Inside Track: Dad’s advice spurs business
Winsome Kirton finds her calling as an artistic entrepreneur after initial decision to study pre-med.
Winsome Kirton is her own boss.
The 30-year-old is the co-founder of Pack Elephant, a business-to-business gifting platform that allows artisans and entrepreneurs to sell and market their products to different businesses.
She started her own business a year ago after moving with her husband to Grand Rapids in 2017.
Since Pack Elephant was started, the business has garnered attention in the city. Kirton and her co-founder, Seghen Aklilu, won Start Garden’s 5x5 Pitch Night competition in June 2018, and they were awarded $5,000 to grow their business. The pair also entered Start Garden’s 100 ideas competition earlier this year. They eventually won another $1,000 to invest in their business.
Along with Grand Rapids, Pack Elephant also has a presence in Austin, Texas, where Aklilu lives. There are 55 artisans who use the platform, 38 in Grand Rapids and 17 in Texas.
The artisans include artists, craftsmen and manufacturers who make cutting boards, towels, cotton bags, painted cups, glasses, bath soaks, candles, balms, chocolate bars and coffee blends, among other things.
“Right now, (we) are a hybrid model where some of the things are on consignment,” Kirton said in August. “Some of the things are actually wholesale and resold through us, but on specialty projects, where we are getting things customized, we are just the platform. We are facilitating orders and getting them back to the (contact) so that the artisans are managing the process.”
She has worked with Experience Grand Rapids, Rockford Construction and OST, which allows artisans to customize items such as crafting their logos, names and other inscriptions. So far, Kirton said they have fulfilled orders as large as 250 gift baskets.
The origin of Kirton’s career as an entrepreneur traces back to her childhood, where her family was always on the move. She was born in Rochester, New York, but spent the first five years of her childhood in New Haven, Connecticut. Both of her parents were engineers before switching career paths.
Kirton’s father was in the bio-engineering field. However, he switched to medical device sales. That led him and his family to the West Coast in Los Angeles. They spent three years in the city, but those three years were instrumental in exposing Kirton to the world of art.
“I remember my parents’ friend, Steve, would come over (to our house), and we would spend 30 minutes to an hour just drawing,” Kirton said. “He would just draw cartoon characters. We would make our own books. I would write the stories, and he would draw the characters. He was such a good artist on the fly. I would tell him to draw the craziest animal I could think of, and he would just draw it. I always admired that. My mom’s other friend, Tammy, was also very creative. She made jewelry. She could make things with her hands and I just loved that, seeing people create things from nothing. It all came from the mind and using materials to make things. That was where my interest was sparked.”
Kirton’s family returned to Connecticut, in Redding, after her father received another job opportunity.
Kirton said the constant relocation meant she had almost no friends. When they moved back to Connecticut, she was closer to her cousins, aunts and uncles who were living in New York and New Jersey.
However, the reunion was short-lived. Four years after living in Connecticut, Kirton’s father accepted a new job opportunity at a Johnson & Johnson plant in Florida.
It was during the time when 9/11 occurred. Kirton said that was an especially vivid memory for her because some of her aunts and uncles were first responders and some of the students at her school lost family members.
In midst of the grief and a little after her 12th birthday, Kirton’s family moved to Florida. It was there she realized she was a talented athlete, musician and painter. Kirton played soccer and also ran the 100-meter hurdles and relays on the track team. She played different instruments such as the piano, violin and clarinet at school and recitals.
While she participated in those extracurricular activities in middle and high school, she also excelled in the classroom. She was taking AP classes in high school and was a member of the National Honor Society. Kirton participated in a Leadership, Education and Development (LEAD) program at Stanford University while in high school.
She applied to numerous Ivy League and state schools including Stanford, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Emory University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Chicago and University of Miami, among other schools.
Despite participating in the LEAD program at Stanford, she was not accepted. Nevertheless, she was accepted into other Ivy League schools and decided to spend her collegiate years at Penn.
Kirton started her freshman year with the intention of studying pre-med.
“I was pretty good at math and the sciences, but after my freshman year, I realized that I didn’t like any of my freshman classes. I hated bio, chemistry, organic chemistry and calculus. They were really boring curriculum, huge lecture hall classes, like 100-plus kids, which is something that I had never been exposed to. It was too easy to hide. I just felt like this really wasn’t me. What really was me was being creative.
“The artistic side of me really shined through, and I yearned for more. I think it was toward the end of my sophomore year, and my GPA, it wasn’t bad. It was a 3.0 or something, but I was used to having a 4.5 because of all the AP classes I was taking. I was always really confident in doing really well in school and I felt like I was so mediocre, and it was depressing. I wasn’t really enjoying the course work or the subject matter. So, I made a bold decision to go into visual studies.”
After graduation, Kirton moved to New York and got a job at an international advertising firm, FCB. She started in digital media planning and strategy. Throughout her stint in New York, she spent seven years in advertising at three different firms. During that time, she earned her MBA at New York University.
“I knew I didn’t have the hard skills I needed to start my own business,” Kirton said. “A little part of me knew I wanted to have my own business. That was something that my dad indoctrinated in me and my siblings. As he climbed up the corporate ladder, jumping from coast to coast, doing a lot of traveling … he hit his ceiling. He did everything he could, and that is why he took on the challenge of uprooting his family where the opportunity was. He is still at Johnson & Johnson, (but he would say at times) ‘I wish I had my own business, but I am too old now.’ He accomplished a lot. He is doing great things. He heads up their global supply chain now from their office in New Jersey, but he said if he could do it over again, he would be an entrepreneur. I would always hear him say that. As I became more conscious of what I wanted and what I was doing with my career, I can hear him echoing in my head, ‘Do your own thing, be your own boss.’”
Kirton met her husband in New York, where he was studying medicine. His residency program led him and Kirton to Grand Rapids, where he works at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. She worked remotely for an advertising firm in New York while living in Grand Rapids for one year.
Afterward, she quit her job and now is completely focused on growing Pack Elephant.