Rebecca Ballard’s formal title is Founder and CEO of Maven Women, however she describes herself as a “well-mannered rule breaker changing business as usual in the global garment industry”. Maven Women creates savvy, sustainable styles in a way that honors people and the planet at each step. They make elegant day-to-evening wardrobe staples that are easy to dress up or down for your signature look. Think cocktail parties, weddings, a night on the town, a fun weekend brunch…or really any time you want to wear something incredibly comfortable and stylish! Their clothing is appropriate for even the most formal work environments, including the legal world that Rebecca hails from, making them the first company dedicated to creating fair trade, eco-conscious workwear.
Rebecca’s eclectic background and varied experiences over the past decade led her to launch Maven Women. A lawyer by training, her legal background includes labor and employment law as well as nonprofit and human rights work. She has worked in DC and throughout Asia as a social entrepreneur, Executive Director, lawyer, and consultant. Rebecca founded Maven Women to meet an unmet market need for additional socially conscious options for professional women’s attire and “move the needle” in the global garment industry through product creation and partnership, consumer education, and advocacy.
Every aspect of Maven Women is socially conscious, as they keep six important values at the center of each decision. Their presales are available now, with an additional $10 off each item using the code WomanAroundTown. Maven Women views everyone who supports their presales as a true co-creator in a more socially conscious garment industry and notes that their dresses make great holiday gifts.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career? When did your career reach a tipping point?
I had the idea for Maven Women a decade ago, but then I was immersed in the legal world and I had no idea what it would take to start let alone run a business. Looking back, I can now see how every experience, from practicing law to what I learned when I left law, led to this.
In the fall of 2010 I was promoted in my labor and employment litigation role for the federal government. This should have made me feel great, but I saw where that train was headed and it was a journey that I knew wasn’t right for me. I saw my career trajectory in that role as a great job…for someone else.
Then I did something truly crazy. I resigned less than a month later, just a few weeks before getting married. My now husband was turning down international opportunities and we asked his company to send us somewhere in the world. Any place was fair game except war zones. I also wanted to try something new and throw myself into deep vocational discernment mode.
Less than two months later I was living in Malaysia. It was a challenging journey to find an entirely new professional and personal identity. The path was filled with so many painful and uncertain moments. However, it led me to anti-human trafficking work, deeper engagement around fair trade business, and human rights engagements. I would never give up what I learned along the way.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
Life is all about treating people well. All people, including both friends and strangers. This includes people you physically shake hands with on a daily basis and those often invisible hands that make the products we consume.
At Maven Women I don’t compromise any of my values in creating a product that is thoughtful about people and the planet at each step. I have a chance to aim for the sky in terms of the positive impact we can have. There are ethical dilemmas nearly every week, but I am in a position to tackle them head on and use our core values to guide us at each step.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
Over the past decade I have worked on a number of issues related to the global garment industry, including human trafficking and modern-day slavery, economic migrants in debt bondage, the intersection between women’s rights and the rights of garment workers, and fair trade. I am deeply troubled by how recruitment agencies prey on those seeking a better life for themselves and their families. It’s despicable.
The idea for Maven Women came to me about a decade ago. At that time I was a frustrated consumer seeking elegant clothing created in a socially conscious way. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh shocked the world into consciousness and gave me a clear call to action. For some time I’d been passionate about mainstreaming fair trade and purchasing products in line with my values, however when I saw the chilling images from Bangladesh I became even more determined to use my life to “move the needle” in the global garment industry. To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of this disaster is that garment workers saw the cracks in the building before the collapse, but they were ordered by management to go back into the building. This silencing of voices resulted in the death of 1,138 workers and injury of nearly 2,600, many of whom require long-term medical care.
In addition to work in the developing world, I also spent the past decade in dialogue with American working women. They shared with me their hopes for the same industry-wide change I sought as well as the types of styles they were seeking. I realized Maven Women wasn’t just about me but about us all demanding something better.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
If you are doing something that has never been done you will be told it’s impossible. People will say that it just cannot be done the way you think it should be. They will give you reason after reason that it won’t work. Some reasons will be more valid than others, and you’ll have to weed through them to figure out which ones are the greatest risks and challenges. You will have setbacks, and when you have them you start to wonder if they were right and whether you really have what it takes to tackle them.
On the flip side, each week I hear multiple comments about the beauty of our clothing and the importance of this work. Each time I hear about issues workers are facing in the garment industry, from Syrian refugee children working on factories in Turkey to workplace incidents compromising worker safety, I know that I have to continue to try and be a part of the change. It takes an entire ecosystem of socially conscious options to move an industry. The encouragement of supporters combined with continued challenges in this industry globally gives me the drive to continue to do my part.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I’ve only been full time at Maven Women for less than a year, so it’s a bit of a short timeline to consider a career change. I want to commit to sustainable fashion for the long term, which is why I waited a decade to move into this work. Both the industry and I had to be ready. However, I think any thoughtful social entrepreneur has many moments when they are filled with doubt. Women in particular can be their worst critics as we can be such perfectionists. We fear failure rather than seeing it as a short-term setback at worst and possibly an opportunity to pivot and learn.
During my first six months there have been two particularly challenging moments:
- I am now in my fourth month of my first pregnancy and it has been tough juggling my “two babies”, the “Maven baby” and the “human baby.” However, when things are tough I think about my future son and the world I want to create for him. I also think about the example I am setting with trying something new while pregnant with him and showing him that you really can create the change you seek. I will be proud to tell him how the story of Maven Women is intertwined with his life and how he was a part of the journey from the very beginning.
- We just entered our initial presales. Figuring out how to drive those initial sales is often the most challenging part of a new business, and something many businesses just can’t get past. Once you have a track record of success you can bring in repeat customers as well as new customers who see the clothing on their friends and want to buy it, plus you have data you can pull from and customers you can survey to make constant improvements. However, we’re not there yet. Driving those initial sales can be exhausting, frustrating, and disheartening. Sales almost never come as quickly as you would like, and it can be hard to compete with the branding machines of the large fast fashion companies out there that spend so much to drive sales and so little to create a quality, ethical product. However, my belief that people want an elegant, ethical, and affordable alternative is a driving force in those tough times.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
The biggest challenges with Maven Women have been personal. The single greatest liability in Maven Women is me, and if I burn out we will fail.
Starting a business based on your deepest beliefs can be all consuming. If you fall into the temptation of allowing it to take over your life you are doomed to fail. Walking the fine line between driving full speed ahead and taking a few steps back is hard to balance, as every moment you aren’t working you realize that you could be doing something to move the business forward. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and I’m still working to get the balance right. There is always far more work to do than there is time. I also have incredibly supportive family and friends who are looking out for me and will gently remind me to enjoy the journey and take care of myself.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
This is a tough one, and my answer is two-part and not really about skills. The most important thing is to have high standards about all aspects of the business and know what you can do and what you need to ask someone else to take care of. This is personal to each founder and company. For example, a lot of men in entrepreneurship have suggested I get a personal assistant, but I’m highly organized and I have no trouble managing my schedule or being efficient. Right now that’s not a huge need. I do love drawing and I have a bit of an art background, so being involved in the design process is fun and a great match for me even though I haven’t been to design school, as I have a knack for it. I also work with a design team of industry veterans and incorporate women in our focus groups in the design process, all of which helps us have top notch designs.
On the flip side, I don’t know how to code and tech is not my strong suit. It’s best for me to find a great web developer, which I have, and ask her to do even some relatively simple tech pieces that are fairly time-consuming for me on top of everything else.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Creating a company with social impact in its DNA and core values that guide the way. Far too few organizations have strong values at their core that they truly live, including both nonprofits and for profits. I abhor hypocrisy and it’s a real joy to have created something with a personality and values of its own that I can look to for guidance at each turn. I also hope this way of thinking will influence other companies in the garment industry.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Starting a new business is really like starting three businesses: you have to keep the company running on the back end, create and constantly improve your products, and constantly move forward sales, each of which is a full-time endeavor in itself. I think the latter two are pretty obvious to many people starting businesses, but knowing how to successfully run an organization is far more important than many people realize. I previously ran two nonprofits and served as the founding board president of two nonprofits, giving me experiences that I draw on each day.
We need more social enterprises, especially those created by women. Most new businesses fail, so set yourself up for success by running or leading another small and/or young organization first. If you don’t have business experience and you want to get started right away look to join a nonprofit board or lead a nonprofit event-each of these can give you invaluable leadership skills!
Photo credit: Verena Radulovic
To read more about Maven Women and the causes supported by Rebecca Ballard and the company visit the Maven Women website.