DURHAM, N.C. (MainStreet) -- Rachel Weeks, founder of collegiate fashion company School House, became an entrepreneur before she even finished college.
As a student at Duke University, she got a grant to build a socially responsible clothing company and traveled to Sri Lanka to do it. There she started making fashion-forward T-shirts for the collegiate customer in a small, "living-wage" garment factory she says she supported for two years. The first order was shipped in April 2009 -- to Duke University, of course.
Since then, School House has expanded its roster of clients to 100 colleges across the U.S. and one in Canada, with five full-time employees.
School House has since manufacturing back to the U.S., during a time it's needed "more than ever," Weeks says.
"The success of our brand has been a testament to two things -- our take on collegiate design and tailoring each collection by honoring campus-specific trends and cultural idiosyncrasies of each school," she says.
Commingling the words "fashion," "feminism" and "social responsibility" into her interview with TheStreet, Weeks and School House are an obvious choice for winner of this year's SCORE Outstanding Woman-owned Small Business.
How did you get into this line of work?
Weeks: When I was at Duke, I just really felt like there was a lack of [good] design and lifestyle apparel. It was really dominated by Nike (Stock Quote: NKE) and unisex clothing, boxy T-shirts and sweatshirts. The fashion product that was there was covered in rhinestones -- it was "Pink it and shrink it." I just observed that the college market really seemed to be 10 years behind in general retail fashion trends. And the retailers in the space were just not in tune with their customers, and I think that a lot of that had to do with [the fact that] they're textbook stores. They were going through painful transitions from selling textbooks to becoming spirit shops. I just observed that there was a need and imagined a product that was still traditional collegiate apparel, but that was more trend-driven and more modern.
I had that idea and simultaneously was doing this research about the apparel industry. And it was like, "What a perfect market to have a fashion-driven, socially responsible brand."
Our main emphasis was on the concept of a living wage, as opposed to minimum wage, which may or may not be enough for workers to live on. In Sri Lanka, the factory that we were working with we immediately required them to pay from 50 rupees up to 170 rupees an hour. We're bringing that concept to American factories as well. It's been a little bit more challenging -- we're not big enough as a brand to convert factories overnight, and so we have made an effort to select out factories that are already paying above-average salary.
I'm interested in everything from eco-friendly fabrics to sourcing local -- buying components that were manufactured here in North Carolina rather than buying zippers from China.
How do you compete against larger vendors?
Weeks: One of our major competitive advantages: We were born collegiate. All of these other major brands that are competitors, like Nike and Champion, are not university brands at their hearts. They are sportswear brands and will only go so far to cater to the collegiate school.
As we've grown in this market we have seen that are real advantages to being small and flexible -- that the big brands that we're competing against from Nike to Champion have a very defined identity already. They have layers and layers of personnel [to make decisions through].
The blessing of a startup is we can react to the needs of a customer by being extremely customer focused and really focusing on elevating that college's brand as much as possible.
When I pitched Harvard and Yale to design for their school, one thing that the stores told me in our meeting is 80% of business is tourist business. There are a lot of folks that come to visit from East Asia -- there is a just a real cache for the Harvard and Yale brand -- so they really needed small sizes and that our small was not small enough. So we created an extra small in order to get the business. That's something that I really love about being a small business. We can make decisions quickly and we can react quickly in order to give our customers everything that we need.
What does this award mean to you?
Weeks: This award has been such a huge honor. As an entrepreneur, as the head of a small company with five people who work themselves to death all day in the interest of building this baby of ours, it was so incredibly nice to have our work recognized. When you're a small company and you've got your head in the weeds all day, it's hard to look up and acknowledge your accomplishments. This award really had an impact on my whole team. Everyone is proud and excited about this.
[As a woman small-business owner], it obviously hits extremely close to home for me. I have been a passionate feminist. I was a women studies major in college and understand intimately the challenges that face women-business owners from just getting started to fundraising and being in a world that is still very much dominated by men. [The award] means that much more to me.
What has been your biggest lesson learned as an entrepreneur?
Weeks: It may sound cliche, but I would say persistence has been the most important aspect in many ways of our success because as a startup in this economy, you're not going to learn things the easy way and you're going to face so many obstacles and challenges that will try your passion and your belief in the fact that your company is even possible. Learning that, staying with it and staying focused and keeping my eye on my teams' vision for School House has been the most important lesson.
You will get nine "no's" for every one "yes." Stay centered and if you believe in it and you see your idea then you can't let any outside factor deter you from that.
Are you hiring?
Weeks: We actually just made a hire, but we're not hiring right now. We certainly plan to hire in the area of sales as we grow. We intend to make some hires over the next few months. The hires I've made this year have really formed my core team. That's been just an incredible process, finding these incredible people who work together as a unit.
What are your plans for the company? Where would you like to see the company go?
Weeks: We intend to grow School House into a true collegiate lifestyle brand, and my vision is not necessarily that we'll be at 2,000 colleges, but we'll have a deep, meaningful presence whether it's 100 or 300 colleges. I want to build long-lasting relationships with these colleges and articulate School House as a brand that can grow with our customer.
We're in a $4 billion market. We're at about $1 million in sales. I see potential for us to take significant market share.