When you are young and starting out on your own, you think that the days of calling your parents and crying are far behind you. But when I was 20, I found myself lying on a bench in the middle of the NC State campus on the phone with my dad, and I was bawling.
I had started my college career with a plan. I was going to major in political science then go to Duke for law school. Somewhere in transition, my plan had lost its appeal, and I was no longer happy. A few days later I was changing my major. I wanted to wake up each day and do something I love. So, I found the English department, which welcomed me with open arms. I had a new plan, it was to have a BA in English with a concentration in Language, Writing and Rhetoric. I thought I would go into publishing.
In the novel The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes that “when you want something, the whole universe conspires in helping you achieve it”. Another version of this quote has been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps these men are two of my favorite writers because I share the same philosophy. However, I only thought I knew what I wanted; and the universe yet again, had another plan.
As a sophomore in the Spring of 2012, I walked into a class called EMA 370: Practical Arts Entrepreneurship. I thought I was enrolled in the class to meet a general education requirement. The universe said I was there to discover my dream.
A couple of weeks later, a class requirement was to come up with a business, real or theoretical, we would be interested in starting. This idea would be one we worked with for the rest of the semester. I had no idea of what I could do. My only musical talent is playing the radio, and my artwork is far from gallery worthy. So, I waited, thinking the idea would come if I just kept sleeping on it. My professor, Dr. Gary Beckman, didn’t have time for me to “keep sleeping on it”. He emailed me saying he needed to know before the next class period. As I continued reading through my email, I couldn’t stop ignoring a pain that ran through my left foot. Then I realized, this was my sign, the answer to my homework.
For 14 years I took dance classes, but the stress it put on my body lasted even after my dance days ended. I thought to myself, “My body wouldn’t feel like this if I would have had something to protect it”. Dance is classified as an art, so the athleticism is often ignored, which means Nike and other sports brands don’t make products for me. Like most art, aesthetics have to be taken into account. Dancers have to look the same—you can’t have braces or wraps on stage, and in practice, you are lucky to find a brace that fits in your shoe without stretching it. So what did I tell Dr. Beckman? “I want to integrate a brace-like support into dance tights.”
His response? “This is BRILLIANT. If you can get a prototype you will have something INCREDIBLE on your hands.”
I moved on to doing things that terrified me. Like getting lost on Centennial Campus while trying to find the College of Textiles, and entering the Arts Feasibility division of the Lulu eGames. I must take a moment to say that this was the first time I ever understood how much fear can hold you back in life. Had I not been willing to get absolutely lost, I would not have jumped from person to person until I found a hosiery manufacturer in North Carolina who was willing to work with me and run prototypes. A few years ago, the thought of public speaking made me feel sick. However, presenting at the Lulu eGames proved that people believed in what I was doing. Plus, I walked away with the 3rd place prize of $1,500 and an invitation to join NC State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative Garage.
Later in 2013, I entered the New Venture Challenge of the Lulu eGames to test my luck once more. After making it to the semi-finals I was cut from the competition. I attended the finals and awards anyway, but I was surprised when they announced that I had been selected for the opportunity to work in the Groundwork Labs program in American Underground during the summer. During that summer, I was pushed by John Austin of Groundwork Labs more than anyone had pushed me before. I was forced to answer questions I had been avoiding, deal with the fact that I’m not an engineer but I have other skills, and prove that being a woman won’t hold me back. By the completion of the program, I had truly discovered my own voice.
Summer turned to fall, and once again I found myself in a new place. I had gotten my final prototype, the one I deemed good enough to take to market. I was beyond excited; however, I was burnt out. I made the executive decision to take the semester off. Trying to take care of my health and focusing on making it to graduation seemed like things I should invest in again. At first, I thought I was crazy, then I learned that almost all entrepreneurs experience times that they, too, want to do nothing but hide in bed and cuddle with their pillows.
I made a promise to a friend who believed in me more than anyone else that I would not quit, so I resumed my work during the next semester. I can only hope that friend knows how grateful I am for them keeping my dreams alive and my passions burning. During the time off I did a lot of thinking, and I knew that I could no longer keep doing things alone. In February, I asked my long time friend, Amanda Ackovitz to join me on this journey. She and I danced together when we were younger, and she knows about the industry and injuries as well as I do. We worked on pricing models, projections and tweaking the business plan, but decided it was best not to launch until I graduated.
This brings me to where I am today. A few weeks ago, my patent attorney called to say that I can file for a second patent. Naturally, I agreed that we should go for it, even though this means my product will not be on the market until about Christmas (but if you want to pre-order, go to soutenudance.com to send us a message!). And, later this month I will be moving into an office space with the company Frill Clothing, which I met during my time in the EI. I cannot wait to see what they have to teach me.
I’m sure I could have moved faster or made a few decisions that were a little smarter. But somewhere on the road, I learned that part of being an entrepreneur just means doing you, because your business is a reflection of who you are and the things you care about.
So before I give my last thought, I must thank the people who have helped me along the way (this could be the closest thing I ever get to accepting an Academy Award). First and foremost to Dr. Gary Beckman for being the best professor, mentor and friend I could have ever asked for. NC State and the EI for the people, spaces and programs. To Kayla and Jacki, for making sure that I ate, slept and stayed alive. To Ben, for asking how my business is doing, even if he never understood anyway. To Seth, for helping me navigate Centennial and “talking science”. And to my best friend, Karissa, for knowing how to go on an adventure to rescue me from all the dark places.
So my advice: go on a journey, take a map, get lost anyway.