She may not be Irish, but Francesca Kennedy has luck on her side.
“Despite my Irish-sounding name, I'm 100 percent Guatemalan," says Pennsylvania-born Kennedy, who launched her charitable fashion label, IX Style in March, 2013. The company, which has grown from a small solo operation to a robust brand backed by Rebecca Minkoff, has thrived thanks to its founder's uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time. “I always, always knew it was going to work," she says. "I just make it happen. I will not take no for an answer."
IX, which is named after the Mayan word for water, is a bright, cheery collection of hand woven huarache sandals, handbags and other accessories, all made by artisans in Guatemala. With the goal of providing clean drinking water for residents of her homeland, Kennedy donates 15 percent of all proceeds towards water sanitation efforts for residents who live in the towns near Lake Atitlan, a volcano-adjacent “magical" body of water, three times the size of Manhattan.
“I was baptized in Lake Atitlan; it's where I learned how to swim, it's where I spend my summers," says Kennedy. “It's been a home and inspiration for some of our greatest artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries over the years. Brave New World was written and inspired by the lake. The Little Prince was written and inspired by it. Che Guevara lived there, Pablo Neruda lived there, Ingrid Bergman lived there. It has this juju magic awesomeness to it."
Kennedy told SWAAY that back in 2009 she went back to visit her beloved sanctuary and was devastated to find it in a deplorable condition, filled with cynobacteria, thanks to agricultural runoff, sewage plants (destroyed after a hurricane), as well as imported fish (which ate the animals that would keep this dangerous blue green algae in check). “My cousins had called me before I went and they said, 'we're warning you, the lake is completely destroyed," says Kennedy. “'It's completely contaminated, every inch is covered in what looks like sewage water. You can't even fathom what it looks like.'"
According to Kennedy, right after she saw her favorite body of water in that state two formative things happened that would take her on an unexpected business and philanthropic journey: 1. She read the book Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the Founder of Toms, and 2. She noticed little girls collecting water to drink from that very lake, which turned her stomach. “I thought nobody in their wildest dreams would drink this water," says Kennedy, who decided then and there to do something to save the lake. “You hear these crazy stories happening in these remote parts of the world, not like the most magical place."
With a mission in mind, Kennedy then visited the usually bustling local market, which was quizzically empty. While there, she saw her favorite vendor, a huarache sandal maker named Maria, who said bluntly "the tourists have stopped coming. I don't know what I'm going to do, how am I going to feed my kids." Kennedy decided to buy 100 pairs of the leather sandals, telling the artisan she would try to sell them in the US for a profit, which she would bring back to Guatamala. Although Kennedy wasn't exactly sure how to get it done, she felt there was a way create a business that would help bring the lake back to its original glory and provide clean drinking water until then.“I asked [Maria] if she could make some modifications like updating the leather and she said 'of course let's do it," recounts Kennedy. “What started as a simple idea to help this one woman, has morphed into working over 600 women around the lake."
Upon her return to the states, Kennedy- who was a Goldman Sachs wealth management professional at the time- began her passion project. She says she would work on the website and PR outreach at night, going into the office the following day completely drained. “I'd go in when it was dark and leave when it was dark and had no work life balance," says Kennedy. “I was not happy."
So, she decided to make her side hustle her full-time job. And that's when things just started happening.
"I took on everything, from PR to website design," says Kennedy, who began reaching out to industry friends and contacts, pitching her shoe line. It wasn't long before editors began falling in love with IX.
First came a placement in People Style Watch, and next Harper's Bazaar. Amazed by the traction she was getting, Kennedy turned to the influencer set to make bigger waves for the company. She began by stealthily leaving a pair of IX shoes at Gwyneth Paltrow's apartment in Tribeca. “We Googled her shoe size, where she lived, dropped off a handwritten note and forgot about it," says Kennedy. “Six months later, a few days before Christmas, all these sales start coming through and I'm like 'wow, a lot of people are doing last minute Christmas shopping.' I go to our Google Analytics page and I see everything is coming from Goop [where they were listed as an editor's favorite]. Immediately I knew that she got the shoes and I started crying, jumping and dancing."
Two days after her unexpected Goop mention, Paltrow's buying team asked Kennedy if she would be interested in an exclusive collaboration. Kennedy send swatches and samples, and selling out of all her merchandise in three weeks. After noticing the line, buyers from The GAP put their order, and next came J. Crew, thanks to a cold email to the company's Creative Director. “I cut through the back and forth, which can be a waste of your time," says Kennedy. “If the top person says they want it then they make the magic happen."Kennedy says that during her crusade to put IX on the map, there were many chance encounters that helped her along the way. “I always laugh about the power of a pedicure," says Kennedy. “I went to get a pedicure one day and Hanneli Mustaparta [the former face of Calvin Klein] was sitting there drying her toes. And I'm like, this is great, she can't run away! I can pitch her!"
Kennedy, who happened to be wearing a pair of her shoes at the time, told Mustaparta, a Norway native, her story. Mustaparta then gave Kennedy her agent's email, which, of course, Kennedy used straightaway. “The agent responded the next day and said, 'she loves them!' After that, she did all those posts for free and we have never paid for PR and I never will."
Francesca Kennedy by Angelique HazbunFor her next stars-aligning trick, Kennedy quite literally ran into Amanda Seyfried on a run in Boston. “She's from Allentown [PA], and I'm from Allentown so, we're both quirky Allentown girls," says Kennedy. “I dropped off shoes for her at the front desk of the hotel I was staying in. And again, I didn't hear anything until another six months later she finally did a post on her social media."Fast forward to today, and many people can recognize Kennedy's brand thanks to her record-making win on Project Runway Fashion Startup. After her pitch, judge Rebecca Minkoff pledged her allegiance to the company, and the rest of the judges followed suit, resulting in a bidding war [a first for the show]. After reviewing the term sheets, Kennedy decided to work only with Minkoff, who invested $50K into IX Style. In the deal, Minkoff also got office space in Minkoff's New York City headquarters as well as the opportunity to sell her products alongside the celebrated designer's. Just how did she do it? According to Kennedy, it was another combination of luck and networking that got here there.
“I decided in manifesting journal one day that I want really successful women to reach out to me out of the blue and help me with IX style," says Kennedy, who was asked to speak on a panel with Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, the founder of Gilt Groupe prior to being cast on Project Runway. Wilson, one of Kennedy's business idols at the time, would go on to become her mentor, and her introduction to the Project Runway show. “She introduced me to the producers and then all these crazy magic things happened," says Kennedy. “They squeezed me in because they had technically closed the auditions. I got on the show and it was Friday the 13th, which I didn't know this at the time, would end up being one of the luckiest days for me, luckiest numbers too."
It was while Kennedy was in the Green Room before the show that some more fortuitous news came; she got a call that she won a $25K grant from women-focused accelerator, Access Latina. “It was awesome," says Kennedy. “Then I went in and pitched the judges. And Rebecca-who spoke first-said, 'I've been to your lake, I've worked with your artisans, I've seen your video, and not only that I actually own a pair of your shoes.'
And just where did Minkoff get those shoes? Yep, it was Kennedy's own seed planting efforts, coupled with sheer luck, yet again. “My very first year in business I became a member of the Accessories Council, and they asked me to donate 50 pairs of shoes to various influencers," she says. Given out to stars like Iman, Naomi Campbell, Rebecca Minkoff, Tory Burch and of course, Minkoff, along with a handwritten note, Kennedy thought her efforts were all but ignored. “Except for that day three years later. Rebecca is like, 'I own your shoes,'" laughs Kennedy. “She has her own shoe company! So it was a big deal."
Kennedy dancing with her artisans
Looking to the future, Kennedy is planning a fashion show alongside Minkoff, to be held in Guatemala in March, 2018. “ We will be raising funds for a great cause with the fashion show," Kennedy tells SWAAY. “We have 15 top influencers joining the trip and a lot of surprises in store for the show!" Additionally, Kennedy will continue expanding her brand's footprint, launching more products, including a limited-edition co-branded sandal collection with Rebecca Minkoff, coming this spring.
To date, Kennedy has provided enough water filters to help 10,000 Guatemalan citizens. But, according to the spirited entrepreneur, that is just the beginning. “Around Lake Atitlan there are 500,000 people so we have a long way to go," she says. “I will eventually go to other communities around Guatemala but until the lake is fixed and preserved and all the kids and every community member has access to clean water I'll focus there."In addition, Kennedy has also helped provide water filters for the 67 schools in the area [only 13 had them at the beginning of her efforts], also using the devices to incentify parents to keep their daughters in school. “Parents usually send their daughters to school to learn how to read and write and then they yank them out," says Kennedy, who plans to distribute the water-collectors/filters amongst school parents, giving many their first ever home faucet. “We are going to give them a $300 filter, which is a big incentive for people who mostly live off a dollar a day."
When asked about profitability, Kennedy says “I'm profitable; I mean my apartment is my office. I have no overhead. I don't even have a warehouse in Guatemala. The artisans are helping me with my overhead costs but now I am expanding so I'll be hiring. I need someone who is like a mini-me who can do PR, marketing, operations, everything."
To date, the always-positive entreprenuer credits her team of 15 interns for taking her lucky streak to the next level. "I always tell people get awesome interns because they are the ones who come up with out-of-the-box ideas," says Kennedy, adding that her interns recently threw a pair of IX shoes over Karlie Kloss's gate. "They are like, 'Selena Gomez is staying at this hotel. Can we go drop of shoes?' I'm like, 'do your thing.'"
Clearly, you gotta be in it to win it.
For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.
As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.
Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.
What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein
This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.
Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.
Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.
In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.
"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."