Top Viewed Quora Writer Shares Her Road to Success
An anthropologist-turned-tech founder and strategist, Gemma Sole lives at the intersection of creativity, technology, and operations within her startup Nineteenth Amendment, an on-demand marketplace and manufacturing service for fashion made in the USA. She was named one of Forbes’ top 30 under 30 in 2016 for retail and e-commerce and one of 25 influencers by the National Retail Federation in 2017.
Here’s how she landed in such prestigious ranks: Over the past ten years, Gemma graduated from the University of Rochester, started a consulting company, joined Booz Allen Hamilton to consult on the Department of Defense, began working with startups, started a venture-backed company in the caregiving space in Boston and finally met her co-founder Amanda at Harvard iLabs with whom she started Nineteenth Amendment. I am actually exhausted just writing her bio down. Let’s dive into her incredibly inspiring career and life insights.
What does FemmBoss mean to you?
FemmBoss means being gritty - and glittery - at the same time! I like to think of the ultimate FemmBoss as having poise while getting down and dirty while doing whatever it is she is striving to do!
Can you tell us a bit about your career trajectory? You’ve had very diverse experience that lends itself incredibly well to being a COO. Was that always the plan?
When I was in college [at University of Rochester] I was on the path to becoming a consultant or investment banker, but graduating in 2009 was a hard year to try and do that! Several of the places I was interviewing disappeared or interviews were getting canceled because of chaos in the market and massive layoffs. Fun right? So I had a “what am I going to do now?” moment and decided to start a business. I got a Kauffman Entrepreneurship Foundation Grant and started a small consulting practice. This entrepreneurial endeavor that basically started my career was what showed me how much you could do with so little and how exhilarating it is to create something out of nothing. I was eventually recruited to join a large firm in DC but quickly realized I craved more responsibility and missed the ability to be a decision maker and try things. That’s when I switched gears into the startup world.
My next question was on your most favorite mistake or blessing in disguise, but I think you may have just shared it.
As cliché as it sounds, timing is everything. I probably would be climbing the consulting ranks if the financial crisis didn’t make me question everything I believed to be true throughout college.
What drew you toward the fashion industry?
I am an artist and I love creating beautiful things. I also love helping small business and creative people bring their ideas to life. What I love about Nineteenth Amendment and fashion is that it’s an exciting challenge that takes both creative inspiration, technical skill, and business mindset.
“I will often be video chatting with a designer in Dubai or meeting a local Brooklyn designer for coffee.”
Take us through a typical day for you.
On the typical day - if I am not traveling, which happens quite a bit these days - I like to get a quick workout in and then start going down my list. As a company, we do digital standups on Slack and then I have a very time locked day of calls and deliverables. I do a lot of designer consultations so I will often be video chatting with a designer in Dubai or meeting a local Brooklyn designer for coffee. Afternoons are reserved for big meetings with partners or some ‘heads down’ time when I can get a full hour to invest in more complicated problems whether related to our product management, a big investor pitch, or setting up campaigns.
What are the challenges you have faced in starting a fashion tech platform?
The retail space is a bit of an unknown at the moment. It’s constantly changing. What traditionally worked is no longer working as well and no one can say for sure what will happen next. It’s terrifying for the industry but exciting for us!
In fashion specifically, there are a lot of old, entrenched processes and ‘ways of doing’ things that have been a bit harder to remove than imagined - a clinging to the ‘old-school’ which does not happen in pure tech businesses. In fact, it’s reviled in most startups. Because Nineteenth Amendment straddles both fashion and tech, we find we have to speak to very different audiences which can often be harder.
How would you define fashion tech?
Fashion tech is technology that enables the fashion industry.
Would you participate in an accelerator again?
We would have to have a clear business reason and it would have to have a clear value add, amazing mentors, and funding or some equivalent support attached.
Can you tell future FemmBosses out there how you stay motivated every day?
Glitter! No, but seriously...the people around me, our network, and support team - these are the people that keep me motivated. When you are working with awesome people, you are moved to be your best self and keep going.
Also - my sister Lucy tags me in all the puppy videos available on the internet so those help.
Do you have any success tips that you can share?
I have two:
Always ask (learned from my co-founder Amanda). Women don’t ask for enough. If you need support...or deserve a raise...don’t wait for someone to figure it out. Ask for it. The worst they can say is no and you can ask again later (smiles). If you don’t ask, you may miss some incredible opportunities.
Document everything. Great documentation is the foundation of any business and imperative to stop you from losing your mind. It also serves as a great record to go back to later in life.
What were some of the pivotal decisions at Nineteenth Amendment that shaped where the company is today?
Probably the biggest decision we made was around production. We were initially managing ALL the manufacturing on behalf of designers. About 8 months ago we transitioned to a self-service model where designers got all the tools we were using to manage production themselves. It’s done a lot to help us scale the business and focus on marketing, partnerships, and vetting manufacturers. Designers also love owning the relationship with the facility and distributing the product with their own touch. We still offer production management as a service for our international designers, but it’s been great to open up the platform to allow designers to help themselves.
What is your platform of preference? Where can you make your voice heard & where do you get your news?
For news, I like NPR. I listen to morning news podcasts. I like sharing great articles on Twitter and LinkedIn.
I also write a lot on Quora. I love Quora. I have just under 100k views and am often the most viewed writer in fashion/retail. It’s a great way to share what I’ve learned at Nineteenth Amendment with a broader group of interested people.
What’s next for Nineteenth Amendment?
We’re taking over the world on a mission for sustainable fashion! Seriously - we are exploring other potential marketing to do local on-demand production of the fashion you know and love. Stay tuned in 2018!
We will! Thanks Gemma.