Julie Sygiel designs a very specific type of underwear. She was studying chemical engineering when she came up with the idea for underwear made of stain resistant fabric – specifically a fabric that would allow women greater freedom during their monthly cycles. That high-tech fabric is now patent pending and Julie’s New York startup, Dear Kate, is making (crimson) waves thanks to her insight, marketing savvy and ability to make a killer yoga pant. Take note, Clems.
We spoke to Julie about what it’s like to run a female-empowered business in New York at a young age. In short? It’s awesome.
You studied chemical engineering but ended up going into fashion and shaking up the world of women’s lingerie and performance wear. How did you get your start?
It was really a chance encounter. I was taking a chemical engineering class in college where we had to make a business plan and come up with a product idea. There had been a lot of innovations in textiles for years but we realized no one had come up with a product that dealt with your period. There were two girls in my project group and…we talked about periods and what happens to your underwear when you have a period. I had no background in textiles, but we started talking about creating a stain-repellent fabric.
When you have your period, there’s always this fear in the back of your mind that you might have an accident. That was our mindset – we saw a problem that no one was addressing, and we wanted to explore that. By creating underwear with a stain repellant fabric that you can wear during your period, we’re removing that vulnerability so you can be more focused…because you don’t have this nagging stress in the back of your mind. That was our goal.
While in some ways your career transition from a chemical engineer to the owner of a start-up who designed a custom, absorbent fabric for women seems natural, there had to be some pretty large changes between your two roles. Can you talk about the transition?
I graduated in May of 2009 and have been working on it since then. The first few years were solely about product development – figuring out the fabrics and manufacturing. The first brand [I created] was called Sexy Period, and in 2012 we rebranded as Dear Kate. Every year of the business has felt different – we’ve been at different stages and in different cities, and it’s helped to keep it interesting.
As the owner of a growing fashion startup in New York, we’re curious about your day-to-day life. Tell us about your rules of productivity for having an intentional, focused day of work. What does your ideal weekday look like?
I love to start my day off with a coffee meeting – it gets me out of bed at any early hour, gets my fueled up for the day, and makes me feel like I’m being productive at the same time. Sometimes it’s someone we’re collaborating with – like an illustrator, an artist, a journalist, or a friend. You never know how something can come together so I like to have coffee with different people or other friends who are running their own businesses. From there, I try not to schedule any meetings once I get into the office until the end of the day. I always make a paper to do list – that’s number one for me in getting things done, and it’s just about remembering things so that I can have a productive day that I feel good about.
I try to tackle one big project a day because there are always so many little things that come up during the day. I try to go easy on let myself.
We have all our big team meetings on Monday and we plan out the week. I also try to reserve two nights a week where I’m not going to events so I can do what I want to do – sometimes it’s staying in the office late and working on emails, or I’ll go home and watch T.V.
Earlier this year, Dear Kate launched a podcast called First Time. Tell us more!
The podcast stemmed from the video we launched in April called “First Time” where we interviewed 20 women about the first time they got their period. We knew we wanted to make a video, and we wanted to actually share real stories of things that happened related to periods. We love the idea of “First Time” because it felt catchy and funny. We worked with an awesome director named Mary Harron, and the whole experience with being on set with a female director was great.
The video got over 300k views, and we were stunned because people started emailing us with their stories. From there, comedian Emma Wellman, who was in the film, brought up the idea of a podcast where we explore one person’s story in depth and talk about a topic that would take people outside of their comfort zone. We partnered with Emma, recruited different guests, and launched five episodes for the first season. We’re now in the process of recording the second season, which will hopefully launch in January.
Putting together a podcast was a great learning experience – it’s such a new medium for so many people, and it was a really different process than putting together a newsletter or designing an invite. It stretched us in different ways.
Women’s menstruation and the topic of periods in general still seems to be weirdly taboo. Why do you think that is, and what should we as women or as a society be doing to help change that conversation?
In the last five years that I’ve been working in this space, the media landscape has changed dramatically. Four years ago, a writer wrote a feature story about us in the style section of a newspaper and the editors wouldn’t let them publish a story that talked about periods. It was so shocking and disheartening.
It’s been a 180 [degree change] to where we are today. There’s been so much talk about periods that Dear Kate is actually newsworthy. Now, being a period underwear company is helping us get press rather than hurt us in getting press. It’s crazy how quickly it turned around – and in one sense I feel really good about it and that the taboo has been lifted tremendously from where it was even two years ago. We see such a different response from the press when we talk about what we’re doing.
To me, the big question is how will this continue. If the media continues to represent periods in a positive light and if it becomes part of the mainstream then we’ll be on a good track. I think questioning and making a scene when something is not feminist or when someone is trying to take down women and periods metaphorically is important.
What female role models do you look up to and why?
Where I get a lot of strength and inspiration now is from other female founder friends. That’s something that’s inspiring to me because it’s not like they have all of the answers, but if we work together we can help each other out. When I was first starting out, it was really hard for me to see anyone else who looked like me in terms of being female and being young – who had raised investments and who had this really big idea and the ambition and wanted to do something big. It’s very much a two-way street and that’s what inspires me these days.
Everything you do with the brand seems to be very intentional and driven towards empowering women. Do you have an ultimate goal with Dear Kate?
Our goal is to continue making high quality forward-thinking products for women. I love that what we do is fun, in the fashion arena, and that we get to do a lot of other creative things in marketing and branding.
Our goal first and foremost is the focus on our product. I love going to work everyday and knowing that I’m making women’s lives better and easier. Everything else is the cherry on top – we feel like we’re doing marketing the right way. When I was first starting out, I was advised that what I was doing was so radical that I shouldn’t do anything else to rock the boat – and that I should make sexy designs and have super skinny models. It wasn’t until we rebranded as Dear Kate that we decided to just do what felt right and see how people respond, and they’ve responded really well.
We have this very strong inner compass that guides our marketing projects and branding and we want you to feel very supportive and cheered on when you come to our website – we don’t want you to feel bad about yourself or like you have to buy our things. We want you to feel like we are on your side. We try to be very thoughtful about our branding and messaging.
Overall, I love going to work everyday knowing I’m making women’s lives better and easier.
And finally: what does Dear Kate mean? We'd love to hear the story behind the name!
Dear Kate was a nod to an advice column. We really wanted to create this fictional character named Kate who would be your friend who you’d call in a crisis, and who would be there for you, to support you, and to cheer you on.
p.s. A few other suggestions of how to support small brands this holiday season!