Women in Business: Q & A With Hilary Genga, Founder of Trunkettes

"I am all for showing your emotions. I'd much rather have someone work with me that is passionate and I know how she feels."
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Hilary Genga founded Trunkettes when she realized there were no stylish yet comfortable swimwear lines for women. With its trademark feminine spin on men's swim trunks and a large celebrity fan base that includes Carrie Underwood, Felicity Huffman and Real Housewife of Orange County Gretchen Rossi, the Trunkettes collection has since expanded to include tankinis, one-pieces, dresses, sarongs and a new line, KrickyLu by Trunkettes. Trunkettes has been prominently featured in Glamour, In Touch, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, the TODAY Show and Sports Illustrated's 2013 Swimsuit Issue.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I feel it's all about people and relationships, and my life experiences have taught me how to relate with many different people on many different levels. They have also taught me you can learn from just about anybody, and that one should be open to the opinions of others. Respecting people from all backgrounds and perspectives has certainly garnered me respect in my community and in my workplace, and I believe that I have become a better leader by helping those on my team feel invested in the direction and operation of Trunkettes.

I also always make time to give advice or help out people who are just starting a business. I feel if I can make their road a little bit easier or help them avoid some of the mistakes I made, it will pay off in the end. The more successful entrepreneurs there are in the world, the better it is for everybody. I also give talks at schools about becoming an entrepreneur. I feel these experiences have made me a well-respected leader.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

That is truly one of the biggest challenges of running your own business. I am a wife and a mother and my two kids mean the world to me. For me, it's not taking myself too seriously. I know the world won't come to an end if I miss a PTA meeting or order pizza for dinner two days in a row. I have truly made my kids and husband part of the business and they enjoy discussing it and giving me their input. When my kids aren't in school I often take them to the office with me and really make them a part of everything. This way, if I miss a school function or forget the birthday party of one of their friends, they get it and we have fun laughing about it.

What have the highlights and challenges been founding Trunkettes?

There have been many highlights and many challenges in founding and building Trunkettes. A definite highlight is the knowledge that it is possible to take an idea and actually create something that didn't exist before. Starting a business, especially a new idea business, is like putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and actually creating the pieces to put together. There will be mistakes, near hits, near misses and out and out "What was I thinking?" moments, but there is no better feeling than when the pieces come together and you can see results. I have always loved the creative part of starting a business and that is where I excel. There is nothing I love more than to be in a room with other creative people where we are brainstorming ideas on new ad slogans, branding and marketing strategies, fashion concepts, store pitches and so forth. Also, when I get letters and e-mails from women telling me how Trunkettes has made such a wonderful difference in their lives, I know that all the struggles have been worth it.

As much as I love that part of the process, the business aspect and leadership role can sometimes be a challenge. Being the new kid on the block is not easy, and being a woman certainly does not make it any easier. When you're new you are put at the bottom of the priority ladder and not taken seriously, and I feel that is more true for women than for men. New market entrants are also taken advantage of a lot. A major challenge is not always knowing what's right, who's honest and where to go for advice. Finding the right people to help is hugely important, and sometimes you have to go through a number of people before finding the right ones.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking to establish their own business?

Do your research. You might think you have a great idea and it very well might be, but you have to find out if other people think it's a good idea too and if they would buy it. I think you need to invest in some research to this extent: whether it's traveling to a few different parts of the country and getting opinions from your target market, or talking to more established people in a similar or same field. Also, don't discount the community you come from. I found that my mom friends were an extremely valuable resource, particularly since my product targets their demographic.

Once you're satisfied that you have something commercially viable, you have to trust yourself and not be afraid to take the plunge. If you have a great idea and you don't do anything about it, what good does that do? I realized this myself when I kept looking for women's swim trunks and never finding them. I finally realized that if no one else cared to fill this void in the market, I could.

What are the best practices to developing strong professional relationships with other women?

I have worked with my partner, Kristen Greven, for quite a few years now. We have a great relationship and I think it's because we have an enormous amount of mutual respect for each other. In all the years we have been working together we have never had a fight. We certainly have differences of opinions sometimes, but we always listen to each other and come up with a compromise that satisfies us both. We have different strengths, and we realize that and have used that to further our relationships and business opportunities. We relish in the fact that we have learned from each other and continue to do so. Even though Kristen is the head designer, we work together with ease on patterns, bodies and prints. If I have a new idea on a design, she will explore it to the fullest extent. Likewise, if she wants to get involved in the business aspects of the company, I am happy to make that happen. We also appreciate the differences we have. I am more outgoing and like to sell and speak about Trunkettes where Kristen is more introspective and reserved. You have to know your audience and know which one is the best person to send in for a particular task. Sometimes it's Kristen, sometimes it's me and sometimes it's both of us together.

Also, you have to realize that women are different from men: always have been and always will be. Where as men generally get right to the business, women really like establishing a relationship first. Finding some common ground with particular women, like similar interests or values, really establishes trust and a great rapport. There was this one store owner I met in San Francisco: well established, rarely sees new vendors, and had quite the attitude when I first came in. We started talking about other things instead than my swimwear line, like travel, men, starting a business, family and so forth. Before you knew it I was there for an hour before she even began to look at my line. After that it was easy: the common bond and rapport was formed and the selling came naturally.

Why do you think businesswomen often receive negative publicity/bad rap?

I think when two women in the business world are competitive with each other it is viewed as them being catty, where as if it's two men vying for the same job its looked at as them being competitive. Most of the women I know wear their emotions on their sleeves and thus can be perceived as volatile. I am all for showing your emotions. I'd much rather have someone work with me that is passionate and I know how she feels. I have worked with mostly women in my company for the last six years. A lot of them I knew as moms and had no idea they had any business experience. One mom in particular, who always had three young kids hanging on to her and drool running down her sweatshirt, ended up being a very valuable part of my team. To my surprise, she had gone to Harvard Business School and was absolutely brilliant. You have to look pass the exterior and realize you can find valuable resources in many different places.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

It has been said before but I will say it again: NOT BEING TAKEN SERIOUSLY. I struggle every day with trying to negotiate with manufacturers and other vendors who think they can get away with taking advantage of me because I am a woman. The other struggle is trying to balance being a good mom with all the demands of work.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?

I think that anything that gets you talking about an issue is a good thing. There is no question that she has started a much-needed conversation again about women in leadership roles in the workplace. I don't think she is saying anything we all haven't heard before, but she says it with savvy and command and it's definitely time to strike up the conversation again. Do I think this movement is going to change anything right away? Probably not, but the awareness is valuable. What we really need is to get the conversation going to boys and girls in grade school. Most men and women don't change but you can certainly mold young minds.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I was recently fortunate enough to be mentored by Daymond John of ABC's Shark Tank. Just the fact that I was in a room talking to someone who had started with nothing like me, and became so successful, was extremely inspiring. It really changed my outlook on what can happen and not to get discouraged if you hit some bumps along the way.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Sarah Blakely. She is completely self-taught, self-motivated and self-made. She did not go to business school, but had a great idea, did her research and trusted herself in coming up with Spanx and bringing them to the market. She found a need in the market when looking for something that she wanted for herself. Trunkettes was born in much the same way, with Sarah Blakely's example serving as an inspiration. She made her concept happen and became successful through perseverance and trusting her gut. Also, she has a fun personality, doesn't take herself too seriously, and has given back by starting a foundation. I would love to be in that position myself by doing with Trunkettes what she has done with Spanx.

I also greatly admire Hillary Clinton. These questions have raised the recurring theme of women operating in what still is largely a man's world. Hillary Clinton has done that extremely well. She can stand up to men and is respected for that ability and is effective because of it.

What are your hopes for the future of Trunkettes?

I want swim trunks for women to become just another normal choice for women, no different than a bikini or tankini. I want there to be enough choices out there that women can go to the beach or the pool and dress the way they want to and feel confident and carefree. I have created a line of swimwear that enables women to be in the moment with their kids or friends or co-workers, where they don't have to worry if they didn't get a bikini wax or do 1000 squats before putting on their suit. My hope is that women know they have choices on what they can wear to the beach or the pool.

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