June 24

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What Ethical Sourcing and Inclusion Looks Like In Footware Business with Rebecca Allen

By Mimi MacLean

June 24, 2021


Rebecca Allen on ethical sourcing

An entrepreneur’s breakthrough idea usually comes from seeing the “missing piece” in people’s day to day and finding a solution for it. Rebecca Allen’s “missing piece” resulted in ethical sourcing, focusing on the need for more inclusion and diversity in basics such as nude clothing, shoes, and accessories. Working in the financial industry, she realized how little diversity there was in high-quality nude heels (an essential for her corporate job). She felt there needed to be more inclusion and empowerment for women of all skin colors. She set out to do this by ethical sourcing, swatching, and talking to friends & family all leading her to start her own leather high heel company that is now partnering with Nordstrom!

Episode Contents

Inspiration From Shoes Under the Desk

Rebecca Allen - shoes for all skin tones
Rebecca Allen foot ware with eye for ethical sourcing and inclusion

Mimi: Hi, welcome back to The Badass CEO. This is Mimi, and today we have Rebecca Allen and she’s an ex-finance employee at Goldman Sachs that saw a need for high quality nude pumps that were inclusive of all skin colors and decided to create the change. She founded this self-titled leather shoe company using all women based team with ethical sourcing and with the goal of empowering women to feel confident and comfortable. She spent time scouting swatches and talking to friends and families to make sure the shoes complimented a wide range of skin tones. Her brand is exponentially growing and has an upcoming partnership with Nordstrom’s.

Rebecca, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it. I’m excited to learn about your company, Rebecca Allen, and your journey to entrepreneurship. I know out of business school, you had a great job at Goldman Sachs and what made you decide to leave and kind of start your own thing?

Rebecca: Yeah. Hi, Mimi. Thanks for having me. So I wore business formal or business casual every day to work like all of my counterparts in the office. And when I was at Goldman, what I realized looking around the office was that all of my white lady colleagues wore this nude pump because it was really just the most quintessential wardrobe staple. It went with everything in their closet because it just matched their leg and created this kind of seamless finish.

It was the shoe that lived under their desks. And it looked ridiculous on me as a black woman. And I felt more than just creating the kind of colorways that there was really an opportunity to also brand build to hold and black and brown women at the center of a conversation. And so I set about developing the shades and thinking through the styles and all of that. And before I knew it, I had kind of gotten myself to a point where it was like, “Well, are you going to do it?” So that was kind of the tipping point.

Mimi: So you stayed working while you were researching?

Rebecca: Yes. Yeah. So I was really fortunate to have some shoe industry veterans as a helpful sounding board. So I think I kind of by luck overcame a lot of the kind of early headaches in terms of sourcing the manufacturer and prototyping and all of that stuff where you can certainly hit a lot of roadblocks on the footwear side, but I had these little shoe angels to help me guide through.

Mimi: That’s awesome. Because usually when you have people in an industry and you ask them their opinion, they’re the first ones to tell you no. Did you get that at all?

Rebecca: Like to tell you no, don’t do this or just to say…

Mimi: Yes. Like you’re crazy.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Mimi: You’re going up against the giants. They’re like, “What are you doing?”

Rebecca: Right. Well, I certainly wish that more people had said that to me, but I think people were like, “Oh, happy to be helpful,” kind of thing. I think what I’ve found throughout my career is that I’m always surprised by people who are willing to be helpful in my network. And it’s always an illuminating lesson for me to just kind of share what I’m building or share what I’m working on, because you never know who’s willing to be helpful, so that was certainly the case with this.

Generosity of People in Your Network

Ethical sourcing a key value of Rebecca Allen
Rebecca Allen, entrepreneur

Mimi: Oh, that’S amazing. Okay. So you got to the point you have the prototypes, you have your business, you’re ready to launch and then you go into Goldman and you say, “I’m resigning.” Is that how this works? Because that’s a scary thing. I think there’s a lot of people that are listening to this that are like where you were. You have a job that’s well-paying. You have a great idea. You’ve kind of gotten so far, and at what point do you jump and at what point do you give up your income?

Rebecca: Right.

Mimi: It’s a scary proposition, right?

Rebecca: Yeah. And I think it depends on where you are in your career and that risk assessment is obviously different for everybody depending on what your situation is. I certainly didn’t have a trust fund to fall back on or anything like that. But I was married… At the time, I was still married. And so I knew that my husband was supportive.

Mimi: You had a place to put your head on the pillow at night.

Rebecca: Right. Right. But I think I also… And I spent a lot of time like talking to people who are exploring entrepreneurship or who are asking that question, like when do I know if it’s time or how do I know if I’m ready to take the next step? And I think… And this might be terrible advice, but I think I kind of frame it differently than a lot of people. I think a lot of people think like, “oh, well, if I go and do this and I fail, then I will never be able to come back from that.” And I think that that’s very much not true. Right?

I think that you gain a whole new skillset, you learn a lot, you create a whole new network. Right? You meet new people and that may be what leads to your next thing. I certainly don’t think that every door shuts behind you after that. And so I felt like, well, I could always go back to investment management kind of stuff, but maybe this becomes a launchpad for something that I don’t even know about if it doesn’t work out.

Mimi: Right.

Rebecca: So I think I think about it differently.

Approaches to Cultivating Customers

quote from Rebecca Allen
Inclusion and ethical sourcing is Rebecca Allen’s modus operandi

Mimi: So you make your first shoe. Did you decide to go direct to consumer? Or are you going direct to… Did you find retailers to sell it at? What was that process?

Rebecca: Out of the gate… So we launched direct to consumer, but we partnered with a bunch of kind of complimentary brands into inclusion and ethical sourcing to do offline activations. So if you’re familiar with Of Mercer or Ministry of Supply, both of those brands make well… Ministry of Supply also makes menswear, but they both make women’s attire, and they have physical stores.

We partnered for shop-in-shop weekends where I would literally drive my car and bring a size run of shoes to set up shop inside their stores in different cities, or I’d ship and get on a plane and head there, and then really post up, hand out business cards, the real man-to-man combat early days, which was, I think I know a lot of early brands in a similar position will do trunk shows and different stuff like that, just to kind of get the word out. And this was great, because it was really kind of getting… Immediately breaking out of my immediate network to just meet new folks and share the story. And I think it’s obviously so important to meet your customer, especially early on.

Mimi: Yeah. That’s so true. Now as far as funding, because I’m sure you needed inventory to show up and sell. Did you do self-funded at that point or did you have to do a friends and family round?

Raising Money and First Successes

Rebecca: I did a friends and family and I think realized that raising money is very hard, especially for something that’s not venture backable. Right? And so I raised a little bit of money. I did bring on one institutional investor into launching the business and then yes, put in some of my own money out of the gate. Right, because shoes is inventory heavy, skew, headaches, sizing, all of that. So yeah, you have to be able to…

Mimi: Back that up. And then how has COVID affected it? Have you had to change your strategy because obviously you weren’t doing those trunk shows during COVID.

Rebecca: Right. So we actually… We were testing… Well we talked a little bit about direct sales before we got on the line and we actually tested a direct sales, like a virtual selling cohort with Instagram stories. That was super successful, but we also created our first wholesale relationship with Nordstrom during the pandemic. So that has been a new channel for us and we actually just launched formally last week. So that’s great.

Mimi: Oh, that’s great. Congratulations.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. And it was something… I think building the business with omni-channel in mind out of the gate was something that I felt was just a sound way to think about margins. Being able to say, “Okay, we can kind of withstand doing wholesale,” was just a great optionality to have. And I think obviously through the pandemic, as a black-owned brand, there has been so much visibility and awareness as racial justice has been. It just… I guess has been a theme that…

Mimi: Yeah.

Rebecca: … Has been on top of everybody’s minds.

Mimi: No, it’s like the perfect time. Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. And I think… Certainly… We certainly feel a strong responsibility to keep pushing the conversation and really feel like the way… I think when I originally thought about the brand, I always felt like black women and women of color were oversexed in their portrayal in media, but also across brands as well. I felt like, well all the consultants and bankers and lawyers and doctors and all of these professional women I know…

Like sure, there’s time to be sexy, but she is also looking for… She also wants to see herself reflected as the kind of professional person that she is too. And so I think holding space for her in this light in which she sees herself and telling her story, right, through the brand has been something that has really resonated with folks. And through that, we’ve kind of continued to build this great community around it.

Big Challenges and Best Lessons

Quote from Rebecca Allen, CEO
Start even before you’re ready!

Mimi: What have you found to be your biggest challenge so far?

Rebecca: I mean, aside from raising money, which is hard for everybody, is its own thing. I think managing minimum order quantities and size distribution for footwear is particularly challenging. We kind of through our orders would run out of popular sizes and colors, but be in this need to grace the lines to get to that point where we’re really able to keep things in a flow, and then obviously introduce new styles. We’re still very new, and so we’re still getting to that point, but even having a partner like Nordstrom now is allowing us to buy bigger.

Mimi: Make bigger quantities. Now what do you wish you had known from the beginning that you would’ve learned now?

Rebecca: That’s a great question. I saw that in the prompt that I was like, “Hmm.” I think about what I tell people now and what I wish I had known was starting… And I think this is kind of a cliche. I know people certainly say this to women in particular, is start before you’re ready. I think I certainly like so many other founders that I talk to have a tendency to wait until you have everything kind of perfectly teed up and you want to make sure you did all your homework and that everything is just so…

But I think just getting into it and iterating and learning is also… Is something that I wish… Like this was an idea that I had percolating for years before I really set it in motion.

Some Stats on Women Entrepreneurs

Ethical sourcing and inclusion for foot ware entrepreneur
Opportunities abound

Mimi: I love that you do that, because I’m actually finishing up a book right now that I’m launching in September. And the theme is… I don’t know if you’ve realized this, but doing this podcast, I realized:

Only 1.7% of female CEOs ever reach a million dollars in sales and only 5% of women are in C-suites and CEO positions in corporate America.

Rebecca: Right.

Mimi: And so I kind of dissect why is this? And one of the reasons, or one of my chapters, exactly what you’re talking about. I think women tend to be perfectionist.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Mimi: Right? They want to make sure the font on their website is perfect, and they want to make sure their packaging and their boxing is perfect, and everything is just so… And then you don’t realize that you’re only noticing it. Nobody else… That’s not going to make or break the sale. You have to worry about the sale, not the font on the website. So I think women compared to men tend to be a lot more detail-oriented and get caught up in those details when they should just be going and learning from their customer. Because maybe the font you like is not the font the customer likes.

Rebecca: Right. You can learn from that once you put it out there. Right? You don’t know until it’s out there.

Mimi: Exactly.

Rebecca: I wanted… Wait, can I ask you a question?

Mimi: Of course.

Rebecca: This is just something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. So you said 1.7…

Mimi: Percent of women who are CEOs, like entrepreneurs, ever reach a million dollars in sales.

Rebecca: Ever reach a million dollars in sales. Did you do any research on the rate at which women are starting businesses and leaving corporate to do so?

Mimi: No, but it’s like at 50… This came from American Express. American Express puts out a women’s survey every year.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Mimi: So there… It’s amazing data, but it’s almost half-half as far as women who are starting and men who are starting, but I did not see a stats as far as X amount of women. I do… During COVID, a lot of women had to leave their jobs because of taking care of their kids.

Maybe they became entrepreneurs from that. And you look at the MLM, like the direct sales market that you’re talking about. That’s a huge opportunity for women who are staying at home with their children to be entrepreneurs. And that’s one reason looking… I went to business school like you did. We both went to Columbia and I did the whole… Did you ever get involved with the whole entrepreneurship, like the Lang Fund and all that?

Rebecca: I did. I did, because I actually… I had a different business that I pitched and worked on a little bit in business school and then I got scared and let go of it.

Mimi: So I did the same thing with a partner of mine. We made it… Like at that point you didn’t win, there was just finalists.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Mimi: And so we were one of the finalists and I really debated… Like I had a job, I could have worked at LVMH out of business school, and I was sitting there like, “What do I do?” I remember just sitting there the night before, going back and forth like, “What do I do?” And we… I just… I turned down LVMH and I went that path instead. So when I got involved with Beautycounter, I never thought about MLM as an actual being CEO and entrepreneur.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Ethical Sourcing and Affiliate Networks

Rebecca Allen - success story of starting her own business
Rebecca Allen – Trust your own network and the generosity of folks

Mimi: And you are the CEO of your own company, right? You are in a sense running your own company as like… It’s… You’re the one getting yourself out of bed every day and making those phone calls and you’re in the know and deciding to do it again and again and again. Nobody else is running that business for you. So that’s just another great opportunity I think for women and like for your business to tap into those women. And you don’t even need to even go down the whole MLM route. Right? You can go down the whole affiliate route.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Mimi: Now you could just give the affiliate networks to all these influencers and give them a percentage. You don’t have to worry about building the whole channel…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Mimi: … For the MLM.

Rebecca: Yeah. And it’s super easy. And I think thanks to social media, so many folks are accustomed to it already. It’s kind of just… And obviously there are so many services that are facilitating that. So yeah, it’s great. But I… Yeah. The reason why I ask about women leaving and starting their own businesses is just because I’ve been spending a lot of time… I forget what the rate… There was some article that I read that was kind of holding up this stat of black women starting businesses at the highest rate of any group, and I think that people are looking at that as a great thing and not really thinking about the causality.

It’s great that women are doing entrepreneurship… And through MLM and other opportunities, but it’s because they had to bear the cost of having… Being driven out of the workforce during the pandemic, or the… I think for a lot of women of color, they’re getting pushed out because they’re getting passed up for promotion or they’re under constant micro aggression that is just driving them nuts. All these kinds of…

Mimi: Right.

Rebecca: … Different reasons that people leave. And so it’s like, well is it a good thing or is it a bad… Because entrepreneurship is also really hard. Right?

Mimi: It’s really hard.

Rebecca: It’s not for everybody.

Mimi: You see the great looking shoes on the thing, but you don’t see everything underneath it and all the everyday like, “Oh my gosh. Am I going to make it? Am I going to get this offer? Am I going to pay… Be able to pay for the next inventory?” Or whatever, right? You don’t see… Everyone makes it look super easy and you don’t realize.

Rebecca: And you have to, right? You have to be on social like, “Oh, this is awesome.” You know?

Mimi: You don’t see the problems behind it. No, it is true. There are other reasons. I think why people are probably doing that, but then it’s also I think easier time than ever to be your own boss and entrepreneur, right? There’s so many opportunities as women and as black women to get probably funding and financing. I’ve had people call me and be like, “Do you know anybody?” Because they’re like they need to fill board seats.

Rebecca: Right.

Mimi: They’re under pressure now to fill their C-suites, their board seats. They’re also going back to… Like that study I was talking about, it said that the returns are double for women versus men for VCs that invest in companies.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.

Mimi: So there’s actually, you get when… You get actually a better return. You know?

So if these men were listening, they would be investing in more women companies because they probably would get a better return because we kind of, I think, stick to it, think about the details.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.

Mimi: And probably have done a lot more research before we jumped into something.

Rebecca: Right. Just better stewards of capital tying into ethical sourcing.

Mimi: Exactly. That’s so true. That’s so true. Do you have like a morning routine?

Personal Entrepreneurial Practices

Is there any kind of tips that you would… Just kind of balancing it all and being an entrepreneur and keeping things… Do you have a big team? Do you do outsource stuff? What are you doing to kind of keep everything organized and growing?

Rebecca: Yeah. So we have a small team. We are five and we definitely outsource and contract stuff we use. I love Upwork. I use Upwork for lots of outsourced, contracted stuff across the board. Everything from super technical stuff to design stuff. I think Upwork is great. And then in terms of morning routine… So our team is de-centralized. We’ve all continued to work from home. We actually gave… We had an office in Manhattan that we’ve actually said goodbye to, and now we’ve got teammates who were in California and in Tennessee. So we’re kind of all over the place.

Rebecca: My morning routine… I’m up. I have a toddler, so I like to wake up before her so that I can have a moment to myself. Have a sip of coffee, read a little Bloomberg Business Week, whatever it might be, get an exercise in and just kind of get set for my day, like see if there’s anything that is in my inbox that needs attention.

We kind of have morning time, and breakfast time, and family time, before our day really starts, which is nice. And I think being able to have some quiet when nobody else is running around in my apartment is really nice. And then I have a touch base with my COO every morning where we’re just level-setting on anything that we need to be connecting on. And then I’m a little bit of a hybrid. I’m not totally digital, although I have a lot of digital tools that I use to enable work, but I also am a little analog. I still like to make lists and physically cross things off and stuff like that.

Mimi: Me too.

Rebecca: I kind of live by my little lists and my Google calendar and then all the G Suite stuff and things that we use, like Airtable and stuff like that too.

Mimi: This has been awesome. Just to wrap up, is there any advice that you would give anybody who is thinking about being an entrepreneur or actually in the workforce, since you’ve been in the workforce too, and you were working at one of the top companies, like to get to the top. Any… If someone wants to be a CEO, either as an entrepreneur or corporate America, is there any advice that you would give?

Tips for upcoming CEOs

Rebecca: I think that working hard is obviously a must, but I think that things are not as merit-based as people would like to believe often. And so I really think that networking is indispensable and a skill that you can build. And I have a lot of young women who will say, “I hate it and I don’t want to go, and I don’t like it.” And I kind of fall in… I’d put myself in that bucket a little bit too, but I’d say flexing that muscle and getting really comfortable there and just doing the reps is so essential to success, whether you’re in a big corporate setting or networking and having to be kind of scrappy on your own as you build and staying on top of it too. Right? Reaching back out to people, keeping folks warm, keeping them abreast of what you’re working on and checking in on them too.

Mimi: I love this because that’s another thing I think that we, as women don’t do enough of, is networking and having mentors. So if you don’t mind, can we just dive into that just a little bit?

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah.

Mimi: So if you meet somebody… I’m just kind of thinking like details, right, for people. When you go home, where do you put that? Do you put that in your contacts? Do you have an Excel spreadsheet? How are you keeping track of who you’re meeting?

Rebecca: I keep… I file emails… I have a networking folder in my emails. And so then I will… When I say, “Oh, Mimi, it was so great to meet you last night at that event. Would love to get coffee sometime,” or whatever, I… Now you kind of live in that networking folder. For investor touch points and all of that kind of stuff, I keep a spreadsheet where I use formulas for when’s the last date I was in touch with them, for prospective investors and for current investors and all that kind of stuff, so I know that I have a cadence for the frequency that I’m in touch. And then I just… I have my short list of people who I want to make sure I’m keeping them posted on stuff.

Mimi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rebecca: I could probably be a little more on top of it… But than I am.

Mimi: Well if you had like 40 hours in a day instead of 24 hours, right?

Rebecca: But I’d say that’s my kind of scrappy way that has been working for me.

Mimi: And I think what’s really important… I think you touched on this a little bit about reaching back out and stuff like that. This is something I stress too, is when you go meet somebody and you’re trying to build a relationship, don’t think of it as like what’s in it for you. Because it becomes very apparent. And then it’s harder to build that relationship.

Even if you’re a junior person and you meet somebody who’s senior and you find out… You see an article that they may be useful, like forward it to them or do something that makes them be like, “Oh, she’s thinking of me, and it’s not just asking for something or it’s not just requesting my time.” It’S actually like, “Oh, I’m thinking of you. And this might be helpful for you.”

Rebecca: Yeah. And I think you… You’d be surprised at what you have that is valuable to somebody else too. Right? I introduced Beyonce and Serena Williams publicists to each other. And I was like, “I can’t believe these two women don’t know each other, and I can’t believe that I’m the person who’s facilitating this.

Mimi: That’s great.

Rebecca: But you just never know. It was like, “Oh, hey, I would love to introduce you two.” And then that’s something that I didn’t even realize could be of value to folks.

Mimi: Wow.

Rebecca: So you never know. Yeah.

Mimi: Yeah. Exactly. And then it just comes back around.

Rebecca: Right.

Mimi: But exactly, I think being the networker and not just being expected to have someone help you along the way I think is… Because now if you… If for some reason ever need either of them for something, now you know their publicists.

Rebecca: Right.

Mimi: Or you have an in to them. So yeah, that’s great advice about the networking piece, for either one, because you never know who’s going to help you or be an investor in your company or whatnot.

This is amazing and I wish you the best of luck. And I love the idea of your company and congratulations in getting into Nordstrom. And so for anybody who is looking to go online and to buy and look at her shoes, it’s Rebecca-Allen.com

Rebecca: No, thank you so much for having me. This was great. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Mimi: This is awesome. Thank you.

Mimi: Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of the Top 10 Tips Every Entrepreneur Should Know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. Also, please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them. So email me at mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.

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