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I am a Hudson Valley Parent: Nicole Benjamin



A sweet and sassy life and business

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Ulster County mom and entrepreneur Nicole Benjamin bases her girls' clothing line on the sweet and sassy elements of her daughter, and the Sumatoo, a fruit from Guyana.


When Nicole Benjamin started thinking about college, she enrolled at New York City's High School for Health Professions.

"I was going to be a child psychologist or a pediatrician," says the mother of three and owner of Sumatoo, a hip new clothing line for tween girls. "Then I saw that movie The Sixth Sense and I figured, 'That's not what I want to do anymore'."

Benjamin, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in California and then Brooklyn, ended up going to the Fashion Institute of Technology, and working a string of high-end jobs in Manhattan's designer industry.

Always keep business in mind
When her son Tyler, now 17 years old and awaiting word from the colleges he's applied to, was very young, she started looking to him for design ideas.

When her daughter Madison, now 12 years old and a rising gymnast with her own dog treats line, was 4 months old, Nicole decided she wanted to spend more time with her kids. She moved to the Hudson Valley community of Highland and started an online business, Tyler & Madison, that curated fine children's clothing. She enjoyed the entire experience, from shopping to management. But then the economy dived.

"I'd been wanting to do my own line of clothes but that didn't work out then," she says. Nicole and her husband Swanston, an IT engineer originally from Guyana, buckled down. They had another son, Jayden, who is now eight years old. Family years took over, along with school and after-school sports schedules. But she kept thinking of design and business ideas in her head.


Sweet, sassy and sweet again
"When I was working at Tommy Hilfiger doing children's clothes while going home to my own children, I really started to appreciate what's key to a successful design," Benjamin says. "With a daughter, I found that when I looked at what was available, I realized I could make something that fit her personality much better."

Madison's personality, her mother says, is outgoing and singular, driven yet also loving. She was girly but not a princess; athletic but spontaneous as well. Benjamin started styling for her tastes.

And so Sumatoo was born. Her clothing line's name came from a fruit from Guyana her husband was always talking about: the Sumatoo.

"It's sweet but a bit tart, a bit sassy. Then with a sweet aftertaste," Benjamin adds. "My daughter has a strong personality, but she's also like other girls her age who are sweet and sassy."

"It's remained a one-woman show, but my daughter helps with the
colors and styles."

Making time for movie nights
Benjamin says she enjoys all aspects of the work, from searching out cloth and New York companies that can make the clothes to the long nights she handles the business and shipping aspects after the kids go to bed.

"It's a matter of juggling everything," Benjamin adds. But then she notes how that's allowed her to support Tyler's years playing basketball, Madison's gymnastics and own business start-up, and young Jayden's love of all sports.

"We definitely do all the normal family stuff, including family vacations and movie nights where I leave the business behind and we all climb in my bed," Benjamin adds. "It's a hard balance, but a good balance."

READ MORE: Have a family date night!


Reflecting on childhood and community
Benjamin reflects on her own childhood and how that affects her parenting. "My childhood was very different than my own children's," she answers. "From age 7, my mom was single and when I was 13 she had my brother. My mother would work all the time. My focus with my kids, from the start, has been to be there for them."

Has living in the Hudson Valley for the full life of Sumatoo, and most of her kids' lives, made a difference?

"In the city you're more focused on what you're doing. In the Hudson Valley, you engage with family and friends more. Life can mean more," Benjamin answers. "On the flip side, being in the city means things,
especially business- wise, have a way of taking off much faster."

How have Tyler, Madison and Jayden reacted to their mother's business, to Sumatoo?

"Tyler's proud, but also kind of 'huh?' Madison, she started her own business making dog treats," mom replies. "Jayden, he came home
recently and noted how everyone says his mom is famous."

Like the Sumatoo her business is named after, Benjamin's life is both sweet and then a bit sassy.

And then sweet again, in the end.

Paul Smart is a father who writes for a variety of publications in the Hudson Valley.


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