Yello Small Business Spotlight: Earring Designer Penelope Prospere, Founder of Bel Kou

St Lucian entrepreneur Penelope Prospere started making her own jewellery just over six years ago when she was living in Antigua.

Now settled in Barbados, Penelope has taken her creative talents to another level and launched her own business ‘Bèl Kou’in 2019.

‘Bèl Kou’offers women various button-sized earrings in eye-catching Caribbean fabrics, patterns and colours and is for clients who are “unapologetically bold”.

Yello chatted with Penelope about her ambitious plans for her brand, which she hopes to expand throughout the region. Penelope told us how she got started, where she finds inspiration, and she offered advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Describe yourself using a few words.

Creative, resourceful and a good listener.

Please tell us about your background.

I am originally from Castries, St Lucia. I had all my schooling up to the secondary level in St Lucia. I went to university at UWI St Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago and studied psychology (which comes in handy in a lot of fields).

I moved to Barbados in 2008 and worked in the airline industry for about three years. Then I went back to St Lucia and worked in hospitality and sales. In 2013, I moved to Antigua to go back into aviation.

I came back to Barbados in 2015, and I’ve been here ever since as a full-time entrepreneur.

Were you always a creative person?

Yes, I’ve always been involved in some sort of creative pursuit. I used to dance and play the steel pan. I also used to sing and played in two bands.

I’ve always had some sort of outlet for my creative juices.

When did you start making jewellery?

While I was living in Antigua, I started making jewellery just out of sheer boredom and not being able to find items that were unique enough for my taste.

I figured if I couldn’t find what I wanted; I might as well make it for myself. That was about six and a half years ago.

What was the first piece you made?

I started off making rope necklaces from different types of material. Then I transitioned into earrings, and now my signature item is button earrings.

When did you start your business Bèl Kou?

About a year ago, I started making earrings to sell rather than just for family and friends.

I really had no intention of launching a business because, for me, I think I’m at my best creatively when I’m not under pressure with someone else in my ear, so I just made what I wanted. But then people started to ask me about the pieces I was wearing, and my friends and family kept saying that people would buy it.

Initially, I had to get over my self-doubt because I didn’t think people would want to buy what I make. In September/October 2019, I took the leap and put myself out there.

What does Bèl Kou mean?

It means beautiful neck in St Lucian creole because I started off making necklaces.

Who are your customers? How do they find you?

Most of my customers come through referrals. So, it’ll be people who see a friend of mine with the earrings, and they ask them where they got them from.

Some of my clients also come through Instagram ads or posts.

Where do you get inspiration from for your earrings?

I like a lot of colour and unexpected pieces. Usually, I’ll go to the fabric store and walk around for a while. Then I let the fabric do the work.

I find a lot of my inspiration comes from nature. I like greens, blues and yellows. I have a hammock in the back garden that’s surrounded by pine trees, so I usually sit in that and take in a sunset.

Sometimes people might ask for custom pieces, and I’ll try to infuse what they want, but it still has to be something I feel good about creating.

What were the challenges you faced starting the business?

One major challenge is dealing with the dollars and cents. I’m a creative person, I can create all day, but maths, finances and numbers have never been my forte. So, I’ve been trying to find courses, boot camps and coaching to help me with that.

The other big challenge is using social media to grow your brand. I used to post every now and again on Instagram and Facebook, but I never used most of the platforms people do now to market their business. The algorithms also really affect small business owners because you need to be on top of it to get any kind of visibility.

During COVID-19, flying in supplies from the US was a big problem. Items were taking far longer than they normally would because airlift was not consistent, so that became a big challenge although it has gotten better recently.

You can get overwhelmed by all you need to know, but I know I have to do it because it is just me running the business. I’m trying to get a balance between finding time to learn, being able to produce, and focus on all the tasks I have to do.

What are your plans for developing the business?

I want to make the brand more recognisable and raise its profile across a few islands. I want to move beyond Barbados. I have a customer base in St Lucia, so I want to grow that, and hopefully branch out to other islands.

I’m also looking for opportunities to collaborate with other designers and creatives like in clothing and photography because whenever I do that, I find it leads to more inspiration.

In the next three years, I want the business to be fully self-sustaining. Then maybe I can bring on someone I can teach, and mentor and I can grow the business a lot more.

And you also sell drinks, please tell us about that.

Yes, as well as Bel Kou, I make beverages.

I always have to be occupied so about three years ago I started making eggnog which is something you get in St Lucia at Christmas, but I couldn’t find it in Barbados. I would make it for my friends, and again they would tell me that I could sell it and make money, so that’s what I did.

This summer, I launched a rum punch which is my own recipe that I sort of came across when we were in lockdown. A friend of mine is a mixologist, so I consulted with him on the final taste and flavour, and it’s doing quite well.

I usually produce a small batch at a time, around 20 bottles, so I just have to stay on top of production. I already have a lot of pre-orders for the eggnog.

What advice do you have for people hoping to expand their side hustle?

I think the first thing is to really have confidence in what you are doing because initially, what kept me from making the leap, was the thought that no one would want to buy what I was selling. So, believe that what you have to offer is valuable.

Get help setting up the framework for the business. Your name, logo, colours and really get a sense for who your customer is because not every customer is for you. Once I narrowed down my customer base, it became easier to conduct business and deliver what they wanted from me.

I would also say learn about the dollars and cents of running a business. Take an accounting class and learn how to manage the finances.

Also, learn social media. I think the way you use social media on a personal basis is not how you’re going to use it in a business context. So, take some time and learn how it works because otherwise you’ll waste a lot of time and won’t know how to beat the algorithms.

What do you love about Barbados?

St Lucia will always be my home, but there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency in the way people conduct business in Barbados.

I love the pace of life here. I think there are also a few more opportunities in Barbados, for instance, in terms of networking.

During lockdown, I was impressed by the ingenuity of Bajans because everything came to a stop, but businesses were still popping up and thriving. People started to pivot and adapt very quickly, and that gave me a sense of hope that things would slowly return to normal.

What do you miss about St Lucia?

I miss the town of Soufriere. Just driving down there with a friend and going to the Sulphur Springs or finding a nice hole-in-the-wall restaurant where you can get proper local food. I’m missing waterfall limes and craving a sulphur bath!

Where do you go to relax/chill out with friends?

Usually, we just lime around each other’s houses. These days you don’t want to be around too many people, so friends come over to me and chill out on my balcony.

What is your philosophy/approach in life?

I have two things. Remember to breathe and stay open to experiences.

I constantly have to remind myself to take a breath. When life gets stressful, when I feel overwhelmed or can’t make a decision, I tell myself to step back and take a breath and use that time to figure it out.

I also like to try everything once. I’m somebody who feels that there’s too much life not to take in as much as possible. That’s why I love to travel.

If you could go back 15-20 years and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?

I would tell myself that anxiety and self-doubt don’t have to be a fixture in your life. I would have done more work combatting those issues then so that they wouldn’t have been such a problem as I got older.

I would just tell myself to be more grateful for where you are and where you are going because a lot of the angst is just not necessary.

Check out some of Bèl Kou’s earrings on Instagram – and send Penelope a direct message to order.

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