Here at Who What Wear, we're constantly talking about stylish workwear—but it's not every day that we get a chance to speak to the successful women actually wearing those stylish blazers. Since we're always poised and ready for insights from ultra-inspiring female leaders, we hosted an intimate panel with Chandon in New York to bring a few of them together (because who doesn't love chatting over a glass of sparkling wine?).
We tracked down three of the coolest, savviest women we know: Rebecca Minkoff (fashion designer turned tough-decision-making business mogul), Andee Olsen (who went from studying engineering to working at Vogue to her dream job as a content strategist at Bumble), and Pauline Lhote (our latest French-girl crush who worked her way up from intern to head of winemaking at Chandon California). While they work in vastly different industries, they've all faced their fair share of career obstacles and learned invaluable lessons along the way—trust us, if anyone knows the importance of surrounding yourself with a supportive squad, it's these women.
The panel discussion was so good we wanted to share the highlights with you from the interviews. Read on and get inspired by these successful women's stories—there's so much quality advice.
WHO WHAT WEAR: You started your brand all by yourself. Can you tell us about some of the challenges from those beginning days?
REBECCA MINKOFF: When I launched my line in 2005, social media didn't really exist at all. Websites were just forming. Really, it was about the time when I came across my name being talked about in a forum that I discovered I could have a relationship with my consumer [through social media], not through the lens of the one editor in chief who has to bless you or the one buyer who has to decide you're the new princess in town.
It was very freeing that I could talk to my customer directly, get to know her, and begin this journey with her that still lasts today ...
But back then, it was a lot of hitting the streets, a lot of knocking on doors—people still called people and talked to them on the phone. [I did all those things when it was] just me; and then there was an intern; and then I brought my brother into the mix. It was hard and long—and it still is. When you reach a certain level of success, it's not like you can suddenly put your feet up and it's easy. We still work as hard as we did back then; it's just different work.
WWW: What are some obstacles you faced along the way?
RM: We couldn't get a lease when we started. They thought we were going to be a flash in the pan. I had to beg our landlord to rent us an apartment to use as an office. Convincing people to come to East 18th Street between First and Second streets was difficult. My brother originally had to mortgage his house and max out his credit cards to pay for a few production runs because no one would loan us money.
When we first did our overseas production (I can give you lots and lots of stories), we were in the same factory as Kate Spade. The people making the bags don't speak English. They just put the hardware on the bags. We shipped a whole bunch of girls some bags. I got a hybrid name of Kabecca Spankoff—very humbling—and then had to apologize to a bunch of people.
WWW: In those challenging moments, how did your squad help you get through that?
RM: We made a really strategic hire early on, which was the president. So my brother didn't take a salary, and I made $23,000 a year for a very long time. This woman had been a veteran of the industry—she worked for Donna, Ralph, and Calvin, so she kind of knew the ropes. While we were new to things and teaching her what Twitter means and what Facebook is, she had been in the industry. It was a nice trifecta. If one man was down, the other two were still plowing through.
WWW: We know the celebrity placements you got in the early days was such a huge part of your success. Will you talk us through the power of your network and how they helped you?
RM: I think you can't underestimate the power of your squad or your network or the people who are six degrees from you. When I first moved here and didn't know anybody, there was one website that listed fashion events, and I would go to it. When I got home from them, counting business cards was like counting how much money I made that night. If I got enough business cards and contacts, I knew I could use those to my advantage.
Back when I reached out to this agent, that was when I still received and processed every e-commerce order. I saw she was from CAA and who she was the assistant to, and I said "I'll give you free bags for the next year if you could get some of my bags on celebrities." So it's really about using your relationships and optimizing them, and now so many people want to help each other and see each other succeed. So you just have to be smart about who do I know, who do I not know, and who knows that person I want to know—how do I get that introduction?
WWW: What does your day-to-day look like now?
RM: I was in Venice this morning—Venice, Italy, not Los Angeles. I was there for 48 hours to open our flagship store in Europe. Then I went to the office before coming here [to the Superwoman Panel].
Every day is different, which is what keeps it exciting. Everything from overseeing eight categories of design, working hand in hand with our PR team, planning the fashion show for February, working with the social team mapping out the content for the next week—it's always different, which keeps it fresh and fun.
WWW: How do you motivate the team? How do they keep you motivated?
RM: It's probably not an anomaly, but we have about 85 women at the office. In most industries, there are more men to women. I'm really proud of the fact that many of the executives—except for one, really—are all female in our office. I hopefully foster a community of support and partnership. Does that always happen? No. There are a lot of things women don't talk about in women-led companies.
Everyone is still clawing for that role or that recognition, throwing someone else under the bus. That doesn't go away just because we're all women. So I think I try to make sure the team knows that that's not how I roll. I want everyone to work as a team, hopefully always making goals to get better at it. I have an incredible team, and they all work really hard; it's great to be surrounded by other women who work as hard as you do.
WWW: Who were your greatest mentors?
RM: My biggest one will always be my mom. From a very early age, my mom taught me to be a fighter. I think I had that mentality and learned a lot from her. I got a lot of tough love. If I wanted a dress, she said, "No, I'll teach you how to sew it." "You want the sewing machine? Great—get a babysitting job." It made me self-sufficient so I could figure things out. I meet so many young women who have so many things handed to them that they don't know how to figure it out. When I moved here [to New York], I didn't know where the garment center was or how to find a pattern maker, but I had been taught to figure it out.
My second mentor was when I had an internship with a male designer but had a really great relationship with the CEO, who was a female. Again, it was a tough-love relationship. She started me off in the shipping department, then in customer service, then in sales because she wanted me to have a well-rounded understanding of the entire business. I eventually ended up in design, which is where I wanted to work from the beginning.
When she fired me three years later, she said I was fired because I had seen every aspect of the organization and was far more passionate about my own work than theirs—go do it. She knew I would get my work done fast enough every day that I’d work on my own stuff. The last one is the woman who took a chance and sold my bags for the first time. She was a lunatic, but she was really strong. She told me how to build my brand based on how she did it with other brands before me.
WWW: What is the advice you'd give to your younger self?
RM: You are the only one who is going to fight for your dream and what you want. Expecting someone to hand you what you want on a silver platter is a fallacy. If you want something, it requires the sacrifice of everything: time, family, friendships sometimes, and personal time. You're the only one who's going to keep the fire alive.
My mom taught me to be a fighter. If I wanted a dress, she said, 'No, I'll teach you how to sew it.' 'You want the sewing machine? Great—get a babysitting job.' It made me self-sufficient so I could figure things out.
WWW: Working as a winemaker is such a cool job. How do you get interested in the field?
PAULINE LHOTE: At an early age, I wanted to be a winemaker. I grew up in Champagne, France. When you're there, you obviously drink it very often. At 14 years old, I knew I wanted to do that. (I know you're not able to drink at 14 here [in the States], but in France you can do it.)
I studied winemaking for five years, and then I did a master's degree. In France, there are five schools that get you to be a winemaker in each wine region. I went to the University of Reims, and then I got the chance to do an internship at Moët & Chandon, which is Chandon's mother company. That's what led to that internship at Chandon [in Napa Valley, California]. Traveling [to the States] really opened my mind—there were more wines than just Champagne with bubbles. The brand is all about using traditional Champagne making methods with noble grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier), but in a cool and approachable California way.
WWW: The wine industry is dominated by men. What has your experience been like as a woman in this field?
PL: I grew up on a farm, and I had two big brothers. I think that really helped me and shaped me into the environment that I was going to work in. I started at Chandon 12 years ago as an intern, and then I made my way up the ladder slowly. I spent eight years as the assistant winemaker.
I had a lot of male bosses, and after a while, I felt like I had reached a ceiling, and it was quite hard to break past it. At the same time, the first winemaker at Chandon was a woman back in 1973. So even though I've never met her, in the beginning, I felt like at least there was a connection, so that really helped me.
Now that I have a woman as a boss, it's quite different. I think having the balance of both women and men in an industry is quite interesting ... and important.
WWW: What do you think we can do to help encourage that balance?
PL: We started a program that fosters and helps winemakers in their careers. Telling women to be teammates as opposed to competing with one another is very important. Always try to get people on your side and work toward the same goal as opposed to bringing someone down (which is not the right way to do it). If you actually want to move the ladder in the organization, you should do it the right way and the nice way.
WWW: What is the advice you'd give to your younger self?
PL: When I first started at Chandon, I was 23, and I was so excited that I lost focus sometimes. You have to pick battles of what's important rather than trying to achieve 75% of everything. Learn who you are as a part of your journey, and do fewer things, but at 100%. That's when you have the greatest reward.
WWW: You originally pursued engineering in college, which is heavily male-skewed. What was that like?
ANDEE OLSON: I was the woman in class who wasn't afraid to ask the dumb question every other person in the room was thinking. It was difficult because people thought I was the dumb blonde, and when it came time to do group assignments, no one wanted to be on my team.
But the second the group assignment involved a presentation, everyone wanted me on their team because they wanted me to do the presentation because the men in engineering more often than not are not super social. I struggled, and I still struggle. My sister is in college now, also in engineering, and it blows my mind that she's still going through some of the same struggles that I had 10 years ago. It makes me sad, but it also fires me up to make a change.
I took a very nontraditional path coming out of engineering and went to Vogue, which is all females and was a total change. I remember going and telling my engineering professors that I was going to work at Vogue, and they were like, "Of course you are." They just assumed I was going to work in fashion, which was the exact 180 of what I was doing, but what they didn't realize was that I was going to one of the largest fashion websites in the world and going in and doing the redesigns for them and the technology for them.
I don't think they realized there could be a path that was engineering-based in a completely different industry. In fact now, it's very validating because they've invited me to come back and speak about nontraditional paths you can take with engineering. I'm so happy I made the decision I did instead of following the traditional path.
WWW: Now you're at Bumble, where the philosophy is about making connections and helping each other. Can you tell us more about that?
AO: Bumble started as a dating app and is now more of a social-networking app. We have Bumble Dating, Bumble Friendships, and Bumble Bizz, which launched a few months ago. The entire concept of Bumble is women making the first move and taking back power in any relationship, whether it is in dating or in business. We're faced with these challenges every day, and to be able to be a part of that conversation is truly inspiring.
I remember [on my] first day at Bumble, I called my mom telling her something was up. I told her everyone is really nice [here at Bumble, so] they must want something.
I hadn't wrapped my head around [the fact that] it would be really hard for you to work at a company whose mission is kindness if you're not a kind person yourself. It was so ingrained in me to defend myself in everything I do.
WWW: So how did Bumble instill that sense of kindness from the ground up?
AO: Whitney Wolfe, our CEO, doesn't have a marketing or technology background. But she saw that there was an opportunity to [use] kindness and compliments to change the conversation.
As long as you're working for something that's going to make a difference and impact the world, whether it's super small or completely massive, and if you truly believe that and you do everything you can to work toward that and you hire people who care about that exact mission like you do, you'll succeed. There's absolutely nothing stopping you. She hired people who cared and were passionate.
Tomorrow is our third birthday, and I'm still doing all kinds of crazy things like producing videos, which I never thought I would do. It's fun, it's exciting, and it's also really challenging. Have the confidence that what you're doing is going to make a change, and then go after that with everything you have.
WWW: How have you tapped into female mentors to help you succeed?
AO: I've been really lucky to work with really strong, powerful women. My first boss at Vogue was Caroline Palmer, who is now at Amazon Fashion, and she was such a badass. She got everything done—she always did it, and I never knew how. Another woman who was a co-worker of mine at Vogue just started her own virtual reality company. To this day, I message her once a week asking for advice.
Everyone I've worked with inspires me in different ways. When I hear stories of people who haven't had strong women in their lives, it makes me sad, which is why we started Bumble Bizz. There are so many women who want to get their foot in the door but don't know how. To be able to connect and empower is only going to lift everyone up.
WWW: What is the advice you'd give to your younger self?
AO: Don't focus so much on the small things, and make sure you keep the bigger picture in mind. Take a step back. If one tiny little thing doesn't work, it doesn't mean I'm not going to get a promotion or going to have a successful campaign or I'm not going to have a viral video. Don't sweat the small stuff.