Female Founders: Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar of Alterre On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
It will always take more time than you think. We originally started Alterre thinking it would take us 6 months to get working samples and a factory secured. We even signed up for a tradeshow and had to postpone it because we had paid the deposit! In the end, it took us 2 years to launch Alterre.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar.
Harmony and Shilpa are the Co-Founders of Alterre, a modular footwear brand that emphasizes comfortability and sustainability. Using a patented stud technology, Alterre offers footwear that maximizes your style while reducing waste through interchangeable straps and high quality, thoughtfully-chosen materials. Also valuing fair factory worker conditions and female-empowerment initiatives, Shilpa and Harmony have thoroughly vetted the factories they work with to ensure fair labor practices, and donate 5% of all Alterre proceeds to Restore NYC, a nonprofit organization that provides long-term rehabilitation for survivors of sex-trafficking; additionally, the pair serve as Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, providing peer-to-peer counseling for survivors who are founding their own businesses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
[Shilpa] It all happened fairly organically. We met each other while studying fashion at Parsons the New School for Design and bonded over our love for Victorian cemeteries (specifically, Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York). After graduating, I recruited Harmony to join me on a potential licensing project and from there, the magic kept on rolling. We started testing market viability with capsule collections and eventually landed on footwear. At the time, both of us loved traveling, lived in tiny apartments, and commuted predominately by foot around NYC. It felt like a natural progression to use my background in footwear and Harmony’s background in sustainability to build something for people like us — not just city dwellers, but career-driven women who want it all (family and a career).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
[Harmony] Oh! That’s a tough one. There’s so many. If anything it’s been interesting seeing how small the world can feel at times. We did this winter show once as our first foray into trying a pop up store. It was located in midtown across from Carnegie Hall in New York. One day, this woman who had been working one of the booths next to us asked if we knew someone named Kiko (last name kept anonymous), who is our lead research and development person in Brazil. After some initial awkwardness of thinking “how does this person know who we know in a completely different country?”…it turned out she was his daughter! We had no idea at the time that one of his kids was based in New York or that she would take a sales job by chance.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
[Harmony] Oh wow. I’m trying not to laugh just talking about it, but at the very beginning of starting our business we overcompensated for being as frugal as possible. To save money on shipping, we decided to buy a giant roll of corrugated cardboard because we thought we would cut all the shipping boxes out ourselves. It was huge! I mean, literally wider than either of us could carry alone and we had to roll it around to move it anywhere. When we finally had our first order, we sat there cutting out a box shape and thought “why the heck are we doing this again?!” We have a saying now that we repeat to ourselves when we think we’re going to make the same mistake of The-Giant-Cardboard-Dilemma-2015: Work Smarter, Not Harder. Our time is just as valuable as the money spent to run a business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
[Harmony] You know that saying “it takes a village to raise a child?” That’s what it really feels like, but the child is Alterre. We’ve been very fortunate to meet several people along the way who believe in us and help us however they can. We’re recently feeling blessed for our consultants Helaine Suval and Laura Hall. They brought their insider knowledge after decades of experience in the fashion industry to help us navigate the pandemic and come out even better than we were before. We couldn’t have made it through the past two years without them.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
[Harmony] Oof. There are so many layers as to what could be holding women back including the recent she-cession. If I had to list it, I would say 1) childhood conditioning to nurture others first 2) pay gap, and 3) lack of funding and/or underfunding compared to male counterparts.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
[Harmony] As a society, I think we need to reframe our educational system and the way we raise our daughters. Instead of placing emphasis on nurturing activities like baking parties or sleepovers, help her make a business like a lemonade stand or give her an allowance for investing time on something she is interested in. I’d like to think that if I have a daughter one day, I would give her the financial support to spend time on her interests over doing chores around the house. For individuals able to invest, making capital as accessible as possible to women would be a game changer. The same goes for the government offering more small business grants for female founders, or low interest loans. As a boss, I would say be aware of the tendencies and pay your employees equally. The wage disparity between men and women puts us in a vulnerable financial place before we even reach other milestones, like starting a family or buying a home. As a result, we (women) have less of a cushion to bet on ourselves early in our career. Overall, we need more streams of initial capital and it needs to be accessible.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
[Shilpa] I think the business world would generally benefit from more women founders! Having a female founder brings much more empathy to a company’s culture. I think toxic workplaces are the reason people prefer to work from home or switch jobs so often. It’s definitely not the way forward to retain talent. I think women can empathize with having obligations at home more, and needing a more flexible schedule. Basically, treating the people in the company as individuals instead of cogs in the machine. Other than empathy, having more women founders can help further raise the standard for what companies should do for women in order for them to remain in the workforce; such as equal pay, extended maternity/paternity leave, or help with childcare. A female founder normalizes women as leaders and inspires the next generation of girls to reach for the stars.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
[Shilpa] I think one of the biggest myths is the “visionary founder” as just the executive head of a company, taking meetings and making deals. In reality, founders are really in the weeds, and involved with every aspect of the business! I like to tell people that I’m the janitor and the CEO. Being a founder really means that you are doing 10 peoples’ jobs at once. You kind of have to be a jack-of-all-trades while learning on the job, and having doubts about whether or not what you are doing is right. It’s a lot of hard work to create something out of nothing and the successes are a series of small achievements over time. It’s not as glamorous or simple as thinking of an idea, raising money, and being the boss of a large company within a year.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
[Shilpa] It’s definitely not the right path for everyone. As I said before, it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds and sometimes it is better to be able to leave work at work instead of being consumed by it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a “regular job” in favor of a more steady life! A job is the right path for someone who wants a bit more structure and is risk-averse (and especially someone who needs a guaranteed steady income). This all being said, I think a successful founder needs to be passionate about what they will do. It will become your whole life, so you should really want to work on whatever it is all the time. They should be self-motivated because you will be working on your own schedule. No one will give you a deadline and only you can move your company forward. They should be very confident because you have to convince everyone that your idea is worth their time and money. I like to say that there are no gold stars for excellence when you are a founder — sometimes you work hard and make something great, but it isn’t a market fit. In these cases, you have to be confident enough to keep going. Finally, they have to be someone who can take risks, because nothing is guaranteed when you found a business.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.) [Both]
1. It will always take more time than you think. We originally started Alterre thinking it would take us 6 months to get working samples and a factory secured. We even signed up for a tradeshow and had to postpone it because we had paid the deposit! In the end, it took us 2 years to launch Alterre.
2. Don’t jump at every opportunity, because each one has an opportunity cost. We once did a month-long holiday show by the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan because it was a new extension of an established downtown pop-up company. It sounded great in theory, but was probably one of the worst decisions we ever made because we didn’t ask enough questions ahead of time. There was no real support to gain traffic and we were definitely underprepared to staff it ourselves. By doing this we lost out on online holiday sales because we were overextended and couldn’t run effective marketing for our main sales channel.
3. Evaluate the entire picture of the business. Look beyond just designing and producing the product. In our case, shoes are very tricky because you need so many sizes, and that is a lot of inventory you have to buy/keep just to offer one style. They also can’t be shipped flat and weigh more than a garment, so offering the expected free shipping will eat into your profits. Having a new concept will take you longer and cost more to communicate and create awareness for, and sometimes a great “simple solution” is not so simple at all.
4. Make the right connections. Nothing gets your foot in the door more than a great connection. People don’t like to be cold emailed/cold called, but they love to help out a friend of a friend. This has helped us in every facet of our business from sales to marketing. For example, one introduction to a store in Portland led us to being in another store in Seattle, and finding the type of wholesale salesperson we had been looking for for years (no trade show we ever did gave us that).
5. Hire experts. As they say, “you get what you pay for.” Hiring someone unqualified or trying to do it yourself to save money not only wastes time, but it also doesn’t allow your business to grow. Don’t be afraid to outsource something you are not an expert in, because otherwise, you’ll end up wasting money just doing work that doesn’t bring any return. For example, we grew our sales by 50% just by hiring an effective marketing/advertising firm.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
[Harmony] I’d like to think we’re paving the way for other brands to pursue sustainable fashion in a 360 degree kind of way. You can be sustainable, ethical, and still scalable, because slow growth is still positive growth. In a more direct way, we’re actively engaged with Restore NYC, a non-profit providing long-term rehabilitation for survivors of sex-trafficking. We have been donating 5% of our profits to the organization since the very beginning and are now Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, or “EIR” members. As EIR’s, we individually dedicate time each month to provide resources and skill sets to clients starting their own business. It’s been so fulfilling to support other women on their entrepreneurial journey as a path to freedom.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
[Harmony] Honestly, there’s already a movement I’m part of as an ambassador for Remake, and I’m passionate about it. If I had the influence to magnify it, I would want every household in the northern hemisphere to change our collective consumption of fast fashion. If we all made the changes, it would not only end the exploitation of factory workers in the fashion industry, who are predominantly women of color, but would also hold the largest fast fashion companies accountable for their actions. I’d like to think the ripple effect of change would be better for the environment, too.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh man! Only 1?! If it had to be for both of us, then Diane Von Furstenberg.
[Harmony] I would 100% want to meet Jennifer Hyman, the co-founder of Rent the Runway.
[Shilpa] I would love to have lunch with Meryl Streep!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this
Thank you for having us!