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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2 Houston startups make strategic C-suite hires

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A couple of Houston tech startups have recently announced new appointments to their C-suites. A med tech company with its national headquarters in Houston has a new leader, and a Houston software has a new exec focused on strategy.

Optellum names new CEO

Jason Pesterfield will lead United States operations for Optellum. Photo courtesy of Optellum

Optellum, a medical software startup based in the United Kingdom and has its United States HQ in Houston, has appointed Jason Pesterfield as CEO to lead growth in the U.S. clinical market. Optellum AI-based software enhances early lung cancer diagnosis and therapy with its medical device software platform, Virtual Nodule Clinic.

Pesterfield was previously the president and CEO of Veran Medical Technologies, a leader in image-guided lung cancer diagnosis. He brings 25 years of leadership experience in the medtech sector. Optellum was founded by Václav Potěšil, Lyndsey Pickup, Timor Kadir, Professor Sir Mike Brady, and Jérôme Declerck.

"It took us almost a year to find the right successor who shares our vision and has the right expertise to take Optellum on to the next stage of growth," says Potěšil in a news release. "I am really excited to work with Jason, to make Optellum's platform available to every clinician in the USA and around the world, and to help them diagnose their lung cancer patients as early as possible. With Jason on board, I can focus on advancing Optellum's vision to transform early lung cancer therapy through partnerships that harness the power of AI software combined with molecular diagnostics, robotics and interventional devices, and drugs."

Liongard announces chief strategy officer

Patrick Schneidau is the chief strategy officer for Liongard. Photo courtesy

​Houston software-as-a-service company, Liongard, has named Patrick Schneidau as chief strategy officer. The company, founded in 2015, was a 2021 InnovationMap Awards finalist and reported that the team was looking to expand by around 70 new hires over the next year.

"Liongard is an incredible Houston growth story," Schneidau tells InnovationMap. "Our founders, Joe Alapat and Vincent Tran, have built a first-class team that allow technology service providers to operate at 10x by providing unprecedented insight and data into the systems deployed in the modern IT stack. In a rapidly growing market, they are quickly becoming 'must have' technology. I'm excited to join to team to accelerate their growth into new markets and with new products."

Schneidau spent over a decade at Houston-based PROS before serving in C-level positions at two other Houston startups — Commtrex and Truss. He's also previously served as talent committee chair for Houston Exponential.

Houston startup raises $1.75M round with support from local female-focused investor

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A Houston-based startup focused on upskilling young professionals has closed its latest round of funding with support from a local investor.

Ampersand Professionals Inc. raised $1.75 million in pre-seed funding led by Curate Capital, a Houston-based, female-focused venture capital fund. Carrie Colbert, Curate's founding and general partner, will join Ampersand's advisory board.

Ampersand — founded in 2020 by Allie Danziger with Co-Founders Kathrin Applebaum and Scott Greenberg — has developed a platform for businesses to easily implement internship programs. The program also upskills and educates young professionals, providing them career development and job skills training.

"Ampersand's mission to democratize access to career-building opportunities for young professionals, ties in nicely with Curate's mission to empower women, says Colbert in a news release. "The company's platform will have a direct positive impact on young women (and others) as they begin their professional careers."

Both the female founders are personally driven by motivating and inspiring women and driving future of work solutions. The fresh funding will go toward expanding the Ampersand platform and network.

"The shift to remote work during the pandemic not only completely changed the way we all work, but also made it even more difficult for so many recent, and soon-to-be graduates, to make the connections needed to land their first internship and then gain the meaningful training to excel in those roles," says Danziger in the release. "This infusion of capital allows Ampersand to expand our e-learning platform, matching algorithm capabilities, ensure our training matches the needs of our business partners, and expand our university partnerships around the country."

Since September 2020, the Ampersand team has developed its training and career development platform with over 100 hours of job skills training content, according to the release, and has placed over 200 driven professionals in remote internships. (InnovationMap has been a business partner in Ampersand's program.)

Curate Capital was founded in 2020 by Carrie Colbert and Mark Latham. The firm, and its initial $10 million fund, is focused on funding early-stage, female-founded companies.

Houston startup with AI-optimized surgical scheduling technology is ready to scale

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With so many moving parts in the health care industry, Pamela Singh says patients can go through all the pre-operation steps up to literally arriving to the hospital, only to find out their surgery has been canceled due to an admin error.

Singh's startup, which she founded with her husband and surgeon Dr. Ashvin Dewan, CaseCTRL is looking to prevent these surgical scheduling inefficiencies. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Singh explains how the idea for the company came from an organic need Dr. Dewan saw in his practice.

"We decided there needs to be a better way to help surgeons, schedulers, and patients to have a better experience," Singh, who serves the company as CEO, says on the show. "Surgery is the highest revenue-generating event for any hospital, clinic, or private practice. And your patients are essentially your customers, so you need to give them the best patient experience."

CaseCTRL started with this patient-focused goal, but throughout development, Singh says she realized the overall effect of optimization. Especially, she says, when it came to COVID-19's effect on surgery scheduling. The company got its start amid the pandemic, and wasn't sure how the cancelation of elective surgeries was going to impact the startup's journey. But really, with the backlog of surgeries building up over different periods of stopping and restarting surgeries, a rising need for optimization emerged.

"COVID has had some sort of silver lining for us," Singh says, explaining that surgical facilities were looking for a way to catch up. "They realized the need for automating and streamlining their practice. And they realized that, instead of spending another four hours coordinating with patients and vendors, they could literally do it with the click of a button."

Now, in light of this growing need and awareness, Singh and her team is ready to scale. She says she is working with her team on integration opportunities and building out the tech to make it even more convenient to use.

Currently, the company is in the process of completing its Techstars accelerator and raising pre-seed funding. CaseCTRL was a member of gBETA Houston's second cohort and has pitched at several Houston innovation ecosystem events. Singh was even an inaugural finalist for the 2021 InnovationMap Awards. She says she's been surprised by how supportive Houston has been.

"The community here is diverse and, most importantly, supportive," Singh says, adding that at first they wondered if Houston had too much health care innovation and competition. "We realized the community in Houston ... really wants to see you succeed. The biggest pro is that entrepreneurial spirit here in Houston."

Singh shares more about her entrepreneurial journey and what's on the horizon for CaseCTRL, as well as her advice for fellow female founders in the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.