DeKALB – When Emma Stettner, 20, was a freshman at Northern Illinois University interviewing for Delta Sigma Pi, the university's professional fraternity, she realized she didn't have any professional attire to help her make a good first impression.
Now, set to graduate in December with a bachelor's degree in management with an emphasis in social entrepreneurship, Stettner, of Crystal Lake, not only solved her clothing problem, but turned it into a pop-up shop for fellow students in need.
Barsema's Closet was created by Stettner and co-founder Cordnei Gibson, 22, also a senior, set to graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in leadership management with a professional sales certificate.
"The idea came to me when I was a freshman interviewing to be a part of the Dean's Student Advisory Board," Stettner said. "One of the duties on [the board] is coming up with ideas to improve the College of Business. And I thought back to when I was in need of some business clothing. It kind of made sense to me that there should be a resource for students in the College of Business to get used clothing."
When Stettner pitched it to the board in December 2017, Gibson was in the meeting and jumped in to help.
"In January of 2018, we conducted some research and collected data from students, about 200 survey responses, asking them if they would like having a resource like that in Barsema Hall," Gibson said. "The feedback was really positive, and overall everyone liked the idea."
Over the first trial year of the pop-up clothing shop, Barsema's Closet has been outfitted with professional attire for both men and women through donations from NIU alumni, faculty and staff, and the DeKalb community at large.
"We really realized how much people really care about giving back, especially to students," Stettner said. "A lot of alumni have come and given us their clothes, so it's really cool to see how much they care about people they don't even know."
Students can shop the discounted racks at prices set at Goodwiil rates or lower, Stettner said, since business clothing, especially suits, can be expensive.
"It's really hard for some students to buy even simple things like food," Gibson said. "So I can see students are excited to go there to either expand their wardrobe or [buy] that piece they need for an interview."
Stettner said her team of about 15 student volunteers has collected and sorted more than 1,200 pieces of clothing. The manager at J.C. Penney's in North Aurora even donated mannequins and some clothing racks for the shop.
"Business is not easy, and at first [Stettner] and I always joked around that this was just supposed to be a project," Gibson said. "But now we take pride and say we've opened a business."
The business partners said they have received a lot of help from school officials, including Dennis Barsema himself, chairman of NIU's Board of Trustees.
“[My wife] Stacey and I never cease to be amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit and caring concern of NIU students," Barsema said in a written statement. "This effort to address a very real issue facing many of the students on our campus is amazing. We were tremendously impressed with the opening of Barsema's Closet, and look forward to the on-going sustainability of the store for the benefit of all students who are members of the NIU family.”
The revenue from the shop is put right back into it, Gibson said, and will go toward buying new mirrors, new signs, and maybe even a student scholarship fund one day.
"A lot of students are really struggling to make ends meet," Stettner said. "One thing that we really pride ourselves on is we're here to support students no matter what their professional development. We're here for each other."