Let me introduce you to Nielma Hock, owner of the fabulous clothing boutique in San Francisco called The Firm. A few years back, Nielma and I hosted a “Mom Makeover” event at her store when I used to do wardrobe consulting. We had so much fun and her store is literally to die for.
Nielma has exquisite taste and the minute you meet her, you feel like you’ve been friends forever, the perfect mix for a boutique owner. She has a warm energy that really puts you at ease. But at the same time, you feel in awe of her because while she can sit and have girl talk with you, you know that this one smart cookie who has found her purpose and loves what she does. The wheels in her head are always turning on how to create a more fun experience for her customers. I love that. I think you’ll find her story very impressive and inspiring!
Tell me about what you do for work.
I’m a boutique owner.
What type of work were you doing prior to what you are doing now?
Real estate and professional liability litigation
What kinds of frustrations did you have with your previous job?
- Lack of control over my life
- Addiction to work. I felt the need to constantly be in my office even on weekends because I did not want anyone else to get a leg up on me. I would breathe a sigh of relief as soon as I touched my blinking phone (telling me I have voicemails)
- Working and making money for someone else
- Sacrificing my values because the law firm required that I did so (e.g., sucking up to a client I could not stand, settling a case when I knew that our client did nothing wrong for the sake of cost-effectiveness, toeing the company line)
How did you come to discover this was what you were meant to do?
My escape from my reality has always involved retail. I must have clocked in 3,000 miles at Valley Fair mall while I was in law school. As a lawyer, I used to escape to the Rotunda for lunch and then Neiman Marcus to try on clothes and shoes whenever I reached a boiling point at work. Before I reached boiling point, I’d visit every known shopping website and virtual window shop.
To get over nerves, one is supposed to imagine people undressed. For me, I would “dress” them. In court, I would imagine putting together the outfit of my opposing counsel from underwear to accessories and do a mental makeover of them.
BUT, loving clothes, shopping and styling were not enough for me to know that I was meant to own a boutique. I actually love the business aspect of starting up a business whether it be a boutique or some other venture. I love to salvage things – whether it be a deal gone bad or an old skirt that just needs a new top to bring it back in style. I was drawn to the idea of taking a boutique that was near death, resuscitating it, and giving it a new and better life.
I had some personal revelations too that helped me discover that this is what I was meant to do. About 5 months prior to opening up The Firm, I took a leave of absence from the law firm to figure out who I was. I realized that I had become someone I did not like: a person who chose to be in trial rather than by my mom’s bedside when she was sick with cancer, a person who was careening towards partnership knowing that the tradeoff would be costly (no babies, seeing my husband for only 2 hours a day). Taking control of my life helped me discover that I needed a career change.
What fears did you have to overcome to take the leap?
What fears did I not have??? I was afraid of the financial consequences and the capital we had to put into the business, the uncertainty of retail and of owning my own business, whether I’d still be “good enough” if I was no longer a professional, whether I’d become obsolete, whether my parents would still be proud of me, whether I was wasting my education, whether I was making the right decision, etc.
I was also deathly afraid of the actual mechanics of resigning from a law firm that actually treated me very well and gave me what they thought I wanted. I would hear people tell me that I had the perfect situation and would ask me why I would want to give it up.
What do you love most about what you do?
Where do I start? I love the work-life balance I get from owning The Firm. I can be with my daughter anytime any day. We have lunch dates together, go to ballet class, and hang out as much as we want. I love that I can take her to work with me or that I can choose to spend the day with her when the weather is nice outside.
I love that my husband thinks I’m much happier when I’m in my element. I set the hours for when I’m going to be “working.” Working does not seem like work at all. Seriously, I shop for a living!
I get to go on buying trips to LA, Las Vegas, New York. I get invitations to Fashion Week! I get to meet and develop lasting friendships with my clients. Unlike at the law firm, I already have something in common with every client the minute they walk into The Firm – we both love style, we think The Firm has cute clothes, and we want to try on clothes.
I love learning about my clients’ lives. I get to know their kids, their dogs, their favorite designers, their vacation plans, the important dates in their lives for which they need the perfect outfit. I love being part of their decision making and knowing that I get to be part of their first date, their rehearsal dinner, their bachelorette party, their unveiling to the boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, etc. through the outfits I send them off into the real world with.
I love that people are not angry when they come into The Firm. I love that even when my customers enter The Firm sad and in need of retail therapy, they light up as soon as they step inside. I love seeing my customers walk a little faster when they get to the crosswalk right outside of The Firm because they are in a hurry to come inside.
I love that everyone is always so happy in retail. I love that I can use exclamation points in my business correspondence! And, as much of it as I want!!!
If you were to give advice to people thinking about changing careers, what would it be?
Do it. If it does not work out, you can always change your path again.