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Interview: Sandra Velvel: Lawyer Turned Interior Design Retailer

Sandra Velvel entered law because a number of her family members were lawyers, and because she felt that law would be a good background for whatever she chose to do in life. However, after practicing for a short time with a firm in New York, she soon realized that the law didn't provide the opportunities for creative expression that she was looking for.

Sandra's theater and history background initially led her to public affairs programming and then independent documentary film making, including work on Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History, which won a News and Documentary Emmy Award earlier this year for “Outstanding Long Form Informational Programming.”

However, only when renovating her apartment did she rediscover an old passion: interior design. With the encouragement of her husband, she spent several months writing a business plan and plugging numbers into a P&L spreadsheet. That effort paid off when, in 2004, Sandra finally opened Vivi (www.vivionline.com), her 1,500 square foot interior design shop in Washington, D.C.

Sandra's advice to lawyers seeking a new direction: "If you went to law school, you’re by definition a bright, accomplished, confident individual. That’s a solid foundation for following your heart and deciding to do what you really want to do, no matter how hard it is to do it, because by becoming a lawyer you’ve already shown that you have the energy and perseverance to succeed."

Click below for our interview with Sandra.

JD Bliss (JDB):  As the owner of your own home décor business, you’re pursuing a field that had long been an interest for you.  That being the case, why did you originally attend law school and become a lawyer?

Velvel:  Because a number of my family members are lawyers, I was always comfortable with the idea of a career in the law – and I also felt that law would be a good background for whatever I chose to do in life.   However, once I entered practice with a firm in New York, it only took a short time for me to realize that the law wasn’t right for me.  I enjoyed the intellectual discipline of legal practice, but the work didn’t inspire passion in me and didn’t give me the creative outlet that I wanted.

JDB:  Did you seek a new career direction right away?

Velvel:  No, actually I remained in practice for two years.  Like many other attorneys, I was uncertain at first about what career alternatives were open to me, and I had put so much time, energy and expense into becoming a lawyer that making a change was a big step.  But I found the right opportunity in public affairs programming, which enabled me to use my theater background and my undergraduate major in history.  I first worked for the better part of a year with McNeil-Lehrer Productions on the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.  I loved every minute of it, particularly the opportunity to travel to and work at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.  From there I moved into independent documentary film making, working in production and research capacities on three different documentaries that were shown by PBS.  One of them that aired in 2003, Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History, won a News and Documentary Emmy Award earlier this year for “Outstanding Long Form Informational Programming.”

JDB:  Given your success in film making, why did you decide to move to interior design?

Velvel:  I was interested in the interior design field since childhood, when for example I redid the design of my bedroom as a teenager.  While I was doing the documentary work I had been toying with the idea of opening my own design store in New York, and my interest intensified when I purchased my first apartment and directed all the renovation.  I enjoyed design work and became immersed in the renovation – it was a standing joke with my contractor that if I measured something, for example in designing cabinetry, he didn’t have to re-measure it because he knew it was correct.

JDB:  When did you actually take the step of opening a store?

Velvel:  I opened Vivi (www.vivionline.com), my 1,500 square foot shop, in Washington, DC, in the fall of 2004, but that was the culmination of several years of decision-making.  I had moved to Washington in 2000 to work on a documentary, and continued my documentary activities there into 2002 and 2003.  Because opening my own store was still my ideal, I decided it would be good to get retailing experience, so I took a job for the better part of 2002 in a Bethesda, Maryland furniture store.  That confirmed what I wanted to do, but the biggest hurdle to actually doing it was mental.  My toughest single step was taking several months to sit down (with the encouragement of my husband, an attorney in a major DC-area firm) to write a business plan and plug numbers into a P&L spreadsheet.  I began work on the process in January of 2004 and really had to create the store in my mind. It was a daunting task, but the excitement of being able to do that was the crucial element to actually opening the store.  After that exercise the whole startup effort came more easily into focus.

JDB:  How would you define the store that you ended up creating?

Velvel:  The key thing about my store is that I searched for inventory that I would want for my own home but was unable to find in the Washington metro area.  I scoured the interior design scene in New York and Los Angeles to come up with affordable and unique designs for a wide variety of merchandise, from furniture and lighting to throw pillows, ceramics and artwork.  I wanted very modern items that had clean lines and simple forms yet that were not out of reach in terms of cost.

JDB:  Has your law degree been a help to you as an entrepreneur?

Velvel:  It has been a major factor in giving me credibility as a female business owner.  I do have an attorney with whom I work closely, but the fact that I can understand and help improve the details of a lease is a major plus in day to day business operations.

JDB:  Given your own success at moving out in new directions, what advice would you give to attorneys who find themselves, as you did, not happy in the practice of law?

Velvel:  It’s important to trust your instincts as to when you’re so dissatisfied that it’s the right time to move on.  For me it took two years, for someone else it may take 20. I think attorneys tend to be so focused on our current work that we don’t ask ourselves what else we could be doing with our lives.  The important thing to remember is that, if you went to law school, you’re by definition a bright, accomplished, confident individual.  That’s a solid foundation for following your heart and deciding to do what you really want to do, no matter how hard it is to do it, because by becoming a lawyer you’ve already shown that you have the energy and perseverance to succeed.

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