWOOD — Ailani Forde didn't intend to start her own business at the tender age of 8.

But that's exactly what happened last Christmas break when visiting her grandparents.

Hoping to stave off boredom, Ailani asked her mother to take her to an arts and crafts store to pick up materials for a project.

After choosing some fabric and other materials, Ailani was walking around looking at the other customers' flip-flops when she had an "aha" moment.

None of the shoes were cute, Ailani said.

"I'm like 'Mom, these shoes could be cuter'," she said.

After returning to her grandparents' home, Ailani set out to make a more fashionable flip-flop, adorning a plain pair with patterned strips of cloth or rhinestones.

The shoes were a hit with her family. But it wasn't until her mother, Joselynne Forde, posted a picture on Facebook that Ailani saw how her creative outlet actually could be a bona fide business.

Friends not only liked the shoes — they started putting in orders, to the tune of 100 in just 10 days, her mother said.

Thus was the beginning of Fancy Flops.

"It just popped in my brain," Ailani said.

That was in December. Fast-forward six months, and Ailani's business boasts a line of more than 50 styles of flip-flops, T-shirts and bracelets. She has sold dozens of pairs of shoes and has grossed nearly $2,500 in revenue.

By all accounts, Ailani is an average kid: she loves math and science, counts hot dogs and s'mores among her favorite foods, and takes gymnastics classes. But the second-grader at Corbett Preparatory School is aware that someone her age running a business is a bit unusual.

"I feel unique," she said. "I like that I'm the only one in my class that's a business owner."

But Ailani's decision to start a business isn't a surprise to her family. After all, her name means "leader" in Hawaiian, said her mother.

"She came out talking and she wiggled all the time, so we knew she'd be a handful," Joselynne said. "She's always been a go-getter."

Ailani is responsible for the conception and operation of Fancy Flops, but the venture is very much a family affair. Joselynne provides some assistance in managing the business and her brother, Colin, 5, serves as Fancy Flops' chief marketing officer, giving his input on which designs are likely to sell.

As the owner of a private equity firm, her father — also named Colin — regularly provides business advice and inspiration.

But Ailani alone handles the designing and making of the shoes.

She makes about 10 pair a week, carving out time after school between extracurricular activities like swimming and dance class and a strict 8 p.m. bedtime.

While Fancy Flops' orders have grown tremendously in the past few months, Joselynne said she purposely has kept Ailani on a schedule that allows time for her daughter to just be a kid.

"We have to balance it," she said. "We don't want her to overwork herself."

To ensure Ailani has time for work and play, Joselynne helps Ailani find creative ways to market and sell Fancy Flops. In addition to word-of-mouth and Facebook, Fancy Flops has a website (fancyflopsbyailani.com).

And last month, Fancy Flops became a vendor at Hyde Park Village's monthly open-air market at the Tampa Kids Market, a program started by Andrea Bowe and Regina Hord that encourages children ages 8 to 17 to explore entrepreneurship.

Working in conjunction with Tampa Bay Markets (which operates open-air fresh markets throughout the bay area, including Seminole Heights and North Tampa), Tampa Kids Market provides free space at the markets.

"It's amazing what these 8-year-olds are doing," Bowe said. "We encourage the parents to be hands-off and leave the kids to the selling."

As much as Ailani likes designing and selling shoes, she says it's a career in politics, not business, that's in her future.

And she has already started: last year, Ailani participated in a program through Girls in Politics, an initiative of the Political Institute for Women that introduces girls ages 8 to 15 to politics. She has also picked out a law school: Harvard.

In the meantime, Ailani says she's content to work on building Fancy Flops, continuing her volunteering and practicing philanthropy. She has performed more than 50 hours of community service this year and has donated money to a few nonprofit organizations and individuals.

Her message to kids who want to follow her example and open their own business?

"I would say keep on following your dreams," she said.

Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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