There's a curious story developing in Appleton, Wisconsin, a small town of about 75,000 residents located near Green Bay.
The story is about Sapphire Moon Chocolates and its owner Tarina Swanson. Swanson, who opened the chocolate and sweet shop this past September, proudly calls herself a United States Army veteran. She is also a Michigan-born Muslim who wears a traditional hijab headscarf. Where I live, that fact would hardly raise an eyebrow. But Swanson says her faith has attracted unwanted attention - even discrimination.
When customers would enter her store she "would pop up over the counter and say, 'Hi there,'" Swanson told local television station WBAY. "They would look at me kind of blankly, and they would just turn around and leave." But that wasn't all. In another report, Swanson says that one woman assaulted her verbally and another woman stood in her doorway and yelled that she “would never buy anything from a woman who wears a headscarf.’” Hard to believe? Not really. Swanson’s story isn’t an isolated tale.
“I believe her,” Mohamed Abdelazim, the leader of a local Islamic Center told the Appleton Post Crescent. “Some other members complained about similar things. It’s not very common in Appleton, but it could have happened to her.”
To show support, a pastor and former college professor of Swanson’s posted a photo and encouraged her friends to shop at the store. The post garnered more than 4,000 shares and 3,000 reactions in just a few days on Facebook and people began "lining up" to buy her chocolates. So, a happy ending, right?
Unfortunately, not. Because here the story takes a turn.
The well-intentioned Facebook post also drew the attention of someone else: a private investigator working for an insurance company. The investigator was looking into a $550,000 workmen's compensation claim that Swanson filed a few years before, alleging injuries she incurred at her former employer. But those injuries were called into question after the investigator visited the store and photographed Swanson bending over and doing other physical chores. Because of these photos, a judge last week awarded her an amount far less than what she expected.
Swanson was depending on the payout to fund the costs of her store, including paying her daughter to “do the include heavy lifting” and for her own retirement. Now these plans are in jeopardy. “Everything did ride on the settlement," Swanson said. "We’re ready to lose our house, my car. I pushed money into the shop with inventory. The purpose of the shop was to provide me with a wage. Now I’m in financial ruin.”
Was she the victim of religious discrimination in the first place? Given the times, it wouldn't surprise me. But unfortunately her story, once it became public, revealed facts about her which ultimately influenced a judge to rule against her in another, unrelated case. "It did not go well because of the Facebook posts," she admitted.
If anything, Swanson's story contains a couple of hard lessons. Using capital that is not yet yours to invest in a business is a risky proposition. Just as important, some types of public attention for a small business - even if it draws in customers - can have the opposite effect of its intent.