When it comes to being an entrepreneur, Judi Henderson is no stranger to adapting in changing times. From the yellow pages to the rise of e-commerce giants eBay and Amazon to the importance of having a social media presence—Henderson has seen it all in the two decades since opening her business, Mannequin Madness.
There was also this significant change: people’s increasing consciousness of climate change and the importance of the “three R’s” of waste management: reduce, reuse, recycle.
“People are much more open about recycling, which wasn’t a thing 20 years ago. People weren’t as concerned about climate change,” Henderson said. “I had a much harder time convincing retailers who didn’t want to recycle their mannequins.”
That increased environmental awareness is what led Henderson to conceive of the business idea behind Mannequin Madness: taking old mannequins that were headed for the trash and selling them to artists, small retailers, and other creatives where they could be given a new life.
Henderson specializes in selling mannequins of all shapes and sizes, and her clients currently include seamstresses, a visual artist who turns mannequins into lamps, and even bondage enthusiasts looking to practice rope-tying techniques. There’s no business like hers in Nothern California, and she’s one of about a dozen small used mannequin businesses across the country.
Henderson coordinates free pick-ups of mannequins in bulk from retailers that are either shutting down or remodeling. She then preps the mannequins at her warehouse and storefront in Jingletown before reselling them.
Her store has all kinds of mannequins: plus-size figures, male athletic torsos, half mannequins with bendable arms, heads once used by cosmetology students, and even mannequins from George Lucas’ studios that were once used to display Star Wars costumes.
The mannequins are typically made from fiberglass, plastics, and other non-biodegradable materials, so reusing them is more environmentally friendly than disposing of them in a landfill. These days, she said, most major retailers understand this and have recycling initiatives to reduce their waste. In turn, she gets more calls from retailers and other businesses looking for her to take their old mannequins.
Henderson said that in recent years, she’s also seen the small-business sector become more supportive of Black-owned businesses like hers.
“There’s a lot more emphasis and support for small businesses, especially small minority-owned businesses that didn’t exist when I first got started,” she said. “I think there’s no better time to be a female entrepreneur of color than now. Not to say that it’s easy, but it’s a lot better than it was before.”
According to the company’s website, Mannequin Madness recycles around 1 million pounds of mannequins per year. This includes full-body mannequins, heads, torsos, and body parts.
Before becoming a full-time entrepreneur, Henderson worked at a startup during the dotcom bubble. But she wanted to do more and began her mannequin business as a side project. She started with 50 mannequins, created her business plan, and even launched a website. After having missed the deadline to get her business into the yellow pages, she began cold-calling large retailers asking if they would be interested in giving her all their unused mannequins that would be disposed of.
In 2001, she got word that Sears was getting rid of all of the mannequins in its retail stores, so she rented a cargo van and picked up 500 of them.
Then 9/11 happened, and shortly thereafter, Henderson lost her job at the startup, forcing her to rethink what she wanted to do next.
“9/11 was another scary time like the pandemic, where people were questioning how they wanted to live the rest of their life and what was more important to them,” she said. It was then that she took the plunge and became a full-time entrepreneur. “I went from renting mannequins part-time, to selling part-time, and then it became my full-time business.”
When Los Angeles-based retailer American Apparel shuttered in 2017, Henderson got their entire mannequin inventory. “We had three 30-foot trucks just filled with mannequins, some of them still brand new in the box,” she said. “We got them for free. We just had to pay to ship them up here.”
As her popularity grew, retailers in other states took notice and would reach out to her looking to offload discarded inventory. Although her business was successful, she knew that gathering a crew to travel across state lines would be costly. Instead, she began networking with the other few businesses like hers in other states that would be willing and available to pick up inventory nearby and charge a broker’s fee.
“I didn’t fit the box. I was an older entrepreneur in the fashion industry, which is a young people’s industry. I was in Oakland. Nobody thinks of Oakland for something fashion-related,” she said. “And at the time, I was still doing business out of my home.”
Henderson hopes her success will inspire others who are close to retiring but not ready to fully slow down to look for hobbies they’re passionate about. Rapid-changing technology, she said, shouldn’t be viewed as an obstacle.
“Technology makes it possible for senior entrepreneurs—if they’re willing to grasp technology— to do things that they may not have been able to do before,” she said.
The pandemic put that theory to the test for Henderson. When she was forced to shutter her old business, she initially had to find other ways to keep herself afloat besides selling mannequins online. It was then that she learned how to use Zoom.
Henderson already had the idea of hosting headdress workshops using the head mannequins she already had at her store. During the pandemic, she began offering Zoom classes. Then, as places began opening up and people returned to work, she began offering mobile services where she would take the head mannequins and the supplies to companies looking to do team-building activities with employees. Now, she also offers private and Sunday group classes at the store.
“We realized that making the headdresses wasn’t just a cute thing to do,” she said. “It’s a therapeutic thing to do.”
Seemingly nothing—not the ever-changing technology, an economy in disarray, or a pandemic—can stop Henderson’s entrepreneurial spirit. And she wants to inspire others to pursue their dreams, no matter their age.
“People live longer and want to do something to stay engaged. I find senior entrepreneurs tend to be involved with things that are giving back to their community, not looking for fame,” she said. “What kind of legacy do I want to leave behind?”