By Joe Garvey
Narketta Sparkman-Key can still recall her first handbag.
The small, green Dooney and Bourke bag was a 16th-birthday gift from her mother. It was cylindrical, had brown trim and opened with a zipper around the top.
"I fell in love with that bag for many reasons," said Old Dominion University's director of faculty diversity and retention and an associate professor of counseling and human services. "But the very first reason was because it was more of a piece of art than just a handbag. It was different."
Now she has a side gig designing and selling handbags.
Sparkman-Key fulfilled a longtime dream by launching Belinda Bea, The Original Boss Bag, a line of vegan handbags, which do not use animal products, on Jan. 1.
The name is a nod to her late aunt and grandmother.
"Those two really struck my interest in fashion and how I presented myself as a lady," Sparkman-Key said. "My love of purses and handbags came from my Aunt Belinda. I can remember as a little kid she always carried a big bag with a lot of stuff in it. ... Belinda's purse became part of her identity.
"And my grandmother was very classy. And though she was a housewife, she really focused on teaching us how to be a lady, and what being a lady meant. And being a lady meant everything had to match."
Sparkman-Key said that over the years she transformed different types of bags to fit what she was wearing (she once turned a diaper bag into handbag). She's a collector of handbags - she owns 30 to 40 - purchasing new ones during her travels around the world.
"All my life I just looked for handbags that were different, that spoke to me, that could be a part of my identity and not just something that I carried my things in," she said.
Sparkman-Key, who previously participated in ODU's Program Acceleration for Collaborative Entrepreneurship (PACE), began exploring starting a line of handbags during the pandemic.
She drew on her experience as a single mother who worked full time while going to school during most of her kids' childhood.
"I wanted a bag that could give you the functionality of a backpack but looked classy enough to take to a board meeting," she said.
She began her research in May, looking into U.S. manufacturers to produce her designs. But the cost was prohibitive. That was the first of several times when she thought she might have to abandon the project.
In the late summer, however, she found an overseas factory that could produce the bags at a lower cost.
Sparkman-Key, who owned a successful event-planning business before coming to ODU,
said she had considered every aspect of each bag, from the material to the lining to the stitching to the pockets.
"I really had to get detailed about the things that I like about the purses that I have to understand what I wanted to put into the bags I was designing," she said.
After a few rounds of mockups, the company delivered designs she was satisfied with after Thanksgiving.
Sparkman-Key, who has marketed her bags online and through social media, sold 22 bags during the pre-order phase and is shipping them. She has three designs and plans to add two more.
During the process, she sought input from several students she mentored at ODU, including Bianca Augustine, a resident in counseling and a doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision at ODU, and T'Airra Belcher, assistant professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who earned her Ph.D. and master's degrees in counselor education and supervision and mental health counseling, respectively, from ODU.
"Dr. Sparkman-Key has been my mentor since my first semester in the Ph.D. program," Augustine said. "When she began her vegan purse line, she told me about it, and I was beyond proud and excited for her. She asked if I would be interested in modeling for the purse line. I eagerly accepted this opportunity. It gave me an opportunity to not only help promote her dream but also support her as she continues to support and inspire me."
"We have talked at length about gender, gender expression, and LGBT+ communities," Belcher added. "Boss Bags isn't a gendered product. A boss can be any gender, you can wear these bags and a little teaser of what's to come because there will be even more options that continue to appeal to a diverse population of current and future bosses."
And that is one of Sparkman-Key's main goals.
"I tell everyone that when you put on this bag, you're a boss," she said. "You're taking ownership of your life and your career, and you're handling your business. That's the bigger vision - to empower women. And my handbags had to contribute to that."