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Alumni Spotlight // Gaucho Business

BUSINESS AND CHARITY

Entrepreneur Johanna (Melamed) Zlenko '07


Johanna (Melamed) Zlenko '07
Johanna (Melamed) Zlenko '07, owner of The Closet (Photo courtesy Johanna (Melamed) Zlenko)

In 2007, Johanna (Melamed) Zlenko `07 graduated with a degree in global studies and a thriving boutique consignment business she built while attending UC Santa Barbara.

Zlenko answered a part-time job posting for a vintage and consigned clothing store on upper State Street called The Closet. An active volunteer for the American Cancer Society (ACS) Discovery Store, Zlenko poured her people skills into her new job in retail. A few month after The Closet opened, its original owner had to move away.

Zlenko stepped in to take over the business.

Thirteen years later, The Closet under Zlenko's leadership expanded to four different locations across California, with over 20 employees.

In this Alumni Q&A, find out Zlenko's UCSB story-- how she managed to run her own business as a full-time student, her commitment to the American Cancer Society, and what makes her proud to be a Gaucho.

Where did you grow up? What was it like in your household?

I grew up in San Francisco and as a child, spent most of my time with my grandparents. I never went to preschool, and instead my grandma would take me all over the city with her to parks, playgrounds, beaches, and running errands. She did not drive, so we rode the bus everywhere and walked a lot. I probably missed out on some socialization with kids my own age, but I enjoyed going on adventures with my grandma. My favorite activity was walking up and down Fillmore Street, where my grandparents lived, visiting the local merchants. My cheerful, rotund, 4-foot 10-inch Russian-speaking grandmother was kind of a fixture in the neighborhood, and as we took our daily walks, the local pizza place would give me a slice, or the florist would give me a balloon. I didn’t speak a word of English and didn’t know what anyone was saying to me, but I loved the attention and the treats!

How did you experience as a volunteer at the ACS Discovery Shop help build your passion for the retail business?

Working at the ACS Discovery Shop, I learned my first lessons in appraising inventory. Donations would come in, and the manager of the shop would assign a price to each item. She took the time to explain to me how and why she arrived at those price points, taking into consideration factors like condition, brand, and desirability, and I thought the process was fascinating. It was my first glimpse into the workings of retail as a business, and I was intrigued by the challenge.

What made you decide to study at UCSB? (What were some of your first impressions of the campus and its student community?)

When I learned of the unique Global Studies program, I knew I was interested in going to UCSB. I loved a Globalization class I had taken in high school and have always had an interest in languages, politics, and different cultures, so the availability of a major dedicated to this combination of concepts made the university an easy choice for me.

What made you decide on your major? (And did you want to recognize any favorite professors or college mentors in your Spotlight?)

As I mentioned above, I knew I wanted to go into the Global Studies Department right off the bat. While many professors and courses challenged and interested me in my four years at UCSB, the one that always stands out as the best class I ever took was a seminar with Paul Orfalea. Offered only to senior Global majors, it was taught weekly around a kitchen table, where we covered everything from current affairs to economics to personal finance and investing, all in Paul’s distinctively straightforward, sharp-witted style. He taught me to care about things like oil prices, cash-value life insurance, and the importance of reading the news every single day, among countless other lessons that stick with me to this day.

Were you very involved in student organizations when you were at UCSB?

I ran my store full-time while at UCSB, so between work, school, and friends I unfortunately did not find a lot of time to get involved in student organizations. If I could go back, I would have loved to be a part of the campus radio station!

What inspired you to found The Closet? What was it like during the early days of building your business? (You were a student when you started your business - what was that like?)

Although I was involved from the beginning, I did not actually start The Closet. An amazing woman named Jeri had the idea to open a vintage shop in an office space behind McDonald’s on upper State Street. Week of Welcome 2003, my first week in Santa Barbara, I went out looking for a part-time job and I stumbled on a “hiring” sign in the window of that office space. I had the experience at the ACS thrift store in San Francisco, so Jeri hired me to help her open up shop. We converted the space into a tiny storefront selling vintage and consigned clothing. A few months later, Jeri’s family situation changed and she had to move across the country. She was thinking of closing the store, but I felt like there was so much more that I could do with it, so I made her an offer to take over the lease and some other liabilities, and all of a sudden I owned the business.

From there the learning curve was very steep, but with the help of my friends and roommates from the dorms (FT at the time!) I started figuring out how to navigate this new venture. It was a very small business then, with one employee, a handful of customers, and a few racks of inventory, so I was able to operate it while still keeping my full course load at UCSB. My friends would work at the store while I was in class, and then pay themselves whatever they thought was fair from the cash register. Actually, it was more of a desk drawer than a cash register, but it did the trick. That was how things went for the first couple of years of the business.

Why do you think The Closet has succeeded as a business? (How has it grown - and what are your feelings about this growth - after 13 years?)

Success seems to be an ever-changing target, but we have certainly evolved over the years. We now have about 30 employees in four store locations, and we have shifted our focus away from vintage to specialize in designer resale and consignment. We no longer have the original storefront behind McDonald’s, but we still operate a location in Santa Barbara, now on the 900 block of State Street next to the Apple Store. Reflecting on some of the changes over the 13 years, in the early days I was able to work more closely with every employee and every customer. Now, I don’t have the chance to really get to know each team member in the same way, and adjusting to managing by proxy and fostering company culture without having my hand in every aspect of daily operations continues to be a challenge. On the flip side, it has been incredible to watch employees who came on board as 18-year old sales associates develop into inspiring managers and leaders on whose knowledge and judgment I now rely.

You were recently honored with the 40 under 40 Award from the Pacific Business Times - congratulations! What was your reaction to news of this award?

I am honored to even be considered, especially in the company of so many talented entrepreneurs. Surrounding myself with leaders I admire is great fuel to keep pushing forward when things get hard or I am feeling discouraged.

What would be your advice to UCSB students who are thinking of starting their own retail business?

It is easy to come up with a list of reasons why a venture could fail, but if you believe in your idea, go for it! Starting a business is inherently risky, but there is truly no better time to make a calculated risk than when you are young. As my grandma said when I proposed the idea of taking over The Closet to her, “You’re 18! Who cares if you lose everything? You don’t have anything anyway!”

You are a dedicated supporter of the American Cancer Society, to this day. What fuels your advocacy and support for ACS? How does The Closet help support non-profits?

I lost my mom to ovarian cancer at a young age, so the fight for a cure is very close to my heart. That passion originally led me to volunteer at the ACS Discovery Shop in high school, which brought me to my career at The Closet, so the ACS has played a pivotal role in my life and I feel deeply indebted and connected to the organization and its mission. The Closet contributes to a number of other local groups as well, including the Bailey Baio Angel Foundation in Los Angeles, which provides support and services for the families of children suffering from metabolic disorders, and Cherry Picked, which provides support to a number of hyper-local non-profits in Santa Monica.

I am especially excited about a new collaboration with a local SB charity. This holiday season, we have set up a drive in all of our store locations to benefit an amazing non-profit in Santa Barbara called Mothers’ Helpers. We are collecting baby supplies for moms and children in need in the community, and to thank our customers for their generosity, we are offering 15% off a total purchase with any donation. I hope that with the support of our customers we can really make a difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

What keeps you balanced? (What keeps you going?)

I love to come home to my husband (we just got married on November 26!) and to my pug and just try to disconnect from work and enjoy their company for a couple of hours in the evening. That breather keeps me fresh and allows me to marinate on things and maintain a little perspective.

What makes you proud to be a Gaucho TODAY?

I love being a Gaucho! Some of my closest friends are still from UCSB, and I see them, as well as other former classmates, doing such incredible work in the world. These people that I shared nachos with at Freebirds, sat next to in class, hung out with on the beaches of I.V. – they are out there making real progress in the sciences, in philanthropy, in business, in the arts. I am just so impressed by the accomplishments of my fellow Gauchos, and maybe I am a little biased, but it seems like they are all so humble and friendly too! Clearly there is something really special about UCSB, and I am truly proud to be connected to this university and its culture.

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