During a session at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit earlier this year in Miami, three women entrepreneurs shared personal stories on pivotal moments within their careers and the trajectories of their businesses. The “How She Built This” session featured stories from Christina Stembel, founder and CEO, Farmgirl Flowers; Sherri Yukel, founder and CEO, Big Dot of Happiness; and Dana Donofree, founder and CEO, AnaOno. Here are excerpts from the sessions:
Christina Stembel: Pivot is a word we use way too often at Farmgirl, but it’s something that we have to do all the time in order to stay alive. From 2017, when we ran out of flowers from farms in the U.S. that would sell to me as a woman. We had to source from South America, and I was worried that I was going to have to piss off our entire customer base that really cared about that [domestic product sourcing]. We had a New York Times article about our sourcing and supporting American farms, and we still have customers that get really angry at us for that.
What I learned from that experience was that as long as I stay really transparent with our customer base and let them know what’s going on and the why behind it, our customers come with us. I learned that in every pivotal decision I had to make that as long as I explained the why, people came with us on the journey. They appreciated that they knew the person and the team behind these decisions, and we weren’t making these decisions lightly. We weren’t just like, “We’re going to save a buck and go to Ecuador for flowers.” No, we’re saying these male, misogynist farmers in the U.S. won’t sell to me, so why are we working so hard to support an industry that doesn’t want my support. Let me go figure out how I can still scale my company.
We do a survey every year with our customers. This past year when we asked why people buy from us was the first year that the No. 1 response was that we like your company. That was the defining moment in my life. I’ve built a brand that people love, and that’s more important than the product that we’re making. I know we’re going to go through 10 more pivots, but as long as we tell the story and tell our customers why we’re doing it, people won’t question our integrity.
Sherri Yukel: Any time a door shuts, one opens. It happened with the Google Panda algorithm exchange back in the recession of 2008. That’s when we chose to embrace channels. Our brand is in party supplies, and back in the day when your website only ranked for what it sold, we were a huge baby shower business. We wanted to be everything party, but we could never get ranked for Christmas products, for example. So when we chose to embrace channels and jump into Amazon, Walmart, Target, etc., our brand blew up.
We’re a very niche site and do a lot of trends that most of the big boys won’t play in, and that is what has really catapulted us. We listened to the customer. We built product and made it on-demand. Now we do everything party, and actually invented some party categories.
Dana Donofree: When you’re starting a business, there are a million pivotal moments. One that I hold so true to my heart … I’m a fashion designer through and through. I started designing clothes when I was eight years old. I’ve really never done anything other than make clothing my entire life. I got the opportunity to do New York Fashion Week in 2017. I did it with an organization called #Cancerland, and the whole point was to shine the truths on breast cancer and pull them out from the shadows and have real conversations.
My biggest challenge was that nobody understood why I was making bras for people with no breasts. I ended up explaining breast cancer more than I ended up talking about my business. The only way I was going to do New York Fashion Week is if I could show the world what breast cancer looks like. At that point in time, the CFDA had ruled that nudity is defined by showing a woman’s nipples. And if you show any nipples at New York Fashion Week, you are off the list. I said, “don’t worry, you won’t see any nipples.”
The reason why it was pivotal was because I’m a fashion designer, and I know what New York Fashion Week means. This is our Oscars. My head still explodes that I even pulled it off. I knew it was a make-or-break opportunity, not just for AnaOno, but for me as an industry professional who has had incredible experience in this space.
We go about the show and reveal to the world what breast cancer is like. Our show went viral on the New York Times. In under a few hours, we had over a million hits. The story went everywhere. The downer? It was all about my topless models; AnaOno was almost never in the media piece. That’s when I realized it wasn’t the product I was selling, it was the brand that we were building. It was that moment to empower not just those models on the runway, but a community. That set the trajectory for where we’ve been heading and the story we’ve been able to tell. How we’ve been able to break down the walls of these very, very complicated conversations. It wasn’t just going to be a business; it was going to be a movement.