UM student turns 21st birthdays into unique business

Published 12:00 pm Monday, May 23, 2016

By Barrett Ervin

In Oxford, a crowd of screaming girls walks into the bar, and the birthday girl is instantly recognizable with her tiara and 21st birthday sign hanging around her neck.

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The 21st birthday sign has become a popular trend at many college campuses. It’s a new rite of passage replacing ordinary birthday decorations, such as cakes, candles and balloons.

Friends of the birthday girl create a sign to represent her personality that includes the ultimate checklist of 21 things she must do on her big night out. Outrageous tasks like, “Call the 21st person in your phone book” or “Slap 21 butts,” are just a few examples of what friends suggest to embarrass the birthday girl.

Kate Mcelroy, a junior at the University of Mississippi, has turned this recent birthday tradition into a business called “Signs by Kate.” She creates original and custom 21st birthday signs for friends and students all over campus.

“My friends, Caroline Walker and Maggie Leech, came up with the idea,” Mcelroy said. “After people saw the birthday signs I

had made for them, people started asking me to make some for their friends’ birthdays, so Caroline and Maggie made an Instagram account for me, and now I’m just kind of doing them.”

Mcelroy started her business in late January of this year after three friends celebrated their birthdays on the same night. She said people kept coming up to her and asking her to make birthday signs for friends, and even themselves. Since then, her business has been a success.

“I’ve made around 35 signs, and I currently have 10 to make by the end of finals, so this semester has been a little busier then planned,” she said.

Mcelroy said people contact her with ideas and usually let her do what she wants. Her unique process includes sketching out each sign before she starts, then sending it to the person to see if they approve of it.

A sign by Mcelroy costs $25 without a strap, and with a strap, it is $30. Mcelroy provides all supplies to make the sign and includes everything but the checklist of 21 things on the back.

“I cut the shape of the sign out and paint it from there,” Mcelroy said. “I use a lot of little pieces. The letters for the name and 21 are hand-cut, so after I put glitter on them and they dry, I will hot glue them all together, and then use spray Modge Podge to give it the glossy look. People think I get them laminated but I don’t.”

With each sign hand-drawn, cut and painted, Mcelroy said the time is takes to make a sign varies and depends on the type of sign people want.

“When I first started making them, they took like five hours, but I’ve got my time down to like two-and-a-half to three now,” she said. “I tell people the longer in advance you let me know, the more likely I will be able to make the sign.”

Her roommate and one of her best friends, Elizabeth Pyron, is one of her biggest supporters. She said Mcelroy used her talents to make 21st birthdays a little more special for everyone. For Pyron’s 21st birthday, Mcelroy created a cut-out of her own version of Dolly Parton, Pyron’s favorite celebrity.

“Kate makes every sign unique,” Pyron said. “She takes her time to make them detailed, and every sign she creates makes a statement of who the person is.”

Another one of her close friends, Callie Mayo, said she has loved seeing Kate’s 21st birthday sign business take off. She said Mcelroy is extremely creative and works really hard to make each sign unique for the person receiving it.

“This past summer, I studied abroad in Innsbruck, Austria,” Mayo said. “Kate knew how much I enjoyed the experience, so for my 21st birthday sign, she redid the logo of one of my favorite spots in Innsbruck, and it brought back so many fun memories and made my 21st birthday that much greater.”

Mcelroy said her love of crafting has made the entire process fun. She loves seeing the finished product. Her friends and family also have been supportive about her new business.

“I’m sure my roommates aren’t the happiest that I’ve turned our living room into my craft room, but they always get pumped when I have a new order,” Mcelroy said. “My parents didn’t know what 21st birthday signs were when I first started, but now that they do, they think its something fun for me to do to pass the time and make some extra money.”

Mcelroy said her business expanded because of her Instagram account and by word-of-mouth. She currently only makes signs for people in Oxford, but said she would be open to the idea of making them for people at other schools.

“I’ve had someone from Mississippi State ask me to make one, but I didn’t have enough time to get it made and shipped,” Mcelroy said.

Mcelroy does not know if she will continue her business in the future after college, but said she would gladly keep making signs if people still wanted her to.

“I don’t know exactly what I will be doing after college,” Mcelroy said. “For now, I just enjoy doing it because it is fun, and even a stress reliever at times.”