News 23 August 2017
As rain pours outside on an empty Lincoln Square plaza, a group of senior high schoolers are nestled into the womenswear section of Brooks Brothers for a tutorial.
It’s not similar to any tutorial they will receive in their final year of school however, or in their future collegiate careers. In fact, this tutorial is about as rare as they come, and that’s why it’s so important. The girls wait tentatively for the guest speaker, and the delivery of a speech that will most likely stick with them for their collegiate years and into their first jobs.
"Clothing is your armor, it's your protection, but it's also a business tool."
The Principal Women's stylist of the 200 year-old company, Stacy Wallace-Albert is here to deliver the talk, dressed immaculately of course, and busying herself with the preparation of her props: a rail of Brooks Brothers fall collection.
The talk has been organized by Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, who began an initiative last year to encourage girls into STEM fields at an age when many begin to fall off that wagon, between age 16-18. Adding an element to the programme this year, the school organized this talk with stylist Wallace-Albert of Brooks Brothers in order to advise how to dress professionally, appropriately, and to impress. There’s a big difference between the woman and the man who can dress well for work, and Wallace-Albert stresses this throughout her talk. Men have a formula for success: tailoring, ties, trousers. Women on the other hand, very rarely get tailoring, have a wild array of accessories for an outfit rather than just the singular tie, and have to choose between different bottoms on different occasions because society has dictated this for years. The choices for women can be overwhelming, and hence the difficulty presented: when there is so much available, what to choose for your professional wardrobe?
Stacy Wallace-Albert. Photo courtesy of The Fashion Editor
One of the first things Albert says - “clothing: it can enhance who you are, but it can also distract what you do,” becomes a running narrative for the duration of the talk. Women, because of a multitude of factors; sexism, history, social standing - have to earn everything in business. They’ve to earn the right to a silent boardroom, a seat at the table, attention paid while delivering a presentation. And what’s the biggest excuse for distraction? Well, their looks, of course.
Photo courtesy of Brooks Brothers
Wallace-Albert went on to provide bullet points fr the girls to follow into their professional years. Get a staple white blouse. Invest in good, solid pieces. Don’t wear a skirt that will ride up under the table. Don’t wear a blouse with your bra popping out at the chest. Don’t give anyone an excuse to forget what you had to say because they were too busy looking at a stray thread or a bulging button.
"If something wrinkles (when you squeeze it) walk past it. You're sitting, you're commuting on subways, an you want to look good all day," says Wallace-Albert, who advocates heavily for the importance of investment pieces. When choice is so overwhelming for women - perhaps the best thing to do is to step back and remind yourself that if you buy this one expensive thing this one time, it will outlive all the lesser quality, less expensive items. It's a life decision, and a lesson every woman needs to learn, no matter what age.
But why is it particularly important for girls looking to approach the very heavily male-dominant fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?
"People's eyes go elsewhere," she says, continuing, "Listen to what I have to say! You want to walk into a room and feel powerful." There's more ways than one to command attention in a room, but looking polished and comfortable is perhaps the most powerful. Tammy Berentson, the Associate Dean of External Affairs for the college, agrees wholeheartedly with Wallace Albert's approach. "Girls in STEM partnering with Brooks Brothers has been very special because we realized that for some of the girls, it's intimidating walking into a corporate environment for the first time."
Having launched their inaugural year of the Girls in STEM initiative in 2016, Columbia plan to continue with the programme and continue with these alternative methods of getting girls throughout the country excited about STEM and about entering these fields with confidence.
SWAAY talked to a few of the girls in attendance about the importance of a professional wardrobe for girls hoping to get into and succeed in male-dominated STEM fields. Of this, Jasmine, 16, had to say "I think dressing well, especially in STEM, is very important because it's all about power, and being a presence - a dominant presence in the field, even if you might not be the dominant gender."
Beside her, Athena, 17, hoping to become a chemical engineer, posits that "when you dress in a way that makes you confident, you become more comfortable in your abilities. As a woman in STEM, it's important that you understand you're meant to be there and how powerful you are as an individual."
"Your clothes tell a story, and you can use your clothes to show your identity to the world,"
This type of seminar, a meeting of minds all hoping to succeed, all aspiring for great careers and a seat the table, was a real eye-opener. Not only were the girls engaged with the clothes but they were engaged with the clothes and their purpose, and their ability to change a perspective or opinion about the person wearing them. This type of information is invaluable and absolutely necessary for the rising generation of female leaders in order for them to further the professional possibilities for women everywhere. Props to Brooks Brothers and Columbia for the collaboration.
It seemed like everything happened overnight because, well… it did.
One moment, my team and I were business as usual, running a multi-million-dollar edible cookie dough company I built from scratch in my at-home kitchen five years ago and the next we were sitting in an emergency management team meeting asking ourselves, "What do we do now?" Things had escalated in New York, and we were all called to do our part in "flattening the curve" and "slowing the spread."
The governor had declared that all restaurants immediately close to the public. All non-essential businesses were also closed, and 8.7 million New Yorkers were quarantined to their tiny apartments for the foreseeable future. Things like "social distancing" and "quarantine" were our new 2020 vernacular — and reality.
What did that mean for us? Our main revenue source was the retail part of the business. Sure, we offered delivery and take-out, but that was such a small portion of our sales. I had built a retail experience where people from near and far came to eat edible cookie dough exactly how they craved it. We had two stores, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, which employed over 55 people. We have two production facilities; an online business shipping cookie dough nationwide; a wholesale arm that supplies stores, restaurants, and other retail establishments with treats; and a catering vertical for customizable treats for celebrations of all sizes. And while business and sales were nearly at a complete halt, we still had bills. We had payroll to pay, vendors we owed, services we were contractually obligated to continue, rent, utilities, insurance, and none of that was stopping.
How were we going to do this? And for how long will this go on? No one knew.
As an entrepreneur, this certainly wasn't my first-time facing challenges. But this was unprecedented. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. Certainly unplanned. This control-freak type-A gal was unraveling. I had to make decisions quickly. What was best for my team? For my business? For the safety of my staff? For the city? For my family and unborn baby (oh, yeah, throw being 28 weeks pregnant and all those fun hormones in there, it's real interesting!). Everything was spiraling out of control.
I decided to take the advice I had given to many people over the years — focus on the things you can control. There's no point worrying about all the things you have no control over. If you focus there, you'll just continue spiraling into a deeper, darker hole. Let it go. Once you shift your perspective, you can move forward. It's not going to be easy; the challenges still exist. But you can control certain things, so focus your energy and attention on those.
So that's what I did. I chose, for the safety of staff and customers, to close the retail portion completely — it wasn't worth the take-out and delivery volume to staff the store, open ourselves up to more germs and human contact than absolutely necessary.
I went back to our mission and the reason I started the business in the first place — to spread joy. How could we continue to bring happiness to people during this uncertain time? That's our purpose. With millions of people across the globe stuck inside, working from home, quarantined with their families, how can we reach them since they can't come to us? So I thought back to how and why we got started.
Baking, for me, has always been a type of therapy. I could get lost in the mixing bowl and forget about everything else for a moment in time. Sure, I have a huge sweet tooth, but it's about the process. It's about taking all of these different ingredients and mixing them together to create something magically sweet and special. It's about creating and being creative with the simple things. It's about allowing people to indulge in something that brings them joy — a lick from the spatula or a big batch of cookies.
It's about joy in the moment and sharing that joy with others. So my focus is back on that, and it feels good.
We could still ship nationwide, straight to people's doorstep. So we are making it easier and less expensive to send the ultimate comfort food (edible cookie dough) by introducing a reduced shipping rate, and deals on some of our best-selling packages.
In a way for us, it feels like we are going back in time… back to our roots. When I first started the business, we were only shipping nationwide. There were no stores, no big team, no wholesale. It was just me, a small crew juggling it all, and we made it work then. And we'll make it work again. We have to leverage our online business and hope it floats us through this time.
We are focusing our digital content strategy on sharing recipes, activities, and at-home treats with our engaged, amazing social following so they bake with their families and stay busy at-home. We started live baking tutorials where our fans can bake-along with me and I can share all the tips and tricks I've learned over the years with them.
I've leveraged the cookbook I published last year, Hello, Cookie Dough: 110 Doughlicious Confections to Eat, Bake & Share, to come up with fun content and additional things to do at home. We started shipping it and our at-home baking mixes for free to encourage people to get busy in their kitchens!
And as a business, we will continue to connect with our community to bring them joy and focus on what we can control, including our attitude and outlook first.
During times of uncertainty, which this certainly is, you should do the same. Identify the things you can control and focus your time and energy on those things. Distract yourself with the positive. Force yourself to stop asking and worrying about all the what-ifs. Do what you can for the moment and then the next moment. Make a list, and take it day-by-day.
It's going to be okay. You will be okay. We will all be okay.