Each day in June, FN is highlighting female forces in the industry as part of our Women in Power series.
For Sarah Flint, designing shoes should always come first. After all, in a crowded market, the young cordwainer broke through with a Barney’s New York exclusive and through winning loyal, highly visible fans such Amal Clooney, Blake Lively and Meghan Markle.
Yet as the creative director and founder of an eponymous luxury women’s shoe label, she found herself in a common conundrum for emerging brands: As her business grew, she needed a business partner to help support her to scale and allow her to turn her focus back to the footwear. Enter Veronica Collins, her newly appointed president and COO, who previously worked at Shopbop and Bain Consulting.
Here, the two women engage in an insightful dialogue about how they got to where they are now, their best lessons and the status of women in the workplace.
What was the biggest breakthrough moment in your career?
SF: “I would say I have two big breakthrough moments. In my early 20s, after graduating from FIT, I moved to Italy to study at Ars Sutoria to learn shoe production. FIT gave me such a great overview on the industry, but working with the Italian artisans and learning generations of construction techniques was a pivotal moment. It was what initially sparked my desire to build a shoe brand that focused on fit and craftsmanship.
Working with some of these exceptional factories, for example Gravati (one of the only factories remaining which still makes all components of the shoe in-house by hand) ignited a desire in me to preserve this kind of craftsmanship. I made many of my long-standing relationships with factories that I now work with to manufacture my shoes today. Moving to Italy shaped the direction of my brand and sparked many of my creative ideas.
I grew up in Boston, and a few years after attending Ars Sutoria, I remember walking into my first major wholesale distributor. Seeing my shoes in the department store I spent my childhood shopping in was a powerful and emotional moment. It is a feeling that I will never forget and drives me still today.”
VC: “When I was in my mid-20s, I made the decision to leave a job in the art world and try my hand at business school. I was driven by a strong passion and curiosity to learn more, and I decided to apply for a coveted job in management consulting in their most competitive office. When I received my offer, I was both elated and flabbergasted. Being an underdog made me work harder, I was the tortoise, not the hare.”
Is there anything you would have done differently?
SF: “I view everything as a learning experience. While there are things I wish I could have gone back and done differently, each experience taught me a different aspect of the business and helped me shape the company into what it is today.”
VC: “I used to think that it was a straight line between starting your career and being successful. I now know that that path is curvilinear. Frequently it can be hard to see what is ahead of you. Those wrong turns and failures were as important to being effective as my successes and made me a more humble and effective leader. I wish I could go back to my former self and encourage more risk-taking and exploration, and assuage my fears that every misstep would be the end of the rope. I know now how much stronger those experiences have made me as an executive.”
Do you think women do enough to support other women in the workplace? Why or why not?
SF: “In recent years I feel that there has been an shift in the support given to women, by other women, in my industry. I find it less about being competitive and more about nurturing a community of strong, like-minded women. My board of advisors is made up of some of the strongest, most intelligent women I know, and each one takes time out of their day to provide support and mentorship to me. I owe much of my success to their guidance and advice.”
VC: “I think historically it has been a challenge encouraging women to support each other. As the opportunities narrow in attaining C-suite roles and obstacles facing women in achieving these roles crescendo, women seem more focused on getting there than on helping each other. However, today I think we are in the midst of an incredible movement. I have seen so much growth and support emerge. This is a new exciting time for female leadership; however, progress is always fragile, and it is crucial to maintain momentum. I feel personally responsible for maintaining female mentorship and support in my company and with women I have worked with throughout my career. I feel strongly that if each female executive takes that perspective, we can do incredible things in attaining equality across the professional landscape.”
What is the biggest challenge you faced in the last year, and how did you overcome it?
SF: “We have been so lucky to see such strong growth in my company, but in our growth we have had to face new and more imposing questions about how to run our business with challenges emerging in marketing, e-commerce development, operations and logistics. I had been running these things myself with the help of my team, but it was taking more and more time away from my ability to design. I began to feel like designing and production, my passions, were getting pushed into the background. I found myself designing into the wee hours after our office closed, on the weekends and in between meetings.
I started to think long and hard about what it would mean to bring on a new business partner. I was excited at the prospect of bringing my focus back to my shoes but challenged by the idea of allowing someone else to take the reins of something that I had worked so hard to build. I reached out to my mentors for advice and was told that strong growth would come if I optimized my company with people doing what they were best at. I made the decision to focus on design and allow someone else to focus on marketing and logistics in order to improve my business, grow my dream and meet my goals. Bringing on a business partner has done just that, and we are a stronger company and team for it.”
VC: “Recently I made the decision to leave a secure job at a huge successful company to join a small emerging fashion brand as their president. It was a high-risk decision for many reasons, from security to compensation, and not insignificant was the fact I had recently had a child. I agonized over the decision for weeks weighing risk against comfort. What pushed me to accept the challenge was the desire to learn more, sharpen my cognitive skill set and broaden my capabilities. I felt that my greatest asset was my mind, and the learning curve in my current role had slowed.
In addition, at larger companies it can be challenging to gain visibility in all areas of the business. I thought investing in growing my skill set and learning new capabilities would always be valuable, more so than short-term compensation opportunities. Now a few months into the role, I know I made the right choice. Nothing is more satisfying than the feeling that you are using your entire skill set and being pushed daily to innovate and explore.”
Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self?
SF: “Focus on what you are good at and create a strong, capable team that you trust to help with the rest.”
VC: “A supportive mentor and a job with a strong growth trajectory will take you further than a fancy title and attractive compensation that comes without those things.”