Latina entrepreneur turns passion for fashion into Cotati clothing boutique

Sneaking into her mother’s closet, Mercedes Hernandez couldn’t resist trying on her blue satin jacket. Though the fourth-grader was far too small for it, she loved wearing it to school anyway.

Her passion for fashion had emerged.

A little over a decade later, that love has flourished into her own business. Hernandez, who had done modeling as a child and worked in retail while in high school, last summer opened Bow N Arrow, a bohemian-style clothing store across the plaza in downtown Cotati.

Today, the shop is a lively spot, frequented by students on the hunt for trendy but affordable fashion.

“I got really lucky with the location,” she said, noting its proximity to Sonoma State University about 2 miles away. She tries to keep prices low for students, many of whom are about her age.

“It’s crazy, especially when I hear people talk about the store,” said Hernandez, now 22. “I didn’t picture myself being able to do this. I thought it was so unrealistic because of my age.”

Unlike generations before her, who started in retail shops and later opened a website, Hernandez first launched the business online when she was just 19. She was waitressing at the time at a burger joint in Santa Rosa, saving her tips in hopes of one day opening a brick-and-mortar store.

Sales online were booming. Hernandez, who received a business entrepreneur certificate from Santa Rosa Junior College, spent most of her spare time filling orders and stocking up on inventory. But she wanted to interact face-to-face with customers.

“I wasn’t satisfied with selling online. I love the in-person connection (and) styling customers,” Hernandez said one afternoon at her store, which she was able to open with her savings and a microloan.

She now has plenty of time to interact with customers. Although she has three employees, customers usually can find her at the register or arranging the clothes and décor around the store.

A thrifty shopper herself, Hernandez refurbished secondhand furniture and decorations for her store. For example, she purchased two old glass counters for $20 and, with the help of her father, added pieces of wood from their weathered backyard fence to give them a rustic feel. She picked up driftwood from the beach to hang clothes.

“She’s very disciplined. She has the drive,” said Marcos Suarez, business diversity program manager for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Suarez helped connect Hernandez with various resources, including the microloan lender, Working Solutions, after she approached him early last year. Impressed with her work ethic and determination, he invited Hernandez to speak at the Latina Business Summit, an event staged in November by Suarez and members of the Small Business Resource Network. About 200 women, mostly Latinas, attended the event at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where several Latina business owners shared their stories and discussed ways to support female entrepreneurs.

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