Accidental Entrepreneur: How Kelly Phenicie is Embracing Slow Fashion and Sustainable Manufacturing
In every sense of the phrase, Kelly is an accidental entrepreneur. Starting out as a successful employee at Green Design Link, she eventually saw the opportunity to buy out the company after realizing they were deep in debt. From there, The Endery was organically born as a way to utilize the manufacturing waste from clothing production.
We asked Kelly about her journey of landing in entrepreneurship, the impacts her businesses have on the world, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Q: How and why did you start working on Green Design Link?
A: I actually joined my first company—Green Design Link—as an employee in 2015. In less than two years, I brought on sales that represented over 200 percent of our current revenue and negotiated partnership only to find that the company had an accumulated debt well into the six figures. I worked through this with my partner and bought her out. I continued to grow the company 50 to 70% year over year, making it cash flow positive and profitable by 2019. I love that I just walked into this almost by accident because I don’t think I would have ever started a company on my own. And luckily I had no idea how hard this would be or what it would take.
Q: What problem does your business solve?
A: Green Design Link brings exceptional and reliable quality to handmade items. This is key because so many brands sell through ecommerce now and consumers don’t want to experience a perceptible difference between what they receive and what they fell in love with on a website. A lot of manufacturers are unwilling to commit to this level of quality for something handmade, especially in big quantities. But our willingness to do so has helped our client brands grow tremendously. And our ability to bring consistent and ever increasing orders has helped us earn their trust and confidence, and for all of us to grow together.
Later, The Endery was born naturally out of our manufacturing experience. We are constantly surrounded by high-quality, leftover yarn, which, through no fault of its own, becomes a byproduct of clothing production. We felt like this was a problem that could very easily be turned into an opportunity. Our ultimate goal is to bring awareness of how to use waste as a raw material in the fashion realm and help get other bigger retailers on board. We are fast approaching a time when fashion has to change—it’s simply depleting too many resources.
Both Green Design Link and The Endery go where other companies are often unwilling. I think that’s what I like most about them—a lot of creativity is required for this problem solving. As an entrepreneur, I have to think critically rather than simply turn a profit.
Q: What are some of the most meaningful impacts your business has had so far?
A: At Green Design Link, we work with knitting leaders who are essentially micro entrepreneurs. These are women and men who are often marginalized by the traditional economy for not having the “right” education or background, or for not being able to leave their home as they are the primary caretakers for their children. So identifying work that capitalizes on their strengths and also provides the flexibility they need is such a win-win. They are incredibly smart and scrappy, and it’s been really inspiring to see them grow and thrive in ways that I’m sure often surprise even themselves.
As an entrepreneur, I love seeing people achieve things they never thought possible. At the same time, globally, the topic of homeworkers in the supply chain has become somewhat contentious since there is less control over the process, giving rise to potential compliance issues. However, that ignores how important this work is for such a huge sector of the world population and its ability to keep mothers and fathers in marginalized social sectors close to their children as they grow up. It’s a game changer. And even though it’s difficult to ensure proper conditions, it’s absolutely worth the effort.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
A: I thankfully came into entrepreneurship by accident—I don’t know that I would have found it otherwise. In school, I often admired others who seemed to know exactly what they wanted or who they wanted to be. I did not have that clarity. Somewhere in my 20s, I started to resent growing up with Disney movies that made me feel like I was special or could incite change. But then landing in the right context and starting to see all these little areas of operations that I could “fix,” I was finally able to see how my skills and values came to life together. I’m disciplined, authentic, a good listener, resilient and creative. I still suffer from imposter syndrome sometimes. I definitely think we put “successful” people on a pedestal and thus unwittingly create an us-them separation. Breaking down that belief is a key step in realizing our own potential.
Q: What’s been the hardest and most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?
A: In my case, I bootstrapped. And the hardest part of this was simultaneously raising a small child, so mom guilt has been a running theme. In my worst moments, I feel like I give more and better to the company, and that my son just gets my leftovers. Even if I reduce my hours, it can still be challenging to clear my mind, be present, and actually enjoy my time as a mom. But this has forced me to wear a lot of hats and master the art of time management.
One of the most rewarding parts of this process is that as the company grows, it demands that I do too, which means I have to constantly evolve and figure out ways to get it and me to the next level. Consequently, I have a healthy relationship with risk and trial and error, which has enriched my personal life tremendously. I almost feel like I’ve had multiple lives, and I’ve embraced so many opportunities. I really don’t have any lingering regrets over not trying something. And when challenges or obstacles arise, if I can’t control it I just try to lean in, much like the lemons to lemonade analogy.
Q: Have you struggled with self doubt as an entrepreneur? How do you navigate this?
A: Absolutely—self-doubt comes with the territory. Most humans like certainty, and being an entrepreneur means being vulnerable and putting yourself and your idea out there. But like so many things, you have to learn how to channel it in your favor. When self-doubt first creeps in, maybe it’s telling you something important, so you need to explore that. Was there something you could have done better? Are you in over your head? Do you need support in a certain area?
Whatever it is, learn the lesson, and then let go of that feeling—you gain nothing by beating yourself up. I picked this up from a Shirzad Charmine marketing email that I randomly opened a few years ago. Your ability to succeed and move forward is directly dependent on your ability to pull yourself out of a “bad state” because you’ll always have a lot of reasons to feel overwhelmed or stressed as an entrepreneur—so you have to rise above it.
As Tony Robbins says, success is 80% psychology and only 20% skill, which I’ve found over the years is 100% on point. Another tool I’ve used a lot is mantras. It sounds too simple but it is ridiculously effective. What you repeat to yourself becomes reality in your mind. I used to routinely create mantras to battle my challenges of the moment and repeat them during my runs instead of listening to music. When you can get yourself in the right state of mind, you come up with the right solution.
Q: What resources or people have contributed the most to your successes?
A: When I started my entrepreneurial journey I was an American in Peru, and for various reasons was socially disconnected. I didn’t have any close mentors and had to figure out a lot on my own, so I first turned to podcasts. Tim Ferriss’ interviews with successful people made a huge difference. He always shows their human side, including their struggles and mistakes I learned that so much of what I was going through and feeling was totally normal.
Tony Robbins was another huge resource for me. I went to his Business Mastery seminar and got plugged into coaching, which was so expensive for me at the time but now feels like peanuts based on the value I got. I was really at a point where I was kind of miserable, and this restored my quality of life and connection with what I do and the impact I can have.
And recently I’ve been connecting more with others—networking and befriending—in a way I really didn’t before, and that’s also been huge. Being an entrepreneur or business owner can be a really lonely journey, so finding ways to connect and feel identified are crucial to feeding your soul and enriching your quality of life, which in turn makes you better at what you do. It’s a cycle.
Q: Have you discovered any underappreciated leadership traits or misconceptions around leadership?
A: Leadership has been a key ingredient in my entrepreneurial journey. I would definitely consider my team my greatest asset, and building it has been both fundamental and rewarding. Impacting people’s lives is one of the most important things we do on this earth—it’s a privilege, and we have overwhelming control over that impact being either positive or negative. Life is short and we spend a considerable amount of time at work. If I am creating jobs that make people miserable, ultimately I’ve failed. Really the business in this sense is just a vehicle for something greater. If the business fails at some point, but I empower my team and my knitters to have positive impacts in their own lives and on others around them, that is true success.
Q: What’s next for you and your company?
A: My next goal for Green Design Link is to expand the role of the manufacturer. This includes renaming and rebranding, as well as a deep dive into storytelling. People want to know the story behind their products now more than ever. We crave transparency as a means of raising global standards across the board. But manufacturing and supply chains at large are still very behind the scenes or even secret. I think greater exposure here will be critical to changing the fast fashion consumption patterns that weigh on the environment and supply chain. It gives customers greater knowledge of the work that goes into each item as well as the consequences of how it’s made. Whether we like it or not, we have to be more accountable for our role as purchasers.
On a personal level, I hope to keep growing each business by listening to changing demands and rising to meet them in the most responsible way I can. But for this next phase, instead of bootstrapping, I’m definitely looking to leverage collaboration and partnerships, and really focus and explore the creative element of entrepreneurship. I’m looking to expand upon my biggest strengths rather than wearing so many hats.
Kelly is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.