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Bridge & Burn

Bridge Burners Vol. 16 - Macy Price Ciszek

Creating Bridge & Burn required a leap of faith. Founder Erik Prowell quit his job as a software developer, lit the proverbial match, and threw it—burning the bridge of working for anyone else behind him. With no formal training, he trusted his smarts and his strong work ethic, and took the plunge. In that spirit, Bridge Burners is a series showcasing people who are taking a similar leap.

Macy Price - Moondog

A moon dog by definition is a bright circular spot on a lunar halo. Picture the moon and a mock moon beside it—a false image, yes, but none-the-less specular. This anti-shadow of the moon exists and doesn’t exist, like our own fantasies. It’s alive in the same way the person we may really want to be lives out a magical life in our mind, but perhaps not in reality. As you sit behind a desk somewhere, maybe your moon-dog self is crossing the Gobi with nomads, or boldly trekking into Borneo’s lost world, or summiting the wondrous roof of Africa—Mount Kilimanjaro.

For Bend-native and explorer Macy Price Ciszek, an ordinary version of herself—the humdrum desk jockey—never quite existed. Instead she sought out the fantasy from the start—through middle school and high school, through her college years, and now in her thirties as she co-captains a thirty-foot sailboat named “Moondog” with her husband Quintin. A week after they married, their adventures on the great high seas began, island hopping for three months, from the West coast of the U.S. to Baja, then to Hawaii and French Polynesia.

The earliest moment of reckoning for Macy occurred when she was just thirteen years old. When other girls her age were trying out for the soccer team, Macy had to make a life-changing decision: Do I join my peers in after-school scholastics or accept my first offer of sponsorship by surf, snowboard, and fashion brand Roxy and complete in the US snowboard circuit.

As history goes, she chose the latter and said adios to that rigid path of ubiquitous teenage experiences. Instead, she became the youngest girl to be invited to the US Open for snowboarding, and she was soon to appear in national ChapStick commercials, as well as regularly appearing in magazine and catalog adverts. By the age of sixteen, Macy had won first place in the US National Championship for snowboarding and turned professional the following year to the tune of sponsorships by Billabong, Von Zipper, Dakine, DC, and Ride Snowboards. Up until age twenty-two, she was a mainstay in the Vans Triple Crown Slopestyle Circuit and the US Open, as well as squeezing in modeling gigs for companies like Nike, Adidas, REI, and Eastern Mountain Sports to earn a little extra cash on the side. A traditional childhood, this was not.

Macy Price - Moondog

While Macy was traveling the United States, from snowboard competition to competition, her friends back home were attending their proms, graduating high school, and entering college—all things regular kids do. But Macy had missed out on that. A sudden sense of longing consumed her; she contemplated if her path was the right path. Though she had enrolled in online college classes here and there while traveling and competing and posing for photo shoots, she was not on the same trajectory as her peers. For Macy, her thoughts turned to what she had missed out on, which prompted a sudden retirement from professional snowboarding in her early twenties. Acting quickly, even impulsively, she completed her Associates degree and finished her Real Estate License, and for her, a new “normal life” was off to a fast start—selling a half-dozen houses in her first year on the job. But in 2006 the market crashed, and her only backup plan was to return to what she knew, and she moved to the City of Angels to pursue modeling. But with an open mind, this leap would actually land Macy in the hospitality industry—or more accurately, hospitality on the high seas.

“When I got to LA, a friend introduced me to world of Yachts,” Macy says, explaining that this transition did not seem strange but almost normal in comparison to the previous lives she had lived. “I became a Yacht Stewardess and First Mate, and in four years at sea I clocked over eighteen thousand nautical miles and learned everything from engine maintenance, to navigation, and even professional cooking.”

During those four years, Macy crewed for a ninety-foot yacht that sailed from San Francisco to the Panama Canal and New York, and then back to Panama and SF; followed by another stint on a one-hundred and ten-foot craft zipping up the West Coast from Seattle to Sitka, Alaska, and then a final trip on a one-hundred and seventy-foot vessel, whose captain steered them back from Alaska to the land of the famous Tarrazú coffee bean—Costa Rica.

“Life has different chapters,” Macy says. “A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to get to the next one because they’re tied to something: their house, their dog, or their job. But I don’t have that, and I wanted to sustain the adventures of my snowboarding years; I knew instantly that boats were the answer. Plus, I made better money on the Pacific than I did at Mt. Hood.”

Macy Price Ciszek - Quintin Ciszek

As Macy’s timeline in the United States unfolded, another in Australia was also taking shape. In his early twenties, Aussie surfer Quintin Ciszek, set out to visit relatives in Encinita, California, where his path briefly overlapped with Macy’s, who was—at that time—twenty-three. They delighted in a three-week whirlwind tryst, but it was bound to end once Quintin’s vacation subsided. During that short time, their secrets were shared, and day-tripping fantasies were hatched. Quintin charmed Macy with his dreams of someday buying a boat and sailing the world, like he had as a child—that boat captained by his father. Even though Quintin’s California vacation would end, their relationship did not.

They carried on as long-distance pen-pals, and after seven years of saving and planning and growing up, Quintin found his dream boat, the one had he imagined so many years early, but he would have to return again to the United States, where it was docked. When he arrived on the West Coast to purchase it, he immediately contacted Macy, and they realized that their love was stronger than any geographical distances that had previously separately them. In September 2014, Quintin and Macy married, and a week after they married they set sail in their dream boat—the word Moondog stenciled across the stern—from the West Coast of the USA to Hawaii and then charting the wild Pacific all the way to Australia.

Moondog Sailboat

“We gave ourselves two years to have adventures like this,” Macy says, “but it’s turned into something much bigger and open-ended.”

Home in Bend for the first-time in nearly three years, Macy is now working in a restaurant and selling her artwork—"Portholes”, which are photos in resin with the latitude and longitude of their locations around the world stamped on the back. For the last eight months, she has been preparing again to return to the Moondog. But with each visit home, it becomes harder and harder to leave friends and family, and she is all too aware of the next moment of reckoning that is on the horizon for herself, and Quintin: How do we support ourselves on our next trip? And more importantly, how can we possibly start a family at sea?

“The dream is to buy boats in North America to sell in Australia where there is a shortage,” Macy said, grinning. “From sail to sale.”

She tells me about a friend, a web developer who shares time on the Moondog.

“Technology is changing the way we live. He can work while on the boat and surf during his lunch breaks. Sure, it costs him $4 USD/MB to upload his work, which is incredibly expensive, but when you factor in that he isn’t paying rent or car insurance, that bill sounds pretty good,” Macy says. “I lived for years jet-setting and snowboarding around the country, and now I’m on a boat, and, honestly, life has been incredible.”

The basis of life, as she explains, is to enjoy ‘it’ – and Macy and Quintin are happy doing what they want to be doing. Macy recognizes how difficult it can be: the lonesomeness out at sea for months at a time, or enduring heavy, unexpected bouts of rain with seemingly no shelter except the compact hull of the Moondog, or the immense physical strength and endurance involved in routine tasks in her life at sea.

Macy Price Ciszek - Pacificist

“It’s not uncommon for your anchor to get tangled around coral, so you might have to free dive thirty feet to retrieve it,” she says. “Life on a boat is an athletic endeavor.”

She concedes that even after all that, the feeling she gets accomplishing something like surviving the sea, gives her the confidence that anything is possible—achieving one dream is just the starting point for a series of new dreams to be revealed. The moon dog in the distance might not be a fantasy, but one will never know until they reach for it.

“We’re looking forward to putting down roots,” Macy says, her voice strong and sure, “but we’re intent on growing from them too.”

To read more about Macy and Quintin’s adventures at sea on the Moondog, visit: Looking Further and to enjoy Macy’s artwork, head to: @KeelCollection.

Bridge Burners Vol. 15 - Emma McIlroy / Wildfang

Creating Bridge & Burn required a leap of faith. Founder Erik Prowell quit his job as a software developer, lit the proverbial match, and threw it—burning the bridge of working for anyone else behind him. With no formal training, he trusted his smarts and his strong work ethic, and took the plunge. In that spirit, Bridge Burners is a series showcasing people who are taking a similar leap.

Emma McIlroy - Wildfang - Portland, Oregon

 Deborah Sampson became a hero of the American Revolution when she disguised herself as a man to join the Patriot forces. Mary Ann Evans chose the deceptively masculine pen name George Eliot so readers would not assume her stories were frivolous romance tales. And Emma McIlroy just wanted to buy a graphic t-shirt at Urban Outfitters, but they were only available for men. Throughout history, options for women have been limited until a few rebels broke the rules.

It’s the 21st century, so this is not a story about Deborah Sampson or George Eliot. Instead, this is about Emma McIlroy who started a company only to realize she was leading a revolution.

The third of three siblings, Emma McIlroy, co-founder of Wildfang was brought into the world more than a half-decade after her older brothers. But a mistake, she was not. Although her family might joke that her conception was unintentional, her unpredictable arrival would mark the first of many endeavors to disrupt the boy’s club.

Born and raised in Northern Ireland with her two older siblings, Emma always tried to operate at a higher level. She says, “My parents raised me to believe that everything was possible. Not in a ‘dream big’ way, but in a more logical, ‘what would you do next’ way.” From simple to complex inquiries, like asking her mother if the rock she uncovered on a beach while fossil hunting was a dinosaur skull (which turned out to be true), the answer she received was never a laugh and a dismissal, but instead, “Let’s find out.” Emma knows well enough that not all women grow up like this, but in fact are shown the opposite and instilled with notions of intense restriction — a conformity to absurd, unwritten rules. Remember Deborah Sampson? Remember George Eliot? Remember your neighbor, or yourself? For Emma though, her curiosity was encouraged so it never felt risky to follow what she believed in. This confidence, she knows, was an incredible privilege.

Wildfang - Tomboy Clothing - Portland, OR

She recites a story about her fiancée, Sarah, who as a teen believed she had to be skinnier to be sexy. But for Emma, a young athlete who excelled at the 800 meter in track, all she wanted was to be ripped. “I wanted to be stronger, run faster, and jump higher.” Emma was not exposed to the typical, sexist gender norms, which shaped how she tackled day-to-day challenges. “No one told me what I couldn’t do, but what steps I should take to accomplish something. It allows you to think bigger, and this is what I want to pass along.”

Emma’s athletic training informed her capacity to deal with failure and her ability to endure. “Running track, I learned how to lose, and I lost a lot,” she says, with a smile, alluding to the early obstacles at Wildfang. “But you have to focus on what’s in front of you to get through it. The fear comes from looking down the track.”

What the teen athlete probably did not see down the track was a future that included raising $100,000 for an abortion clinic in South Dakota, receiving an affectionate letter from Hillary Clinton, or getting an invitation to attend a leadership trip with an ensemble of inspirational women, including the writer Cheryl Strayed.

“I never wanted to be a CEO or a leader; I just wanted a graphic tee,” Emma says, talking about a pivotal moment at Urban Outfitters when the shirt she picked up to buy only came in men’s sizing. As a successful customer insight manager working at Nike, Emma was at a point in her career where she was incredibly content, and she didn’t have any plans to leave the company. “I was traveling around the globe and attending World Cup games,” Emma says, “but as a favor, I helped a friend develop her business idea” — that idea which would turn into the multimillion dollar clothing and lifestyle brand Wildfang.

Emma McIlroy - Wildfang - Portland, OR

 Over the course of nine months, Emma interviewed 43 women. Describing her market research, Emma says she started with five women, “who had more of a Tomboy aesthetic,” and they recommended friends, who then recommend their friends. In the end, Emma was interviewing complete strangers who had widely varying tastes. Meeting in their homes, she looked through their social media and their closets. “We talked about what they liked and didn’t like. I even shopped with them to figure out what they bought and what was missing.”

After 170 hours of research and interviews, every woman in the study agreed on this: they wanted access to styles and silhouettes that weren’t available in women’s fashion. “They told me they would borrow their boyfriend’s clothes or get their own clothes tailored.” And like Sampson and Eliot who sought out the option they wanted, not necessarily the one that was presented to them, Emma McIlroy, too, had to create a niche that did not exist. She was now serious about leaving her position at Nike. ”The alignment was incredibly strong,” she says, and she quit her six-figure salary to start her own brand. “But it didn’t seem that risky because of how I grew up. I wasn’t looking down the track, I was focusing on one task and the next, and then it added up to something big.”

Emma and co-founder Julie Parsley spent their evenings and weekends talking through business scenarios. They were aware that many of the women they interviewed in 2011 found inspiration in similar places: Lady Gaga, Alexa Chung, VICE, and Tegan & Sara, but they did not know the value system that connected all of them. “We covered an entire room in sticky notes, each with a different adjective, and then tore them down until we were left with five words that described our brand. Then I knew we all wanted the same thing.” In a word, it was equity. But this wasn’t easy.

“Julie and I invested thirty grand each, which only paid for our first collection and our website. We didn’t receive a paycheck for 15 months,” Emma says, describing early hurdles, but it did not stop them. “After our site launched, we had 22,000 people sign up in the first 30 days. It was incredible to see, but we didn’t even have enough product.”

The challenges continued to mount, from hiring quality staff without a budget to receiving ruined products, more than once.

“We got one batch of button-ups from a factory in China and they decided it would be easier to bundle each color together, which was a nice thing to do, but to fill the extra space they packed them in wet cardboard.” Arriving a month later, the clothes were nearly ruined and reeking. “We couldn’t afford to buy them again, so we hung them on racks and ran them up and down the sidewalk to get the smell out. It seemed like one challenge after another.”

Wild Feminist - Portland, Oregon

But what kept Emma and her team at Wildfang going was their mission. “Serving ‘her’ is really important,” Emma says. “We receive letters from our customers who tell us they finally feel job comfortable at their job interviews because they wear our clothes, and then they land those jobs.” Although Wildfang began with an impulse to provide a venue for self-expression, it has evolved and grown into a brand that represents a political movement, riding firmly on the back of their now classic, best-selling black tee printed with the words Wild Feminist. “The intention was never to become political,” McIlroy says, “but it was never my intention that being a woman was political.”

She says, at length, “After the Presidential election last year, the staff at our store broke down and cried. They were fearful about what would happen to them. And when you build a brand, you know it will change. It began with an intention to be ‘her’ most loved brand, but it has grown, and we want to make sure it continues to connect with the most relevant things in ‘her’ life. And right now, it’s political to be a woman, it’s political to be black, it’s political to be queer.”

As much as customer response matters to Wildfang, McIlroy longs for the day when it’s irrelevant. “Right now people need it because the politics resonates. But I look forward to when they don’t, because it means something incredible has happened for women.”

In the next year, Wildfang plans to open two more stores, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles, expand their suiting line with sizing up to 20, and look into hiring the best staff in the business; but outside of fashion, it is not lost on Emma McIlroy that she is standing firmly in the spotlight at a very important moment in history. “I hope to be doing less business development and more speaking engagements and mentorships.” Invited to the Oregon Sports Authority board and a current member of Travel Portland and the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, Emma is hard at work to infiltrate as many organizations as she can. “There should be an immigrant, and a person of color, and a queer person on every board, and maybe it begins with me, but someone has to be the first through the door. My real goal is to help the generation coming up behind me.”

As our interview ends, Emma leaves me with one last story. “One night I was exhausted and complaining about preparing for an event I had agreed to speak at, and my fiancée, Sarah, stopped me and reminded me about where she grew up, in Chandler, AZ. There just wasn’t a big gay community in Chandler; it was a close-minded place. And anyone who was gay didn’t look like her because she was feminine. But she said if she went to a talk back then that was led by a queer woman it would’ve changed her life – maybe she would’ve aspired to be a CEO.” Inspired, Emma finished her presentation, knowing that of a room full of people, her words only needed to reach one person to be a success. That is how a revolution begins. As if it had been predicted, following the presentation two men emailed Emma to thank her for telling her story, for giving them the courage to be their true selves. “I didn’t understand the privilege I had. But to be in Forbes and have a TED Talk, what matters is using this platform. At the end of the journey, no matter how successful Wildfang is, I can be proud because we did a ton of good.”

Words by Craig Buchner

Bridge Burners Vol. 14 - Michael Paratore / Mohinders

Creating Bridge & Burn required a leap of faith. Founder Erik Prowell quit his job as a software developer, lit the proverbial match, and threw it—burning the bridge of working for anyone else behind him. With no formal training, he trusted his smarts and his strong work ethic, and took the plunge. In that spirit, Bridge Burners is a series showcasing people who are taking a similar leap.

 

Imagine a quadrant broken into four parts.

In the upper left you see the word “learning”. Below that “dreaming”. In the upper right you see “playing” and below that “working”.

At any given point in our week, we find ourselves occupying these spaces. Sometimes we are immersed in a book only to fall further down a literary rabbit hole of discovery and exploration, while other times we’re inspired by those words, using them to guide us in the creation of new designs, music, or photographs. Then there are moments of recharging; the only activity in our body is the snapping neurons as we slide out of reality into a fanciful dream.

However much time we engage in learning, playing, and dreaming, without a doubt most of us spend at least 40 hours a week trapped in that dreaded lower right corner — working — because our social construct demands it.

But Michael Paratore, CEO and Founder of Mohinders Shoes, wondered if he could eliminate the grim work section from the quadrant altogether, and still get a paycheck.

In the early 2010s, Michael had returned from a trip with his wife from India, where at a market in Mumbai he purchased a pair of hand-crafted slippers, a traditional woven leather slide, made in the same region as Kolhapuri chappals. Classy enough to wear with pants and casual enough to pair with shorts, they were the perfect, easy shoe. Aside from their comfort and convenience, they were getting loads of attention back in San Francisco. First a compliment from a stranger on the street, then a group of women on the sidewalk caught staring. As soon as Michael became aware of others’ reactions to his souvenir slip-ons, it was impossible to ignore. Like many of us, throughout his life he had been plagued with seemingly good idea after good idea, but rarely did he see them to fruition.

Almost two years into a job as a corporate lawyer at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, Michael regularly found himself floating in that dreaming zone, this thought on repeat: “What if I quit my job and start a company?”

Mentioning it to his wife, Michelle, who was concluding a degree in business, the idea of founding a shoe company, without any experience, was not met with a brush-off or laughter but incredible encouragement.

Michael says, “Michelle was returning to a fulltime job, and we were living in an in-law apartment at her parent’s house, so our cost of living was low—the timing seemed perfect.”

While slogging through another workday, Michael tried to figure out how this idea could turn into a reality. In a stream of consciousness, he free-wrote anything and everything that came to mind. The word Mohinder stuck in his head, so he scribbled it across the top of a blank page.

“‘Mohinder’ is actually the name of a character on the TV show Heroes that I had been watching. It had nothing to do with shoes, but the word felt right, so I wrote it down as the company name.”

The idea of “pursuing what felt right” was a philosophy that became crucial for Michael and the success of Mohinders. “I used to be so carefree, but as I got older, I thought I had to act a certain way as an adult. But I wanted to be able to trust my gut, again.”

Michael enthusiastically tells me about his first job after college as a marketing intern for Ducati Motor Holdings in Italy. “I knew nothing about the company or motorcycles before I started, but I was committed to living somewhere in Europe,” he says. “It’s always been that way for me. If I know too much about something beforehand the excitement is lost. I thrive when I jump in with both feet.”

After a successful stint at Ducati, Michael carried on to work for a start-up car company and then as a videographer for a production company. “But while I was doing this everyone I knew back in the States was working a real job. I thought it was time I got serious and grew up.”

“Serious” for Michael meant leaving behind the wild days of off-the-wall jobs and bouncing around Europe to learn a hard skill in the States, enroll in law school, followed by a position at a top law firm.

“It was engrained in my head that work wasn’t supposed to be fun,” he says.

Sacrificing the dreaming, learning, and playing of his past, Michael focused his energy on work, without any interplay. As a lawyer for start-up businesses, he was well-respected by friends and family, as he imagined he would be, but he found himself more captivated by what his clients were doing rather than what he was offering them.

“Graduating law school and getting hired at a top firm in the country was exactly what I needed to do because it gave me the confidence to venture out on my own,” Michael says, with conviction. “But after a year and a half at the firm, I was already thinking of ways to leave.”

Mohinders

Hatching a plan to start his own company and having a prototype of the shoe in hand, Michael still had one major problem. He had no idea where the woven slides he bought at that market in Mumbai were actually made. But this was the moment he had been waiting for – a quest with no plan except to buy a plane ticket to India. He was finally able to jump in with both feet, and he did not look back.

The only advice he received before leaving came from friends, both of Indian descent. They told Michael that the style of braided-leather shoes were handmade by artisans, so it was important to connect with local communities to find his answer.

“It’s unbelievable that you can do something like this as work. The concept of traveling to India to go on this incredible mission was too exciting to pass up.”

But the trip was not without its obstacles. Talking to street vendors who sold similar shoes, Michael would get hot tips on where the shoes might be manufactured or who might have the definitive answer. Although he was always met with great enthusiasm and a genuine willingness to help him on his quest, those leads were usually dead ends. But then he visited Kolhapur, almost 12 hours by train from Mumbai. Greeted by artisans with the same fervor to help, Michael met one particular shoe artisan who hinted that he might know where the Kolhapuri chappals artisans lived. Tired and losing hope, Michael knew he had not come this far to quit.

Fortuitously, this last tip brought Michael face-to-face with exactly who he had been searching for. He soon learned that a Bangalore-based non-profit cooperative was working with the artisans to improve their workflow and help them better manage their finances so they could break free from a cycle of poverty.

Michael says he’s most proud that he could take a shoe that he found at a market and turn that into a product a customer wanted, while continuing to uphold a standard of ethical sourcing for the leather and fair pay for the artisans. In short, everyone wins.

But with any business, there were ups and downs.

“My first order was for 120 pairs, and when I got home I sold most of them in advance to friends and family.” Michael tells me that the order was supposed to take a few weeks, but after four months of emailing back and forth, he still hadn’t received the product. “I knew I had to go back and straighten it out in person.”

Following a 30-hour trip, including flights, trains, and busses; Michael discovered what the problem was—in a word, pride.

The price of leather he was quoted had changed due to inflation, but instead of asking for funding to cover the difference—and request possibly sounding devious—the artisans and cooperative decided it would be better to wait for the cost to fall back to the original-quoted price. It took a trip all the way back, but getting to the true cause of the delay—in person—built trust and clarity on both sides of this working relationship.

Mohinders Leather Sandals

Although there was a learning curve to doing business, over time the artisans and the head of the cooperative were encouraged by the relationship, happy to tweak the product to ensure consistency and quality.

“The inner lining was rough around edges because of the hand tanning so it needed to be refined for comfort, and the original outer soles were leather, which was a little slippery to walk on, so we added a rubber sole,” Michael says, laughing at himself, “plus I did fall a few times.”

Michael is well aware that most business advice goes against his slapdash approach of venturing out on a wild quest in order to start a company. He should’ve tested the product on a larger audience, he should’ve conducted market research, he should’ve whatever.

“But something about it felt right,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to solve a pain point. That’s a hollow approach for me, not to say it’s not good advice; I just don’t work like that.”

Mohinders Leather Footwear

 Although he jumped in with both feet, his understanding of basic business skills and analytical thinking was flawless. “I knew ahead of time what my manufacturing costs and margins needed to be to make this business work,” he says, “Mohinders was set up that if we were able to create the demand, then everything would be okay.”

“People always say pursue what excites you, and a lot of the time it seems like all talk,” he continues. “Having a business is hard to internalize if you’ve never done it, but once it’s real, you realize what you’re capable of. My advice to anyone thinking about forging their own path is that you don’t have to do something you don’t like or follow what society says is the right thing to do.”

From the start, Michael Paratore has made choices that felt right, concentrating on dreaming, learning, and playing. This sits at the center of his business philosophy and the Mohinders brand, which makes the work seem, well, not like work.

Dream. Learn. Play. Repeat.

 

Words by Craig Buchner

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