I’m fortunate in my line of work to run into so many wonderful women at different stages in their lives, some just out of school looking for their niche, some with young kids juggling a hectic schedule and others who are looking to focus their attention on something new now that they are empty nesters. While I can share my story with them, I wanted to talk with other women who have followed their passions and turned what they love to do into a business. Meeting with my first spotlight on women, Jill Brown, the owner of Brown, a premier lighting and antiques store in Houston, I found so much more than a successful shop creating a design buzz after only 5 years. I took my daughter with me to photograph the store. Great job, Kirby!!!
Here are Jill and I now having a bit of girl time!! Jill grew up in the farmlands of Ohio, a childhood that certainly influenced her down-to-earth perspective and impressive work ethic. She met her husband, Foster, in Kentucky, got married when she was 25 and had two sons, Sam and John. Using her degree in marketing and retailing, Jill worked in merchandising and product developement as a young adult. She always had a strong love for antiques, instilled in her at an early age by her mother – they would often go together to scout out antiques and treasures.
In 1997, her life suddenly changed when Foster announced that they were all moving to Belgium. For the next few months, the family adjusted to their new life abroad. Foster kept rather late hours at his job, and Jill, for the first time, was out of her comfort zone - amid three different languages, she found it difficult to get around and felt like an outsider, but she shortly learned to love the country for all of its unique treasures.
Jill is certainly a master of display!! I love the little chalk boards she uses for pricing. This would be so cute as place settings or menu boards for a dinner party.
Jill began buying light fixtures, industrial pieces, and antiques during her time in Belgium. The garage was the first thing to fill up, then the home, then storage units. She amassed a huge collection of unusual things – a mix of French, Belgian and Flemish items. Jill and I shared a similar experience when we first started out: we both had to reassure our husbands that we were not absolutely nuts! When Foster asked what she planned to do with all these products, she responded, “I might not make any money with this, but I promise I will not lose any.” Showing his support, he insisted that she treat this as a business, not a hobby.
In 2001, after four happy years abroad, the family returned to Houston with all Jill’s goods in tow. She became known among designers as a secret source for unusual items, and Jill began to show her pieces at Skelton St. John, and later opened Brown. Sharon Skelton was a mentor to Jill and very supportive and helpful!! I have found so many guardian angles out there as well. Never be afraid to ask for help or advice!
These days of new beginnings for Jill were unexpectedly shattered by Foster’s sudden death. Losing her biggest supporter and best friend, Jill poured herself into the store while raising the boys on her own. Her hard work and perseverance through a difficult time turned into success, as the business continued to grow. In talking to Jill, I felt that Foster was still with her every step of the way - telling her she could do anything. This great love affair she references, was inspirational to me in itself.
Brown, now at the forefront of major design trends, provides stylish Houstonians with unusual European lighting and antiques with an industrial slant. The business is always evolving as Jill follows her instincts and does what feels right in her heart. She adds and subtracts categories anticipating the next design trend. Of course, sometimes she makes mistakes: “I make so many of them that I can hardly believe it. That’s how I learn, and I would encourage other women to just let it rip. Allow yourself to make mistakes.”
Jill always keeps the business true to herself, and it’s grown into a family affair, with her sons now helping. Her oldest, Sam, works full time since he graduated from college learning all facets of the business. Jill still touches and hand picks every product, believing it’s “the only way to sense finish, weight and even color. I am extremely affected by color. I love color.” No wonder we bonded!
Her passion for the business continues to grow with the goal to treat her clients as if she were shopping for herself and to give them an interesting product that they won’t find elsewhere. She takes pride in the fact that each item in the store is uniquely edited for her clients. She loves to learn and is drawn to anything educational. These antique learning maps, hand-drawn and colored are some of her favorites.
As if she isn’t busy enough, Jill takes time to help others. Adding her love of philanthropy into the business, she enjoys throwing fundraising events at the store and, with grace, does all of the cooking herself! She loves to cook and has taught her boys how to make her famous buckeyes!!! Last year, she supported Yellowstone Academy, a faith based nonprofit school giving a top rate education to children from a severely financially depressed environment. www.yellowstoneacademy.org This Chandelier and Champagne event, in which she hosted the party and donated all items in a auction, was just one of her charitable functions she put on last year. This year she is hosting an event on October 11th to benefit Lamar High School. She gives back to the community, not just through money, but through following a cause as passionately as she follows her dreams.
I love that Jill incorporates her many loves – design, scouting for unusual items, learning, merchandising, love of people, cooking, and event planning– all into this creative outlet that’s become her dream job. Every one of us has so many wonderful talents, and things we are passionate about doing. I think writing down your strengths and favorite things to do is a great starting point to see if you want to start a new career and where that direction should be.
Her final advice to other women interested in following their passions? “I would tell women to be prepared to work harder than one can imagine. I would also tell them not to beat themselves up too much for mistakes, to follow their instincts and to pray for direction. I pray literally and figuratively that the Lord opens my eyes.”
It’s incredible to see all that Jill’s accomplished. And, of course, I love, love, love the store! Brown is located at 2940 Ferndale in Houston (713-522-2151, www.shopbybrown.com). You can also find her items on 1st Dibs - Brown was one of the original Houston shops chosen my Michael Bruno when he expanded to Houston. Thanks Jill for sharing your story with us! I not only had so much fun shopping at your store, but found a new friend.