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Small Business CEO

Conversations with small business owners on their climb to the top

Art by Sj Nielsen: Sam Nielsen
City Girl Coffee: Alyza Bohbot

Art by Sj Nielsen: Sam Nielsen


Her drawings are so popular she's turned them into stickers so that everyone can enjoy a piece her passion. As her success continues to grow, Sam Nielsen plans to stick around Duluth for a while.


Name: Sam Nielsen

Company: Art by Sj Nielsen

Age: 26

Sketching on the side.


She's an art teacher during the day, but after the school bell rings, she's free to sketch for herself. Trained in the "urban sketcher" style, Sam Nielsen uses a combination of ink and watercolor to capture her designs. She's Duluth-based and you'll find a lot of the city's inspiration in her sketchbook.


"I've always had a special spot in my heart for the area, so I think that's why I'm really fond of the imagery that surrounds us," Nielsen said. "Living here, that's really taken over even more."


Nielsen and her husband moved to Duluth in 2016. With a full-time job teaching a high school art class, Nielsen spends her limited free time filling the pages in her sketchbook.


"Sketchbooks are my favorite thing to work in. I bring them with me all the time so during the warmer months a lot of times I'll be out and about sketching what I see," Nielsen said. "Some of the prints I've come up with have actually come straight from my sketchbook."


And when Nielsen took her sketches from on the page to online, the Instagram community welcomed her drawings with lots of likes.

Growing her following.


Her account gives followers an inside look at her sketchbook. In fact, she's turned to Instagram to hold herself accountable for her current undertaking: the 100 Day Project. That's where Nielsen shares a new design every day for one hundred days.


Scrolling through her account (@sj_nielsen), you'll see local landscapes and custom prints, but Nielsen's most popular drawings are the ones she turns into stickers. Lake Superior, the Aerial Lift Bridge, and Canal Park are a few of the Duluth-inspired collection, but other more whimsical pieces are also available to purchase online, including an Airstream, a seagull, a bison, and a bike.


While the stickers are affordable ($4 each), Nielsen said their popularity is what convinced her the business might really take off.


"Just recently I've started getting custom requests for stickers. Duluth Pack just ordered their scout pack in a sticker and I have a couple of other local businesses where I'm working on sending some designs to them with the stickers," Nielsen said. "Everyone loves the stickers."


And when businesses buy a sticker, it's a custom piece, so they're paying for the unique design.


"They're buying the rights to pieces, which is a new experience and kind of a higher-priced item for me," Nielsen said. "That's where I saw the consistency of where I thought 'hey, this could actually work'."

Going all in.


With a growing list of requests for custom designs, plus her Etsy shop and more than 13,000 Instagram followers, Nielsen realized she was onto something.


People were seeing her art and they were loving it. And that response was a welcome surprise.


"I don't know how I'm getting a following on Instagram, I truly don't," Nielsen said. "I just know I'm working hard and I'm putting my heart into it and I'm passionate. 


In fact, she's so dedicated to her work that she's decided to pursue Art by Sj Nielsen full-time, and won't be returning to her students in the classroom next school year.


"I've told them my plan and they even know how passionate I am about it in the way that I teach and the way that I get excited about them creating," Nielsen said. "They just know Mrs. Nielsen goes home and she paints at night." 


Starting this summer, she'll have more time to work on her art and focus on her business.

Stuck on Duluth.


Two years after moving to Duluth, Nielsen says she doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.


"I've never been in a space that's so incredibly supportive of each other and wanting other people to succeed," Nielsen said. "I'm so thankful we're here, especially with where I am right now with my business. I've made so many connections, made so many friends." 


And these local connections have led to more customers in the Duluth community.


Nielsen says she's seen her stickers around town a couple of times, on the back of cars or on water bottles. Even a recent trip to a downtown coffee shop was a nice reminder of people supporting her work.


"I was in Caribou and I saw the Duluth bridge one on a girl's laptop. And inside I just needed to remember- she doesn't know me, but I'm secretly fangirling inside," Nielsen said. "That's really surreal to be standing in line for coffee and I look over and my design is on someone's laptop. I never would have imagined something like that would happen."


You can shop Art by Sj Nielsen on Etsy and see the latest designs on Instagram. She is currently working on a watercolor techniques book due out in September.

City Girl Coffee: Alyza Bohbot

When Alyza Bohbot took over her parent's coffee business in 2015 she took the company in a new direction, combining coffee with a cause.


Name: Alyza Bohbot

Company: City Girl Coffee Co.

Age: 32

Taking over the family business.


Her parents started Alakef Coffee Roasters in 1990. Throughout her childhood, Alyza Bohbot watched her mother and father grow the company

in Duluth, Minnesota.

But as her parents approached retirement, the future of the family business became uncertain.

"The conversation had been ongoing since I was younger on whether I would come back into the business or not," Bohbot said. "For a long portion of my life I sort of thought 'that's my parent's dream, that's their focus, not mine.'"

After all, Bohbot had relocated to the East Coast. She was settled. But the thought of losing the family business was enough to reconsider a move home.

"I didn't want to see the business leave our family. And so at that point, I kind of made an agreement with them to come back and at least try for six months and see if it was something that I felt passionately about," Bohbot said.

Six months passed and Bohbot realized it was the right fit. She took over the business in 2015. But Alakef was the company her parents built and Bohbot wanted to see herself represented in the brand.

"When I came back into the business I really wanted to not just come back and run the business my parents had started, but to really honor the business that they had created."

Inequities in the industry.


As the newly appointed CEO, Bohbot attended a conference for coffee makers in Seattle. One of the discussions focused on the inequities many coffee farmers face worldwide, especially female farmers.


"I just became so passionate about wanting to do more and that was sort of my 'a-ha' moment," she said.


Along with running Alakef, Bohbot launched City Girl Coffee, a company that sources the majority of its coffee from small, women-owned or managed farms.


"I wanted to really focus on these women and help create a much more sustainable coffee industry by empowering these women producers and members of our coffee industry worldwide," Bohbot said.


She began roasting both Alakef and City Girl at the same London Rd. location. But the brands and blends are not the same.


"My favorite color is pink, so I kind of wanted to create something that was really different from Alakef that was a little bit more feminine," Bohbot said. "Kind of girly and fun and sort of gave homage to the idea that women can be anything they want to be and can do anything they want to do."


The result — bright packaging and a woman on a moped, whom Bohbot describes as a "50's glam meets modern, go-getter woman."


And the brand is gaining a following on social media.


"Social media has been incredibly beneficial for City Girl and just helping us gain widespread recognition, brand recognition, relatively quickly," Bohbot said. "It's just a great platform to not only have some fun and have cute feel-good photos but then also to tell the story of our female producers."

Online recognition also allows the company to reach the millennial consumer.

"Their main decision-making factor is not necessarily price anymore," Bohbot said. "That really bodes well for a company like us who's not rooted in price, but rather rooted in quality, customer service, integrity and commitment to doing good for both our local and international communities."

Calling the shots.


Bohbot has led the 15-employee company as CEO for the past three years. There were, however, a few factors she didn't anticipate when she first started.


"Just the level at which you have to really have an understanding for the whole business and really understand not only the financial piece but the marketing piece," Bohbot said. "How to work with different types of employees, how to work with different types of communication styles."


"The ultimate responsibility of really making sure that everybody within my company feels supported and successful," she said.


Bohbot's company prides itself on offering fair trade, being organic and offering small-batch roasting. You'll find City Girl in select grocery stores throughout the Midwest and online. It might not have the same brand recognition as larger, national chains, but Bohbot is not discouraged.


"Without those larger companies paving the way it would be difficult for smaller companies to also make an impact," Bohbot said. "I think every company, large or small, has its place in the industry. Coffee is one of those things where either you want something really local and specialized, or you're just drinking it to get caffeine, so there's definitely a place for all of us."

Finding success in her hometown.


Bohbot splits her work week between the Duluth roasting location and the company's office in Minneapolis.


She plans to continue growing the brand, but the location where her parents first roasted coffee more than 28 years ago is still the company's home base.


"It's been wonderful," Bohbot said. "To remain in the community where I grew up and where I still have so many friends and family supporting me has been phenomenal."


That support is expanding beyond the Northland. City Girl Coffee now has partnerships with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx professional basketball teams. It's received national attention and continues to gain customers with its mission to empower women in the industry.


"It's a great product, it's a great message," she said.


And if you're wondering, Bohbot's favorite City Girl roast is Organic Guatemala. But she does try to limit her daily coffee intake.


"Honestly, I probably only drink one to two," Bohbot said. "I'll switch to tea in the afternoon because we do tea here too, so it works out well."


You can visit City Girl Coffee Co. online to learn more or shop the product.

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