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Turning Passion into Business: The Story of Jessica Steib and Blank Canvas

When junior Jessica Steib decided to draw on a pair of sneakers out of boredom one day, she had no idea it would lead to a business in which she would do the same for others. Her boredom-stricken day eventually led to the creation of “Blank Canvas,” a business in which Steib sells her custom-made apparel items designed and hand-drawn by herself to any person who places an order. Through her work, Steib has been tasked with orders consisting of all types of designs placed by all types of people, including Colgate University President Brian Casey. This venture has allowed her to use her creativity and passion for art to make unique and carefully crafted items for others. 

In the summer of 2020, during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steib found herself with ample time on her hands and the need to find the perfect gift for her best friend who was graduating high school at the time. Wanting this gift to be something meaningful and unique, Steib realized she could draw upon her passion for art and design to create a pair of custom sneakers for her friend, incorporating designs of her friend’s college. 

“My best friend from high school was graduating from high school, and I wanted to give her something that she would really appreciate and that she could tell that I put a lot of work into. So I decided to make her a pair of Tulane sneakers. I bought a pair of white Vans and did what I wanted to do with them. And she absolutely loved them. It was the best gift I could have gotten her,” Steib said.

This idea to create a pair of custom-made shoes for her friend came from a prior experience when she had created a similar pair for herself. Whenever she would wear them in school, Steib remembered getting compliments on them and people expressing their desire for her to make a pair for them. From then on, the idea to someday turn the compliments into a business venture remained in her mind for quite some time. 

“One summer in high school, I drew on a pair of sneakers. When I would wear them around school, people would always be like, ‘Oh, wow! Those are so cool, you should start selling those.’ And so that was sort of always in the back of my head. I was like, ‘Okay, like people have told me that they would buy these, maybe I should try and make something out of this,’” Steib explained.

From these experiences, Steib created an Instagram account to feature her sneakers and start her business. Through this account, people would place orders describing the content they would want on the sneaker. Steib would arrange a consultation session with the customer in which she and the customer would come up with the specifics of the design. She would then draw or paint it on a white sneaker of the customer’s choice. She points to the consultation part of the creation process as her favorite.

“[In the consultation sessions,] we [would] talk about graphic design. I [would] take their idea and get really creative with it. I would just run with what’s in my head, get creative and execute it. That’s probably the part that I had the most fun with.”

In these starting months, Steib was receiving up to two orders a day. Although this required Steib to spend her entire day designing and painting sneakers, she remembers loving every moment of it. Especially in a crazy time in which there was not much to do, Blank Canvas provided Steib with an outlet to continue pursuing her passion for art and exploring her creativity. 

“I would spend my entire day sitting outside in the sun just drawing and painting on shoes. And I did that consistently for the entire summer and looking back on it … I loved it.”

When Steib returned to campus in the fall of 2020, she found herself in a dilemma: After cultivating her business for three months, she wanted to expand it but found herself with less time for Blank Canvas with the school year beginning again. Because of this, she applied to Colgate’s entrepreneurship initiative Thought in Action (TIA). Steib’s experience was very valuable and informative — TIA assigned her mentors, taught her how to market Blank Canvas and presented possible avenues for growing it. However, after considering the actual logistics of expanding her business, Steib remembered realizing that doing so would detract from the individuality, care and creativity she could place into the production of the sneaker. For these reasons, she decided to keep her company small so the apparel she sold would truly be her own.

“[TIA] definitely shifted my mindset and helped me realize what I value most in Blank Canvas. I couldn’t expand it to the true potential I initially envisioned because I didn’t have time, and I’m only one person, who can only do so many pairs of shoes. It’s my company, and I want it to be personal. The whole idea about it … is that people get these really custom sneakers … that are good gifts … for people and that they could wear around.” 

Steib hopes to continue designing sneakers for people through Blank Canvas throughout her time at Colgate. Given the importance of art and design to Steib, she is looking towards a career in marketing or graphic design for her future as she wishes to continue to have an outlet in which she can express herself creatively. To place an order for sneakers from Blank Canvas, you can contact Steib through her Instagram account @blankcanvasbyjess.