A female entrepreneur who was once a fan of Victoria’s Secret decided to start her own lingerie company because she believed the iconic brand was doing something unacceptable to women.
“You can be standing in underwear and be feeling strong and look sexy and beautiful without opening your mouth, leaning forward and looking like you’re going to give somebody a blowjob — which is pretty much what Victoria’s Secret models do most of the time,” said Catalina Girald, founder of Naja, a San Francisco-based company whose line of undergarments seeks to empower women.
Founded in 2013, Naja has set out to change industry standards of beauty with female empowerment though its manufacturing processes, marketing techniques and of course, the final products worn by consumers. Girald admits that it is a tough line to draw between having women embrace their sexuality and objectify themselves when it comes to marketing lingerie, however, one of the main points that sets her apart from a number of her competitors is the way Naja promotes its brand.
“A lot of it has to do with when we look at our marketing and how our models pose,” Girald said. “[…] We at Naja make sure that your sexuality is also part of your empowerment, but the way that we do it is witty.”
Girald drew an example from one of the pieces in her collection called the “lick panty,” a piece of underwear with a picture of an ice cream cone on it.
“If you see a little girl looking at it she’s going to say, ‘Mommy look at the ice cream cone,’ but if you’re older you might think something else,” Girald said. That’s the kind of intelligent sexuality — it’s witty, intelligent, but not the spread out your legs and show your cleavage kind of thing.”
Though Victoria’s Secret owns half of the $14 billion lingerie market, Girald isn’t intimidated and believes it’s time for a change. She says Victoria’s Secret is not a brand she or her professional and educated friends identify with anymore.
“Their advertising is something that does not at all empower women and the message that it’s sending women is, ‘You must be sexually pleasing to a man in order to be worthy,’” she said. “Those are the kinds of messages that make women automatically deferential to men. […] It’s also teaching men that it’s okay to treat women that way.”
Starting the Company
The thirty-something founder of Naja studied chemistry at Amherst college and holds a law degree from Boston College and an MBA from Stanford. She was inspired to start her company after living with indigenous peoples for two years abroad. A handful of the designs in her collection were influenced by the prints and patterns she found from her travels. Girald said she was fascinated by the equality between the sexes during her time spent with nomads in a Mongolian tribe.
When she returned to the United States she realized the stark inequality between men and women, especially in the workplace. She found that being a woman in the startup world in Silicon Valley with an entrepreneurial idea like hers has its challenges.
“[Lingerie] wasn’t a market that people were really looking to invest in,” she said. “It wasn’t easy to invest money, especially when our angle was empowering women and who you’re pitching is primarily men who don’t really get it. I got this a couple of times from an investor: ‘Why would I invest in a company that wants to take away Victoria’s Secret marketing — l like Victoria’s Secret’s catalog.’”
Employing Single Moms in Colombia
Girald started the company with $100,000 that included funding from one investor as well as her own money. The Colombia native moved to the United States with her parents at the age of four and so she chose to have her manufacturing facilities in Medellin where she hires local women and teaches them how to sew so they can support their family.
“The helping single mothers in my country really happened because if I was going to empower the wearer of my product, then it wouldn’t be right for me to manufacture the product in a factory where the women were not treated right,” she said.
The company’s charitable program called Underwear for Hope donates 2% of every Naja purchase to employing women through local foundations. Naja panties, which are sewn by single mothers with an inspirational and empowering quote imprinted on the inside, empower both the creator and the wearer.
Learning From Her First Failure
This isn’t Girald’s first rodeo in the startup scene and she has learned a few lessons in finding her own confidence before trying to instill it in other women. Girald founded Moxsie, a fashion e-commerce marketplace to connect consumers with designers, in 2006. She said she grew disillusioned with the direction her investor wanted to take the company but lacked the courage to stand up for herself. Looking back, she sees Moxsie as an important experience.
“His way of convincing us to do anything was ‘If you guys don’t do this then I won’t give you money in the next round of financing,’ and he was our sole investor and I was young,” Girald explained.
“The point was that if I had known better, had more confidence in myself, I would have just said, ‘No we’re going to continue doing this and if you don’t give us money in four months when we need to raise money, then we’ll get it from someone else.’”
“I didn’t have the confidence to say that, and so we threw away a year-and-a-half’s worth of work on a technology platform that was really brilliant. I vowed that was never going to happen again. For me, it was very much a driving force for making sure that girls speak up for themselves.”
If Girald could give any advice to a female startup founder on surviving Silicon Valley’s startup industry, it would be to trust your gut:
“I think one of the big mistakes that early founders, not just females but men and women commit, is limiting what you can do based on the cash you have.”
“Instead you just spend as if you’re going to get the next amount of cash. I don’t mean spend crazy, but don’t hold back or hire the wrong people just because you don’t think you’re going to be able to bring it to the next round. Run the company as if the next round is coming.”