Inside a little blue house on South First Street, you will find a gem of a shop known as PASSPORT Vintage, co-owned and co-operated by Maria Oliveira. Her warm smile and unique style welcomes customers into her shop filled with the smell of wooden incense. The blue lights and curtains complimented the wooden floors, while the racks of vintage clothes were organized along the walls of the two rooms in the house.
Story by Ingrid Garcia
Photos by Kiana Fernandez
Originally from Brazil, Oliveira’s family emigrated to the United States when she was 11 years old, seeking economic and educational opportunities. She attended school in the suburbs of South Florida as an undocumented immigrant.“As soon as I went from being a child to a teenager, I realized how that affected my life, like I couldn’t get a driver’s license,” Oliveira says. “I was awarded a full-ride scholarship in the sixth grade, which is like really early, but I couldn’t end up using the scholarship because I was undocumented.”
Unable to afford college, Oliveira pursued a part-time job as a sales associate at American Apparel, right at the time of their exponential growth. Eventually, she was promoted to district manager in Florida and then in Chicago, overseeing a total of 14 stores. Her time with American Apparel was spent learning about the business, traveling and meeting new people, but that chapter came to a close after six years.“I had to make the hardest decision of my life,” Oliveira says. “I had a really comfortable job that my parents never had. I made more money than anyone else in my family has ever made, but I’m going to say no because I want to follow my dream. My dream was to always have my own business. It wasn’t specific. I just wanted to be my own boss.”
Now at 31, Oliveira successfully owns three businesses while also managing other projects she’s passionate about on the side. What is now known as PASSPORT Vintage originally started on Etsy as Oliveira’s side hustle while she was working at American Apparel. Her part-time earnings were about $400 per month, so she decided to commit full-time in 2014 to double those earnings.
What started as a shared passion for vintage clothing and as a hobby eventually led to PASSPORT Vintage. Co-owner and Oliveira’s longtime friend Ryan Lerma said that at first, it was just a fun way to make money, but they suddenly had a full-time career on their hands. Lerma said Oliveira’s habit of reading business books and listening to podcasts on entrepreneurship has grown their business. “A successful business is about constant growth, and it's very motivating to work with someone who creates that environment,” Lerma says. “These same efforts she also puts into her activism. It is a genuine care of the people in her life and the disenfranchised that drive her to reach greater goals.”
Oliveira takes inspiration from Jose Antonio Vargas, journalist and documentarian, who led a very driven career because of his status as an undocumented immigrant. For both Vargas and Oliveira, failure is not an option. “For everyone else at American Apparel, it was a retail job that you did while you’re going to school or whatever, but as soon as I realized that there’s so much I could do and so much I could learn, I just knew I had to succeed.”
While her experience at American Apparel set her up with the skills for her career, her immigrant experience that is deep in her bones and her work ethic led her on the path to be an entrepreneur. Oliveira said initially, running her Etsy store was quite easy compared to managing 14 stores, but Oliveira didn’t stop there. She tackled Instagram, modeling and creating consistent content to keep her audience interested. After three months, her Etsy store earned her a full-time income and eventually led to a brick and mortar store after a year and a half, Oliveira said.
The lack of vintage markets in the Austin area inspired Lerma and Oliveira to tackle on another project now known as Laissez Fair in April 2018. This biannual event hosts 20+ vendors selling vintage womenswear, menswear, home goods and jewelry. Through Laissez Fair and PASSPORT Vintage’s social media accounts, event planning and marketing, Oliveira discovered her passion for marketing and strategy which ultimately led to her third business: Fresh Bread, a social media consulting company. Her current client, Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, founded Jolt Texas and Workers Defense Project. Oliveira was also working with Jolt until they hired a full-time employee. Her love for marketing grew as she began to understand the importance of getting your message across as a business, if done right.
PASSPORT Vintage social media intern Natalie Dominguez has worked with Oliveira for almost a year and finds her journey encouraging as a college student. “She’s very inspiring, especially owning your own business in Austin because I’m sure it’s not an easy thing to do,” Dominguez says. “She started from the ground up, starting an online business and turning it into a brick-and-mortar.” Dominguez says her internship experience with Oliveira’s businesses has opened up a new career path for her. “Getting to learn from her one-on-one is really great experience to see what all goes into it. Beforehand, you think it’s just a store or a vintage market, but you don’t see the emails and posts behind the scenes.”
Oliveira is a walking example of beating the odds. As a woman, a Latina, an undocumented immigrant someone who didn’t attend college, she continues to dominate Austin as a successful businesswoman. “I think that entrepreneurs or anybody starting really has to realize that as a starting brand 50 percent of your efforts should go into marketing and the other 50 percent focusing on the best work you can do or the best product. Those two will propel you.”
Oliveira stresses that if people aren’t receiving the message about your business, then you have no business. Her own marketing skills and tactics led her own vintage shop to be featured in Glamour and W Magazine.Her advice to young entrepreneurs such as Dominguez is, “Always stay busy and never have a moment when you’re not working on something.”