As party-based, direct-sell businesses experience a renaissance of sorts, the invitations land in our mailboxes with alarming frequency:

“Please join the girls for an evening of food, fun and jewelry shopping (candle shopping, fat-fighting lingerie shopping, designer dog sweater shopping).”

You name it; we’ve been to somebody’s house to buy it. But tonight’s shindig puts a new twist on the old Tupperware formula, and we’re genuinely glad to be out with each other doing something completely out of the ordinary. We’re here to design our own handbags-an opportunity bestowed upon us by our host and mutual friend, Kris and facilitated by the owner of Mi Bolsa Custom Made Handbags, Cindy Shea. And while we vary in our degrees of comfort with the task at hand, we’re all anxious to have a crack at it.

As we huddle around a table piled high with swatches of fabric, Shea explains the process. Behind her, a rack of plain canvas bags in 28 different styles provides the starting point for our masterpieces. On each of the display bags, a simple tag will provide us with that item’s price (which is fixed and not affected by our fabric selections) as well as the quantity/variety of materials to be selected for that specific model (i.e. “Choose 1, 2 or 3 body fabrics, a lining and a trim.”).

Many of us are relieved to find the price spectrum is reasonable (from $13 for a small wallet to $150 for the mother of all bags). And there’s no hard-sell from Shea, who has clearly designed this to be a fun and low-pressure experience.

Once a bag style is determined, we’re encouraged to fondle and fold the 150-plus fabric samples until we arrive at a combination that speaks to us personally. Careful to be available, but not imposing to those of us who get dizzy during this phase, Shea makes a few friendly suggestions.

“Look for your inspiration fabric,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the first sample you’re drawn to-or the one you keep coming back to.” Once we nail that down, she says the rest will fall into place. And we shouldn’t worry that we’re not being creative enough or that our fabric choices are too wacky. To that she says, “Poppycock! It’s your bag.”

As diverse women with diverse daily routines, we all have different loads to carry. In three weeks when our custom creations are delivered to our doors (some with silk stripes and gabardine flowers, others with more conservative, monochromatic themes), they will be taken into boardrooms and classrooms, nightclubs and grocery stores. They will be stuffed with cellphones and presentation materials, Goldfish crackers and sipppy cups-probably all at the same time. And thanks to this unusual experience, they will be the perfect accessories to our unique personalities.

Ordinarily, a party like this would take place at the host’s home with Shea or one of her reps bringing in a trunk full of samples and setting up temporary shop in the living room. But tonight we’re gathered at Mi Bolsa’s new studio and distribution center, 1401 Circle Ave. in Forest Park, for a meet-and-greet-the-new-digs kind of thing. So we’re also getting an insider’s look at a business venture that many of us have been curious about for a while.

With enough warehouse space now to house four regular employees and execute the orders of 15 independent reps across the country (and with financial figures finally creeping into the black), Mi Bolsa has come a long way since Shea launched it in the basement of her home on South Thatcher Avenue in River Forest with little more than a sewing machine and a bright idea.

“I’d been leading a business segment for a human resources consulting firm,” Shea recalls in a post-party conversation about how this all happened. “My job was becoming more global in nature, which meant more travel. It was hard to protect my family time, and I was feeling disconnected from my community.”

The turning point came at her oldest son’s eighth-grade graduation, she says. “I cried the whole way home from work the night before. … He was going to be gone in four years, and I didn’t want to spend [those years] stranded in airports. I vowed to find another way.”

After looking around for an idea, Shea says she and some friends happened upon a storefront-based bag design workshop in the city, and she couldn’t stop thinking about how much more fun and relaxed the whole thing would have been in somebody’s house.

“When I found myself still thinking about it two months later, I decided to investigate it as a potential business opportunity,” she says. With a background heavy in process improvement and customer service, she could see how a party plan business would work with this concept. And with three boys at home (Matt, Eddie and Aidan, now 18, 8 and 7) and no sisters of her own, she could stand to make a few female connections along the way.

In 2004, while still holding her full-time job, Shea started making bags on her home sewing machine. Having grown up on a farm in Winnebago County, surrounded by 4H women, Shea was a competent crafter but soon realized that if she were going to charge $100 for her products, they needed to be made on commercial equipment by people who knew what they were doing.

By 2005, she’d quit her full-time job and was all in. With labor being her biggest overhead, she started with contractors before seeing enough success to add a designer/production person and a sewer. In 2006, Oak Parker Ruth Massmann became Shea’s first rep and helped her work the bugs out of a system that would soon attract 12 more.

“The reps are independent,” Shea says. “They buy a Mi Bolsa starter kit and then it’s their own business to grow. We support them with meetings, training and tools, and they earn based on sales.”

Women are attracted to this kind of career (and to this kind of party experience) for different reasons, Shea believes. Some like the business model, some are handbag junkies or have a thing for textiles, and some are drawn to the “made in the U.S.A.” factor, she says. The reps get to design their own lifestyles, the hosts get a sales-based discount and a memorable party, and the customers have a good time. It’s a winning formula.

Bigger than bags

From the get-go, Shea says it was her intention to infuse Mi Bolsa with a “give back” component. After a friend told her about Mercy Ships, an organization that employs old cruise ships as floating hospitals for the poor, Shea was moved to make it her house charity. Designating one of her designs as “The Mercy Bag,” Shea makes contributions each time that specific model is sold.

She also initiates partnerships with local artists, donates excess year-end inventory to Sarah’s Inn, and now that she has so much space, plans to open the studio for fundraising events.

“Basically, you can get together 10 to 30 women for a party and we’ll donate 20 percent of the retail to your charity of choice,” she says.

For Shea, the biggest reward in this career metamorphosis has been the flexibility and diversity of her daily responsibilities (selling, marketing, design, production, financial) and a basic rejuvenation of spirit.

“I feel like I’ve completely redesigned my life and I’m engaged in everything I do,” she says. “I’ve pledged to be the best role model I can for my children and show them how to live life in a way that makes them happy.”

Is there success in Mi Bolsa’s future to rival that of The Pampered Chef, another neighborhood start-up darling with roots on Thatcher Avenue?

“Wouldn’t that be funny?” Shea ponders. “If it takes being that big to realize my goals, then so be it!”

Upcoming design workshops

Mi Bolsa Custom Made Handbags will have drop-in design workshops at 1401 Circle Ave. in Forest Park on the following days:

• Jan. 19, 12-4 p.m.

• Feb. 9, 12-4 p.m.

For more information on these events, hosting a party or becoming a Mi Bolsa sales representative, contact Cindy Shea, 708/366-1453 or visit www.mibolsa.com

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