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Sharon Olson, Making Believe

Stitched Together: Perseverance is the key to triumph over hardship

Of all the talents and attributes it takes to be successful in business or life, there may be no other as important at perseverance. Sharon Olson is the embodiment of it.

Olson’s Woods Cross-based company, Making Believe, sells children’s costumes, clothing and accessories to hundreds of retailers across the country. Since 1999, when she acquired a small business in Seattle, her line has grown to include over 1,500 products, most of them designed by Olson herself. But it was a pair of costumes she designed and put together during an all-nighter almost 15 years ago that propelled Making Believe into what it is today.

Learning the trade

Sharon’s story started when she was a 5-year-old growing up in Brigham City.

“My mother (Gayla Olson) taught me how to sew using a needle and thread,” she recalls. “From the time I was 5 to 8, I loved stitching things by hand. And after I got a Superstar Barbie for Christmas when I was 8, I started making her clothes since she was 18 inches tall. I was hooked.”

When Gayla got a new Pfaff sewing machine, she let her young daughter use it anytime she wanted.

“She was always so patient with me, no matter how many times I jammed up the bobbin,” Olson says. “That includes the time I put the needle through my fingernail! She’s been by biggest supporter and number one fan. She still is.”

Emulating her mother’s skills as an accomplished seamstress, Olson’s entrepreneurial passion began to grow. At age 10, she selected the site where her future clothing store would be located in Brigham City. She drew out a floor plan for her store, complete with an office. By 12, she was sketching designs and dreaming of going to New York City someday to meet with buyers. Her natural progression later included taking 4H sewing classes and entering and winning blue ribbons at the Utah State Fair.

“Each step seemed to be a fulfillment of my childhood dreams,” she says.

She earned a degree in Fashion Merchandising and Business Administration from Utah State University, graduating in 1991. She got married, gave birth to her son, Shea, and worked as the marketing director and designer for a textile-based import company.

Overcoming challenges

But life stepped in with its challenges. Olson found herself divorced a few years later.

When Shea was four years old, he and his mom saw the movie Hook, and she designed a Captain Hook costume for him. From that moment forward, the idea of making children’s costumes ignited within her. Timing was the issue.

“I really had a passion for costumes specifically, and wanted to be a costume designer and start my own company, but never could due to a demanding career and being a single mom. Then in 1999, I randomly found out about a costume company for sale in Seattle,” she recalls.

She acquired the company that sold accessories to the gift shops of Las Vegas casinos and moved to Washington. She stayed in Seattle for two years, but in 2001, personal tragedy struck when her brother, Scott, was killed in a motorcycle accident.

“I got the phone call, then immediately came back home to Utah. We left everything but the suitcases we brought with us. I just didn’t feel I could keep going in Seattle,” she says.

That summer, her mother gave her some money “to help me get by for a few months on the road,” she says. Gayla encouraged Olson not to give up. “I had thought about giving up on the business at that time, after my brother’s death,” she says. So Olson loaded up her car and headed south toward Las Vegas, where she had a few accounts.

“I was going to call on my customers and show them some products,” she says. “This was before the internet, so the only way to present ideas was in person.”

She stayed at her aunt’s home, and then one day drove to Caesar’s Palace and went into the marketing office to schedule an appointment with a buyer. The receptionist was very kind, Olson says, but told her the buyers were booked up and she’d have to come back in August—two months down the road.

“I felt very destitute—so down on my luck. I wasn’t sure where to turn next,” she says. But on the way back toward her aunt’s, she knew exactly where to turn. She stopped at a fabric store, bought two yards of material, and through the night designed and sewed a children’s Goddess and a children’s Gladiator costume, to match Caesar’s mascot. The next day, she went back to the hotel/casino’s marketing office, went in to the receptionist with her costumes and said, “Just wanted to show you what I’m going to show them in two months.”

“She immediately walked me down a long corridor to a buyer’s office and showed me in. He took one look at the costumes and slapped a one-inch thick vendor’s contract on his desk, and said, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been looking for. We want to do a deal’,” says Olson.

Olson describes the experience as “surreal.”

“I stayed in Vegas all summer and worked with some existing accounts, and it all culminated on a Friday, Sept. 8, when I had multiple casinos placing orders for costumes,” she says.

But her trials weren’t over. Everything changed three days later on 9/11. Fear for the economy and travelers’ plans spread across Vegas, and every client contacted her starting Sept. 12 to cancel their contracts. Every client except one—Caesar’s Palace.

“That contract got me through the winter, and others were gradually reinstated,” she says. “I’ve been able to enjoy my life’s passion, owning and running Making Believe. Now, if someone tells me ‘No, you can’t,’ I’m pretty stubborn. I don’t know what that word means. I’ve been told that the word ‘no’ is a motivator, an igniter, and I believe it.”

Today, she travels across mountains and oceans, working with manufacturers in Asia, and yes, meeting with industry leaders in New York City among many other cities.

“I think the challenges and the setbacks have helped me become a better person and kept me grounded,” she says. “When a customer says they might be looking for something new or different, I think ‘If anyone brings it—it’s going to be me.’”