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Mary-Cathryn Kolb: If Entrepreneurs Processed Risk Like Others, There Would Be No Startups

What was it like to be on the ground floor of Toms Shoes, part of the early team at Spanx, and then leave to start your own textile technology company while a mom and raising a family? Well, that’s been the adventurous and inspiring life so far of Mary-Cathryn Kolb and in this interview she talks about her journey and the pursuit of big things. She shares advice and learnings from her career and talks about risk-taking and the insatiable, inescapable entrepreneurial mindset.

SPONSOR: Executive Launch - from corporate executive to startup founder.

0:07 Allen and Mary-Cathryn are both from the state of Georgia - Mary-Cathryn from Thomasville, Allen from Savannah.

3:47 She lives in Atlanta now and has pitched and developed key relationships at the annual Venture Atlanta conference -

8:50 How do natural-born entrepreneurs see risk? Mary-Cathryn says “we don’t”. It excites and energizes us.

10:35 If someone had told her how hard it was going to be and all of the things that would go wrong - she wouldn’t have believed and would have kept going. That says it all about the way natural-born entrepreneurs process risk.

12:17 She lost a co-founder and most doubted the company could or should move forward. She never considered stopping.

14:00 Are you wired to be an entrepreneur or can you learn to become one? Mary-Cathryn has always known she was wired to be one. It’s her “north star”.

14:47 There’s a spectrum of entrepreneurship, the moderate risk end and the massive risk end of the spectrum.

16:55 If you go for high risk, high reward, you must be mentally tough and a little lucky. There’s either win or lose on that end of the spectrum, no in-between.

17:45 If you think you can be happy working for others, then by all means do that. There is too much romanticism in entrepreneurship as viewed from the outside.

18:40 If you are wired this way, to be a risk taking entrepreneur, then you probably don’t have a choice but to pursue it.

21:40 She explains how, since she was a little girl, there was never a question that she wanted to do big things and was always enterprising.

22:30 Allen & Mary-Cathryn discuss ‘failure’ and how it’s often celebrated in entrepreneurship but in fact ‘fear of failure’ is a strong motivator and failure should be avoided at nearly all cost.

26:28 Mary-Cathryn talks about growing up with a twin, her college experience at SMU, graduating and going to Los Angeles, then New York to pursue an acting and vocalist career - her childhood dream.

31:34 But it was feast or famine and it’s where she learned about ‘financial runways’ and frugality. She was offered a position with a major designer, so she relocated to New York - her first project was with Beyoncé!

38:35 While in NY her college friend from SMU, Blake Mycoskie, called and asked her to work for Toms Shoes on the ground floor.

40:45 Later, Spanx called, recruited to be one one of the first 30 employees. So she relocated to Atlanta, her husband enrolled at Georgia Tech for his MBA.

42:15 She explains how special the experience and culture was in the early days of Spanx - an amazing sisterhood amongst that early team.

47:10 But with time came new leadership and change. She didn’t feel the changes were best for the team and customers. She felt she had to speak up and take a stand. She knew she’d either be heard or be let go. She was let go. It was her Jerry Maguire moment.

51:20 Discussion on how hard it is for those with intense entrepreneurial mindsets to last very long inside of someone else’s company. And when she took that stand, she had no idea what was on the other side, no backup plan.

55:00 There was an intense emotional hangover after leaving, she needed a break to reboot, but knew immediately that she would start something of her own.

56:50 So brrr was born and with a strong commitment to product, company culture, and shared ownership.

58:50 Working with a polymer scientist and textile engineer, a ‘cool to the touch’ fabric (not just polyester moisture wicking) was developed - patented “Triple Chill Effect”.

1:05:45 She explains brrr is an “ingredient” brand - embedded into fabric of major brands you already know.

1:06:45 Initially designed for women but now brrr is embedded in menswear also. Bed, Bath, & Beyond now carries ‘cooling sheets’ powered by brrr. Her newest project is bringing a much needed cooling effect to children’s car seats!

1:10:00 What advice for someone creating in the clothing or garment space? Mary-Cathryn says make the business as lean as possible and go big on social media!

1:14:00 Take the risk of entrepreneurship if it’s for you but know that it’s lonely, will take twice as much money and time that you imagine - so get a support system.

1:15:30 This is a personal journey, she has three young daughters and wants them to see up-close what a successful woman entrepreneur and working mom looks like and that family and career can coexist if that’s what you want.


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