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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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