The text arrived one morning from a longtime mentor in the PR field, after reading a local blog post.
“You’ve left the profession? Are you gone for good?”
Not by a long shot, I assured him. The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.
But his message did give me another moment of pause. I’ve paused weekly over the past three years to reflect on – or panic over – my professional identity. What the hell am I doing, anyway?
If you had told me five years ago that today I’d be the co-founder of a bootstrapped fashion startup focused on women’s contemporary art, I would have laughed, hard – and then quickly followed with something like this: “I’m not qualified to do that. Let me help connect you with someone who is.” I said no to myself. A lot.
Back in 2013, my family relocated to Iowa for my next big career step, as global head of communications for a large private company. I soon realized that my carefully-mapped career journey had led me to a place I didn’t expect: I was challenged and loved my team, but I wasn’t happy. So I left.
I had every intention to return to the corporate path. I started connecting with recruiters and interviewed for a few roles; I didn’t get offers, which was just fine because I genuinely didn’t want them. A year passed, and I started to worry what other people might think: “She couldn’t handle it. She didn’t make it. She wasn’t cut out for it.”
Which is nonsense. The truth is that I had not yet accepted my reality: I’m an oddity. I had so much of my self-worth invested in a path that rewards fitting in and “polishing the ball.” But that’s not me; I’m energized by disruption, pop culture, building new things, solving big problems and challenging the status quo. My neat career square didn’t work for my round-peg truth.
Perhaps it was driven by quiet hysteria, but while I desperately searched for the next corporate role, something happened that I didn’t expect: I had an idea.
In March 2015, I was shopping online when my friend Kate Iverson’s latest contemporary painting appeared in my Instagram feed. It was stunning. And the idea hit me: I wanted to support her work – so why not wear it?
I didn’t know the first thing about apparel manufacturing or the business of fashion. I just wanted a skirt, and I guessed that other women would, too.
I pitched Kate the idea, and she liked it. I had a Survey Monkey account, so we surveyed our combined network of women, and soon had a customer profile. We cross checked publicly-available industry data, and discovered we had a viable market to pursue, with a clear purpose at the intersection of women and art. We gave the business a name, Alice Riot. And two months later, I was wearing the first prototype, a skirt.
Later that year, the idea was still alive, so I kept saying yes to things outside my corporate comfort zone.
I said yes to ongoing consulting work with corporate clients. From the second I resigned my last full-time job, I had a plate full of meaty, challenging contract gigs. I’m working harder than ever in my chosen profession, which provides the flexibility I need to build a startup business.
I said yes to help Sprosty Network launch its RetailXelerator brand. It was an opportunity with no guarantees, but I trust the founders and the team of former Best Buy colleagues. I now have direct accelerator experience, and I learned so much watching other startup founders move to scale.
I accepted an invitation to join Studio/E, a fantastic entrepreneurial program that helped me embrace ideas with an explorer’s mindset. I quickly learned that the unknown is where the fun happens, and that my corporate experience was pure gold in helping us ask for the right help and establish our startup in a responsible manner.
This year, Kate and I ran an Indiegogo campaign that established an initial base of Alice Riot customers, plus raised the capital to manufacture our first collection and launch our online store. We have combined a true art aesthetic and a love of classic styles with sourcing, manufacturing and retail expertise I gained in my corporate roles. We’re building a brand by women, for women, one day at a time, and I have yet to second-guess our prospects.
I still show up for PR industry events and gatherings, and I love watching my clients reach new heights. I also show up in new places, like the VIP row at Fashionopolis while I work Alice Riot connections. It’s true that very few of my carefully-cultivated corporate career skills would be found on the job description for someone starting an apparel line. But I’ve discovered that I have everything I need in my experience to do this. I’m perfectly qualified for the job.
What the hell am I doing? Exactly what I want to do.
Kelly Groehler is a veteran corporate brand, reputation and communications consultant with experience that touches nearly every point on the global supply chain, from sourcing to retail. She’s also co-founder and CEO of Alice Riot, a line of women’s apparel that features limited-edition prints by female contemporary artists, and a member of the Public Functionary board of directors.