Pearls of a Sultana

Memoir from a Vermont Senator and the Founder of Jogbra
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An Excerpt from Pearls of a Sultana

The subtitle of this books tells it all: "What I've Learned about Business, Politics, and the Human Spirit." Hinda Miller's career has spanned all three, and then some! Inspired by the simple, yet powerful, legacy of her father, Bobo, Ms. Miller is perhaps best known as the co-inventor of the Jogbra, the original sports bra that enabled millions of women to participate more comfortably in athletics.

Eventually, the company was sold to a corporate giant, and Ms. Miller began a new career as a business executive. Eventually, she went on to a new career as a State Senator and board member. Throughout all her ventures, Hinda Miller has been guided and anchored by a strong connection to the practice of yoga. Now she is preparing for a new venture as a Sultana, a woman of experience and wisdom who is always practicing, always learning, and always grateful.

This chapter describes some of her lessons from her earliest entrepreneurial days.

(From Chapter 5: The Rules of the Game)

The Lesson of the Green Bra

Just an aside about green bras. We had ventured into colored bras, because we wanted women to be able to take their shirts off, the same way men could. We ordered blue and green fabric even though I felt a bit queasy about the wasp green color. My manufacturer in Puerto Rico said something I still remember when we had to sell those green bras at a loss to a discounter. He said "The first loss is the cheapest loss." By that he meant, if you make a mistake in ordering fabric, just sell the fabric at a loss immediately. Do not make them into bras so that you lose both the value of the fabric and the labor. If you make a mistake, admit it and let it go, literally.

It's important to differentiate between mistakes and failure. A mistake is minor and inconsequential in the long run; one mistake does not cause you to fail. Failure, on the other hand, is systemic and all-encompassing. It is the end of the attempt. You never want to fail, but you also don't want your fear of failure to hold you hostage by fear of failure, so that you don't allow yourself to make mistakes, even to value them. Successful entrepreneurs understand that mistakes are crucial to learning.

Success in business never happens in a straight line. It's like sailing a boat; you have to tack at different angles to reach your destination. You can't just sail towards the goal. Entrepreneurs identify a destination on the shore (that's the easy part—the dream—but how you get there is dependent on the weather and wind. You are always making mid-course corrections for mistakes.

Get used to it. Embrace it.

Women in particular need to reframe mistakes, then work toward seeing each mistake for its inherent value. Our school systems tend to reward women for being compliant and rule-followers. We don't like being judged. To continue the sailing analogy, when things go wrong, men tend to blame the weather, while women blame their own skills.

While I probably prefer to have our Jogbra journey portrayed as an extended tour de force of brilliance and innovation, the truth is we were lost in the fog more than a few times. The company history could just as easily be told as a litany of our mistakes.

In the beginning, we were not even sure what business we were in. The new running market was exploding, spinning off product sales opportunities from athletic shoes to workout diaries. Because we made a sports bra, we thought we were in the running apparel business. Using the then-revolutionary, breathable, moisture-repellent Gore-Tex, we developed a running glove called the Jogmit. The product had good profit margins but was not synergistic with the sports bras. It needed a dedicated budget for advertising, new point-of-sales material, and separate sales visits to different buyers. It was too divergent from our existing systems and added substantially to our overhead.

Then we said "Aha, we're not in the sports apparel business, we're in the thermal underwear business." It made sense to us. We lived in the cold climate of Vermont, where we could sell sports bras, and the long underwear to go over it. What we overlooked was how competitive the market for thermal underwear, and how satisfied retailers were perfectly satisfied with their established brands.

Next, in the mid-'80s, came the aerobic fitness apparel market, hallmarked by the commercial success of the Reebok Freestyle shoe. Women, inspired by Jane Fonda and Gilda Marx, were extending their workouts into the gym. Because our sports bras used the same cotton/Lycra fabric as leotards and tights, we thought we could go into aerobic wear. But we lacked the sophisticated systems necessary to respond to a multi-style, multi-season fashion industry. Our retailers finally set us straight: "You are the sports bra experts. Stick to what you do best and supply us with performance sports bras."

After all this "tacking," we finally dropped anchor in the pragmatic cove of niche marketing. Find a need in the marketplace that you can fill better than anyone else, then do it! Could we have avoided all the costly mistakes and learned this simple lesson without them? I don't think so. Defining who and what we were not was an important lesson in understanding who we were.

Life on Roller Skates

There is no "Entrepreneur's Rule Book," of course. Everyone has to invent their own, often making up the rules along the way. When it's your name on the business loan and your signature on the payroll check, business takes on a reality that isn't there when you are dreaming of changing the world through jogging. The rules of this game seem to be that there are no rules.

We needed to find a manufacturer for our invention. Partly from naivete, partly from not having any better idea, I put an ad in Women's Wear Daily, the trade journal of the fashion business: "Wanted: manufacturer with expertise in Lycra swimwear fabric." Then I prepared to sort through the expected avalanche of response. One. We received exactly one response, from a textile manufacturer in Puerto Rico. At this time Puerto Rico was the low-cost manufacturing option, much as China is today.

There was no other way to find out whether he and his company were suitable except to go there. So I went off–alone, with no Spanish–to San Juan, juggling adrenaline and fear.

The factory was huge, and I was constantly running between departments. I could save lots of time if I could put on my roller skates. Was this within the rules? The manager said sure; he made the rules. Off I went. As I zipped from department to department, I developed friendly relationships with many of the beautiful Puerto Rican ladies who worked there, with their elaborate hairstyles and masterpiece fingernails.

If I had done my homework, I probably would never have done business with Mel. My naivete and lack of experience, however, held me in good stead, and I relied on my gut level guidance that told me to trust this guy.

To his credit, our Puerto Rican partner also had to make a leap of faith. We were an unproven commodity, a new business making a new product in a category that did not yet exist. Would the volume projections we presented actually come to pass? He had faith in us, and we in him. Together we built our businesses.

Fear is the entrepreneur's constant companion. Once you accept this reality, however, you have made the important first step in transforming this commanding emotion into just another tool to achieve your goals. Remember: successful people also have fears, but their attitude doesn't let them be ruled by them. Honor fear as a catalyst and guide for change. The more you conquer fear, the more your mind and body will crave this sense of challenge. That's simply a rule of the game. Recognizing the important role of fear, and turning it to your advantage, is an important part of the process.

In retrospect I can see the influence of my father, Bobo, in creating my world view. He always encouraged me to "circulate and participate," reminding me that "you can do anything you want to do if you do it with humor and panache." As a result of the confidence he's had in me, I've never had a fear of the edge.

He also said "If you can be funny, go for it." There are countless times that this advice has held me in good stead. In the intensity of growing a business, there's a tendency to take what you are doing much too seriously. At Jogbra we developed a catchphrase that helped us through many a tense moment: "If it's not nuclear war, we can handle it." I first said it at a business meeting the day after watching a television show about the devastation of nuclear war. That's finality! Our challenges at Jogbra were trivial by comparison. Humor can clear the cobwebs and put situations in perspective, clearing the path for creative solutions.

Cool Moss ... Cool Moss ... Cool Moss

If you are afraid of something, try it.

Bobo's advice would repeatedly be put to the test over the next few years. Entrepreneurs learn to live with fear—fear of not making payroll, fear of the bank calling the loan, fear of a stronger competitor targeting your niche, fear of the bogeyman. In addition to extreme anxiety, fear produces paralysis. It's human nature—rather than fall off the cliff, you cling to your narrow ledge.

Fear shows up whenever you encounter something new. When you are in your mid-20s and starting a new business, there will be no shortage of fear opportunities. Add to the mix that the business involves creating a new category that exists somewhere between "undergarments" and "athletic equipment," and you have a combination that insures a nonstop ticket into the unknown. Fear is reliable. Fear is the entrepreneur's constant companion. Fear is your psychotic lover, and it is only when you accept this that fear can be turned into another tool in your entrepreneurial arsenal.

A vivid lesson in abject fear came a few years into the Jogbra experience. Tony Robbins, the now well-known motivational guru from California, came to Vermont to conduct a fire walk, which he billed as an exercise in "transforming fear into power." Fire walking is an ancient ritual. Historically monks would walk on fire to prove their belief God is stronger than the physical world.

No matter who you are, the fear response activates the sympathetic nervous system. Heart rate and blood pressure go up; muscle tension and sweat increase. Legs become shaky, palms sweat, and your stomach starts doing backflips. Most important, your brain surrenders its rational control of your body. You literally cannot think clearly. The prospect of walking barefoot on hot coals easily accomplished all of these.

Nearly one hundred people were in attendance. The preparation was extensive, taking about eight hours. During this time, we told us to visualize our worst fears: burnt feet, oozing blisters, and paralysis in the midst of the flames. Through a series of lectures, relaxation exercises, and hypnotic suggestions, we each confronted our individual phobias, not just related to the fire walk, but to our lives.

At that point, the demons of my professional life were the evil bankers. I obsessed over the worst-case financial scenarios: no more money, bankruptcy, public humiliation, and ridicule. The session lasted until late into the night.

The fire walking facilitator tried to continually reinforce the theme of mind over matter, but when we looked out over those twenty feet of glowing embers, it was the matter that mattered. We were told to imagine walking across cool moss. As we took off our shoes and socks and formed a line in the dark, we even chanted "cool moss."

My survival instincts screamed at me to get out of the line, and I actually did duck to the end twice before mustering the courage to cross. But I eventually walked across that fire unscathed, looked back, and said, "That wasn't so bad."

The lesson was both powerful and empowering. If I can walk across fire, I can do anything—including face that impending meeting with those bankers. The experience of transforming my fear into power was so real on every level that I am now able to reach for that self-confidence when I need it most. Whenever anxiety threatens, I remind myself that whatever I fear is worse in my mind than in reality.

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