Value transparency and communication. I value honest and direct communication. It is probably my German way that can be sometimes difficult to handle but instead of sugar coating things I express directly what I like or dislike and expect the same from my team.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anastasia Kraft. Anastasia Kraft was a project engineer who felt uncomfortable wearing her safety boots that were clunky, unprofessional, and potentially hazardous since they never fit quite right. She noticed that this problem was shared by women across industries that require steel-toed footwear (architecture, construction, engineering, manufacturing, and the trades). Women hated their safety shoes, but had no other options because steel-toe boots were designed to fit the needs of men who make up the majority of this workforce.
Ana founded Xena Workwear to change this narrative. She developed the first-ever stylish steel-toe safety shoes to help professional women feel safe, comfortable, and confident. These beautiful shoes are officially certified and seamlessly transition between work environments without compromising on safety or style. Ana’s designs empower women in STEM and the trades to finally bring their feminine look to work.
Xena Workwear products are being endorsed by professional organizations, Society of Women Engineers, and by women across industries: General Electric, Honeywell Aerospace, General Motors, Johnson Controls, etc.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started this company out of my own frustration, working in a manufacturing environment where the only options were bulky, manly work boots. It was a constant struggle to find workwear that would allow me to dress professionally in an office environment and to be safe during visits on the shop floor.
I knew that a more versatile category of workwear was needed and decided to shake-up the stagnant industry of manufacturers who did not understand our needs. It was time to replace the outdated “shrink it and pink it” concept where companies take a men’s boot, make it smaller and make it pink because this is NOT what professional women want. For over two years I dedicated myself to shoe-craft, going through the rigorous development and testing process.
What you wear has a major impact on your self-confidence, which in turn impacts a number of other job-related factors, including performance, promotability, and long-term career success. I am proud to provide a product which allows women to feel confident and express their true personality!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We delivered our very first pair to a customer at the airport.
Then in mid-June of 2019, Jenn was finishing her GE assignment in Salt Lake City and preparing to transfer to the Waukesha facility. Unfortunately, she had to undergo shoulder surgery right before her move. This normally wouldn’t be a concern, but Jenn’s limited mobility prevented her from being able to tie the laces of her regular work boots. Jenn knew that our Gravity steel-toes had convenient zippers that would solve her problem, but noticed that pre-orders were not ready to ship and would definitely not arrive in time for her first day at Waukesha.
Jenn shared that she’d be flying into Milwaukee on Friday evening and was hoping to meet with me over the weekend. Our Xena team knew right away that we needed to help. A plan was hatched and put in motion to surprise Jenn with her pair of Xena safety booties at the airport.
The smile on Jenni’s face when she saw me holding a Xena box at the airport was unforgettable!
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?
Sorry, I can’t think of funny mistakes.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are different because we are not just selling a product but the feeling of confidence. For decades, women have been forced to tone down their femininity in male-oriented fields and we are helping to make sure they can bring their “whole self” to work. Last week we received a message from a woman who was constantly referred to as the “girl” on her construction sites. She would go home crying because even though she was the only female present, the available workwear options forced her to dress down while she was still singled out for being different. In her words, when she discovered our brand, the confidence it gave her on the job site was staggering. She told us that she cried again but this time from happiness because it was the first time in her career she could feel empowered at work. To be honest, her heartfelt message of gratitude to us made our entire team tear-up.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are working on the development of functional blazers for professional women that will help them transition smoothly from the office to the shop floor. They will be machine washable, wrinkle resistant and feature multiple pockets for safety glasses, ear plugs, jewelry, a phone and so much more.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
It is important to give all team members the opportunity to express their ideas on how they can help the business thrive. To stay on track and focused you need to evaluate those ideas together and select a few you want to tackle during a specific period of time. At Xena we decided to discuss the implementation of new strategies on a quarterly basis which allows us to focus on our main goals for each quarter without major distractions.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
We have a very small team running a lean operation. I am convinced that the key to a successful company is to build a team of people you fully trust and who don’t need to be micromanaged. You need the right people in the right seats who work towards the same goal.
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?
We had a lot of support along the way. One person who comes to mind is Amy Gannon, the co-founder of Doyenne Group which builds entrepreneurial ecosystems that invest in the power and potential of women entrepreneurs. She helped me to come up with a few key concepts for our company before she passed in a helicopter crash a few weeks ago. Her ideas and goals to help other women succeed will live on in our company.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Besides helping women feel confident at work, we want to grow the community of female leaders who inspire the next generation of girls to explore STEM and the trades as a career.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Lesson 1: Build the right team
Inspired by the Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, I wanted to build a team of self starters. I can say with confidence that I am proud to have Haley, Eugene, Dmitry and Courtney on board and we are just getting started.
Lesson 2: Value transparency and communication
I value honest and direct communication. It is probably my German way that can be sometimes difficult to handle but instead of sugar coating things I express directly what I like or dislike and expect the same from my team.
Lesson 3: Use project planning to achieve deadlines
After studying International Project Engineering and working as a project management consultant on multi-million dollar projects I learned the lesson, that project planning and proper tracking is important to achieve your deadline.
Lesson 4: Focus on becoming a better version of yourself
Instead of getting distracted by comparing yourself to the competition and other people, it helped us to focus on what we do best: developing high quality products based on women’s input and providing great customer service
Lesson 5: Take a break to recharge
In the beginning we worked every single day of the week and I quickly realized that productivity goes down if you don’t allow your body and mind to recharge. Now I take one full day off every week that helps me to start my new week focused and energized.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It would be fantastic if more people would value quality over quantity when buying food, clothing and other things we need for our daily lives. I believe that it would help us reduce waste, have a lower impact on the environment and increase our overall quality of life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” by Gandhi. I know this quote is cheesy and maybe overused but it had a major impact on me since an early age and I truly live by it. I used to complain a lot about small and big problems in our world and at some point decided that I could start solving one issue at time instead of wasting my energy complaining. Improving safety shoes for women is one of many examples.
Some of the biggest 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 :-)
I would love to have a coffee with Sheryl Sandberg to tell her how grateful I am for her book “Lean In”. While this book is not the ideal solution for every woman, it provides a very interesting perspective and valuable advice.
Another woman I admire is Oprah Winfrey. She is a perfect example of how hard work and setting high goals for yourself can help you succeed.