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Bridge & Burn

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

Bridge Burners Vol. 13 - Jasen Bowes / Elsevvhere

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.

Jasen Bowes - Elsevvwhere

Dust peppers the air in a back-alley flea market in Sayulita, Mexico, as a man grinds cochineal bugs with a mortar and pestle. The powdered carmine would be boiled in rainwater, mixed with potash and set aside for weeks. But this was only a demonstration for tourists—Jasen Bowes one of them. The man’s named is Jesus, and he nods at Jasen, gesturing at the ground insects and a tin of paint already mixed. He draws flower patterns on a polished tequila bottle to sell as a decanter. The sun flashes off the bottle, and Jasen buys a trove: shot glasses, decanters, and cups; and when Jasen returns home a week later, his friends heckle him for not bringing them any treasures.

If they only knew the half of it, Jasen thinks, the history behind every paint stroke.

Elsevvwhere Hand Painted Bottle - Jasen Bowes

This is how Elsevvhere was born, not as a business idea or a brand or a production company, but as a way to share experiences, cultures, and lives with another community across the world.

If any of us had truly traveled down a long road of luck, it would Jasen Bowes, founder of Eslevvhere.

Fresh out of college in 1996 with a degree in Psychology, the Illinois-born first and a half-generation snowboarder—with the attention of professional sponsors—took his first job in Utah as a sales rep to help launch Solomon’s original snowboard. Wide-eyed and eager to usher this board into the world, Jasen absorbed everything in this environment. His academic insight into the inner workings of the human mind mixed with his natural charisma and understanding of sales quickly caught the attention of his colleagues and competitors, which helped catapult Jasen into his next role with Burton Snowboards, remaining in Utah through the 2002 Winter Olympics and then leading him to Seattle, WA. At Burton he got his first glimpse into product design, and maybe more importantly, he met his future wife and Elsevvhere co-founder, Allison.

After back-to-back dream jobs, though, Jasen realized he was no longer cut out for the corporate life.

“We weren’t used to having time. At Burton, it was ‘snowboarding’ twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and there was always a massive rush toward a deadline. I was only the third or fourth sales reps to ever resign. It was a great life, but we wanted our time back.”

Jasen Bowes Elsevvwhere Studio

Though Jasen didn’t detonate his relationships at Burton, he did—with Allison, now his wife of three months—take an incredible risk to follow their passion and start their own company. Together, they left cush jobs and a comfortable life to make an uncharted leap—opening a showroom of their own where they could handpick and promote the brands of their choosing. Hauling down I-5 from Seattle while buzzing past timber lorries, they landing in Portland, OR, where they would start all over. They used their fashion, sales, and marketing know-how to help springboard products they loved, as well as capitalizing on all of their previous contacts.

“We finally had time to think about how to go about our lives,” Jasen says. “That made all the difference.”

Playing by their own rules, these brands often skyrocketed.

Jasen Bowes - Elsevvwhere Japanese Pottery

It wasn’t long before Levi’s came knocking, but they didn’t want Jasen’s help with their jeans, but to help launch a new skateboarding-focused product line, where Jasen would spend four wild years, working as the synapse between sales, marketing, and the product—aka their Brand Manager.

“I always try to create lasting experiences through product and imagery,” Jasen says. “The moment it hit me to create Elsevvhere was about two years into the gig with Levi's, having already racked up 250K travel miles around the globe. All the ideas about the importance of images and their stories that had been swirling in my head since my teenage years, while wandering around with my Pentax K1000, suddenly came crashing together.”

But Jasen didn't want to be a travel blogger; he wanted to take it a step further.

“I wanted to build on a story with a tangible item that the reader could own. I didn't want it to be commercial, rather the contrary. I wanted it to be so unique and impossible to find that when the reader received their item they could feel a part of the path that I walked. I didn’t have any real design experience at the time. I'm not sure I do even now,” he says with a smile.

Although he and Allison already rolled the dice once when they started their showroom, this would mark their second major shift in lifestyle and livelihood.

“I knew it was time to make a move, so I quit the epic job I had with Levi's and launched this design and travel concept Elsevvhere.”

This next leap was not about topping his salary or the clout he had with Levi’s. Creating Elsevvhere was about nourishing the soul of the artist, because as John Keats reminds us, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

Elsevvhere has brought to life camera straps, lens cases, travel candles turned sake cups, buck knives, and felt sombreros, and though each has its own unique story—often with a combination of unexpected materials and fabrics—the most mind-boggling product is the antique quilt baseball cap.

Quilted Baseball Cap - Elsevvhere / Jasen Bowes

“No one imagined that peanut and chocolate would be so good together,” Jasen explains, “until someone tried it. I’d been collecting quilts for years, I call it ‘hoarding with a focus,’ and I knew I wanted to create something with them.”

Regularly obsessed and inspired by the objects around him, Jasen collects without too much restraint or worry.

“My brain naturally builds systems and patterns,” he says. “I look at a bunch of items and create synchronicity. Even if it takes years.”

Collecting brass castings, limited edition pencils, thrift-store nude paintings, discontinued Polaroid film, and vintage photography books—or simply holding onto a sales receipt or a food wrapper from his travels—these objects eventually tell their story. While traveling in Japan, Jasen found himself fascinated by a selection of strange plastic c-clamps with suction cups at a hardware store, buying without hesitation, and not just a dozen or two dozen, but the whole lot—hundreds—knowing they would reveal their usefulness someday when he looked back upon this human-sized scrapbook of his adventure.

“These things help me live a slower life,” he says. “I built a couple window boxes in my studio where I collaged items from my trips to New Mexico and Japan. Pencil cases, cassettes of boybands, vintage textiles, a takeout menu, an ornament I made in the third grade, and random promotional material. When I see it all together, it reminds me that we’re only here for so long, and that I need to soak up life.”

Partners in Elsevvhere, Jasen credits Allison as the one who keeps him in check.

“She handles the budget and is the analytical one,” he says, “which is important, because when I see something, I don’t just buy a few of them, I’ll buy a hundred. She keeps me from having piles of stuff up to the ceiling.”

Jasen Bowes - Studio Portland, Oregon

Jasen tells me that many of the quilts he used for his baseball caps for Elsevvhere Edition 010, date back to the late 1940s—a postwar time of revitalization and patriotism in America.

“I didn’t want it to be something expected like a bag. Plus, baseball caps are in right now,” he jokes.

Examining the antique quilt baseball cap, I could not help but be reminded of the short story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, in which a successful, grown child returns home to her roots and requests her mother’s heirloom quilts—which were still used for warmth—to hang on her walls as a decoration symbolizing her heritage.

Although these baseball caps could be hung on a wall like a work of art, Jasen re-appropriated the historic artifacts for everyday use—they are wearable history.

“That’s part of it,” Jasen says. “When I started making these, I knew they’d be hard to copy, which is the business part of my brain working, but the other half knows that we, as a species, are in an age where we lack attention, and these pieces try to expand that attention. In a way, they demand it.”

“It's a hell of a workload to make it happen. It's never intended to be big, and in most cases it's too difficult to explain even,” Jasen says. “Elsevvhere’s meant to make the world a place where people can experience a community they might otherwise never know.”

VISIT ELSEVVHERE

Words by Craig Buchner
Images by Erik Prowell

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