Maria LeFebre | Your Local Girl Gang
It’s rare to find a Cleveland transplant so passionate about shining the spotlight on the culture and small business revolution in this little, big town. However, for Maria LeFebre, founder of Your Local Girl Gang, it was an obvious next step in her career path.
This is Maria’s Story.
In 2015, after graduating from The University of Colorado at Boulder, Maria and her now fiancé, Charlie, moved to Cleveland. For many, moving halfway across the country would be a whirlwind of emotions, but it was a move that Maria was completely comfortable with. “The first time that I ever actually visited Cleveland was when I arrived here with my car packed full of my belongings,” Maria explained. “I don’t know why I wasn’t scared, because looking back, I realize that it was a lot.”
Maria graduated college with a degree in education, but she did not have a concrete plan of what she wanted to do with her career; in fact, she wasn’t completely sure that she wanted to teach at all. Maria spent her first year in Cleveland soul-searching and began working at Paper Trails, a small, women-owned stationery boutique in Rocky River, Ohio. “This was the first time that I had ever worked for a small business or a women-owned business, and I completely fell in love with it,” Maria enthusiastically remarked. “It made me realize that in small business, every success is important. In that small of a company, anything from selling a five-dollar greeting card to delivering wedding invitations that the couple is completely in love with is worth celebrating, and that spoke to me.”
Yet, over time, Maria decided to pursue teaching after all. In 2016, Maria landed a job with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District where she would spend the next two years teaching in an inner-city elementary school. “It didn’t, however, take me too long to realize that this was not the job for me,” she said. “I was completely unhappy every single day.”
Though she had left her job at Paper Trails, Maria wanted to continue to support women in any way that she could and quickly realized that the best way to do so was to use her money to support women-owned businesses in the area. “I started looking for some sort of list or guide, other than social media, that would show me the women-owned businesses around me,” she said. “You know, I found people on Instagram and Facebook, but I wasn’t really tapped into that community at the time—I wasn’t following a ton of people that would show me where these businesses were.”
With no directory available to her, Maria began driving around in her car with a notepad, writing down the names of businesses that looked interesting. Then, she would go home and research them. She may not have realized it at the time but working for Paper Trails is what fueled her fire to begin her own small business journey.
“Once I had around 40 businesses on my list, I had the idea of making the list into a public website in case anyone had the same endeavor as I did.” So, in May 2017, when her first year of teaching ended, Your Local Girl Gang was born.
“I was terrified to launch the website because I was afraid that it would not be perfect,” she noted. However, with encouragement from her fiancé, her website went public in August of 2017. “To my surprise, the YLGG website became popular fast and people really responded to it. In fact, the very first day that I launched my site, I got my first business submission and they continued pouring in after that.”
As she was starting Your Local Girl Gang, Maria received some much needed advice from Annie Lempke, co-founder of Nellie Taft. “Annie said, ‘Start before you’re ready. You’re not going to have it figured out—you can’t possibly know everything about what you are setting out to accomplish. And, if you try to wait until you know everything, it’s never going to happen for you.’”
With Annie’s advice ringing in her ears, Maria had to learn for herself that much of starting a business is learning in the moment. “Annie helped me realize If you decide to dedicate the majority of your time to something that you love to do and that you are truly meant to do, you will make it happen, and it will all be okay.”
With her small-business booming, Maria was able to resign from her teaching job in May of 2018. “I wasn’t scared to quit,” she said. “I was ready. I felt like I needed to be able to dedicate 40+ hours a week to YLGG, but I knew that I could not do that while working 40 hours a week at another job, let alone another job that I was unhappy in. I knew that I needed to have faith that it would all work out.”
Today, over 600 businesses have submitted their information, and there are over 300 businesses listed on Maria’s website. “It’s really grown from a Cleveland list to a North East Ohio list; there are some amazing businesses south of us in the Akron/Canton area and I wanted them to be included. It’s cool because now all of those businesses have connections in Cleveland, as well.”
Now, Maria is excited to get up and get to work every day. “Keeping up and connecting with the women of Cleveland has been extremely inspirational,” she stated. “Cleveland is unlike any other city that I’ve been to because even though there is a big city feel to it, everyone and everything is very accessible. Everyone is just an email away. Once you start connecting the dots between you and other people, you realize it’s just a big, small town.”
With more time on her hands to dedicate to her growing brand, Maria has been able to take on two interns to help her with her workload. “Giving a piece of your business away is extremely scary, but I am so glad that I have taken the leap,” she said. “It’s been so worth it.”
Yet, growing a business does not come without challenges. Maria explained that her biggest challenge continues to be not valuing herself or her time. “I’ve been told from the beginning not to devalue myself when it comes to my time and pricing, but that advice never really resonated with me until recently.” She continued, “It’s definitely a learning process. I have a million things on my to-do list, so finding ways to manage everything can be quite difficult. People always talk about having a work-life balance, but I am at the point right now that work is my life. Truthfully, I am okay with that because I love what I am doing and working on YLGG is what I want to be doing with my time.”
Maria’s current dream is to have a girl gang in every state—maybe even more if states have multiple big cities. “Right now, when I think about taking on a city like Chicago or New York, it is insanely daunting, I don’t even know if a Girl Gang would be valuable there,” she explained. “But, it’s those B or C level cities that need things like this. In my eyes, it is businesses like Your Local Girl Gang that help cities become as big and relevant as Chicago or New York.”
Each day, Maria’s dreams become closer to a reality. This summer, she collaborated with a few local women-owned brands to create t-shirts, hats, and other YLGG merchandise. “The most exciting moment for me happened about two months ago,” she beamed. “I was driving home from work and I saw a girl walking down the street wearing a Girl Gang shirt. And I looked to see who she was, but I didn’t recognize her. I literally pulled to the end of the street and turned my car around because I knew that I had to meet her. But once I turned around, she was already inside her house. I posted on Instagram about it because I wanted to meet her so badly, but sadly I never found out who it was.”
It was at one of Maria’s Girl Gang events that Shelley Pippin, founder of Brewnuts, helped her realize that the only way that you will connect with people for the long term is if you are constantly and consistently you. So, Maria has stuck close to her mission of featuring women-owned businesses and reflecting that mission in her brand.
“If you would have told me last year that I would have to be this public facing, I probably would have said no thank you—that would have been terrifying for the Maria that I was a year ago. I really expected this to just be a website people used every now and then; I never expected it to become such a community, but I am so grateful that it has evolved into that. Because, as the Girl Gang has evolved, I have evolved as a human, and a business owner, too.”
Or, follow their journey on Instagram @localgirlgang_cle