From Rio to Kauai: Gisele’s Entrepreneurial Journey

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• 5 minute read
Close-up of bathing suits on a rack.

When Gisele Gardner moved to Hawaii from Brazil in 1997, she had no intention of starting a business. Over two decades later, Gisele’s retail store, The Bikini Room, provides high-quality beach essentials to both tourists and residents on the island of Kauai. Gisele, an OnDeck customer, spoke to OnDeck about her small business, and about her perspectives as a female business owner.

Customer was compensated for sharing their story.

What inspired you to start your business?

In 1997, Gisele moved from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Kauai, Hawaii, to finish marine biology school.

“I had no idea how to run a business,” she recalls.

At the time, there were a few swimwear retailers on the small island, but none sold the Brazilian styles she was familiar with. Seeing that gap in the market sparked an idea — bring Brazilian beachwear to Hawaii.

Gisele started selling merchandise from a Brazilian brand, but their sizing system wasn’t working for her customers. So she began to adapt the Brazilian sizes to the American sizing system.

“And then, little by little, I started to develop my own styles and my own cuts…and I started my own brand, which is called The Bikini Room.”

That brand turned into a storefront of the same name in Kauai, where Gisele sells not only swimwear made from Brazilian fabric, but towels, blankets, clothing, kidswear, bags, suncare and more.

Are there business challenges you’ve had to face?

Importing materials from Brazil to a small Hawaiian island soon proved to be no small (or cheap) feat.

“They charged me more than a first-class ticket to Brazil,” Gisele laughs. “The shipping, the import taxes, and just the whole bureaucracy [of] bringing stuff from a different country…it got easier. But in the beginning, it was kind of hard.”

But to Gisele, providing employment to Brazilians is worth the challenges.

“To be able to just give jobs down there and support the people down there, for me, is still a big part of my business. I still work with the same people from day one. I add people, but I try to keep everybody. You don’t win alone, you win with a team.”

The quality of the Brazilian-made textiles also benefits Gisele’s customers and her brand’s reputation.

“Everybody talks about my fabric…everybody mentions how soft the fabric is. So, I think, at the end, putting all the steps together — it’s still worth it to make it down there, support them, get a good quality bathing suit, pay all the shipping fees [and] custom fees, and bring it here.”

Person holding a stack of brightly-colored blankets.

Why do you think it’s important to celebrate women in business?

“I think women, in general, take [on] a lot of roles,” Gisele says.

From Gisele’s perspective, business tasks are not the only responsibilities most women business owners manage day-to-day. In her case, being a single mother of two is another full-time job on top of running a business.

“I’m a woman, I’m a mom, and it’s hard for me to do it all. But I do it in the end.” she says.

Recognizing all the elements that women in business have to balance can help them move forward.

Gisele reflects on her own accomplishments, saying, “I feel very proud of myself to manage everything, and I’ve been through a lot of natural disasters here in Kauai, and [then] COVID after. And to be able to go through all of this, steady, for me is a victory. And keep taking care of my kids.”

Gisele Gardner smiling in front of a rack of merchandise.

What are some ways people can support women-owned small businesses like yours?

“By shopping local,” says Gisele. However, she emphasizes the flip side of this dynamic. “But I always think, how can I support my community?’”

“I’m always trying to join the school fundraisers and the youth fundraisers and the car washes,” she says. “We do a lot of community events.”

To Gisele, community is especially important within small areas, such as the island of Kauai. “Without each other, nobody wins,” says Gisele.

“I think we are a whole…and every part of it is important.”

What advice would you give to women looking to start their own business?

“To find something that they really love — not only women, but anyone,” says Gisele.

She emphasizes that temporary circumstances may not always be perfect, but goal-setting is crucial.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to do things that you don’t like temporarily, just to go from one place to another…that’s fine. But as long as there is a timeline for that,” Gisele says. “When you start doing something that you don’t like for a long time, there’s no finish line…then you’re not happy.”

“The bottom line [is], you have to do something that you like, that you have a passion for, that you can see growing…you need to have a goal.”

As for her own business, Gisele’s passion for it is unwavering. “I can see myself doing it forever,” she says.

“I love what I do. And I met many, many, people through the years and they come back every year. I made some really good friends here, with the business,” she continues.

“Sometimes we win, sometimes we learn. We don’t lose.”

DISCLAIMER: This content is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended as financial, investment or legal advice.