Creative makers embody local entrepreneurial spirit

With so many community members embracing the "buy local" movement, it's never been a better time to be a hometown maker.

Those with an entrepreneurial spirit are in good company in the Tampa Bay area, which is positively brimming with artists, entrepreneurs, small business owners and makers of all stripes.

We caught up with four local creatives who've each carved out a thriving niche in the Tampa Bay makers scene. 

Elena Bensonoff, artisan perfumer in Hyde Park

Stepping into Elena Bensonoff's private Hyde Park studio is a feast for the senses. Subtle, enticing scents hang in the air all around her work area; whiffs of sweet honey mingling with citrusy blood orange.

"Isn't this just divine?" she asks, placing a bottle of chocolate extract beneath my nose. It is, and I tell her so.

Bensonoff, an artisan perfumer, has been creating small batches of handmade, natural fragrances for her business, Wholistic, since 2013. She's also a licensed pharmacist who doubles as a spiritual health practitioner. It was studying functional medicine and the root causes of illness that nudged her to launch her natural perfume business, which explores aromatherapy with natural ingredients.

"Natural perfume requires patience, time, and learning how different ingredients will interact," she says. "Department store perfumes are made with synthetic ingredients and every bottle is predictable. Natural perfumes vary with each batch."

Bensonoff primarily uses plant extracts and essential oils, marrying them in true alchemic fashion. When the raw ingredients come together, the result can be a thick, muddy concoction that she lets sit for four to six weeks. It's then filtered through a coffee-filter type contraption, which drips the finished product into a dainty glass bottle. 

Since every batch uses fresh ingredients, no two -- even if they're made with the same materials -- smell exactly alike. Bensonoff's perfumes typically last for 12 to 18 months before the fragrance begins to wane.

Her workspace sits in front of a huge wooden chest that's packed with different elixirs, oils and raw ingredients. Here she meets with private clients by appointment only.

Dolly Donshey, avant garde milliner in Largo

Dolly Donshey isn't your average hat maker -- she isn't a "hat maker" at all, in fact. She's a bona fide milliner who honors what's long been considered a dying art.

"My kind of millinery is not for everyday wear," she says. "I'm all about making bold, confident pieces that are a little on the weird side."

Donshey's avant garde design aesthetic is dark, playful and surprisingly feminine. Feathers, skulls, bones and animal wings are sprinkled throughout her over-the-top pieces, many of which are rooted in taxidermy.
"I really love dead things, I know it sounds really awful!" she adds. "I think there’s a lot of beauty in mixing such an odd, morbid thing with a beautiful thing. I really gravitate toward that. Most people who come to me are looking for something a little edgier."

Edge is definitely what Donshey delivers, whether she's creating a forward-thinking bridal accessory or a custom-made hat to wear to the races during derby season. The 26-year-old Largo-based milliner has shown her work at Fashion Week in New York, Miami and Tampa Bay. Her biggest source of inspiration? Music and fabric.
"A new collection is basically a story that develops from something I’ve listened to that’s touched me in a certain way," says Donshey. "If it’s me just making a piece for myself, it’s the fabric that inspires me. I'll see a fabric I’m really drawn to, and then a whole design just comes from that."

Donshey's line, Monstruosité, is available via her Etsy shop.

Jenn Landry, self-taught jewelry designer in St. Pete

A few years ago, Jenn Landry had a problem. The novice jewelry maker wanted to graduate from basic wire-wrapping designs to more sophisticated metal work. But with no formal training, the mother of two was left to her own devices. The solution was easy enough; she took to YouTube.

"I had no idea how to do it, but figured I could learn. I was honestly just really hungry for it," says 33-year-old Landry. "I now mainly do soldering, working with a torch a bit smaller than what welders use."

That I-can-figure-this-out spirit has paid off well for Landry, who's running her own small jewelry business, JCL Jewelry. Her designs are all at once soft and edgy; boho-chic with a feminine twist. Her shop offers everything from heart-shaped silver ear cuffs to rose gold cartilage earrings, all with a refined flair. She primarily works with sterling silver, yellow gold and rose gold.

"It's all handcrafted," says Landry. "What I try to do is create delicate jewelry for women who value meaningful designs and local business over name brands."

That loyalty to supporting the little guy is a big part of her philosophy. She deliberately buys all her supplies and tools from various small business owners. Landry's in good company with Keep Saint Petersburg Local, the popular St. Pete business alliance she recently joined. Meanwhile you'll find her jewelry on Etsy and at the Pierce Street Market in Clearwater. Her work was also recently picked up by Thread Appeal and St. Pete's own Salty Roots Salon & Boutique.

Karen Fultz, attorney-turned-activewear designer in New Tampa

They say the smartest entrepreneurs are the ones whose ideas solve a common problem. Three years ago, 44-year-old attorney Karen Fultz was hit with a business idea while training for a marathon. Running in the cold meant that long sleeves covered up her fitness tracker.

"I tried putting it on the outside of my sleeve, but it becomes uncomfortable when you're trying to run and monitor your performance," she recalls.

Fitness trackers tend to work best when they're in direct contact with the skin. But for athletes exercising outdoors in cool weather, this presents a bit of a problem.

"I knew there had to be a better way!" says Fultz.

She began toying with the idea of activewear that worked with wearable fitness technology. From there, her company, ObservaMé, was born. Fultz patented a design that sports an opening in the sleeve -- making it easy to access your fitness tracker while training. Debuting at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic Expo last month, the line currently features fashion-forward compression sleeves, pullovers, hoodies and hats for both men and women.

ObservaMé (which loosely  translates to "watch me" in Spanish) is a web-based business that serves as a side gig/passion project for Fultz; she's been a practicing attorney for over 20 years. Next on her agenda is a booth at the Boston Marathon.

"It's a scary endeavor," she says. "You're always afraid of failing, but if you tell yourself 'no,' you'll never try."
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Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.