Sarah Perkins, DesignerShare Co-founder
Can an outfit improve the economic livelihood of women?
It seems like a bit of a frivolous topic to debate. There are more pressing issues for our generation of women, right? Even though we are the most educated group of females in the history of America (and probably the world), we are still fighting a gender pay gap that pays us 59-79% of what we are worth. We are strapped with student loans that are crippling our ability to save. Worse, women often end up in industries that pay us next to nothing, or are quickly disappearing due to technologies that can replace our skillsets. And despite our desire to move up the corporate ladder, many of us women are dropping out of corporate altogether due to burnout, in part, spawned by the rampant sexism we face in the workplace each day.
Sarah Perkins, CEO and co-founder of DesignerShare, the first truly- peer-to-peer marketplace for women to rent their designer clothing to one another – is fully aware of the many feats women of our generation are facing right now. One area in particular - student loans - is something that she has an intimate familiarity with. Sarah attended a private school in California for her undergraduate years - and is still paying off the experience. All of which means that starting a company and taking on even more debt was not the plan she originally forecasted for herself.
“At 27, you think of generations past and how far they were. Despite everything I work for everyday and everything that we are doing, because my finances aren’t in a great place, I (still can) feel like a failure.”
Breaking the façade of the ramen-to-riches path that entrepreneurship, Sarah is perfectly candid about the realities of her experience as a Millennial women building her own socialpreneurship empire – a narrative that many Millennial women (the fastest growing, most underfunded gender of entrepreneurs) are facing,
This has been particularly frustrating for women in the ‘safe havens’ of corporate America. Underpaid, overworked, and with dismal faith in upward mobility, many women than men are moving into entrepreneurial endeavors like side hustles and startups to pay for living expenses.
In talking about her experience in launching DesignerShare – complete with the glaringly normalized underpaid entry level job and plenty of student loans as a preface to this jump - Sarah wants to give normalcy and perspective of the reality behind the rise in female Millennial entrepreneurship no one is talking about, and dismantle the fears many of us female founders are carrying around silently that prevent us from fully going after our entrepreneurial aspirations.
“It really is about putting everything you have into it and even extending yourself beyond that.” Sarah summarizes, “The fact that I did sit there and sign off on the equivalent of more student loans, was a sign of how ready I was to commit.”
Just as importantly, Sarah wants us to remember that improving the livelihood of women involves both large and small acts, but most importantly, it involves women working together.
How She….Politicized It
At first glance, DesignerShare’s business model probably doesn’t look like it’s trying to make a political statement. But as Sarah points out, women’s fashion is embroiled in political statements – from what a woman chooses to wear to work to what FLOTUS wears to a State dinner, a woman’s appearance has a way of getting picked apart.
“Barack Obama got away with wearing the same tux for 8 years and no one noticed until Michelle just recently brought that up. But when she went out, it was a political statement, a cultural statement. From the designers to down to every single detail of the dress she put on.”
The reality that many women face, is one in which appearance plays a role in how people treat them. This is particularly true for many workplaces, which emphasize expectations for both men and women to ‘look the part.’
Yet the reality is that The reality for women is that the demands on physical appearance and looking the part are much higher than they are for men, especially in a professional setting. For example, women’s annual grooming cost an average of 3,504 dollars more than men’s grooming products, all while facing lower wages, higher student loan repayments, and a higher workplace dropout rate. It goes without saying that once you include wardrobe upkeep - a huge part of the 77 cents of the (white) women make to a man’s dollar are headed straight towards a fashion-caused, income depletion.
DesignerShare is out to help alleviate the high-cost of high -end fashion by making it accessible - across the various income brackets, shapes and sizes – to all women, while simultaneously helping put money back into their pockets. It’s a sentiment Sarah refers to as fashion feminism.
The value at the crux of the fashion feminism business model - which is embedded in the sharing economy - is collaboration. DesignerShare prides its services on building a community that empowers women to work together:
“It’s based on this community where we wanted women to really uplift each other and say – we have this problem, and we all share these closets full of clothes that never really get worn, or you can’t afford to wear what you really want to feel great. Why don’t we help each other through it?”
The model itself is less of a Rent The Runway and more of an Air B & B model, Sarah explains,
“Instead of selling your piece for consignment, it’s more like you’re just renting it out, and it comes back to you. It’s that handbag that’s just been sitting there. Or a cocktail dress you can’t keep wearing, so someone else can wear it to a cocktail event.”
Ultimately, it’s this collaboration between women that fuels the marketplace, creating mini-entrepreneurs. So far, DesignerShare has helped create passive incomes as high as in the thousands.
“In our first year, we gave out multiple W9s…One woman made over a 1,000 bucks in over 6 weeks just because her stuff was flying out.”
The best part, is that this form of passive income is much simpler than starting a podcast or building an Etsy store. It’s literally as simple as opening your door - twice.
“It’s a great way to have a side hustle from home. That’s the way we really wanted to empower our lenders. You’re an entrepreneur from your own closet. All you do is list the items on the site, and we take care of everything for you. From delivery to the dry cleaning, and making sure you are paid out very quickly. (The lender) keeps 75% of the price she sets per week.”
Though, DesignerShare realizes it’s not fixing the systemic problems surrounding the income gap or the larger cultural issues surrounding the pressures women have to face when it comes to standards of beauty. However, it is a great workaround for women whose livelihoods – and whose families livelihoods - are dependent on dressing and looking the part,
“That is a great way to feel like you’re saving a lot of money – so you’re putting money back in your pocket from us. You’re getting paid for pieces that are just sitting there.”
Turns out, maybe an outfit really can impact the livelihood of women.
How She…Built It (with student loans)
“I always grew up loving to write, and knew I wanted to end up going into publishing,” Sarah explains. A Chicago-area native, young Sarah packed up her bags and left the Midwest for sunny California, where she picked up a marketing degree at Santa Clara University – a private school - taking out large student substantial loans to do so.
During her time at SCU, Sarah joined a co-ed business fraternity. Like many fraternities, they put on semi-formal and formal events throughout the year. The women in her fraternity began swapping outfits for events as a way to keep costs down and walk out the door feeling Instagramably great for each event.
“For women, because we have so much scrutiny placed upon us for our appearances… you’re trying to find ways to be scrappy,” Sarah explains, “Especially in what was then a newer era of social media.”
Though social media was still in its “early” stages when Sarah attended college, the idea of wearing an outfit more than once was already a fullon fashion faux pas.
“It’s not just getting your picture taken once, and then maybe wearing that dress again a year later.” Sarah explains of the mentality surrounding posting, “Now it lives on the internet (forever).”
Sarah realized through those early college experiences that the economic burden already placed on women to keep up with appearances was going to escalate, full throttle, into the digital age.
The experience ended up being an early precursor to DesignerShare, though she didn’t realize it at the time. After graduation, Sarah headed back to the Midwest, and broke into the not-so-lucrative industry of journalism.
“It’s just a low paying position.” She deadpans. Though living near family was helpful, in an industry that was already criminally low-paying prior to be gutted by the digital revolution, Sarah wasn’t putting away large sums of money.
“Isn’t it so interesting that we have all of these loans to pay, to have the type of education to get these jobs, where the money is probably just going back to paying the loans?”
Yet, when the opportunity came up to turn her clothes swapping idea into a larger business, the threat of loans didn’t deter her from starting her company.
“Do not let the perfect get in the way of the possible.” She lends insight into her own thought process when weighing the costs of paying off her student loans versus making that jump out of her full-time job into the startup scene. “Don’t sit here and think, well, if I have this much stored away…then I’ll be able to do this business. You’re either going to try it and fail, or you’re never going to try it at all.”
How She...Funded It
It sounds like an idealistic and somewhat naive statement. But Sarah comes from the space of knowing the logistics for running and building a company from scratch, with student loans, was far from an ideal situation. To even enter the startup world, Sarah ended up having to incur more debt.
Though Sarah’s cofounder, a long-time family friend and established lawyer, was willing to upfront a portion of the money to get DesignerShare going, as CEO and cofounder, Sarah felt it her responsibility to ensure she was equally responsible for the equity of the company. She made the decision to sign herself to more debt – a sum equivalent to that of her student loans. This time, her debt was to her cofounder.
“It is a little overwhelming. But it just drives me even more to make sure this is a success. And to show that my heart is in this 100%.”
The process of incurring more debt to build a startup was terrifying for Sarah. But she smartly sat down with a financial advisor she trusted. The financial advisor helped her figure out how to forecast and manage her personal, professional finances, inclusive of her student and business loans.
“This is someone who was a friend,” Sarah states, emphasizing the importance of a trust factor between herself and her advisor. “She was an amazing user on our site, she was with Merrill Lynch, so I said, I want to start talking to someone I can trust, and start to figure out a really good plan for myself.”
There were many areas of her financial future that Sarah had to take into account. For one, she wasn’t going to be able to pay herself through her startup – especially as it was getting off the ground.
“I’m in a no salary situation,” Sarah explains, adding that going the VC route as DesignerShare has chosen to do, means that future salary potential for Sarah is something she has limited power over.
“It depends on who (the VCs) will be, and who will be okay with me having a salary. It’s not in my control anymore. It’s up to these people who are believing in us to say, you know, for Sarah’s livelihood, to keep her working as hard, do we give her an annual salary?”
Sitting down with a financial advisor helped Sarah figure out what she needed to do with what pockets of money she had, what pockets of money she owed, and helped her realize that ultimately, the immediate shortage of funds was only temporary, giving her the confidence to go full-steam ahead at DesignerShare.
“She’s someone I want to keep in contact with as I do finally start to bring in something on a personal level so I can pay off debt.” Sarah says of her advisor and her financial advisement experience. “But also, to think about the future and my investments.”
One of the unexpected areas Sarah fell into to help manage her finances was creating small but important side incomes for herself, something she says has become an important mental empowerment tool for her day-to-day, helping to alleviate the stress that loans can bring.
“I just started using Instacart. I was so fascinated by it, and said, ‘you know, going to the grocery store – not that hard.’ I could’ve done it myself. But the fact that someone just paid to do it for me…why don’t I just sign up and use it as a side hustle?”
Additionally, Sarah made compromises to her lifestyle budget, giving up on little things like new haircuts.
“You go in and your stylist will be like, ‘why haven’t you been here in so long?’ And you’re like, ‘Would you like to pay for it? Because I couldn’t.’”
The details of Sarah’s story, often left out of the Ramens-to-riches narrative around entrepreneurship is both refreshing and needed.
“It’s always so glossed over.” Sarah says, “I don’t know if people feel embarrassed or don’t want to think about those times. But you have to do what you have to do to take care of yourself.”
Though leaving out the little things may seem difficult at times, the experience of living on less overall has come with some unexpected surprises for Sarah.
“I’m feeling like I kind of want to minimize my life. Just seeing how you can go through with less. Who knows where that will go?”
Most importantly, Sarah has learned to manage her thinking around money – ensuring that she comes from a place of empowerment and ownership in her choice to choose to take on more debt for her business.
“I’m willing to risk it. I’m willing to try. And if I don’t, I’ll kick myself.”
How She…Plans To Pay It Back
The road is long and never easy. But our generation is getting a road that’s maybe a little longer – or at least, one that’s laden with more student loan interest – than the rest. That being said, Sarah realizes that despite the extra hurdles we face as a generation – specifically as a generation of women - the experience has been worth it.
Just as importantly, Sarah sees herself as being part of the revolutionary movement of female entrepreneurs heading to the forefront of small business. Not only does she want to be a leader within this movement through DesignerShare, she ultimately wants to break open doors for others to come.
“I see my struggle everyday – especially when it comes to women and women focused companies. The makeup and the makeup of the investments out there is just a little bit built against us right now. You truly are investing the jockey, not the horse.”
Like noticing the pressures placed on women to look a certain way, as she did all those years ago at Santa Clara University, Sarah sees an opportunity for women to turn these disadvantageous social expectations, into an advantage point that can benefit us all.
“If anything, being in the startup space has motivated me to push myself hard so that I can give back to women one day. Whether that’s being in an angel position or even being in a VC group, to just being really smart about how my money is going to go back and help others.”
Sarah isn't the only person who struggles with student loans. It's a huge issue for our community. Check out some of the scary stats - and how we're kicking ass anyway. You can download our full report on how the student debt crisis is affecting female Millennial founders here.