Women in Business Q&A: Nur-E Farhana Rahman, co-founder of Knotty Gal

Nur-E Farhana Rahman is the co-founder of Knotty Gal, a NY-area socially conscious accessories business dedicated to helping educate and empower girls in Bangladesh. Prior to launching Knotty Gal with her mother in 2013, Nur-E worked as a consultant with Deloitte in Washington, DC and as a contractor with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), where she spent time working out of countries such as Iraq, Haiti, and Egypt. Nur-E is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and has a passion for gender issues, design, and social enterprise.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My leadership style has evolved over the years, and I'm sure it will continue to change as I grow, but who I am as a leader today takes root in my early college years. During this time, I was fortunate enough to help run a small DC non-profit promoting girls' and women's rights, and I was given an incredible amount of responsibility, despite my young age and relative inexperience. The NGO founders believed in me and allowed me to assume roles much larger than anything I could have imagined for myself. My experience there was life altering, as I began to see myself as someone capable of leading effectively. Through the highs and lows, I learned the importance of clear communication, empathy, and teamwork in leading, and I carry those lessons with me to this day.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Knotty Gal?
Prior to launching Knotty Gal, I was working as a consultant at Deloitte. From day one at the firm, we were taught the importance of relationship building and networking, and this is perhaps one of the greatest and most critical life lessons I have taken with me to Knotty Gal. Though I consider myself a sociable person, networking always felt a little uncomfortable for me, as it tends to for most people. Everyday at Deloitte, our seniors would reinforce the importance of building relationships, and I slowly but surely began to understand the true power of human connection. When I left DC and the consulting world for the NY fashion accessories scene, I had zero contacts, but I felt somewhat at an advantage for understanding the importance of networking in building our business' foundation. We're still a young brand, but many of the exciting things we've done since our launch, such as our trunk show at Henri Bendel, came as a direct result of a suggestion or introduction from a new relationship built.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Knotty Gal?
The accessories industry, in NY especially, is an incredibly competitive space to be in. It has definitely been challenging having to differentiate ourselves from literally thousands of other accessories brands, but it's made us work harder to develop a strong sense of brand identity. It has also been challenging to come into this space as an industry outsider, but that's also been a blessing in a way, by giving us a fresh perspective on matters.

Without a doubt, the most rewarding part has been knowing that we're making a small difference in the lives of the girls at the Bhandari Girls' School. Earlier this year, my mother and I visited Bangladesh and got to spend time with the girls. They are just incredible and have such a strong desire to learn and really make something of themselves. We signed a contract with BRAC, the world's largest NGO, to provide computer education training to each and every single one of the girls in a lab that we personally raised funds for, prior to starting Knotty Gal. It feels really good to know that the girls will be developing critical skills that will give them a competitive edge in Bangladesh's changing university and work environments.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
I would definitely say that the timing will never be "just right" so don't wait for the perfect moment to begin, because the perfect moment does not exist. A few years ago, I heard Blake Mycoskie speak, and that was the advice he offered to the crowd of would-be do-gooders, and those words really stuck with me. There will always be a million reasons not to strike out on your own. There will always be a million reasons not to pursue your dreams. To a certain extent, I say ignore them. I'm not encouraging women to quit their day jobs with no proper planning (I consulted for over a year before making the plunge to full-time Knotty business) but I do think it's important to realize that at a certain point, you just have to take a leap of faith.

Tell us about Knotty Gal's Kickstarter campaign and what you're hoping to achieve.
Right now, we are looking to raise $30k on Kickstarter. The funds will allow us to expand our manufacturing and scale our business. Initially, nearly everything was handmade by my mother. Though she's incredibly talented, she is just one person, and at times we have been unable to keep up with demand and have had to forego opportunities because we simply could not produce in the high quantities required. Though we've begun working with a manufacturer to help us produce certain pieces, it is simply not enough. The Kickstarter funds will allow us to switch full production to an amazing manufacturer in the heart of NY that would produce each and every single one of our 90+ styles. This will not only increase the overall quality of each Knotty Gal piece but will also allow us to pursue new opportunities to increase distribution.

In addition, if we succeed in raising our target amount, we can market our jewelry to a larger audience by participating in at least one industry trade show, which typically requires a significant upfront investment.

When Knotty Gal grows, more money goes back directly to the school, and when that happens, we increase our chances of making a small change for the better in the lives of over 1,200 girls.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's really challenging because I do work a lot, but I always make it a priority to carve out time for friends, family, and myself, even if only in small increments, like a 10-minute phone call or a 20-minute Netflix episode. I'm lucky in that my friends and family are incredibly supportive as well, so when I can't make dinner or drinks because I'm working, they completely understand. It's important to surround yourself with positive people who believe in what you're trying to accomplish. I also try to prioritize commitments, so I may miss an impromptu Saturday night out but will pencil in a birthday brunch well in advance. And of course, I make lists! I am a list maniac! If I could, I would make lists of my lists because I love them so much! They keep me organized and sane and allow me to prioritize so I can try to achieve a semblance of work/life balance.

Ultimately though, I feel lucky to be doing what I love so I don't necessarily mind that at this stage of my life, my work/life balance scales are a bit tipped on the work side as my mother and I try to build our brand.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's hard to pinpoint just one issue as being the most significant since there are still a number of challenges facing women in the workplace, varying from industry to industry. However, from my own experience, one problem that seems to be pervasive regardless of field is the overwhelming tendency for us to label men and women differently when they exhibit the same behaviors. An assertive man is a confident go-getter, yet an assertive woman is pushy and aggressive. The process for undoing centuries of gender socialization can't and won't be undone overnight, but we can combat the problem by recognizing the status quo as just a societal construct and pushing for new norms, even if only in small ways.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
In my first job out of college, I had an amazing female manager. To this day, she remains my standard for everything a strong leader should be, and I'm fortunate for having learned from her example. She taught me how to be tough yet compassionate and that the best leaders are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Working with her directly out of college really helped refine my professional identity, and for that I will be eternally grateful to her.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There really are so many, but one of the women I admire the most is Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. I was at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit last month where I heard her speak, and even though I had read her story many times before, listening to her share her journey was as inspiring as ever. Prior to becoming one of the youngest self-made billionaires, Sara Blakely sold fax machines door to door for seven years and received countless rejections over that time. Even when prototyping the first Spanx, she encountered rejection from nearly every individual who was a part of the process, and still she persevered. Her story is an inspiring testament to the power of persistence and the will to succeed, and I adore her!

What do you want Knotty Gal to accomplish in the next year?
Well first, we'd love to meet our Kickstarter goal! We're also working to provide free breakfast and lunch to all of the girls, which is not currently available. At the moment, the girls only receive a daily snack, and some of the girls are so poor, they come to school for this snack alone. We're brainstorming ways to make breakfast and lunch available, and we're trying to spread the word about this upcoming task at hand. Any and all ideas and introductions, whether for fundraising or collaboration, are welcome!