Small Business Profile: Susan Flaga, Owner of Sparrow and Sparrow For Everyone
How did you start Sparrow and Sparrow For Everyone?
My partner, Sheba, and I opened Sparrow nine years ago. We worked together for many years before we were ready to take the leap and start our own business. At the time, we felt that the salon we really wanted to work in didn’t exist yet. So we made it. I started Sparrow For Everyone on my own five years ago for similar reasons. I felt like the beauty products that I really wanted to use didn’t exist.
What inspires your work?
I’m primarily inspired by nature. I think the father we get from nature, the scarier things become. When I was just doing hair, my goal was to always create natural, functional looks that didn’t require a lot of effort. Everyone at Sparrow tends to maintain that mentality. I take the same approach when I design skincare products. I want you to be able to use my products in a million different ways without having to think too much about it or worry that you’re poisoning your body. When using or making any product, I always ask myself: would I be weirded out to use this on my baby? The answer obviously has to be no!
What are three of your favorite natural ingredients?
Right now I’m having a good relationship with chamomile and calendula. I must need calming things. I’m doing some herbal infusions with those two items. I’m also about to open up some aloe to use for formulas.
How would you describe your style?
I seem to tend towards a very simple, gender neutral, even leaning toward masculine design in my home, salon, and product design, even in terms of product packaging and scents. Although, I am painting our new baby boy room pink, so who knows what my deal is. I also just realized that I like to decorate with plants and animals, like taxidermy, and now our record room is the room of death. I lean towards weird sculptures and photographs.
What brought you to Chicago?
I moved to Chicago 14 years ago from downtown Detroit. The impetus for my move was a combination of leaving a dumb relationship and getting out of Detroit in general. I had just finished beauty school and was pretty aimless about what the heck I was going to do next. Detroit didn’t quite have a lot of employment options for me as a hairstylist.
If you weren’t in Chicago, where do you think you would be?
I can’t really imagine not being in Chicago, but if I had to choose, I’d be in New Mexico or Los Angeles. I find both of these places to be pretty complex and interesting culturally. I’d also be able to eat well and do some pretty cool hiking in either place. Chicago is sort of a let down when it comes to outdoor activities because of the long dumb winters, but it makes up for it in food.
If you weren’t running Sparrow, what would you be doing?
I had this daydream/fantasy a while ago that I went back in time to around age 18. In this daydream I was already a “driven” person at that age, as opposed to my real-life latent-onset workaholism. I went right to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine to study acupuncture and herbal medicine. Since that didn’t cross my mind at the time, I’m saving the program for my retirement and squeezing in the study of herbal medicine on my own time.
What are you trying to learn right now?
Work-life balance. I was about to sign up for this intensive year-long course in the study of herbal medicine that would have required monthly travel. I wrote the instructor, who is a mother of adult children, and explained that I was concerned that I would be disappointed in myself during the course because I might be missing a lot. I have a three year old, two businesses, and I’m having a baby in September. She reminded me that this time when children are young is fleeting and precious and there’s always time to learn. That conversation gave me some perspective, and shortly after I signed up for a more doable course in herbal skincare, which makes me kind of laugh at myself.
What are you most proud of?
I suppose I would say that I’m proud of what a special place Sparrow is. It just feels good, and I know that we were responsible for making it that way. I pay attention to the details there. I’m also proud of my home, and that I ripped out every floorboard by myself and that my husband and I made it ours with blood, sweat, and tears. Though, everything is always a work in progress.
How do you take time for yourself?
I get acupuncture and massage regularly. And I am lucky enough to have barters going with some very talented women in acupuncture, physical therapy, and esthetics. It’s the coolest thing to be able to trade trades. I also make sure to exercise a lot. I’ve been doing a lot of weight training so far during this pregnancy. I also do a lot of reading in my bathtub.
Why do you think it’s important for creative women to collaborate?
I think it’s important for creative or business-owning people to come together in general. I think it can be especially important for women to come together and support each other in their endeavors simply because there are fewer women owned businesses in the world, and despite what I would like to believe, it is different to be a boss when you’re a woman. A lot of my friends that are business owners, myself included, have a complex relationship with being authoritative and sometimes think twice when they fear they’ll come across as “bossy”. Unfortunately, I never receive any emails from male business-owning friends asking to meet-up to discuss whether or not “they seem crazy” because of something they did while running their own business. Sometimes it’s important for women to come together to discuss why those differences can exist, to squash those inclinations, and to inspire each other in art and business.
What is your advice for someone who would want a job like yours?
Don’t be impatient. It’s an evolution and tends to happen incrementally if you follow your passions and instincts. So, one day, you’ll wake up a couple of businesses later and a whole lot wiser. I can’t really emphasize that instinct part enough. I’m a really gut-driven person. Also, never expect for anyone to hand you anything. Hard work is really the only way to get what you desire, especially if it’s the independence of owning your own business.
What is something that has surprised you in your path?
Basically that I went from almost being an actual beauty school drop-out to being a relentlessly driven person. I think the key for me was achieving independence in my career then discovering my passions. They say that after a certain period of owning your own business, you’re basically unemployable. That is definitely true for me.
Who are some of your favorite female creatives?
Judith Geichman is a beloved local artist and friend. I met her at Sparrow. Elizabeth Cronin, with her boundless energy, is the inspirational shop owner of Asrai Garden. Christen Carter of Busy Beaver Button Co. blows my mind with her dedication to learning and growing her business. She’s always taking seminars and classes on women in business and that inspires me. I could go on forever with local artists and makers because every single one of my friends inspires me, but I’ll end with Bobbi Brown. It’s weird for me to cite such a big time cosmetics mogul, but she has always inspired me. I read an article years ago about her being the unlikely head of a huge corporation, while maintaining a down-to-earth modesty and strong principles. She is also a proponent of healing from the inside with food which I am in full support of. I wouldn’t mind being her someday.
What are some of your favorite Chicago places?
I love to eat at Le Bouchon, Parson’s, and Lula Cafe. I love the Modern Wing at the Art Institute and the MCA. I also used to be obsessed with the International Museum of Surgical Science. I love the Music Box Theater and the Landmark Theater. Also, King Spa is amazing if you’ve never had the pleasure.
Top three items of clothing/accessories in your closet?
Right now my top three items of clothing all happen to be giant navy blue maternity dresses. I can’t really remember the rest of my wardrobe. I’m quite attached to my wedding band that was made by local designer, Sarah McGuire, and a few other rings from Asrai Garden that were gifts from my husband.
I usually get up between 6:30 and 7:15 depending on when my son Cy decides to wake us up. I feed him and get him ready, and either my husband or I take him to school. I try to go to the YMCA and pump some iron before heading to Sparrow. Now that I have offspring, I keep different hours that the rest of my team so I get a lot of alone time at Sparrow to do office work before everyone arrives. Then I blend oils, reply to emails, and fill orders for Sparrow For Everyone.
Favorite travel destination?
My favorite trip ever was to South Africa, but since I won’t be making regular trips there, I’d say that my favorite travel destination is Mexico. Even though I like to work my butt off, I’m really good at turning off and having a good time. We have friends from Mexico, and it’s nice to have a not so touristy experience when we visit them. Though I’m certainly not offended by just sitting on a beach and having a drink somewhere. I’m also involved in a romantic relationship with New Mexico and love to visit friends there and clobber some green chile dishes.
They all pertain to food, wine, and probably massage. I’ve been trying to get prenatal massage at Urban Oasis regularly to keep me going lately. I only recently discovered taking advantage of the crazy rain shower that you can have after your massage. Holy cow, it’s amazing!