“We Fix Each Other’s Crown”: 12 Design Pros on Being Women in Business

updated Apr 16, 2020
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Credit: Design: Apartment Therapy

One of the best parts of my job as a home director for Apartment Therapy is getting to meet design professionals that are so dedicated to their crafts—and in many cases, also doing some sort of social good at whatever level they can—that they truly inspire me every day, regardless of what gender they do or don’t identify with.

But there are so many women makers and women-led and owned businesses that are changing the design game right now that, in honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to showcase a few of these companies—and get their founders’ thoughts on the challenges and the triumphs of being a woman in business. That said, this list is by no means exhaustive and only offers a quick glimpse into the minds of a few movers and shakers. We’d love to hear more about your favorite artisans and makers in the comments so we can continue this conversation.

Lina Dickinson and Melanie Bolin, co-founders of Mer-Sea & Co.

Kansas City, Kansas, is certainly having a moment this year. But if you asked Melanie Bolin and Lina Dickinson, founders of the lifestyle and home accessories brand, Mer-Sea & Co., the city has been a hotbed of creativity and entrepreneurship for years. And that Midwestern charm you hear about is true, even from women who, in just seven years time, have become Kansas’ fastest growing company and ranked #279 on the 2018 Inc 5000 list. Case in point—in my first conversation with these powerhouses, whose travel-inspired candles, lotions, and bath soaks you’ve undoubtedly seen at Anthropologie, they spent a good 15 minutes plugging other companies and makers back home.

Maybe that level geniality exists because they were friends first—and took a leap into business back in 2013 once their children were school-aged, and they found themselves with just a little more time on their hands. They learned the ropes together and built Mer-Sea around shared values like enthusiasm and empathy. “What we find important is having our priorities set, and our families are always at the top,” says Dickinson. “If one of us needs to drop everything to tend to something at home—it’s not even a question. From there, being able to prioritize what is most important for our overall business comes into play, and it’s usually not driven strictly by the numbers.”

The duo also feels as though motherhood has helped them hone their approach to decision making at Mer-Sea. “Things happen way beyond our control (like a tariff war), so problem solving comes into play every day, which fortunately, we find exciting and creative,” says Dickinson. “Being okay with change is crucial. We have found motherhood truly prepared us for this—because raising kids is just a surprise waiting to happen every day.”

This sense of adventure is central to everything they do, even in their collections—the latest of which, Oui, is inspired by saying yes to spring and summer trips and exploration. The only thing they don’t say yes to? Failure. “We just don’t embrace this word or philosophy,” says Bolin.  “That fear of failure is a showstopper. We have made things no one wanted and made mistakes. But fail? No way—we have learned and hopefully, will continue to learn.”

Valérie Louis, founder of Yaël & Valérie

Valérie Louis was born on International Women’s Day and deeply believes that it was a calling for her to assume her womanhood and help others around her do so, too. “I truly love being a woman,” says Louis. “I care deeply about people, which brings out my nurturing feminine side. I love to cry when I’m sad or disappointed—for me, it’s not a weakness but simply an expression of my vulnerability, of who I am, a woman. That’s how I create my collections—they’re all based on my emotions.”

By collections, she’s referring to her textile and wall coverings company, Yaël & Valérie—aptly named after herself and her 15-year-old daugther, Yaël—which showcases beautiful patterns inspired by her Haitian-Caribbean-African heritage, culture, and traditions. She started the company when she couldn’t find design products that reflected her roots and history, and ideas and motifs have flowed freely ever since, with her upcoming collection exploring themes from love to the tropics and human connection.

Despite the design world’s challenges with diversity, Louis has found the profession to be a fairly hospitable place for women. “I am proud and blessed to work in an industry mostly run by women—it’s easy for me to express my femininity, and therefore, to embrace it,” Louis says. That said, she’s quick to avoid sugarcoating being a woman in business in general, especially considering the issue of pay gap. “It is the most outrageous thing ever—to work harder and to get paid less,” says Louis. “It is a serious matter that I hold close at heart. How can we continue to raise our children, especially our daughters, with such a serious issue going unresolved?” 

Above all though, Louis believes women innately bring a lot to the table as entrepreneurs. “We have been through a lot, so we don’t take anything for granted,” says Louis. “We value what we have, we motivate ourselves, and we fix each other’s crown.”

Kristen Pumphrey, Owner & Creative Director at P.F. Candle Co.

The 2008 recession was a catalyst of change for many, including Kristen Pumphrey. After losing her publishing job in New York City, she moved to Austin, TX, for a fresh start. There she met her now husband, Thomas Neuberger, and started an Etsy candle shop out of her kitchen. The seeds of P.F. Candle Co. as we know it now were planted. But it took another big move (this time to sunny Southern California)—and a huge order from a West Elm—for Pumphrey to start scaling her business up, bringing on Tom as a partner, launching e-commerce, and opening up a proper headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Since then, they’ve hired dozens of more workers, moved operations into larger warehouses twice over, expanded their product offerings, and opened a retail store. But the one thing that hasn’t changed in all the growth is their company’s commitment to all employees having a voice.

“When I first started P.F., I was working in the service industry,” says Pumphrey. “I was pretty bummed out by the culture of the kitchens—it was crude, and as a host, I frequently got sexually harassed by the line cooks but didn’t speak up, for fear of ‘ruining the vibe.’ When we started hiring people, my commitment to our culture was to make sure no one else ever felt that way.”

Part of P.F.’s company strategy lies in having a diverse leadership team that includes strong women. “We pride ourselves on upending a ‘typical’ warehouse culture, which can be very machismo,” says Pumphrey. “Instead, I want ours to be equal and balanced, and for our staff to feel like they can be heard. The women in charge, particularly in the warehouse, have come from environments like that and know exactly what not to do.” 

She credits her commitment and pursuit of equality to her upbringing. “Growing up, my mom empowered me to believe I could do whatever I wanted,” says Pumphrey. That early paradigm shift has made all the difference. “Here’s the thing—the conversation shouldn’t just be, “Wow,  it’s a woman in business!”, which is what it feels like sometimes when I see so many female entrepreneur type lists,” says Pumphrey. “We should pursue equality. While it’s great to be recognized as a trailblazer, I want to be recognized alongside my male peers, not on a separate list. My goal is inclusion and equality. That’s the next hurdle.”

Sara Berks, founder and creative director of MINNA

Like Pumphrey, Sara Berks sees diversity in representation—and community building—as integral pieces in her own journey of establishing MINNA, which works with artisans in Bolivia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Uruguay to create ethically made home textiles and decor pieces.

Unfulfilled by her branding and digital design career, Berks switched gears in 2013, learning how to weave and starting the business out of her Brooklyn apartment. Fast forward to now, and MINNA has grown to a team of seven and relocated their studio to Hudson, NY, where they also have a storefront for selling their bedding, pillows, throws, kitchen and tabletop accessories, and rugs. Fans of the brand gravitate toward the way Berks’ designs marry age-old techniques with motifs that are informed and inspired by Feminist art and the Bauhaus movement. Also core to the brand is the social aspect of their small batch product chain—and the craft preservation and job creation that come along with it. In their new Spring 2020 collection, for example, the Puzzle Pillows were handmade by a woman run co-op in Chiapas, Mexico, while other styles were made in similar family run co-ops. 

Being a business owner always comes with challenges, but Berks attributes some of her professional and personal growth to connecting with other entrepreneurs like herself who, in a sense, paved the way for her. “Building a community of female-identifying and queer business owners interested in using business to do good has been so important and critical to my growth as a business owner and person,” says Berks. “When I was a younger designer, I remember seeing one queer woman in a leadership position and that was always a guiding star for me. I hope as more women, queer or otherwise, enter the worlds of business, design, and art, that younger folks will see themselves reflected out in the world.” After all, seeing is believing. 

Samantha Gallacher and Renata Vasconez, owners of interior design firm IG Workshop

Samantha Gallacher and Renata Vasconez have fairly different backgrounds—Gallacher studied design, worked in finance, and eventually landed a gig as a textile designer for West Elm in New York, while Vasconez grew up around her family’s design business in her native Ecuador and found her way into the world of corporate real estate. But their shared love of interiors is what brought them together—and sparked the idea behind the creation of their Miami-based design firm, IG Workshop, where they create homes and commercial spaces with a modern, global sensibility. But before they were business partners, Gallacher and Vasconez were friends and neighbors first. Individually, their clienteles were growing, and both were at the point where they’d need to hire help anyway, so it felt like a serendipitous time to team up.

Similar to the sentiments that Louis expressed above, both Gallacher and Vasconez feel fortunate to work in design, which has afforded them the opportunity to be their own bosses and not worry about being taken seriously, which both have found to be an issue in more male-dominated industries. “To be honest, it is one of the only fields we have both worked in where being a woman is not considered a detriment or an advantage,” says Gallacher. “There is no corporate ladder to climb and how well we do depends on our own growth and determination.”

That being said, being an entrepreneur is always full of challenges, regardless of your field. And both Gallacher and Vasconez are quick to recognize the other strong women that have lifted them up in their journeys along the way. For Vasconez, her mother has always been her inspiration. “She has always been tough on me regardless of what line of business I chose, as she believes resilience is what creates success,” says Vasconez. As for Gallacher, her greatest female mentor was her boss at West Elm, Shelley Goldberg. “She was single handedly the person who taught be about every technique of rugs, how they are constructed, what works, how fibers will take colors,” says Gallacher. “She and I still work together today, as she runs the U.S. branch of one my factories that I work with for my bespoke rug business, Art + Loom. She was always encouraging and enthusiastic about my career path.”

Connie Matisse, co-founder of East Fork Pottery 

By now you’ve probably come across East Fork’s beautiful handmade pottery, if not in the flesh at their Asheville, NC, outpost or factory then certainly online. We’ve definitely waxed poetic about the perfection of their mugs. But behind all those Instagrammable pieces made out of regionally-sourced stoneware clay, is a bunch of skilled artisans—and a trio of friends who’ve been rethinking tableware for over a decade now. It’s safe to say their brand marks a different approach to the ritual of mealtime that’s actually managed to make millennials excited to buy dinnerware. Sure, East Fork’s minimal, refined aesthetic has played a big role in that shift. But we’d be remiss not to credit some of this phenomenon to the way in which Connie Matisse, East Fork’s sole female founder, deftly weaves the brand—and snippets of her own life as a woman, mother, wife, and business owner—into East Fork’s Instagram account. That said, being a woman in business isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and Matisse is quick to point out that identifying as a strong woman, in business or otherwise, doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself or know all of the answers.

“I’ve had a lifelong terrible habit of not reaching out for help when I need it and not accepting help that’s being offered,” says Matisse. “This habit is rooted deep in my belief that my identity as a strong, capable, powerful woman is contingent on being able to figure everything out for myself.” 

While Matisse says she’s always been aware of her own blind spots and weaknesses, she’s spent the better part of her life doing everything in her power to keep them hidden from others. “I’m only now beginning to unpack just how much unnecessary strife that belief has caused me and just how many positive, impactful female relationships I’ve prevented myself from having,” says Matisse. “Giving myself permission to be forthright about what I don’t know and to actively seek out support or advice has been so empowering, so freeing, and has accelerated my professional development.”

These days, Matisse sees everyone as a teacher. “Three that really stand out for me this year are: My business and racial equity coach, Desiree Adaway, who asks me to challenge all my assumptions and encourages me to rest; Marisol Jimenez, founder of Tepeyac Consulting, who, while I don’t know well, has such a powerful presence and sense of self that I’m deeply impacted by her every time I encounter her—she stands so confidently in her own truth in a way I hope to one day emulate; and my best friend and coworker, East Fork’s Director of Operations, Zoe Dadian, who is the most competent human I’ve ever met.”

For Matisse, sometimes your biggest strength is recognizing your weakness. “Letting go of my ego enough to learn from and truly see and admire other women has been one of the most fulfilling—and useful—outputs of entrepreneurship,” she says. 

Credit: Nikki To

Shelley Simpson, founder of Mud Australia

You can’t talk about ceramic eye candy without some mention in the conversation of Mud Australia, a brand of beautifully minimal porcelain tableware and lighting. Shelley Simpson, Mud’s founder, taught herself to throw pots on a kick wheel in the 1990s and over the past two-and-a-half decades has built a cult-like following for her tablewares among chefs, stylists, home cooks, and design enthusiasts alike. Mud is now a 30-employee company that’s about 70 percent women, many of them creatives, based out of a studio just outside Sydney. And that figure doesn’t even include the staff in their five retail stores, which span the globe. But Simpson has certainly faced her fair share of gender-based adversity over the years.

“I’ve battled somewhat against stereotypes within the ceramics and manufacturing industries—patronizing suppliers, difficult credit terms, inflexible banks, plus some blatant sexism,” says Simpson. “But I’m happy that in more recent times, it feels like the landscape is really changing for the next generation of women.”

Perhaps the most rewarding part of entrepreneurship for Simpson then has been paving the way for others to come—and creating the kind of space and culture she craved coming up in the manufacturing industry. “As a woman in business, it’s great to be able to create a high performance environment that encourages success but also recognizes work/life balance for the team, who are all at different stages in their journey,” says Simpson. “I don’t believe that long office hours are necessary for success or turnover.”

Jodie Fried and Sally Pottharst, founders of Armadillo & Co.

If you haven’t heard of Armadillo & Co. yet, be prepared to want to immediately go rug shopping. Founded in 2009 by Australian Jodie Fried and Sally Pottharst, originally from Zimbabwe and now living in Australia, each A&Co. rug is painstakingly made by hand using traditional weaving methods and only natural, sustainable fibers.

As if creating jobs for 1,500-plus artisans in India wasn’t enough, in 2017, Fried and Pottharst created The Armadillo & Co Foundation, a philanthropic arm of their company that funnels dollars directly into their workers’ communities for educational, health, and community structures. Striving to make a difference in the communities they’re in is core to A&Co.’s brand DNA, and part of that is building an environment that feels inclusive and supportive for all of their employees. Both Fried and Pottharst feel that being women has informed that process for them, at least to some degree.

“I feel like women really carve out their own path in business and run their own race,” says Fried. “Women are great entrepreneurs because they lead with their heart, instinct, and passion, and it is less about themselves, less ego, and more about the business and the culture, which I feel inevitably leads you to success.”

Pottharst agrees. “Women have intuition and sensitivity around co-workers, which is of real benefit,” says Pottharst. “We care for staff beyond their tangible outputs, and that trust and appreciation becomes reciprocal and has lasting benefits for the business.” 

Kate Zaremba, owner of Kate Zaremba Company

Kate Zaremba got her start in the arts as a child actress then pivoted from drama to the visual arts for college and grad school. It was there she that fell in love with surface design and textiles, which led her to create her eponymous wallpaper, art, and textile business, Kate Zaremba Company. You’ve probably seen her bold-colored, super graphic peel-and-stick wallpaper in an Apartment Therapy house tour before and just didn’t know it. Among other things, she’s become known in the design world for patterns that speak to women’s beauty, softness, strength, friendship and empowerment—her hand-painted “Figures” design and cut paper “Getting Handsy” design immediately come to mind.

“My work is quite playful really, even humorous sometimes,” says Zaremba. “I draw quite a bit from my own imagination, from art history as well, and my own aesthetic preferences for color and design versus current trends. Certainly being a women impacts a lot of it, and now as a new mother, I foresee that having an influence as well.”

The art world isn’t always easy to navigate, and Zaremba acknowledges the role her strong inner circle played in helping her to get her business off its feet. “There are so many women in my life, from close friends to family members, who I looked to as I started my business and still look to today,” says Zaremba. “Whether it was going to them for advice or just knowing how supportive they were of my work and the decisions I was making, it made all the difference, as I navigated the first few years which feel so scary and uncertain. And even now, when I am second guessing myself or need a little encouragement, I feel so lucky to have a multitude of incredible ladies in my life that I can lean on.”