Imagine you’re working as a guide in the high glaciers of Alaska, trekking long days with little available cover. As a female guide, you’re surrounded almost entirely by males, and while you appreciate your fellow guides, scrambling for cover every time you hear the call to the proverbial woods becomes exhausting, and ultimately untenable, on the glacial landscape.
“It’s such a hassle that I started dehydrating myself, and by the end of the summer, I thought, ‘there’s gotta be a better way to do this’…I would have to find a chunk of ice to shield me from tourists, other guides, [and] helicopters going overhead,” says Georgia Grace Edwards, a co-founder of SheFly Apparel along with her current business partner, and then-fellow student at Middlebury College, Charlotte Massey. Bianca Gonzalez, also a Middlebury student, was SheFly’s third founding member.
Starting a business
Edwards came back from her Alaska guiding experience with the future company’s core idea, enabling women to do their business outdoors far easier, mulling around her mind. She squandered no chance to run it by her peers on a constant basis, including on backpacking outings she led, to get some initial feedback. “It was always really well received,” adds Edwards.
The catalyst that launched the business was a course called “Middlebury Entrepreneurs” in January 2018. “[The class] gave me the space and the time and the resources to take the idea from a random thing in my head to full business model, pitches, [and a] functioning prototype,” says Edwards, who remembers netting $250 from winning the first pitch competition in the early days, and immediately plugging the money into fabric and zippers to help build prototypes.
Neither Edwards nor Massey have formal business backgrounds. Edwards studied International Politics, Economics and Global Health at Middlebury College, while Massey studied Philosophy and Studio Art. “If I had not taken a class on entrepreneurship, I doubt I would have ever actually done anything with SheFly, because it’s just way too daunting,” adds Edwards.
The early years
SheFly’s first formal fundraising effort came in the spring of 2019, with a crowdfunding campaign on IFundWomen, raising more than $50,000, winning the Vermont State IFundWomen Pitch Competition, and picking up press coverage from Forbes mid-campaign. Edwards ran the campaign while she was a Fulbright Fellow in the Czech Republic teaching English, scheduling meetings and standing up the fundraiser while negotiating the time difference. Massey, at the time, was polishing off her degree at Middlebury.
In the midst of Edwards’ stint in the Czech Republic, both she and Massey presented at TEDx Stowe in 2019, centering their company’s inherent problem– peeing in the outdoors. “[We talked about] how traditional, male-centered narratives of outdoor exploration, sexist legislation, and a lack of female leadership in positions of power has resulted in a flawed piece of clothing that is ripe for an update, and how inclusive design can help change those problematic narratives moving forward,” relays Edwards in a statement.
Edwards flew in from the Czech Republic the night before the talk, and remembers the experience fondly. “Similar to a patent, a TED Talk is another one of those signs of legitimacy, and as a startup it’s crucial to gather up those little symbols of legitimacy because you’re so risky and you’re not well known,” adds Edwards.
Since the company’s founding, Edwards and Massey have completed all of their pant design in-house, including their very first iterations. “The prototypes I brought to class in January 2018 were essentially snow bibs…with this bright yellow zipper. There was no flap on the inside, no flap on the outside – pretty horrendous – but they definitely made a statement and were enough to communicate the idea and at least test the functionality,” says Edwards, who utilized existing brands of pants as a form of product model, ripping out the crotch seam and inserting the SheFly zipper apparatus.
“In college, we functioned much more as a service, as opposed to a product, because everyone was so excited about the idea they would bring us their cross-country ski pants and be like ‘can you throw a zipper in this?’ and I was like ‘yeah, it’s not going to look great, are you sure?’ But no one cared – they were just so excited to have that functionality,” adds Edwards.
Soon enough, amidst fundraising, constant pitching, and wholly separate lives, it came time to produce the product on a larger scale. With their first factory-made version, Edwards and Massey set out to create a three-season hiking pant. A capital injection from the IFundWomen campaign paid for the lion’s share of the first manufacturing run at a Fair Trade, zero-waste factory in India, founded by a Middlebury professor’s graduate school connection.
Unfortunately for SheFly, Covid-19 forced the factory out of business, and SheFly lost everything they had built in conjunction with the factory: patterns, hardware, fabric, and perhaps most importantly, the knowledge they had relayed to the factory about how to manufacture their new product over the span of months. At the time of the shutdown, SheFly had distributed a couple hundred pairs of pants.
A forced pivot
That loss, while devastating, gave SheFly time to regroup, making alterations to the pants color options, resizing the waist-hip-thigh ratios, adding a four-way stretch fabric to improve fit (the pants being pre-sold today are a nylon/spandex blend). The company also made the decision to remove a backup button mechanism intended to stand-in for the zipper, should it have ever broken, after receiving zero word of zipper breakdowns more than two years after the initial product run.
This spring, SheFly is rolling out its patented SheFly® Go There™ Pant, the culmination of two years of hard work to recover from the factory closure, forging connections and imparting product-specific knowledge at each level of the supply chain.
For Edwards, the biggest takeaway from the experience pivoting to a new factory is to trust her gut instincts. “I think we hadn’t given ourselves a ton of credit because we started as college students not knowing how to do any of this, and so we’re always used to assuming that everyone else knows more than us…the process of rebuilding our whole supply chain taught us that we do know what we’re talking about, and we are qualified.”
Edwards cites SheFly’s initial response to their first factory’s shutdown as a prime example. The startup had located a new factory by the fall of 2020, and began getting samples back in the spring of 2021. But the samples they received were not up to snuff.
The pants’ zippers led to fake pockets, and SheFly’s inquiries about environmental certifications were met with suspicious certifications and addresses that did not properly match. At first, the founding duo was apt to go along with the factory, which they were unable to visit with the pandemic, due to the pressure to move quickly in rebuilding the supply chain.
After a handful of sampling rounds, nothing had improved. “Eventually, we pulled the plug on that factory entirely, after already having spent thousands on going through the new development phase of the product with them. Ultimately, it was the right call for sure, but it was pretty scary to do after we [had already gone] a year without any revenue,” recalls Edwards.
The factory SheFly utilizes now, QuickFeat Garment Production, is highly reputable within the industry and used by outdoors brands like Prana and Toad&Co, in addition to having the capacity to substantially scale production down the line.
The SheFly® Go There™ Pant can be preordered on the company’s website and spans sizes 00 to 22 in three colors: teal, jade, and black. SheFly built up a waitlist of more than 6,000 people during its hiatus (about a third of which were international) and is now seeking to convert waitlisters into preorders.
“It’s cool to see conversions [with the waitlist] considering that we’re still two, three months away from product arriving,” says Edwards. “I think the consumer has become a lot more educated about how crowdfunding campaigns and how presales help small businesses, because cash flow is always an issue. And I think we’ve seen that in our presales – that people are willing to spend months in advance…and I think that’s kind of been a rebuttal to the shopping habits that companies like Amazon have established.”
Navigating the patent process
For a company with an innovative idea in a huge marketplace like outdoor retail, patents are a lifeline to protect from encroaching competitors. “We started investing in these patents when I was a college student,” notes Edwards, whose design patent came through in 30 different countries, with a utility patent protecting the product’s core functionality still snaking its way through the system in another 30 countries. “It’s a waiting game at this point, and there’s no guaranteed timeline,” adds Edwards.
In April 2021, Edwards testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property about the difficulties facing patent seekers, particularly for female entrepreneurs. She breaks those difficulties out into three types of barriers: financial, educational (the U.S. patent process, as labyrinthian, arbitrary, and utterly confounding as it is, is a ripe domain for lawyers), and representative – being unable to find entrepreneurs like herself in the industry that had navigated the patent waters.
From Edwards’ U.S. Senate testimony:
“In fact, I didn’t talk about patenting to anyone who wasn’t a wealthy, middle-aged white male in the field of engineering or tech. While those connections provided some advice, it wasn’t always advice that was relevant or useful to me, as a 22-year-old female college student working 2 jobs and trying to break into the outdoor apparel industry from a rural town in the Green Mountains. The power of representation is greatly underestimated. When you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing something you want to do, it makes you question whether it’s even possible in the first place.”
Edwards goes on, adding “There have been points in time where SheFly® has spent well over 50% of our revenue on legal fees to cover the immense amount of labor, time, and costs associated with filing.” The process, while straining on the company’s resources, has worked out in SheFly’s favor for the time being, and the company will seek additional patents for future products coming down the pike.
Moving to Gunnison
This past summer, SheFly received $75,000 of funding in the form of a repayable grant via the City of Gunnison from a competitive economic development fund, which Edwards was encouraged to apply for by the ICELab. That funding was matched in the form of retractive job credits by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and later upped by the Economic Development Commission (EDC).
The relocation incentives officially hit at the start of 2022, coinciding with the company’s move of its headquarters to Gunnison. The company will repay the funding should they fall short of the agreed-upon targets: 12 full-time jobs created by 2026, a $50,000 minimum annual wage, and a minimum length of stay dated five years from the company’s relocation date.
Gunnison first came onto SheFly’s radar after the company participated in the eight-week Moosejaw Outdoor Industry Accelerator in 2021, providing Edwards and the SheFly team an opportunity to scope out Gunnison, before ultimately making the decision to relocate to the valley.
Making it big
Immediately after, the nascent company transitioned to another, multi-month accelerator program called MassChallenge, where the company won the top Diamond Award and an associated $100,000 that they plowed into their first purchase order of the new pants from their Chinese factory. “Going through [and succeeding in] those two experiences really helped us to feel more confident making the leap to full-time with something that’s so risky. Both of those experiences introduced us to new mentors, customers, and resources,” says Edwards.
“It was a side hustle for so long, operating across three-plus different time zones, while being full-time students or having full-time jobs. Having a space that we can dedicate purely to running the business and being focused is a huge game-changer,” says Edwards of the company’s move, citing the nearby network of startups closely affiliated with the ICELab like PACT Outdoors, Campfire Ranch, and Hustle Bike Labs as a critical support network for their burgeoning business, and often as a source of mentorship.
In return, Edwards and the SheFly team have been giving back to the ICELab and Western’s community, mentoring the next round of accelerator businesses, speaking to business and leadership classes, and getting involved with Western’s Innovation Challenge and other local pitch competitions.
To fund their operations, SheFly first relied largely on a mix of their IFundWomen campaign – an initial crowdfunding campaign heavy on family and friends – and money won from pitch competitions. In addition to the recent economic development funding, the startup is coming off a recent round of private fundraising that comes from a combination of venture capital firms, angel investors (high net worth individuals who fund startups), and family investment offices.
“Charlotte and I tried to be quite strategic in terms of who we took money from. We didn’t just want a check, we wanted to also fill a knowledge gap, or take money from someone who could help us given some specific expertise that they have,” relays Edwards of the firm’s fundraising strategy.
The core missions: sustainability and inclusivity
Producing a truly sustainable and inclusive product and avoiding the pitfalls of greenwashing and performative and empty values is at the core mission of SheFly’s operations.“We’re this product that lies at the intersection of women’s empowerment and outdoor accessibility,” says Edwards. “To be at the forefront of that movement, we really wanted to actually be leading on those causes.”
Doing business sustainably can mean tweaking a number of different facets, including the company’s shipping model. “We always try to prioritize ocean freight, because while it more than doubles the amount of time you have to wait [for your product], it’s a smaller impact,” says Edwards, who goes on to expound on the company’s design strategy:
“I think our biggest approach to this first product and how we can make it sustainable, besides the givens of trying to use recycled textiles, recycled paper to print the tags, and eco-friendly ink, is to think about the overall durability and use-case scenarios. While we could easily eliminate features like zippers, pockets, and adjustable waists and hems to save significant amounts of money, we have chosen to make one pair of pants, that might not have the highest profit margin possible, but do allow any individual to use them for any activity, so that you don’t need to own seven different pairs of outdoor pants.”
SheFly’s pants are designed to function at a high level across three seasons, and to be compatible and comfortable in combination with climbing harnesses, safety equipment, and various backpacks. Edwards and Massey went to great lengths to research the latest sustainability trends in the market, and discovered that many sound great in the boardroom, but do not translate to the household or the field.
Edwards offers compostable bags as a prime example. Most American households do not have at-home composting, and many of the bags are only compostable in industrial compost systems, which are inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans and others around the world.
In that regard, Edwards believes that her and Massey’s recent entry into the world of manufacturing and business give them the fresh eyes needed to do their research and make the best informed decision about what sustainability trends to adopt or leave behind. “Is this worth it? Is this actually sustainable? Is there customer education that’s necessary?” Edwards asks of the factors that influence SheFly’s decisions.
“For us, being sustainable means that at each and every step of our supply chain, we’re thinking about how we can do things in a more sustainable way. And we’re not always able to do every single thing, [because] of cost, and minimums, and all those things that prohibit small businesses from being able to do the right thing,” says Edwards, who points to the company’s inclusive sizing structure as a particular point of pride.
“Oftentimes people say they can’t do all of the sizes because of [product] minimums, or cost, but the reality is that everyone could be doing that if they wanted to prioritize it,” says Edwards. SheFly offers 13 different sizes, ranging from 00 to 22. Most plus-size focused retailers typically cap at around size 24 or 26, with Edwards admitting that SheFly could still stand to improve moving forward.
And Edwards notes that the company has gotten some pushback from investors, wholesale retailers, and other business connections about the viability of stocking inventory in those larger sizes, but she has a ready counter. “We give the rationale of the social mission behind this company, and why that’s so important, and also a growing trend.” So far, that argument has prevailed.
SheFly is also pushing back against discrepancies in sizing across the industry, where certain brands have taken steps to actively discourage larger sizes and created a system that has little basis in physical reality and varies substantially from brand to brand. Edwards wants customers to check out their sizes on the website and measure themselves to get the best fit. In their sizing efforts, SheFly works with the startup Fit for Everybody in Massachusetts, which advises companies on inclusive sizing using a diverse database of body sizes.
“At every step of the process, brands and companies are not incentivized to be inclusive because it’s all about being as profitable as possible,” says Edwards, who cites increased fabric costs and shipping weights, along with minimum quantities in each size and color variation (100 for SheFly with their current factory), as key barriers.
But Edwards is hopeful that the ethos behind the decision will draw customers passionate about both size inclusivity and sustainable practices, and drive sales not just online and in traditional retail venues, but also in plus-size outlets. “We built our business model around being able to make those decisions because those are the things we feel it’s important to prioritize – those are where the gaps lie in the current market.”
Taking the next step
SheFly’s product and business model have been met with acclaim from consumers, and from the industry at-large. SheFly’s reach, despite a small initial product run, is far beyond what Edwards would have conceived. Down in Telluride for the Mountain Film Festival during the accelerator program, Edwards encountered an Australian woman who said she had been following the company for years after her friend received a pair of pants.
That kind of customer loyalty and word-of-mouth, Edwards says, makes the heavy costs of international shipping and logistics worth the price tag as they consider how to make international shipping economically feasible with their second run of pants.
SheFly’s customer base, which the co-founders had originally estimated would largely fall in the outdoorsy women ages 18-34 demographic, has skewed more towards middle age than they originally imagined. They also learned through customer feedback and surveys that many women are using the pants in their work, a market that Edwards notes has less innovation than the athletic and recreation space.
For their innovative efforts, SheFly has gobbled up formal industry recognition, gaining acceptance into two accelerator programs—and leaving one with $100,000 in hand– amidst a sea of hundreds of applicants, and winning an Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award. “That was so special, to see ourselves on this list of really established, well-respected brands that have been mentors to us,” adds Edwards.
“We started going to Outdoor Retailer three years ago as college students who would ask other brands, like Dovetail for example, if we could set up and take down their booths. To go from that – walking the floor with a volunteer pass – to having [an] Innovation Award attached to our booth was really, really cool,” she adds.
In the fall of 2022, SheFly will roll out a pair of recycled polyester leggings with a smaller, invisible zipper that will not require a flap cover, and will be produced in California. The company will follow up with a line of shorts in the spring of 2023, and a host of other products in the development pipeline.
All of SheFly’s products can be found on their website, and soon, in all Moosejaw Mountaineering stores nationwide, in addition to the Moosejaw website. The startup is also eyeing relationships with other major outdoor retailers, and with dozens of mom-and-pop outfits that have reached out from across the U.S.
Maintaining the mission
For Edwards, the entire process of founding a business has proved transformational. “SheFly, to me as an individual, has been a way to create a whole new network of people that I share values with. Which is always great to have, but especially great to have during a pandemic,” says Edwards. “It’s also just been really fulfilling to do something that I genuinely believe is making the world a better place, and [to] employ people to also fulfill that mission is really special.”
The next big challenge awaiting SheFly is filling out a team of individuals that can help scale the company’s work. “We’ve had an organic team of people who have volunteered with SheFly for years, but they’ve all come to us…it won’t just be like your friends in a dorm room [anymore],” notes Edwards, who is preparing to navigate a formalized hiring process and bringing aboard individuals likely more experienced than the core team. But this challenge, like all the rest, is just another order of business for SheFly.
“I have always been an impatient person, in that I loved my liberal arts education, but sometimes discussion groups drove me crazy because we just talked in circles about the same thing, and I was like ‘it doesn’t matter how much we talk about this if we’re not doing anything about it’…that has been really positive for me to have this direct application making the actual change I wish to see in the world,” adds Edwards.
For Edwards, hearing about the positive impacts of the company’s products and mission on people’s lives, jobs, and outdoor experiences, has been the biggest triumph. “I just think it’s great to be able to put action and money behind [our] words, and SheFly is a really incredible outlet to be able to do that.”
Editor’s note: Be sure to check out SheFly’s website for job opportunities, new products, and other announcements.