By Amy J. Barry
Life has thrown lots of curveballs at Olivia Carlson, ’20, but none of them have succeeded in knocking the resilient and determined Dance Education major off her feet.
This past year, Carlson, a resident of New Hartford, was impacted by a confluence of losses, beginning with the deeply personal when her father succumbed to pancreatic cancer last summer. Then the coronavirus struck in March and the Doncin School of Dance in Torrington shut down, where she had been a student since she was 3 years old and had started working this past year.
But rather than throwing up her hands in despair, armed with a small army of family and friends, she put them to work to create QuaranTine (QT) Bears to comfort kids, including her own students, during the pandemic. In a few short months her business has gained national recognition and sales are going through the roof.
The concept was inspired by the Build-A-Bears she made with her dad when he was very ill.
“You can put hearts on the bears,” she says. “My dad put one on mine and I put one on his, which is buried with him.”
QT Bears wear tiny masks. A matching child-size mask is included with each order, along with a hand-written note from the bear with tips to stay healthy.
Carlson purchases premade bears from a wholesale company and then hand sews each mask with the help of her mother, grandmother, and aunt, who cut out the material¬.
Spreading like wildfire through social media—which Olivia says she’s much better at than sewing—her first six bears sold in three minutes. Within one week, Carlson had 100 orders, which soon increased to about 200 a week. She woke up to 500 orders the day after a story ran in mid-May on Channel 3 News, followed by an interview on New York’s WCBS Newsradio 880.
Up until then, most of Carlson’s orders were in bound for Connecticut addresses, delivered personally by her mother.
“We had to start shipping,” Carlson says. “We just got an order from Alaska and someone in south Florida, who saw it on the news. I’m working 12-hour days just to keep up.”
Carlson is in the process of establishing the business as an LLC and creating a website. Her aunt, a graphic designer, created the QT Bear logo.
Prepared for success at CCSU
This past year, in addition to Dance Education Certification for PK-12 teaching, CCSU began offering a BS in Dance Education Entrepreneurship,
which is Carlson’s concentration.
“We’ve had a lot of interest in our dance education program from students who want to teach in a studio or open their own studio, versus teaching in public schools,” says Dr. Kimberly Kostelis, dean of the School of Education & Professional Studies. “So, we met with the business school to create a specialization for dance majors who want to pursue a business-based dance career.”
Required courses and electives range from Financing Entrepreneurial Ventures and Fundamentals of Marketing to Creativity in Marketing and Advertising and Promotion.
Carlson says these classes gave her the tools and knowledge to launch her own business.
“I didn’t know how much I liked business classes until I started taking them,” she says. “It’s opened up more opportunities for me.”
Kostelis thinks Carlson’s overnight success story is terrific.
“I applaud Olivia for wanting to help children, and in doing so she is helping herself by keeping busy during this difficult time and having lost her father so recently.”
What the future holds
After the pandemic ends, Carlson still can envision a future for the QT Bears.
“Parents have reached out to me, who have kids with autoimmune diseases that have to wear masks,” she says, adding that she believes hospitals would purchase her inventory for young patients who require protective face coverings while hospitalized, and would be comforted by the bears.
As for her big-picture dream, Carlson says, “I just know I want to teach dance. I’ve actually always had the idea of opening a nonprofit dance company to give back to my community and share the love and creativity of dance that because of a lot of kids don’t get to see or experience.”
“I’ve seen Olivia really grow and develop her leadership in our program,” Kostelis says. “She’s hardworking, caring, and thoughtful, and I think her self-confidence has grown over the years and will lead to her continued success.”