How These Two Female Founders Stay Focused and Inspired
How and why did you become an entrepreneur?
Rachel: I never set out in life thinking “I want to run a company” but it happened naturally - ARNO is a passion project. I loved being a designer, and over the years developed strong relationships with a lot of incredibly talented craftspeople in a traditional shoemaking area of Italy, outside of Florence. When I moved to Italy and saw firsthand how quickly they were losing work to underpriced competitors in countries with lower standards for worker protections, I felt compelled to do something to support them. Their skills and traditions hold true value, but there were too many cost increases between them and the final customer, and that kind of quality wasn’t being valued highly enough by the international market. From there I contacted Defne, learned she felt the same way, and the company was born. We felt driven to tell the story of the craftspeople and to reduce the cost barrier to purchasing the high quality products they make, by creating a company where they were more directly connected to the end customer.
Ariella: I worked as an attorney in Real Estate development for 15 years. I took a break to be at home with my family when my husband’s career required us to move, and ended up staying at home for longer than I had originally planned. That’s when I realized that I would have to build something from scratch and I was excited and challenged.
When you launched your brand, were you faced with challenges being a female entrepreneur? If so, what were they?
Rachel: I am quite lucky not to have faced particular challenges (yet) because of being female - there are enough challenges being an entrepreneur already! ARNO is very much a female empowerment company, and the majority of our partners in both the US and Italy are women themselves. In addition, our Italian partners are craftspeople who we had developed relationships with over many years prior to launching the company, so there was no difficulty convincing them to work with us. I feel lucky to work with such powerful, inspirational women spanning two continents, from my co-founder Defne to our craftspeople to shipping partners to designers to retail partners like Batch.
Ariella: Not really. I don’t feel there were any challenges that were unique to me as a woman. I am very fortunate to be working with a great team, we each bring our unique strengths.
Tell us about your biggest accomplishment.
Rachel: My personal relationships with colleagues and our makers feel like the biggest accomplishment. Relationships are everything in Italy, which is an incredibly warm, connected country. After moving there, one of the first things I noticed in contrast to the US was how much time people spend in a professional context talking about personal things, like their families - it’s not considered a waste of time, but an essential first few minutes of any professional interaction, because they truly care about and are curious about each other. I love that. I approach every business relationship from a human perspective, by looking at each other person first as a whole person. That helps to create a collaborative environment where you’re working in harmony toward shared goals. People in Italy will do anything for a friend and I’m lucky to have formed friend/partnerships there with everyone from the heel maker to the shippers to the factories. These are all small, family owned and operated businesses where personal relationships really matter. And I’m fortunate to work with people that I actually love spending time with and deeply respect - that helps! We meet our makers for big family dinners in the countryside and on the beach in summer, we know their families, their kids, their dogs - it makes working together so much more rewarding and just a total pleasure.
Ariella: Can I take credit for having great kids?
What's your biggest piece of advice for female entrepreneurs?
Rachel: Ask for what you want. Whether it’s a term on a contract, advice, or a connection. It’s a cliche but it’s true: if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. As women we’re often socialized to worry about imposing on others. But when you simply start asking, it's surprising how often people say yes and how much further you’ll go. Also, don’t take anything personally. Just keep your focus on the end goal - any individual interaction will be ancient history a year from now anyway.
Ariella: Find your personal balance. This is much easier said than done.
What are some tools (apps, books, podcasts, etc.) you recommend to anyone trying to start her own business?
Rachel: NPR’s How I Built This is a favorite. For other fantastic interviews with inspirational entrepreneurs: the Tim Ferriss Show and Girlboss Radio with Sophia Amoruso - she interviews so many badass women. Planet Money and Exchanges at Goldman Sachs are other good ones. For getting out of the weeds of the business demands and taking an intellectual breather (important for perspective), Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. Helpful apps: Upwork (for quickly and easily hiring help for tasks), Asana (for project management), Adobe Draw (for sketching pattern ideas on the go), Headspace (for quick guided meditation breaks.)
Ariella: I make time to read a number of newsletters on a daily basis - The Hustle, Lean Luxe and 2PM are among my favorites - there is so much happening out there and these newsletters help me focus on the sliver that is most relevant to me. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Berger. Their books are interesting and give me a lot of insight into different aspects of growing a customer-first business. I also try to read biographies of entrepreneurs that inspire me, but I have to admit that I don’t have as much time as I would like to spend reading these. Next on my list is “Shoe Dog” - the story of Nike.
Who are some female entrepreneurs or business owners you admire or look up to?
Rachel: There are so many! Aurora James of Brother Vellies. She’s built a company based on values we share at ARNO: celebrating artisan traditions, paying craftspeople a living wage, and limiting our impact on the environment. Leandra Medine of Man Repeller is another. Generally I have huge admiration for women who are authentic, thoughtful about their impact on other people and the planet, courageous, and have built a business around a totally unique point of view.
Ariella: There are quite a few female entrepreneurs that I follow as there are so many new and inspiring endeavors out there. One of my favorites is Kristin Ess - she’s built an incredible line of products, outstanding distribution, a loyal following and she’s still on top of her IG feed.