Why We Need Female Founders
by Sica Schmitz | Posted on April 07 2017
I was saddened to learn that another of my female-founded brands is going out of business, since I really believe that we need as many sustainable labels and as many women leading the fashion industry as possible. But I'm not necessarily surprised; having a sustainable business is incredibly difficult, and being a female entrepreneur makes it even more so.
I want to share my own story of female entrepreneurship, the lesser known story of my journey in creating Bead & Reel, in hopes of inspiring more female entrepreneurs - and support for them.
I first had the idea for a one-stop shop for ethical fashion while I was still actively working in costumes for film and television. I felt very certain that this idea was something the world needed, and equally uncertain of my abilities to make it happen - I knew a lot about fashion and art but very little about business. I had a friend from college who was in his final year at business school and it seemed like an ideal partnership: I could focus on the creative and ethical aspects which excited me so much, and he could focus on the business side, which excited him.
While it was my idea, he wanted to be the face and voice of the company, and since I was shy and unsure I agreed to be the quiet creative behind the scenes. I started designing the website, connecting with brands, casting models, and organized the first photoshoot, and he sat back and approved or denied each step. While our company was supposed to be a 50/50 partnership, I had somehow fallen into the role of an assistant with him as my boss.
As we moved forward I became increasingly uncomfortable with his vision and motives. It seemed like I was doing all of the work, and yet he wanted to get all of the credit. However, I brushed off my worries, since I had grown up in a culture where these are normalized gender roles. I told myself I was being silly, overly dramatic, and difficult for wanting control and credit for my own ideas. I told myself that I didn't know anything about business and should be grateful to be working with a man who did.
We got very close to opening, mere months away. We had our first - and only - photoshoot and I watched with amazement and horror as he treated the women working with us with complete disregard. When our seasoned, professional female photographer asked him to buy a specific backdrop, he decided to get a different one, which made her job much more difficult. When I asked him to help arrange lunch for everyone, he decided he had other priorities, leaving our female crew hungry until late in the afternoon. He ate chicken on the set of a vegan fashion photoshoot, and afterwards left me to clean up the entire thing myself. As these kinds of situations repeated themselves over and over I realized I couldn't create a woman-empowering company with someone who didn't respect women, and I couldn't create a vegan company with someone who didn't respect veganism. I realized that I couldn't create an ethical business with an unethical person, no matter what skills or promises he brought to the table. So I asked to buy him out.
He told me flat out that he would not be leaving the company. And not only would he not be leaving, but that I was a fool for even suggesting it. He assured me that I was incapable of running a company without him, and that anyone could fill my role - after all, I was just a replaceable woman - but that his skills were priceless and not something I would ever be able to replicate. He said I would never be able to afford someone with his talents, and I would never succeed without him.
And even though at the time I actually believed him, I decided I would rather never succeed than be a part of something that I couldn't be proud of. So I left the company. It was the hardest thing I had ever done.
I fell into a deep depression. I had just walked away from the company I had built, the company I had invested the past year of my life into. It was devastating to lose something I had created, devastating to have my vision and ideas in the hands of someone who didn't respect them. It got even worse as we entered into an ugly legal battle, where I fought for - and won - my right to be bought out. He hadn't deemed me worthy of even that.
While the whole thing had been heartbreaking, I truly did believe that my original vision was important, so I started working on a new company, alone. While I had no background in business, finance, or marketing, I had degrees in art history and fashion design and a great deal of passion, and I decided that was enough. I dedicated myself to learning everything I needed to know, I sold my house to finance my vision, and I launched Bead & Reel at the end of 2014.
And it was really hard. I made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot of difficult lessons, and - wary of business partners - I never took on another one, which meant I ended up doing almost everything myself. And yet, my company kept growing. I kept making connections, kept getting press, and kept generating sales. In two years I turned my idea into a $100,000 business - without him. Without any male owners or employees, in fact. And, as fate would have it, he was never able to launch his business without me.
But he right about one thing: I actually couldn't have succeeded without a man. Every step of the way I've had such massive support from my family, my long-term partner, my friends, my colleagues, my freelancers, and most importantly my customers, and many of these amazing Bead & Reel community members and collaborators are men, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
My own challenging experience starting Bead & Reel is part of why I am so passionate about supporting female artisans, designers, and businesses. I have been through the difficult journey of starting a business as a woman. I've experienced first hand how little value we are considered to have, and how challenging it is to be taken seriously. But I also know how much we women have to offer, and I have seen how much power we have individually and collectively to be leaders and world-changers.
Bead & Reel is still 100% woman-owned, 100% vegan-owned, and will continue to focus on female-founded sustainable designers. And we're been nominated for an award! If you'd like to see us continue to grow, please consider voting for us at the Small Business Council's Achievement Award (we're the 7th business in, if you want to click ahead, or you can take the time to get to know all the other amazing sustainable businesses too!).