Jayna Cooke sorts through
closets to find fashionable items to sell on eBay and
raise funds for St. Jude Children's
handbag, which was donated to
Closet Angels by the wife of an
Considering her megawatt smile and perfectly coiffed mane of blond hair, it’s no wonder that Jayna Cooke walked off with the title of Miss Teen Michigan All American in 2000. But don’t be fooled: Beauty queen looks aside, Cooke is one of the shrewdest young business minds in Chicago, with an entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of ideas. Earlier this year, Cooke, 31, brought one such idea to fruition when she founded Closet Angels, a not-for-profit organization that turns donated couture into dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“There is so much going on right now in the luxury resale landscape,” Cooke says, citing shops like eDrop-Off, Luxury Garage Sale, and the Real Real. “A lot of different options are for profit, but I wanted to do something that required very little to be able to give. So instead of being asked to write a big check or buy a table at an event, you can just clean out your closet.”
Cooke is right at home in the start-up world, having been one of the first employees at Groupon, where she stayed until fall 2012. It was there that Cooke honed her start-up skills, working in market expansion, business development, hiring, and partnerships, and eventually being responsible for a full quarter of the company’s revenue.
Fast-forward to fall 2013. Cooke has thrown herself full-time into Closet Angels, transforming her chic River North condo into a makeshift office space until the company gets off the ground. Her spare bedroom-turned-donations-storage-closet is stocked full of luxe designer clothes waiting to be photographed and listed on eBay: an in-season Chloe Paraty bag, a barely-worn Armani suit, and boxes and boxes of Chanel. (“An Hermès Birkin bag would just be the top echelon,” Cooke concedes.) She has received donations from St. Jude supporters, socialites, and—much to her surprise—plenty of men.
Cooke’s two-year goal for donations is $250,000; within five years, $1 million. Closet Angels is well on its way toward that number, with donations and subsequent sales having doubled each quarter. And Cooke is actively drumming up business: When we met, she had just pitched a clothing drive to 200 employees at a downtown insurance company; she has a venue and sponsors secured for a fall fundraiser to which supporters bring clothes instead of buying tickets; and she has friends, college buddies, and past coworkers stationed in cities across the country ready to help with closet clean-outs. All in all, this start-up queen has reason to be confident. “We’re just starting to scratch the surface,” she says. “We’re figuring out ways to drive donations and getting processes down. But I see it being huge. Closet Angels is going to exist forever.”