We had the good fortune of connecting with Rachel Thaw and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Rachel, how do you think about risk?
I think my friends and family consider me a risk-taker for a few of my loonier career/life choices, but I never thought it was entirely accurate. It’s only been recently that I realized my conception of risk was one-dimensional and that, perhaps, my stunted understanding of risk is what made me seem like a risk-taker label in the first place.
Until recently, I always connoted risk-takers as people who had material consequences on the line, a livelihood that depended on success. Because I was born with as much privilege as anyone could ask for and simultaneously, without a focus to apply its benefits to, deciding what to do with my time blissfully (read, ignorantly) depended on whatever felt ‘right’ in the moment. When presented with a choice to take a risk, I’d subconsciously relabel it as an opportunity and ignore the downside, not because there wasn’t one or because I had too much confidence to consider failure a possible outcome, but because I knew everything would be okay if it all went to hell.
Combine that (mis-) understanding of risk with constant retellings of the time my grandfather took out a second mortgage on his beloved family home to invest in his steel fabrication company – a risk that paid off when he secured a major contract – and you’re got a perfect storm of ancestral bravado and naïveté.
This doesn’t mean I don’t fear failure. I do. Failure, the existential consequence of risk, was always on my mind when I made my choices. But it never felt like I’d be stuck with the albatross of failure, even if my decision led to failure. It’s taken becoming a CEO myself for that protection to disappear and to truly understand that risk is as much an opportunity for failure to leave its mark on me as it is an opportunity for the storied happy ending.
A mentor, my old boss who founded the swimwear company I moved to New York to help start, once told me that being an entrepreneur means knowing *for a fact* that failure is inevitable while simultaneously knowing *for a fact* that you’ll succeed. I used to think this was just what a confident, ambitious, and entrepreneurial person would say about how they do what they do; now I understand it’s what a confident, ambitious, and entrepreneurial person says when they understand the existential risk of failing and choose to fly in its face anyway.
When it was my turn to strike out on my own, I considered the risk the way I always had. Would it suck to leave a job I loved, lose a salary, benefits, and coworkers? Sure. But the opportunity was exciting and all I saw was (in)material consequence or epic success. After a relatively short conversation with my (incredibly supportive and elevating) husband, I decided to go for it, thinking at the very least, it’d be the cheapest business education I could ask for.
It didn’t take long to realize that fear of failing was a risk I had to cope with constantly. For the first time, I sensed that failing wouldn’t just mean I didn’t get the glory of success. Failure might imprint me and affect my decision making the next time I had a chance at bat. It makes every day felt like I was publicly declaring “I love you!” to someone I didn’t even know and without knowing if they’d answer in kind. After all, no one wants to wait to hear ‘I love you, too’, particularly with an audience. If you have that experience, you’ll probably think twice before doing it again, no matter how sure you are.
So, I’ve gone from a happy-go-lucky “Sure, I’m in!” risk-taker to a happy-go-lucky risk-taker who’s had a healthy reality check. Now that I’ve finally taken a risk big enough that failure could *actually* stick to me, I finally understand that I’m playing for keeps.
When I consider risk, I also consider this: I’m lucky to have what I need to live, I’m lucky to have a husband who understands risk, and who believes in me, and I’m lucky to have an orientation towards opportunity rather than failure when it comes to my decision making. If I achieve success, hopefully, I’ll realize that I did something I can be proud of, even if I took the risky naïvely. If I fail, I hope I’ll have figured out how to get comfortable with that particular albatross-shaped necklace. Either way, when I’m presented with another risk-riddled opportunity, I hope I recognize the risk of failure is worth taking to avoid the failure to take the risk at all.
What should our readers know about your business?
I’m the CEO of Harper Coats, a direct-to-consumer vegan outerwear brand. In a world where almost every apparel category has gotten an e-commerce flavored makeover, coats were still waiting in the wings. After years embedded in the DTC world, I realized the untapped opportunity of bringing functional *and* timeless outerwear silhouettes online, utilizing vegan and often recycled materials, all at accessible prices, was too great to pass up.
A clean slate can feel overwhelming but it can also be such a gift. For me, it took time to really understand my company (what I wanted to do, why I thought it was important, and how I could make others care about it as much as I did) before I could organize my thoughts around what needed to be done. Asking friends with relevant skills to help was instrumental in my emotional development in my new role as well as the hard skills I either didn’t have or didn’t have time to execute. Wall-papering my apartment with giant Post-It notes full of sketches, inspiration, goals, and to-do lists kept me focused when it was time to literally take care of business.
My story, and that of my company, is one that is still being written. We’re still a long way from any type of stability which is scary, yet liberating. While we are learning about our customers, what makes us special, and deepening our expertise in outerwear, we have the freedom to pivot. As I work every day, I’m learning more about my role as the Founder and CEO is similar and distinct from my previous roles as a founding employee. We’ve had one feature-length release so far, but the sequels are always in development.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
This question is almost unfair in a city like New York. As far as restaurants go, I’d want to stick to a few of my UWS neighborhood favorites, including Motorino for pizza, Tri-Dim for Chinese, and Lokal for my favorite Mediterranean cuisine. I have to take any visitor to Zabar’s, both the café to get bagel and lox as well as the supermarket and kitchen goods shop next door. Finally, the beloved bar where my husband and I met, got engaged, and return to monthly (or more) for date nights, Entwine in the West Village, is a must for cocktails, ambiance, and friendly faces.
I drag almost everyone to a Soul-Cycle class…it’s one of my favorite ways to wake up, and I can’t wait to get back in the studio (for now, we’ll take turns on the Soul-Cycle home bike in our apartment). Then, weather permitting, we’ll be spending a lot of time in Central Park. I always enjoy the Great Lawn but often retreat to a few spots that are less well known to post up for a quasi-beach-day of reading, listening to music, and enjoying drinks in the sunshine. If we’re forced indoors, the Museum of Natural History, the Met, and the Whitney are always on the list. Not to mention as much Broadway as we can get into/afford 😉
Most importantly, I’ll try to convince everyone to use Citibike or walk anywhere we go. New York is a place where even a commute can turn into spontaneity, whether it’s discovering a new favorite cafe for coffee and pastries or a perfect piece of free furniture on someone’s stoop. It’s probably what I love most about where I live and the most magical part of the city that I feel compelled to share.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My parents, for one, literally supported my startup habit whenever I needed it, and always encouraged me that the decisions I made were the right ones. My former boss/mentor gave me the kick in the butt I needed to lead when I was perfectly comfortable to stay in my lane. The customers who wrote emails to share kind thoughts and feedback probably have no idea how much I needed that and how it inspired me when my cup was running low. Finally, my husband, who has welcomed the business into our tiny apartment, taken on the burden of becoming a single-income household, and most importantly, managed to graciously navigate the rocky waters of emotion that I’ve experienced as a CEO.
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