Co-founders Dorie and Emelyn met the first week of Wharton Business School at a welcome event... wearing the exact same black dress. Laughing over the initial awkwardness, they immediately bonded over their shared appreciation for their one, go-to confidence-inducing professional outfit. But how, after so much searching, had they both landed on the exact same dress, a boring one at that? Having worked in consulting and finance for years, they knew there had to be a better way to get dressed for work 5 (or 6 or 7) days a week. The solution was simple: create a dedicated workwear brand with a bold modern aesthetic to take women where they need to go.
It seemed simple enough, but the endeavor was ambitious and something was missing...a creative, a designer, someone with fashion industry experience... Enter Aja: Parsons grad and tailored clothing specialist. And with that Of Mercer was born.
How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?
EMELYN: Both of us are lucky to have strong, successful mothers whom we look up to and aspire to emulate. One thing in particular for which I credit my mom is instilling in me very early, the importance of being nice to and inclusive of others. She made sure I didn't leave anyone out of my birthday parties, and of all the ratings on my report card, she was always most proud of a high mark for "plays well with others". As it turns out, what I've learned from working for both good and bad leaders is that the good leaders also tend to be nice and inclusive. They're team players, they respect your time, and they include you in their thought and decision making processes. Dorie and I strive to do that both with each other and with everyone on our team. Having that mentality is really what allows us to work so well together as co-founders. We're conscious of each other's strengths and weaknesses, we work together to make our decisions, and while we have differences of opinions, neither of us cares who is right, as long as it's the right decision for our team and our company.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenures at Of Mercer?
DORIE: Prior to meeting at Wharton, Emelyn worked in investment banking and private equity, and I was in strategy consulting. In both of these jobs, as well as in our classes at Wharton, we really honed our analytics skills and learned to take a data-driven approach to everything. As we've built Of Mercer as a lean startup, these skills have proven incredibly helpful to ensure we're making the best choices, with limited resources. We often have to make a decision with a lot of uncertainty and little historical data to help guide us, so it would be quicker and easier to make a decision based on our gut. But our backgrounds have helped ensure that, as much as possible, we're viewing every tough decision with an analytical data-driven lens.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenures at Of Mercer?
EMELYN: Neither of us have backgrounds in fashion or retail, so it's been a steep learning curve to get where we are. At the beginning, we did everything ourselves - from designing to creating tech packs to sourcing fabric. While there were many challenges, the biggest was managing production. Factory contacts anywhere are closely held secrets, and we didn't yet have the language to communicate and negotiate with factories. While it was always a goal to produce in the United States, we ended up producing in China because it was the only option we had without paying through the nose. Managing production in China from NYC proved to be incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and was fraught with more issues than we could have imagined. We've since migrated our production to NYC and realized that paying a slightly higher price to be able to walk into our factory any day of the week is worth every penny.
There are a lot of highlights everyday! We find it incredibly rewarding to be involved in every aspect of running a business, from production to marketing to web design. First we decide on a strategy, then we implement it, and then we get to see real-time results - a complete process that we didn't experience at our past jobs. The best results are seeing a dress that we worked so hard to perfect on a happy customer, and how great that dress makes her feel. Also, we have a lot of fun! Who doesn't love going to work everyday with her best friend?
What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
DORIE: Don't be intimidated by what you don't know. You aren't going to know what you are doing all the time, particularly at the beginning, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. The truth is, no entrepreneur has it all figured out (even if it seems like they do). We've found that the more open we are about what we don't know, the more open others are to telling us what they do know, and we can learn a lot faster. Have coffee with people in your industry, go to meet-ups, and build a network that will give you advice and help you through the uncertainties.
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your careers to date?
EMELYN: Live your career in the moment. Each step of my finance career had been planned since the time I was a junior in college - from internship to banking to private equity. Wharton was the first time where my career path was uncertain. I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial, but I still found myself gravitating toward the security of another finance job. I had the good fortune of having a women's lunch with Wharton alumna Pauline Brown. When asked how she got to where she is today, she said that she lived her career in the moment, instead of trying to plan out her whole career path. If she had focused on getting to what she thought was her dream job 20 years down the road, not only would that job not have been there, but she also would have missed all the unexpected career turns that got her to where she is today (since our lunch, she has become chairman of LVMH North America). Her advice not only pushed me to go ahead with Of Mercer, but also helped me become a lot more comfortable with uncertainty.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
DORIE: When I was working in consulting, I thought about work/life balance as keeping the two separate - working at work (even if that meant on the weekends), and "having a personal life" when not at the office. Since starting Of Mercer, I've learned that this is not a viable mentality because it's impossible for me to "turn it off." I now believe that maintaining a work/life balance means embracing that work and life are completely intertwined. My husband is amused by how quickly I can go from a production call with our factory to an in-depth analysis of the latest Scandal episode with Emelyn, and then back to doing our taxes. The key for me is to remember that both personal and professional aspects of my life are very important; they just no longer fit in neatly separated silos.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
EMELYN: One of the biggest issues women face in the workplace is a lack of confidence. The "confidence gap", as it is called in Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's article in The Atlantic, really exists. Women start sentences far too often with the phrase "I think," while our male counterparts simply state whatever they're about to say as fact. We're often hesitant to answer a question that we're only 90% sure of, while we watch our male counterparts answer a question they are 50% sure of with 100% confidence. Unfortunately, there are a lot of examples of how our internal lack of confidence can negatively impact our actions and people's perceptions of our abilities. It's a problem with no easy fix because it requires a change in mindset that might never feel completely comfortable. The best thing women can do is to start small with actions they can control, with the hope that the mind will follow. For instance, Dorie and I have made a conscious effort to stop using "I think" in emails or "I feel" in conversation. It's a subtle change, but it's a step in the right direction towards closing the confidence gap.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
DORIE: When I was in consulting I had traditional mentors - they were more senior women in the firm who would guide me through my various career decisions. Since starting Of Mercer, where there aren't built-in mentors, we've had to find mentors in other ways. Some are still one-on-one relationships with more experienced people in our industry, but more often we look to a peer-based support system. We go to meet-ups, have casual coffee chats, and meet with a group of fellow female entrepreneurs regularly. These all help us get through the wide range of challenges we face in our business. We also never turn down a request for a meeting or coffee chat with other entrepreneurs, even those that are just in the idea phase. We wouldn't be where we are today if it wasn't for the many people who were willing to meet, teach and mentor us when we had only an idea for a better women's workwear brand.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
EMELYN: We admire leaders who are ambitious and successful while simultaneously embracing their femininity and personal style. Michelle Obama is the perfect example both in her fashion sense and in the way she utilizes her personality when bringing light to her causes. Sheryl Sandberg is another example. We admire that she's open and honest about her experiences and has done wonders for getting the conversation going about the real challenges women face in their careers. She's given a voice to lot of issues that women were thinking but maybe didn't want to say.
What do you want Of Mercer to accomplish in the next year?
DORIE: Over the next year we will be expanding our product line. We currently offer desk-to-dinner dresses and blazers, but we are in development of skirts, tops, knitwear, and pants - all which will be available by next fall. We also hope to hold more in-person shopping events and pop-up stores to let our customers experience the quality of our clothing first-hand. We've done week-long events in Boston, Philadelphia, and DC, and just completed our first pop-up shop in NYC. We're looking forward to going to the Midwest, South, and West Coast next. And finally, we hope to complete a round of fundraising so we can continue to expand our business and introduce Of Mercer to more stylish, professional women.