By Lee Howard The Day, New London, Conn.
When Andrea Leiser first started looking into hats available for female cancer patients, she found fashionable styles, but the designs still somehow screamed out "I have cancer."
That's when she came up with the basic premise for the Little Hat Workshop, which was chosen this week as one of 10 finalists -- out of more than 16,000 entrants -- in the Staples office supply chain's "Make Your Idea Happen" contest.
"I thought, 'Why do you have to be left not feeling beautiful at a time when you most need to feel beautiful or empowered,'" Leiser said.
Leiser, who years ago was associated with the successful Leiser Sound retail chain and now serves as president of a Mystic food brokerage known as RSVP Solutions Group LLC that she operates with husband Andre Gelinas, has a building out back of her Hatch Street home where many of her colorful hats are displayed.
Her home office contains a Singer sewing machine that she picked up at a yard sale for $5 where her creations, made largely of faux fur and fleece, take wing.
"There's a lot of experimenting," she said. "That's what selling is all about."
Leiser, a Connecticut College graduate, had made jewelry in a casual way for some time, but didn't show off her newfound hat-making skills until the Mystic Art Center holiday show in 2012.
That's when she heard, from docent Rita Dawley, about the difficulties cancer patients face in finding hats to cover hair made sparse by chemotherapy.
Leiser, whose father died 25 years ago of cancer, said she has been giving back a portion of her sales to the Terri Brodeur Breast Foundation and the Connecticut chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
She also has worked, Leiser said, with patients at The William W. Backus Hospital and the Lawrence + Memorial Cancer Center in Waterford.
She is hoping eventually to develop a small company to produce hats on a national scale.
"I have been so blessed in my life, I wanted a chance to give back," Leiser said.
And now the community has a chance to back Leiser's new business plan by voting for the Little Hat Workshop in the Staples Inc. contest.
Leiser's company and nine others are competing for a top prize of $25,000 and, even more important to Leiser, the chance to get free expert advice from Staples judges on how to jump-start a business.
Leiser also has received valuable advice from SCORE, an organization of retired and working executives that offers free help to startups and growing companies.
A Staples spokeswoman said the contest winner will be chosen partially based on popular vote and partially on the judges' assessment of each business idea.
The judges are Roblé Ali, celebrity chef and owner of Roblé & Co.; Gene Marks, small business expert and business columnist, and Kendra Scott, an entrepreneur and jewelry designer.
"My passion is to make things by hand that make people smile," Leiser said.
Little Hat Workshop online