UnstoppAUble: Auburn apparel student cultivates boutique business amid pandemic

Published: September 17, 2020
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Sarah Jane Levine is no stranger to challenges. Growing up in an active-duty military family, she moved nine times. She started working in middle school. High school had her in apparel markets across the country. And in college, she opened her own store in the middle of a pandemic.

Levine knew that she wanted to major in apparel merchandising and chose Auburn because of the College of Human Sciences program’s national reputation as one of the best. The only thing that was missing for her in Auburn, Levine said, was somewhere to satisfy the college student clientele’s need for affordable accessories.

“In Auburn, I realized there was a market for reasonably priced jewelry and accessories, and I knew that everyone, especially college students, wants to accessorize without spending a fortune,” Levine said. “And that was the start of Lily Jane.”

Lily Jane Boutique had a humble beginning. Levine, a sophomore at the time, ran the operation selling earrings from a drawer in her room in her hometown of Enterprise, Alabama. For the next year and a half, she watched business grow. And this January, she launched her online storefront.

Still, the amount of orders grew, she hosted pop-up shows around Auburn and traveled to Atlanta to shop for products. Now in a much larger market with an abundance of customers, Lily Jane had blossomed into a one-stop shop for gifts and accessories.

When the Bodegas at Midtown on Opelika Road opened to buyers this summer, Levine put her next step into action. But just as business boomed, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the Plains and shut down the Auburn business scene.

“You’re put into situations that maybe aren’t your favorite, but it’s definitely going to push you to be a better person,” Levine said. “I thought of COVID-19 as more of an opportunity once stores started opening back up. My business did really take a hit and I wasn’t able to continue pop-up shows or physically go to market, but I knew that financially, this was probably the best opportunity I had. If anything, I’ve been able to learn from it and make the store even better.”

A first-generation Auburn Tiger, Levine knew she wouldn’t change her major from the top-ranked apparel merchandising program. And since opening the store, she said her courses and business experience have only pushed her toward more success.

Katherine Annette Burnsed, one of Levine’s professors, joined the College of Human Sciences last fall as a lecturer and apparel merchandising internship coordinator. She said Levine made an impression on the first day when she stayed after class, introduced herself and welcomed Burnsed to the Auburn Family she’d come to love.

“Sarah Jane is the type of student a teacher never forgets,” said Burnsed. “In addition to her thirst for knowledge, she is one of the most motivated young ladies that I have ever met. After her introduction, I knew that she was someone who was ‘going places.’

“Little did I know that at the time, she was already someone who had achieved what most do not — a successful business. Her drive and perseverance are uncanny. She does not view her coursework as a means to an end — graduation — but as opportunities for bettering herself and her business. She is truly a remarkable young lady and an inspiration to both her peers and faculty.”

As a student and a small business owner, Levine has a lot on her plate. But she said the apparel merchandising program, her co-workers and her family have been pillars of support during this time. That, combined with her own positive, driven and seemingly unstoppable attitude, has propelled her forward.

“It’s definitely challenging at some points. There’s certain times where I do have questions and I have professors to answer those and I have my parents, who are a great sounding board to help me,” Levine said. “But between the learning experiences I’ve had and time management, I think I could take on the world and be able to do it. It’s definitely a challenge, but not one I can’t overcome.”

As a senior, moving closer to graduation, Levine said Auburn will always be a special place — and one she doesn’t want to leave after she walks at commencement. She plans to search for even more career opportunities in the Auburn area and keep Lily Jane Boutique going, maybe even move to a larger storefront or pursue franchising.

“I’m always a go-getter for what’s next. I’m always willing to take on a challenge. I think there’s growth for the store, and I can see it coming,” Levine said. “One thing that I’ve really loved is the Auburn Family. The college has supported me and the Auburn community in general have really made a difference. The alumni care about Auburn and that makes it really special.

“When coming to Auburn, you might think four years of college and you’re out, but as my four years are coming to a close, I don’t want to leave. I’m really excited because I think I’ll be around Auburn for a while after college, and that’s really special.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.