At Ova Woman, we love entrepreneurs who are leading innovation in women's health and wellness. Dear Kate is one of our first partner companies and is the brains behind the absorbent undies we carry. The women behind Dear Kate are on a mission to "to give women the confidence to do anything by equipping them with apparel that’s up for the challenge."
I recently had an opportunity to interview the founder of Dear Kate, Julie Sygiel, about her experience disrupting the intimate apparel industry.
Part of the mission of Ova is to reclaim shame through personal story. Would you be willing to share a moment where you were embarrassed or felt ashamed of your body?
There are so many different things I could talk about. There is one memory that comes to mind as probably my earliest experience not feeling comfortable with my body. I still remember it even though it happened when I was 11, which strikes me as telling. I was always on the skinner side when I was little. I never thought twice about how I looked in a swimsuit. I always had smaller boobs, but it wasn’t something I was concerned about. I wore a crop top and I was wearing my low rise Mudd Jeans and I saw that I had a pudgy stomach. I was so self-conscious about my stomach. Since then I’ve never worn a crop top. I’ve felt this need to hide that part of my body and sensor what other people see.
How has this moment influenced your work with Dear Kate?
I will never forget that feeling of not being good enough. I never want people to feel not good enough when they come to our website. Our tone and language and all of our marketing never put women down. We aim to be a supporter or a cheerleader, someone who is on your side—telling you to go for it. Some brands have a snarky voice. We can be cheeky and funny, but not snarky. We also try to be mindful of all the different audiences, so we strive to use inclusive language.
What stories or conversations with women stand out to you as key motivators for starting Dear Kate?
In the beginning we were coming up with ideas as part of a class. My cofounder talked about how she was in Mexico with her friends and they all got their periods and were washing their underwear in the sink. They had this moment where they were like—“you have to clean the period stains from your underwear too?” We started discussing this issue with our friends, and while most were comfortable talking to us about period stains, others weren’t. We did surveys and found that 88% of women were interested in trying our underwear.
Entrepreneurs are often seen as risk takers. Do you consider yourself a risk taker? What is the biggest risk you’ve had to take in starting Dear Kate?
A lot of people think that entrepreneurs are risk takers, but I feel like I took the easy path the whole way. I did this right out of college so I didn’t have to quit my job. I kept doing the research and was working towards something. I’ve taken a non-traditional career path, but that isn’t a huge risk.
I am not inherently a risk taker. I didn't know if we would be able to raise funding and we ended up going seven months without funding. There was nothing else I wanted to be doing. I think if I had another opportunity that I was really excited about I would have tried to do both, but this was it for me. I was also used to living cheaply.
Would you be willing to share a formative experience that prepared you to launch your own company?
Selling Girl Scout cookies was hugely important to my entrepreneurial journey. Although, I didn’t have to raise money or manufacture a product, I did get experience with customer service and sales. I had to learn to be reliable. I had to build relationships and be persistent. This gave me confidence and taught me that if I put the time and effort in, I can meet my goal. It was good to know that hard work pays off. The experience of selling Girl Scout cookies was a supportive and nurturing experience in my early years that I've carried with me since then.
If the last six years you’ve poured into Dear Kate were made into a movie, what would be the climax?
I would say, after reflecting, that last year was huge for Dear Kate. For so many years we were trying to figure out our tone, our images and what we represent. It finally came together and we had three big wins—our yoga pant Kickstarter, our women in tech feature for the Ada Collection and our Victoria Secret rebuttal to the Perfect Body ad. It all happened within seven months. Most importantly we figured our shit out and we were able to connect with people and push society and our culture to talk about periods and people knew about us. We really accomplished something as a whole that I hadn’t done in the years before. Another highlight was being on CNBC and talking about periods with two men—all of the patience and waiting had paid off.
Dear Kate is a leader in supporting all women. You name your product lines after historical females. You recruit models who kick ass in their professions. You have made a point to take a risk and carry queen sizes. At what point did you decide to take this path? What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who want to change the status quo when it may not be understood by investors or advisors?
Interesting questions. We haven’t always done this. Advisors told us that we shouldn’t do this because we are already changing the status quo with our product. We were told that we should use skinny conventional models. Over time we started asking our friends to model and they got the idea to name the collection. I was inspired by Kate Spade’s year of color. All of sudden we were thinking through all of the things our models can do. It was interesting and different and it just stuck.
We sold for a couple of years before we carried queen sizes. We had 50 requests from women and in the end it is a risk. We didn’t know if the queen size would sell. We had to charge more to cover the additional design and fabric costs and we didn’t know how people would respond. It did pay off. It is a portion of the revenue that we couldn’t have gotten any other way. I was excited to do this and I am still really excited. It makes business sense. We can now be a case study for other businesses. If it feels right, there’s a good chance that it will sell. Investors and advisors are happiest when sales are good. You attract customers with similar needs and values as your own. If you can produce something that stays true to your values, do it and ask for forgiveness later.
In the next five years what innovation do you hope to see in women’s personal care/ health?
1. Maven —an application that you can video conference with a doctor. It’s only for women. Pretty much anything if it is not super serious you can pay $25 for a 25 min conversation. Maven is liberating and provides quick access to any women who needs it.
2. A more comfortable menstrual cup that is marketed well and becomes mainstream. We are going through a period renaissance in our culture.
Checkout this podcast to learn more about how Dear Kate is setting a new standard for how women's apparel is designed and marketed.