Ask Nicole Fenstad to share her best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and without hesitation, she’ll light up and start talking about how important it is to follow your dreams, take the big, scary leap and go after what you want.
“You can’t just sit back. You have to take a chance,” said Fenstad, the founder and owner of Minneapolis-based Princess Party Pals. “Be brave! It may lead you to the exact place that you’re truly meant to be.”
That has certainly been the case for Fenstad, whose own story is worthy of a Disney movie in and of itself. As a child, she was very involved in gymnastics and dance until she discovered her true passion – theatre. It ignited a spark in her that she’d never experienced before and she couldn’t get enough.
“I was in all the high school plays,” Fenstad said. “And then when I graduated and was moving on to college, my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I was thinking about becoming a child psychologist.”
Her mother was surprised at her answer.
“She said ‘I thought maybe you would want to do theatre,’” Fenstad recalled. “It didn’t even dawn on me as a possibility that I could do that!”
While many parents would try to talk their children out of getting a degree in theatre, Fenstad’s mother and father encouraged her to pursue her passion – and that’s exactly what she did. During her four years at Minnesota State University Moorhead, she threw herself into the theatre program and when she graduated, she moved to Wisconsin to do summer stock. But like many aspiring actresses, she had dreams of making it to New York.
Then one day, she came across a fellow performer’s copy of Backstage, an industry newspaper that included a list of all the auditions happening in New York. And as she was reading, something caught her eye.
“Beauty and the Beast was auditioning in New York City, and I was obsessed with it,” Fenstad said. “And so I told all the girls ‘I’m going to fly to New York and I’m going to be Belle.’”
In the fairy-tale version of this story, Fenstad would get scooped up by a unicorn and be transported directly to the Big Apple where she would audition for Belle and be awarded the part immediately. In reality, though, things didn’t go quite so smoothly. First, she and her friend had to drive all night to Chicago to catch a 7 a.m. flight to New York – and because she had to perform in a show the next morning, her return flight was scheduled for 6 p.m. the same day.
“Here’s little naive me thinking I could just go to New York for eight hours and get a Broadway show,” Fenstad said with a laugh. “God bless my heart and my naivete!”
The next issue Fenstad faced in getting to New York was the weather.
“There was so much fog that the flight was canceled,” said Fenstad, who was already wearing a blue dress and had her hair in curlers in preparation for her audition. “I turned to my friend and said ‘what am I going to do?’ She told me ‘you can’t stop now. You’ve got to make it to New York!’”
Inspired, Fenstad managed to find a flight that got her to New York at 11 a.m. She knew that every second would count so right after she landed, she hailed a cab to the studio where the auditions were being held.
That’s when the next obstacle landed directly in Fenstad’s path.
“I saw the moderator who was there for the audition and I walked up to him all bright eyed and bushy tailed and I said ‘I’m here to play Belle!,’” she said. “And he said, ‘oh can I see your Equity card [note: an Equity card is proof of membership in the Actors Equity Association]?’ I didn’t even know what that was!”
Once the moderator learned she didn’t have a card, he flatly told her that he would take her resume and photographs. She wouldn’t be allowed to audition. It seemed like the end of the line, and for many people, it would have been. But not for Fenstad.
“I knew I hadn’t come all this way to be turned away,” she said. “I asked the moderator what time the people running the audition would be headed to lunch because I just knew they would come out of the studio, see me and say ‘You’re Belle.’”
After she was told an approximate time, Fenstad sat down to wait. She began leafing through Backstage and saw there was an audition for cruise ship dancers being held at that very moment at Radio City Music Hall. Wanting to make the most out of her precious hours in New York, she went to Radio City and asked if she could audition as a singer. Initially, they told her no, but soon relented and allowed her to sing and dance for them. They liked what they saw and asked her if she could stay for the next round. Suddenly, Fenstad realized she had a tough choice to make.
“I thought, ‘OK, one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,’” she said. “I decided to stay because the other audition was such a crapshoot and now I was actually in and seeing someone.”
The auditions continued. Fenstad survived cut after cut. Finally, there were only six people left, but Fenstad had to leave to catch her return flight. Fortunately, when she got home, there was good news waiting for her in the form of a voicemail letting her know that she had landed the gig. Her story would have a happy ending after all!
“That’s my story about going for it no matter what,” Fenstad said. “There were so many things that could have stopped me starting with the weather, but I knew that I had to take the risk. And there’s something so beautiful about being as naive as I was and not knowing any better because I might not be as brave now as I was back then.”
Fenstad’s job on the cruise ship kicked off a journey that would take her across the country doing what she loved best – performing. In 1997, she moved to New York with two suitcases and in 2005, following a fire where she and her roommate lost everything, she decided it was time to return to her roots in Minnesota. And she carried only two suitcases home with her.
“The moral I learned there was ‘it’s just stuff,’” she said of her belongings. “There are times I’m gonna have a lot of stuff. There are times that I’m not gonna have a lot of stuff. And I’ve learned to be OK either way.”
Fenstad continued working steadily in local professional theaters. Then one summer, she was doing a theater job in North Carolina and she found herself between shows with a little bit of time to kill.
“I was doing some shopping in a local Kmart and for whatever reason, I happened to be walking down the toy aisle,” Fenstad said. “That’s when I saw the Cinderella costume.”
Immediately, the sight of the costume triggered a memory.
“In 1998, I met a girl whose mom ran a princess party business in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “She hired her daughter and me to come down from New York to help her and that was my first introduction to children’s entertainment and its awesomeness.”
Fenstad really enjoyed dressing up as different characters and surprising and delighting the children at the parties she attended, but she didn’t think much about it after the fact. Not until that fateful moment at the North Carolina Kmart.
“If you can imagine a light bulb like in a cartoon that goes off in your head, that’s exactly what happened to me” Fenstad said. “It was like ‘ding, I’m going to start a princess party business!’”
Fenstad bought that Cinderella costume – and the rest of the Kmart inventory as well. Feeling inspired like never before, she went online and purchased more costumes. When she came home from North Carolina, she told her best friend of her plans and asked if she could use her nieces and nephews to do “party practice” with. There would be games. Maybe some arts and crafts. Storytime. Fenstad wasn’t quite sure what else, but she was confident she’d figure it out.
“I followed that old piece of advice ‘fake it ‘til you make it,’” she said. “I told everyone ‘this is what I do,’ and then all of sudden, the word started spreading.”
And it hasn’t stopped. Now Fenstad, who put on two parties in her first year in business, has grown Princess Party Pals into a powerhouse. In addition to princesses, the company now has a full roster of superheroes, rock stars and even holiday characters who can bring a dose of flavor to every party (“you give me a theme and I’ll make a party for you,” Fenstad joked.) And in her spare time – not that there’s much of it these days – Fenstad volunteers with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Pageant of Hope and Crescent Cove.
“The gift of giving is that it really comes back to you,” she said. “Nothing can make me feel better than doing something to make someone’s day brighter. I encourage everyone to find a volunteer opportunity that they’re passionate about where they can make a difference in the world or in their community. It spills out across your whole life when you can give back.”
Fenstad has gained a number of valuable insights from her experiences and adventures, but perhaps most importantly, she’s learned to have faith in herself and her abilities. That’s just about the most “happily ever after” ending possible, and her journey is certainly far from over.
“I’m learning to relax into my life a little bit more,” she said. “And to trust that I’m on the right path.”
Abra Kadabra Environmental Services is proud to share the wisdom of business owners from our community through our thought leadership series. If you’d like to be featured, click here.