We were lusting after her 'it' bags in our early 20's and today (at 40) we're admiring the amazing business she's created. After almost 20 years in the business, Rebecca shares her wisdom, inspiration and humor with us about running her namesake brand, founding The Female Founders Collective and the truth about being a mom. Success doesn't happen overnight and according to Rebecca, it never gets easier. Read on for more...
1) Tell us about the start of your career between your ‘I love NY’ tee in 2001 and your iconic “Morning After Bag” in 2005.
I would say those first four years were both exciting and terrible at the same time. It was myself and one other person making everything and I was selling out of a small showroom. I had decent sales and think at the high I was doing maybe $250k but I didn’t know how to properly cost things out, I didn't know how to properly ship things. There was a lack of sophistication and professionalism on my end.
It was always starvation mode, it was month to month, asking myself, ‘Could I afford rent? Could I eat?’ It was not pleasant. I was able to get some ancillary income by styling on the side so that kept me afloat. But it was definitely not the glamorous life people think being a designer is. During that time I often asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with my life and what should I be?” because this is not sustainable.
2) When was the moment that things turned around?
I think it was the day that DailyCandy wrote about my “morning after” bag and there was this shift of inbound interest and an order surge that was similar to the “I love NY” t-shirt, but it had more momentum because it was a product that was far more versatile than a tee. I finally felt like I had wind in my sails. And then other people could see the wind in my sails so they were more likely to loan me the money I needed or see the potential of it being a success.
3) There were some pivots in your business from your initial capsule collection, to handbags and then apparel again. Could you tell us more about that...
My training and background was in apparel. That was my comfort zone. When we saw the bag take off and saw that it had momentum, my brother, who wasn’t my co-founder at the time, thought that it had legs, people wanted it and it was a hot commodity. He wanted to focus on it and then circle back to clothing if and when it made sense.
The company financially wasn’t ready to dive into apparel, but at that time brands were growing and people were pigeonholing you to being just one thing, so even though we weren't ready to take on that load, we had to expand to apparel because we couldn’t risk just being a handbag designer and not offer anything else.
4) Someone reading about your success may think it’s been easy. Was there ever a period you doubted the business or were about to give up?
Yes, every week! I think people think it’s a magic fairy tale. You’re 20 years in and there’s never going to be a road bump. I think that’s false. It’s just a part of being in business, there are always going to be times when things are tough and you don’t know where the money for all your vendors is going to come from, how we’re going to fund the next round of production, etc. It still occurs today and I’m trying to learn to live with it rather than think it’s just something that’s going to go away. I’m sure perfect organizations that never have issues exist, but I don’t know of any.
5) Any advice to female founders who are in the first few years of business and may be struggling?
Settle into the discomfort because it’s not going to get any easier. First you have to decide what you want. Do you want a company that grows really fast, do you want to take on a lot of debt or raise a lot of money and then maybe sell for a lot of money or do you want to build a company that you want to have for a long time or for the rest of your life?
You have to make very different decisions depending on what type of company you want. Both are going to be hard and a lot of work but you have to know going in what you’re looking for because it changes all your decisions. You have to really understand the risks and the rewards of both before you do anything so get ready because it’s going to be rocky no matter what.
The press publicizes people getting really big investments and selling off pieces of their company and I don’t know if that’s something to be proud of either. Like they’re worth a billion dollars, great! But it doesn’t mean you’re successful because you’ve taken so much money either.
6) You have a Superwomen podcast that I love! What are your biggest takeaways from interviewing these women?
First of all, everyone should definitely listen to my podcast. I think the lesson is that there’s no one way to do something and there’s no one path. You can look to see what others are doing but it doesn’t mean that by replicating their journey it’s going to be how yours ends. Of all the women I’ve met, no one has had a shortcut. No one has any tricks to make things easy. You learn there’s a lot of ways to accomplish something. You just need to figure it out by yourself and yes, you can get some tips and tricks along the way, but it will be your own story.
7) Tell us about The Female Founder Collective (FFC) and what inspired you to start the organization.
It came out of the fact that we were being asked questions like we were polar bears, like ‘what’s it like to be a female founder?’ and you’re like, I didn’t start my company saying, ‘I’m a woman, I’m going to start a company!’ I realized there weren’t enough women in leadership roles if this is how we’re viewed. I wanted to make this a conversation about normalcy and work and entrepreneurship, but also ask, can we get the consumer to vote with her dollars so she knows who she’s supporting. For example, you know what political candidate you’re going to support.
We started FFC last September and it’s grown into this beautiful collective of over 6,000 women. The FFC seal is now on over 2.5 million products and it’s just the beginning. We recently announced a partnership with UBS to get women investor-ready so that when they do take on investment they know exactly how to deploy and make sure those funds are successful.
We’re going to be introducing UBS clients who want to directly invest in female owned companies because we know that those statistics are terrible. We’re just beginning our work to make the playing field more equal.
8) Future plans for FFC?
We’re going to be launching an ambassador program for all the women who aren’t in big cities. This way they can get access to education from other founders. We’re also going to be launching a digital education system so that founders teach other founders. Hopefully, we’ll have the directory and member portal done by this January and we’ll still probably continue doing two events per year. We’re at the very beginning of the programming we want to offer.
9) Other than running your business and designing, what else do you see in your future? Any other dreams or pursuits?
I would love to be a doula if I didn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to attend a birth, so that probably won’t happen. I was a dancer for 18 years and I would love to go back and take classes and get back into choreography but I think I’ll do that when I’m 60 and have lots of time on my hands to live out my Martha Graham dreams. Another dream is to be a “gentlewomen” farmer. I want to have a farm, but I don’t want to do the hard work it takes to run it. Other people can do all the work and I’ll make it look pretty on Instagram and sell really yummy food.
10) Tell us one thing very few people know about you...
I can be a bit judgemental about moms giving birth naturally and breastfeeding. There are so many feminists that exist in the world and then they go into birth and they’re letting themselves be told they’re weak and they can’t do it on their own. Same with breastfeeding. I get it if you can’t and you’ve tried, but the fact that women are saying this prefabricated thing that was made in a factory is going to be the best thing for my child. I can’t wrap my head around it.
11) You are many things, a business owner, the founder of FFC but also a mom. What kind of impact did having 3 kids have on your business?
There is a level, at least in NYC, of keeping up with a pace which, if you want to be a present mother, you have to say no to. You could be out every night furthering your career. I’ve had to decide with each child that I’m going to make sacrifices. I’m not going to meet everyone I need to meet or go to all the events I need to be at even if it means my career will be set back by a year or two. There are things I’m not willing to give up. Even at the office, there’s always a pile of things on my to do list that doesn’t end.
The reward is that I feel like I’m a very present and available mom. Becoming a mother has taught me about boundaries and setting my own. Also leading by example for my team. My hope is that me, along with all these other women who have businesses are creating a new way of doing business. That work doesn’t have to be this cut throat 9 to midnight work day and that you’ll never get ahead if you don’t put in those hours. Hopefully in the next decade you’ll see more normalcy around having a family and a business and setting boundaries.
12) What do you do or say to your children to inspire them? How did your own parents inspire you?
My mom said ‘NO’ to me all the time when I was young and if I wanted something I had to work for it. There’s definitely inspiration there, if I wanted something I had to work my ass off for it. As much as I want to give my children everything they want, I say no all the time because I’ve taken the same approach.
13) You recently showed a model breastfeeding in your 2019 NYFW show. How do you feel about the “normalizebreastfeeding” movement?
I’m excited about it. I think it’s needed because it’s been such a point of shame. Although I’m happy for the breastfeeding pods in airports and for all the breastfeeding and pumping rooms, let’s just make it something you can do anywhere. I’m not sorry if someone sees my boob out in public. I’m not sorry that people are seeing me feed my baby. I think that it needs to be as normal as something like smiling. When there’s a stigma around it it becomes harder and then no one wants to do it and then people give up. It should be a normal thing especially since we’ve been doing it since the beginning of the human race.
And at work pumping should be part of work. Yes, if you want to have privacy go to a room. But no male boss is going to know you’re engorged and tell you to go pump. You can’t wait around for people to give you that right. You have to demand it. You have to set the example. Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but guess what, that’s the only way things change.
14) After having had 3 children, 3 pregnancies, breastfeeding 3 babies..any advice on how moms should navigate this period of their life?
I would tell moms if you’re looking for motherhood or maternity leave to be a break or easy, it’s not. I think the right decisions are usually the harder ones. You have to work stuff out. No one wants to have to ask their spouse, could you please suck on my breast because I have a blocked duct and I can’t get it out. Yes, my husband had to dislodge a clogged duct in the middle of a nasty bathroom at a disco in the heart of Paris! A lot of times you take the easy road because you’re exhausted and tired but it’s worth it for the long term to make the right decisions for your baby and yourself, even if they are harder.
Do your research. I think people will just listen to whatever their doctor says. And those aren’t always the smartest decisions. Use your own gut and don’t let someone tell you something that doesn’t feel right.
15) Any pieces from our collection you wish you had while you were pregnant and/or nursing?
16) What are your favorite pieces from your own collection that work for pregnant and nursing moms?
Our core demographic is not pregnancy or nursing and when we design we don’t take the bump or nursing into consideration. That said, here are a couple of styles that definitely work for both: The Willow dress, which is a button down, for when I go out since I’m still nursing and the Fleur top is also great and has buttons down the front as well.
Thanks Rebecca for taking the time to talk to us and for inspiring our readers! xoxo, Peggy