Annabel Fowler Gatto launched her women's workwear company ahead of the pandemic. Here's how it went. Photo via Pexels

I realized a huge problem professional women were facing, and I launched a company to address it. But then, a pandemic hit.

Eight out of 10 women say they're frustrated and unsupported by traditional workwear brands and their offerings. For many, quality women's workwear means hefty price tags for clothes than, often, have unflattering silhouettes and difficult-to-maintain pieces. It's not a great experience.

Enter Suitably, a professional womenswear brand that offers seasonless staples—all machine washable and under $100. We launched in February 2020 with sky-high momentum. Then, six weeks later, COVID-19 shut down offices worldwide. Overnight, we saw a dip in traffic and the launch momentum slow. But we kept going — reinventing, reimaging, and engineering new ways to serve our customers during a pandemic who were, suddenly, working and interviewing from home. And, now, we're coming out the other side, a stronger, more dynamic and more customer-centric brand than ever. Here's what I learned from launching a workwear brand in a pandemic.

#1 — Be what your customers want and need 

Suitably isn't solely about fashion — it's about helping women be the best versions of themselves, personally and professionally. When COVID-19 struck, that need amplified among our core audience. From our interactions and proactive outreach we heard them loud and clear — they need help, support and guidance now.

We immediately shifted our focus from promoting the collection to doing everything we could to help our community. I made myself available for virtual coffee sessions and hosted over 100 of them during the pandemic. Next, we partnered with a good friend — a psychologist — and churned out free resources on everything from staying positive in a crisis to professional advice, life hacks and everything related to Zoom, from how to dress for a Zoom meeting in every industry to basic Zoom etiquette. The groundswell was immediate and powerful — women craved this information and this connection.

#2 — Be a voice for change

Weeks into the shutdowns when the global workforce was isolated and sweatpants-clad, we launched our next campaign, #GetUpGetDressed. So many women had shared their stories and told us they could barely get out of bed in the morning let alone get dressed and get motivated.

By encouraging women to #GetUpGetDressed — and to share their work-from-home style with Suitably's community — we knew we were doing more than promoting style. We were powering them to shake off the stress and fear, put on something that made them feel good and connect with other women in the Suitably community. Hundreds of women participated and the positive feedback we received was unparallelled. With that, our social footprint grew even more.

#3 — Be careful whose advice you take

Despite the positivity from our community, we still had the naysayers — people eager to share their unsolicited commentary on what we should be doing. The general consensus? Shut down or pivot Suitably ASAP — that a business like ours would likely never be relevant again. We were told to make "Zoom tops." We were told to explore athleisure and masks. We were told to wait for a vaccine then start over — to abandon everything we'd done, the brand equity we worked so hard to build and achieved or pause until the "world is normal".

The reality? None of those people were part of Suitably — and, like us, none of them knew how to navigate a global pandemic. Even so, it would have been easy to fall in line and let a knee-jerk moment of panic destroy everything we'd built. But, instead, we took a breath, took a beat and promised to drown out the noise and the negativity so we could move the business forward, putting the needs of our community first.

#4 — Be confident in yourself

Without the noise we were better able to reassess where we were and what came next — to go back to our roots and to the customer listening we'd been doing for the last few months and use that to set a new course. We knew there was light out there somewhere, and that if we just kept moving towards it, we'd find success.

Admittedly, that was hard sometimes. Even though I knew we had our finger on the pulse of our customers' wants and needs, every day brought a new learning. Despite the chaos, we pushed ahead, following our customers' lead. By the end of June, we had significant data to show that many women in our community, especially those outside of the tri-state area, were returning to the workplace or shopping in anticipation of returning to the workplace. We started to get customer chat's every day asking when new products would be launched, when our restock for sold out pieces was going to occur and we knew it was time to ramp Suitably 100 percent back up.

#5 — Be there for every step of the journey

While the customer journey is rarely linear, the pandemic brought new levels of uncertainty and disconnect. Based on the success of our support and engagement initiatives, we continued to follow our audience on their path — a path that, for many, led right back to the office. We immediately ramped up our messaging, with an eye on helping women get ready to go back — and to feel confident and ready for action the minute they walked through the office doors.

Because of the foundation we'd laid during those first few months — a foundation anchored in trust, understanding and support — our audience leaned in, ready to take that next step into the Suitably experience. Quickly, we were just about back to where we were before COVID-19, not just providing actionable content and a friendly ear but, also, amazing wardrobe pieces that made her feel empowered whether she was back in the office of working from home.

No one knows how to navigate a pandemic — but we all know how to build relationships. That, ultimately, was our strategy. And that, ultimately, is what helped us steer Suitably through the peak of the crisis so we could come out the other side a better, stronger, more dynamic brand than I ever could have imagined with a loyal audience who knows we're truly committed to them and to their success.

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Born and raised in Houston, Annabel Fowler Gatto is the co-founder and CEO of New York-based Suitably.

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Greentown Labs appoints Houston founder among 4 new board members

All a-board

Greentown Labs, a Massachusetts-based climatetech startup incubator with its secondary location in Houston, has appointed four new board members.

Of the new appointees, two community board members have been named in order to act as liaisons between startups and Greentown Labs. Greentown Houston's appointed representation is Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention, and community member. The other new board members are Gilda A. Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering and professor of biomedical and chemical engineering; Nidhi Thakar, senior director of resource and regulatory strategy and external engagement for Portland General Electric; and Leah Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Sublime Systems, who is the Sommerville location's community board member).

"It is important for a startup incubator to have leadership and insight from stakeholders including the public and private sector, academic and university communities," says Greentown Labs CEO Dr. Emily Reichert in a news release. "These leaders bring a wealth of knowledge relevant to not only climatetech but to our continued growth as an organization. Their voices will be important to have at the table as Greentown charts its course for the next decade of climate action."

Desai's current startup, Intention, is climate impact platform for retail investors, and she has previously worked at six energy-related startups including Ridge Energy Storage, Tessera Solar, and ActualSun, where she was co-founder and CEO. She's also worked in a leadership role at NRG Energy and spent several years as a management consultant with the energy practice of Booz Allen Hamilton — now Strategy&, a PWC company.

"I'm honored to join the board of Greentown Labs as a representative of the startup community," she says in the release. "This is a pivotal time for climate and energy transition. I look forward to working with the rest of the board to expand the collective impact of the Greentown Labs ecosystem."

The four new appointees join seven existing board members:

  • Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power (Board Chair)
  • Katherine Hamilton, Chair of 38 North Solutions
  • Dawn James, Director of US Sustainability Strategy and Environmental Science at Microsoft
  • Matthew Nordan, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Prime Impact Fund and General Partner at Azolla Ventures
  • Kathleen Theoharides, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Mitch Tyson, Principal at Tyson Associates and Co-Founder of the Northeast Clean Energy Council
  • Dr. Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs

Houston fund makes first local investment in $8M deal

money moves

A Houston-based investment fund has announced its its latest deal that includes an investment into a local direct-to-consumer supplement company.

GP Capital Partners has invested in Qualitas Health, known as iwi, which produces plant-based omega-3 and protein products that's sold directly to consumers as well as retailers across the United States. Iwi's nutrition supplement is sustainably sourced from the company's cultivation pond systems, which are the size of football fields and located in New Mexico and Texas.

“We are excited about our investment in iwi. They have a proprietary and scalable process to create in-demand products in a sustainable manner," says Gina Luna, principal of the fund, in the news release. "We look forward to working with iwi’s management team as they pursue this transformative opportunity.”

The $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

“The iwi team looks forward to working with GP Capital Partners following their investment in our growing company. We have big plans for accelerating our growth, and are pleased to partner with this team that brings both expertise and relationships to support us in this new stage of the company," says Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, in the release.

Outside of GP, the Houston company's other investors include Grupo Indukern, Gullspång Re:food VC, PeakBridge VC, , Arancia Group, Trucent, SASA, and Minrav. GP launched its $275 million fund last year. It's structured as a Small Business Investment Company and will deploy funding into 20 to 25 companies within the Gulf Coast region.

The supplement company is based in Houston. Photo via Instagram

How company behavior guides activists’ choices, according to this Houston researcher

houston voices

It’s been more than 100 years since Pavlov’s dog showed the world that behavior is often guided by forces we don’t comprehend.

The same is true of the interaction between companies and protestors, according to Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and Fabrizio Perretti of Bocconi University in Milan. In a recent study, the scholars show that when protestors fight to change a company’s policy, their future choices of where and how much to protest are shaped by the company’s response.

Moreover, the outcome may not be what either group has planned for. Companies that meet protestor demand often inadvertently spur the protestors to demonstrate further; conversely, companies that refuse to give in tend to propel protestors to redirect their energies toward related but different issues.

The researchers based their conclusions on a deep dive into the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and a close analysis of protests and company responses in specific locations.

During the time period studied, the researchers found, public sentiment toward nuclear energy changed from mild support to open hostility in the form of an organized protest movement. To quantify this movement’s impact on nuclear power plant construction, the researchers studied the aftermath of protestors’ local victories.

In Massachusetts, for example, the first nuclear power protest in 1974 persuaded Northeast Utilities to postpone, and then permanently cancel, its plant. This reaction, Piazza and Perretti found, catalyzed local protestors. In the years that followed, the region became one of the United States’ strongest bastions of anti-nuclear activism.

In order to quantify how company actions affected protests, the researchers first measured the number of U.S. protest events by geographic location from 1970 to 1995. They then compared this number to the number of nuclear facilities either completed or cancelled over a one-year time period within 100 miles of a given demonstration. They included controls to account for local economic and political differences upon local activism, and for any geographic bias of the newspaper sources used to identify protest events.

The patterns they found were intriguing. Proposing a new plant for construction boosted anti-nuclear protests by 18 percent in a 100-mile radius. Cancelling construction of a plant drove a 27 percent increase in anti-nuclear protests. And when a new nuclear plant was completed and connected to the grid, the researchers witnessed a 2.3 percent increase in the number of protests not directly aimed at nuclear power plants.

The reason for the increase in other protests when a company prevailed and built a power plant? The researchers hypothesize that each time a plant was completed, demoralized activists attached themselves to other movements.

These results raised a related question. Did company decisions on one type of controversy, such as a nuclear power plant, lead to greater support for related protest movements or for unrelated ones? The former, it turns out.

To measure this, the researchers again looked at protests within given regions and categorized them into anti-nuclear weapon protests, environmental protests, public policy protests, anti-war protests and protests against the proximity of a given plant to a specific property, that is, “not in my backyard” protests.

Nuclear power opponents, they found, were most likely to turn to adjacent issues such as protests against nuclear weapons. Protest activities, in other words, have a domino effect.

While most research tracks the effects of activism on companies, Piazza and Perretti’s study shows that the way companies act is also a critical event driver. Company choices can actually drive the evolution of activism, triggering activist mobilization in other causes.

The research represents a challenge to traditional explanations of activism, which usually assume that mobilization and protests are most effective early on then dwindle over time, regardless of the behavior of the organization.

Piazza and Perretti’s findings suggest a valuable lesson for companies, especially those operating in more than one location: Their decisions in one place may actually escalate activism elsewhere. Pacific Gas & Electric successfully acted on this insight in the 1980s. Working with the Sierra Club, the company swapped the cancellation of one site at Bodega Bay, California — the target of frequent protests — for support of a plant at a second site elsewhere in the state at Diablo Canyon.

The findings also offer important insight for activists choosing a company on which to focus. These activists should keep in mind that the companies most likely to capitulate are also the ones most likely to feed a movement going forward — providing, in effect, the possibility of a double win.

Meanwhile, even if they fail in one effort, activists can take heart that their energy isn’t necessarily wasted. Only a little further afield, a similar movement may gain momentum from demoralized protestors looking for a new cause.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.