Frances Crespo came up the hard way, and she couldn't have done it, she says, without a lot of support -- from family, friends and mentors. So perhaps it's only appropriate that the Navy officer and onetime single teenage mother now bolsters other women with her two bra-fitting boutiques.
"In a way, it's almost like a ministry," Frances says. Her Full Cup stores, one in Alexandria and one in Virginia Beach, cater to full-breasted women, some of whom have been so uncomfortable that they've considered breast-reduction surgery.
Instead of struggling with grandmotherly foundations in utilitarian, fluorescent-lit fitting rooms, Full Cup customers receive personal fittings of feminine European lingerie under flattering lights. The Old Town salon features comfortable couches in the waiting area, which is decorated in the business's signature colors of red, black and gold.
Amelia Bennett, the Alexandria store's first customer, tried on about 20 bras before selecting one from Belgium. The $90 cost was worth it, she says. "The fit, the whole way my clothes look on me -- and it actually helps my posture," Bennett says. "It's made a huge difference."
Making a difference in women's lives is one of Frances's goals. In addition to her Navy job and Full Cup responsibilities, she mentors other businesswomen through an organization called Ladies Who Launch. "I don't think I could have made it where I'm at if there wasn't always, always somebody" offering help, she says. She especially credits her parents. "They were always very forgiving and very positive."
A Navy lieutenant commander who grew up in Puerto Rico and was a single parent at age 16, Frances raised a son and daughter, now 29 and 25, and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in education. She was a government contractor for 11 years in Puerto Rico and the States, and taught school for a while in Virginia Beach, where she opened the first Full Cup in 2003.
After almost two decades in the Navy Reserve, Frances is now an active-duty analyst in Crystal City, and lives in Arlington with her husband of almost five years.
Frances, 45, had always been interested in business and fashion and had long thought there was a market for European bras in America (she grew up wearing such bras in Puerto Rico). Then her daughter, Franchesca Carrasquillo, became pregnant. Sensing an opportunity to both fulfill her own dream and provide Franchesca with flexibility, Frances sold a house she still owned in Puerto Rico to establish The Full Cup.
"It's been really wonderful, because I have been able to pick up my son at any time," says Franchesca, who is the buyer for the business and works at the Virginia Beach store. The success of that location, which had sales of $500,000 in 2006, allowed Frances to open the second boutique this past September; sales in Alexandria have tripled since the first month.
Frances says her biggest challenges have been finding a good computer system -- the company is on its third -- and, given the private nature of bra-fitting, hiring workers who are skilled salespeople but also discreet.
Frances envisions more stores. Her philosophy is that there's always a way.
"You might not end up with exactly what you thought you wanted," she says. "You'll probably end up with something a whole lot better."
Have you found a way to help others while making money, too? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.