Portland business coach Elle Darcy, 34, helps women build their brands online, and is planning to open a creative studio in South Portland later this month. (Courtesy Elle Darcy)
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Elle Darcy makes a living helping other people put their best foot forward online.

But it would be impossible to know her whole story just by looking at her Instagram grid.

Darcy, 34, is a lifelong Portlander, a photographer, and a brand coach who is preparing to open her new business, Luxelle Studios, at 864 Broadway in South Portland later this month. The space will be available to rent daily and monthly as a photo studio and for other creative uses. It also has two apartments upstairs, which Darcy will rent out.

Social media branding is part of the business equation for Portland business coach and photographer Elle Darcy. (Courtesy Elle Darcy)

Darcy’s journey to opening her own studio has been an unorthodox one. After growing up on Munjoy Hill, she spent her 20s as a social worker and yoga instructor, working with people with HIV/AIDS, women in early recovery from addiction, and the homeless.

When her daughter was 3 years old, however, Darcy reached a turning point.

“I was profoundly burnt out,” she said last week. “I felt like, I either have to show up as a mother or I have to show up for my clients, and I couldn’t do both very well, so I took a step back.”

Upon reflecting on what she had excelled at so far in life, she found a link between social work and marketing. Both, she said, show people how to achieve their goals on their own, and find a way to help them recognize their own strengths.

In 2017, armed with that knowledge, she started working as a business coach, and in 2018 she began photographing her clients herself.

Personal branding, meanwhile, has boomed in the age of social media. In extreme cases, having a strong social media presence can pay off the way it does for many influencers: by attracting enough attention to get paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars by brands for posts with their products.

But having an active and eye-catching social media presence is also necessary for businesses these days, especially during the pandemic, as well as for creatives and independent contractors who rely on the Internet to be booked for work.

Darcy said no brand photographers existed in Maine when she started on her path four years ago.

“I saw a need for brand photography, especially a brand photographer for women, who understands the power of a story and how that actually sells and helps a woman make money,” she said. “There is a direct correlation between how you show up online and your ability to make money and stay in business.”

Darcy’s Instagram page is filled with colorful squares depicting creative images of her clients, all of whom are women, and many who are Mainers. 

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, Darcy created a campaign known as “Inside Women’s Work,” which she describes on her Instagram as “mission-driven photojournalism that elevates and celebrates working women.” 

The first post tagged with #InsideWomensWork on her page is from March 23, 2020. Her intention with the photos, she wrote then, was to “shine a light on their experience and document their new realities – while hopefully building visibility and awareness of their brands.”

Each post features a photo of a particular woman, a short description of the work she does, and a quote from her. Some women featured in the past include Shanna-kay Wright, owner of Yardie Ting restaurant in Monument Square; Amanda Kate Foreman, owner of the health and beauty shop ABURA in Portland, and Kate Emmerich, a hairstylist at Diva Hair Studio in South Portland.

Last May, Darcy also profiled several women working in health care around Maine and New England

She asks her more than 4,000 followers to share the posts to bring more visibility to the featured women and their businesses.

Darcy has hundreds of business coaching clients, she said, who pay her to make photos for their social media in addition to the coaching services she provides.

Additionally, she runs an online community of more than 65 women known as “Work Like a Woman,” which has a private Facebook group where members can collaborate and ask questions about issues they are having with their businesses.

Darcy said Work Like a Woman was born from not having enough time to coach so many people one-on-one, and realizing that many women in business share the same struggles. Its members include people from across the country and in Europe.

Demand for her services surged during the pandemic, she said, which she partially attributes to an uptick in “the understanding of the need to be on social media and have a really powerful and impactful online presence.”

She offers free, sponsored memberships in the group to women of color.

The pandemic also had a hand in inspiring her to open Luxelle Studios, because the past year has limited many creatives to create or shoot photos at home or outside.

With the new 800-square-foot space, which she named after her daughter, Lux, Darcy said she wanted to give local artists space where they could “play” affordably. If a yoga teacher wants to teach an online course, for instance, Darcy said he or she could shoot footage of themselves teaching classes in the space.

And, while her business coaching clients are all women, she said anyone is welcome to rent space at Luxelle. She plans to offer a founding membership rate of $40 per month to start, which will increase after May 1.

Darcy also plans to post the work that is created at Luxelle Studios on the business’s new Instagram page.

She said she understands some people hate social media, so she wants to have a part in shifting the perception.

“Yes, social media sucks sometimes,” Darcy said. “But you can take ownership and make it feel really good.”