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This Fierce Founder is Providing Clean Water For Guatemalans

People

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 Hazbun

For 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.

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Business

How Postpartum Mesh Underwear Started My Entrepreneurial Journey

"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.


It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.

My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.

Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.

I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.

My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.

Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).

They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).

Fast forward to 2018...

While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.

In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.

As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.

Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.