How is Iron Elk different from other safety equipment companies?
Iron Elk is a nationally certified woman-owned small business that provides safety apparel for all body types. We work with manufacturers and suppliers to provide women – and men – gear they feel safe and comfortable in.
How did you conceive of the company?
I met a woman at a networking group who is in construction, and she told me she had such a hard time finding protective gear. I’d been wanting to start a company, and a lightbulb went on above my head.
I became very focused on solving problems in the trades – including the stigma of women working in the trades. I’d worked for other people my whole life, so I told her, “Let’s do something good.”
What did you want to address that wasn't so good?
Most manufacturers don’t understand the importance of having women’s cuts. Women in the trades have a really tough time already; they don’t feel included, and they are subject to bullying. If the uniform makes them feel better in what they’re wearing, it helps. Nobody wants to look frumpy.
And, a lot of times, women won’t wear PPE at all because it just doesn’t fit them. The sleeves might be too long, the chest might be too tight, so you can’t zip up the zipper, or it doesn’t hit the right spot on the hips, so you’re not protected.
Also, harnesses that work for men do not fit women, and hard hats usually don’t fit women, so they just bob around. Most women are wearing men’s gear one size down, which puts them at risk.
Your mission is much larger than just making comfortable workwear for women.
More and more women are entering the trades, and we want to encourage and help them have confidence. A couple of years ago, I started a group called Women Confidence Builders with Christi Powell.
We hoped to attract a few like-minded people, so we invited 20, and 50 showed up. The next meeting, we had 130 people, and the next, we had 130, but it sold out weeks before.
Then, BMW heard about us and liked what we were doing. When they had their International Supplier Diversity Conference, they gave us their women’s luncheon. We had 350 attendees and gave away 11 scholarships to high school students interested in the trades.
We want to help eliminate the stigma of going into a career in the trades; it’s a great career – you can make a lot of money! Plus, if we don’t get young people interested, we’re going to be in a really bad way.
What is your vision for the near future?
My dream is to expand the company in the next two years, hire five diverse employees, and help young people attending trade schools.
When they graduate, I would love to be at the end of the stage with a complete set of safety equipment for whatever their trade requires. If they have an interview at a construction site, they have to have the right gear to even go to the interview. We want to make it easier for them to get started.
With decades of business experience, what’s your advice to young founders?
I have so much advice! You can’t do everything well; be good at one or two things. Listen to what your customers are saying, their pain points are your opportunities.
Time is precious. You don’t have to attend every networking event, but you can make fantastic connections and friendships that way. Use Zoom for meetings, so you’re not driving all over wasting time.
If you’re feeling down or not feeling it that day, acknowledge it and do whatever you need to get through it.
I do online puzzles - it’s okay to have days like that. Start again the next day. Never stop learning. Surround yourself with people you admire. Don’t assume you’ll be an overnight success; you have to put in the time. If you connect with people and they want to help you, let them. Take risks.
When has taking a risk made a big difference for you?
I’ve had imposter syndrome big time, so I know how hard it can be. You just have to get through it. For example, I was going to a supplier diversity luncheon, I had a broken foot, and it was my first time there. There would be thousands of people, and I knew I needed to get noticed. I watched videos of the previous conventions, and everyone was wearing dark clothes.
So, I bought a high visibility vest with reflective tape all over it and got someone to print ‘Iron Elk Safety Equipment’ and ‘Woman-Owned Business’ on it. I thought to myself, “you are absolutely mental.” But instantly, people were commenting on it.
Suddenly, I went from someone sitting in the audience, star-struck, to being on their video with my vest on. It felt really bizarre, but people wanted to hear my story, and I got noticed.
I wore the vest in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago at a conference with 80,000 people. I was on the panel, and suddenly, they turned the lights down and put black lights on. I was like a glow stick! It was so cool.
Getting out of your comfort zone is so important. What do you have to lose? The worst-case scenario is not that bad.