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.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.