This is the first of a series of interviews featuring remarkable women founders from all walks of life. They are a part of GiveGetWin’s charity initiative, where they will host webinars to raise funds for an off-grid solar village in India.
Sarah Ellison Lewis always knew she wanted to be a big city girl. Growing up on a ranch in Texas, she dreamed of going into fashion — and hustled to turn that into a reality. After spending 15+ years in New York City handling clients like Vogue and Victoria’s Secret, Sarah decided to start her own thing — BOOTLEG Market, a global peer-to-peer social e-commerce shoe platform.
Gwen: What is one thing you want folks to take away from this article?
Sarah: If you’re still in college, you have a long, long journey ahead of you to figure out where your value lies. That’s not going to happen from owning clothes and accessories. It’s the perpetual irony of my life — you can love fashion, but it does not make you whole.
You’ve been in fashion for 15+ years now. How did you first get started?
I was born loving clothes; it was always very important to me. In college, I took the “safe path” and pursued journalism. I figured no matter what, words and images would always be a useful tool to take care of myself.
When the time came for me to get a job, I decided I did want to go into fashion. I took a leap of faith and pitched myself to a small publisher in Austin. I said I wanted this job, and he gave it to me.
Wow. Has your go-getter attitude always come naturally to you?
I’ve always been naturally very competitive. When you’re raised on a Texan ranch, you realize that by working hard, you can win — and it was fun. I did a lot of chores, a lot of sports. At Texas A&M, the classes were HUGE. I had to beat a lot of people in order to stand out.
All of this has contributed to the person I am today. I continue to pursue things very clearly and aggressively throughout my career. To have that winning edge, I had to go after what I wanted and beat others to it.
Is that the attitude you brought to founding BOOTLEG? What was it like when you were first starting out?
BOOTLEG was a break from the craziness of New York City. I was exhausted from participating in the fashion industry for so long. It’s been 15 years, can you believe that? BOOTLEG was my middle finger to that system and all the processes that existed. With BOOTLEG, I was full-hearted and in control. I was doing things exactly how I wanted to.
Did you face any challenges? What was the hardest part of starting up?
The hardest part of BOOTLEG was getting it to a place where I could start doing things my way. You see, this is my philosophy for facing challenges and uncertainty: I believe God and the Universe will take you on journeys where you don’t know where you’re going to end up. My father always says,“Don’t get out of the boat.” You may not understand why you’re going in that direction, but you should only get out when it makes sense. I knew deep down that I needed to go through a lot to get to that place.
Oh goodness. I’m getting the chills. That’s so powerful, Sarah.
It’s the truth. I had to spend a decade learning the way things were DONE — getting physically and mentally annihilated while competing in the world’s greatest fashion market — before I could arrive at a place where I could bravely and surely choose something.
How do you think we can teach this to the next generation, Sarah? Make this a more common practice?
The new generation thinks they can have what they want when they want it. There’s nothing we can do worse than to let them believe that’s true.
Work is work is work is work.
Back in my day, kids had to make sandwiches, do dry-cleaning, work all day doing things they would rather not be doing just to earn a couple of bucks.
What I found most common is many young people today have no work ethic.
Once they learn to respect work and work ethic, it’s the most important tool they can use for the rest of their lives.
Could you elaborate a little more on work ethic?
Work ethic teaches you patience, skills and integrity. It makes you focus on the quality of what you’re doing, instead of the act of just doing it.
When young people realize they have to do the work, everything else falls into place. Because if you wanna cut corners, all you’ll get is a cut corner.
What advice would you give someone who wants to break into fashion?
So OK, if you’re into fashion, you probably don’t want to go into waitressing or bartending. So go apply for a gig at Bloomingdales. But remember, while you’re at that miserable retail job, you have to do your best. Smile. Be polite. Go the extra mile. Pay attention. Learn the systems, the processes, the skills.
There are a million great things that kind of work ethic teaches you… But most people won’t advance, because they don’t see the context of it.
I want to go a little deeper on this bit, because it really is so important. What do you think you did that set you apart from the rest?
I think it really is the way I was raised. I was working on the ranch from the time I was 7 years old — be it picking vegetables, or feeding the animals, or assisting in household chores.
My life was very mission-driven. It was about family and farm and things that were bigger than me.
In our family, we didn’t get rewarded if we didn’t do things well. It wasn’t good enough if I’d finished it; if I didn’t do it right, I had to do it again. So by the time I hit NYC, hard work was super normal for me.
Preach, girl. Tell me — what is the one trait that you think all budding women entrepreneurs should cultivate?
Resourcefulness. I’m a problem solver by nature — and it’s the #1 thing that has brought me success, even in my failures.
Whether it’s having to run on a certain budget, finding a certain consultant, or searching for a certain kind of printer… I’ll find a way to get it done.
Being curious and being resourceful are absolutely the most important traits a woman can have. Learn to surround yourself with everything you need.
You’re amazing, Sarah. Any last words for any young people reading?
I just want you to know this — a lot of people were a lot more lucky than me. They had better trust funds, smaller waistlines, whatever. So you need to know that you make your own future, and you design your own life. It is the most important thing you’ll ever do for your heart and mind.
If you enjoyed this glimpse into Sarah’s soul, sign up for her session this Thursday, August 25 at 8pm CT. It will run for an hour, you’ll get up close and personal with Sarah, and 100% of proceeds will go to charity.