Center helps big dreamers start small businesses

Darnell Thomas

Thomas in one of his hosiery kiosks, in the Gallery mall in Center City.

Photo by Mark Stehle

Darnell Thomas has always had a knack for selling things.

During his days as a college undergraduate, the entrepreneur would travel from dorm to dorm, enticing others to purchase accessories, from scarves to gloves to costume jewelry. “I was always the guy asking people to buy something,” said Thomas. “It helped pay for books and tuition.”

On the weekends, the West Philadelphia native and his mother would hold home demonstrations, where they would lay out their products and give others the chance to play games and win prizes. For Thomas and his fledgling business, it was a good way to make sales and customers.

Thomas’ small successes in the beginning naturally paved the way to bigger things, like opening his own kiosks at local malls, where he sells novelty socks and hosiery. Darn Thomas Legwear, which started in 1994, now operates kiosks in five locations throughout the region and even has a wholesale shipping business.

But the company’s success is not the mark of a solo effort. Thomas said he gets plenty of help from the Wharton Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and its Enterprise Center.

The SBDC, which is a part of the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center, provides assistance to small businesses in the greater Philadelphia region. In the past decade more than 20,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs have benefited from its support. Thomas said that the SBDC has helped him fine tune his business plan; matched him up with branding experts; and helped him make more solid financial projections. A management training course, which SBDC Director Therese Flaherty urged him to take, taught Thomas the finer points of leadership. “[The course showed us] how to get everyone on the same page, how to develop your vision and how to express it so that people are motivated.”

Thomas said that while many how-to business books teach the same lessons, getting access to instructors with firsthand knowledge of how to run a business was invaluable. “We had a person there who worked with Fortune 500 companies. She was so good and down to earth and she made you think.”

There’s another thing that the center offers which you cannot get elsewhere: Moral support. Thomas said that when times get rough, he can always count on the SBDC and the Enterprise Center to pull him through. “They make sure that you’re ready for the long-term, have access to people with capital and planning, and [get] the hugs when you need them.”

Originally published on September 4, 2003