Heather Eaton and Jane Dong Of Frankly Apparel: “An ability to roll with the punches”

Jane: An ability to roll with the punches- The thing is that nothing will ever go as planned. Heather and I never planned to start a company in the middle of a global pandemic, but we believed so strongly in this idea that we were going to take what we could get. Setting up a […]

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Jane: An ability to roll with the punches- The thing is that nothing will ever go as planned. Heather and I never planned to start a company in the middle of a global pandemic, but we believed so strongly in this idea that we were going to take what we could get. Setting up a supply chain in a time where there are port delays, out of control shipping prices, and backlogs everywhere means that things will go wrong. You’re allowed to be sad and upset, but then you have to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. People have told us “DHL has never lost a shipment in the 11 years I’ve worked with them,” but we lost a shipment our first time shipping from overseas. We had to keep rolling with it.

Heather: An Authentic Personal Leadership Style: Gone are the days when “act like a man” was the prevailing advice for female leaders. There is room for so many different working styles. The key is finding the one that feels true to you. Part of the reason I left consulting was because I didn’t feel like there was room for a leadership style like mine. I came to business school hoping to learn how to adapt my style to fit into a male-dominated field where showing emotions was synonymous with failure. Instead, I walked away with conviction that my emotions are a strength. My clarity of conviction helps me build trust and rally others around a common cause.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Eaton and Jane Dong.

The Stanford graduates are the founders of Frankly Apparel, an inclusive bra-less clothing brand and the first of its kind. Designed with larger cup sizes in mind, Frankly pieces give women the benefits of a bra, without actually wearing one. Every style is centered around adaptable support structures constructed through innovative sewing techniques and high-quality fabrics. Their goal is for women of all cup sizes can feel confident, supported, and uplifted. The Frankly movement is about so much more than going bra-less: their mission is to empower women to ask for more, starting with what they wear.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Heather: I’ve worked about a million different jobs, including some early entrepreneurial ventures selling handmade clay figurines to my classmates on the playground, which was not appreciated by the principal. More formally, I worked for four years as a management consultant at Deloitte, as well as a graphic designer, and in product strategy at Rothy’s. I’ve always loved clothes, but struggled to find anything that fit my body. I have a large chest but a petite frame — fashion just doesn’t design for me. I was tired of waiting for someone else to change the status quo, and I figured why not me? When I floated the idea of making the braless fashion trend more inclusive for larger cup sizes to Jane, she got it immediately. We launched Frankly as a Kickstarter in October of 2020. It hit its goal in under 5 hours and that’s when we knew we were on to something.

Jane: I’m the daughter of two Chinese immigrants who came to the US in the ’80s. I was a D1 college golfer at Columbia, and being in New York led me to Investment Banking initially. I worked at Goldman Sachs in Industrials Mergers and Acquisitions, and when I realized finance wasn’t really for me, I moved over to Uber, where I worked on New Jersey, Tri State, all of India, and eventually Eats for US & Canada. I knew I wanted to work at a smaller startup post school or start my own company, so when Heather shared the idea for braless clothing, I was in. While I loved working at Uber, the company grew to 14,000 employees while I was there, and it no longer felt like the small New York City office of 100 people that I loved being a part of. I was super excited about creating a product that improved the lives of women and am excited to continue this journey.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Heather: That would probably be the first time we went viral on TikTok! *laughs* It was the early days of both TikTok and Frankly. We were experimenting with a bunch of social platforms to see where people responded to our brand. Jane made this awesome video explaining the Frankly ethos with some behind the scenes footage from our first photo shoot and posted it on a whim before she went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up and we had over a million views and hundreds of comments! We spent the next few days basically in a rabbit hole responding to all of these potential customers who wanted to buy a product that didn’t even exist yet! Every time we thought we were finished, the video would take off again. I think we ended up at over 3 million views. TikTok has been responsible for a huge portion of our awesome Frankly Fam community and we are so thankful for their support as we got the brand up and running.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Jane: Even though I played golf in college, sometimes my brain didn’t always translate a foot versus a yard. There was one time where we ordered thousands of yards of snap tape for a relatively small number of units, and we were so confused as to why we had so much snap tape when in reality we needed about two buttons per bodysuit. I was so confused as to why snap tape was so expensive, but then we realized we overordered by 300%. We learned that day to always confirm the units of measurement.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Heather: We are grateful to SO many people! The fashion industry has a notorious reputation for being cutthroat and “catty,” so we were nervous about how to make the necessary connections as industry outsiders. We were pleasantly surprised to find a huge network of people (especially women) in fashion who wanted to see us succeed. My former boss from Rothy’s, Kerry Cooper, has given us incredible advice on how to manage an e-commerce brand. We are also so thankful to our first investor, Russ Siegelman. Russ was actually our professor at Stanford Business School. Frankly began as a class project for the Startup Garage class that Russ taught. I remember when we did our first pitch for this braless clothing company, he said “this seems like such a good idea — almost obvious. Why doesn’t this already exist?!” He was one of the few people to get our vision immediately. When we started fundraising, he was the first person we called and he really helped catapult our angel round into action.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Jane: The way that the venture capital ecosystem works right now structurally doesn’t encourage women to found companies. In order to get the type of funding that gives you enough time to prove out concept and demand, you need to have had compounding privilege, like having the right education, previous experience, and networks to be able to figure out funding. More often than not, those who have the capital and the power end up funding people who fit a specific mold, and minority women frankly are going to be perceived as a much bigger risk. We’ve come a long way as a society, but there is a lot more work to be done in regards to access to capital. We have also seen that solving an issue for women, like trying to get rid of their bras, might not resonate with men, who are the majority in the venture and funding world.

Heather: I agree with Jane 1000%. It’s not that women don’t have good ideas or the necessary skills to start companies, it’s that they lack the funding and support to take those companies to the next level. As of 2019, 87% of all Etsy shop owners were women. Obviously, that’s just one type of company, but it shows that women ARE entrepreneurs. But starting a venture-backed company has much higher barriers to entry. Dismantling those barriers for women and minority founders is going to require a drastic change in the current power structure, but I think we are already on our way there!

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Jane: We love what organizations like All Raise are doing, encouraging and providing resources for women in VC or founders. The truth is that even if the men in the industry have empathy for the problem, it often won’t automatically click for them the same way it clicks for women, given lack of personal experience. We would all dream of a world where we can pitch women and men equally on our ideas, but right now, it takes a little bit more for us as founders to bridge that gap.

As individuals, we always should be checking our own biases, since studies have shown even women sometimes expect more of women founders. As a society, encouraging and figuring out how to keep women in the workplace will lead to more women having the resources to be able to start a company. Solving the structural problems like the wage gap, the lack of paid leave for new mothers or women who miscarried, etc. are all things that society and government can begin doing.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Jane: With the right idea and circumstances, I think women should take that bet on themselves. Regardless of the outcome, you’ll learn a lot in this crash course. Starting a company has been one of the hardest things I’ve done (grateful for my co-founder as my support system all the way), but it’s also among the most rewarding things. Seeing something you created out in the world and getting messages about how much people love your product is something that I’m so lucky to have experienced.

Heather: Do it for the women that come after you. I mean, ideally do it for yourself because you rock and you deserve this opportunity, but if you can’t mentally reconcile doing it for yourself, do it for other women. Probably like many women, I feel a strong sense of duty to others I care about. I shy away from doing things that might be perceived as selfish. I remember my friend Meg telling me that if I was feeling awkward negotiating my salary, I should remember that if I made more, every woman that came into that position after me would also get that benchmark. Setting an example or standard for other women to use is one of the least selfish things you can do for our community. Plus, there’s strength in numbers. Being a woman that makes it to the top of her field — entrepreneurship or otherwise — means you are one more important voice in the room helping to pull other deserving women up with you.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Heather: This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think that a huge key to being a founder is setting boundaries. One of the “myths” I hear all the time about being a founder is that you never stop working. You need to keep grinding on your company 24/7 or you will fail. I actually think the opposite is true. If you never stop working, you WILL burn yourself out. It’s unsustainable. I work super hard, and yes, there are many nights where I think about Frankly as I’m falling asleep, but I try to make time for the rest of my life and interests. I do not work on the weekends, and I don’t answer emails after 7 PM. I find that I am so much more productive and focused at work if I have the chance to recharge my batteries doing other things I love.

Jane: I’m with Heather on this one. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re trying to build a brand that resonates with women for years to come, and if both of us burn out year 1, we’re in deep trouble. I think the other myth is that you have to be in your early 20’s, some kind of phenom, wear black turtlenecks, and eat ramen noodles until you make it. Founders don’t come in a specific mold, and there isn’t one right way to found a company. Some great companies started as side hustles; others dove head first in. Some companies have 5 co-founders, and others have a solo founder. Great companies were started by those in their 50’s too. The myth that you have to be a Mark Zuckerberg type is just not true.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Heather: I think that everyone has the seed of a great idea inside of them, but turning that seed into something real requires a huge amount of grit. Everyone has different priorities. If seeing your idea come to life isn’t yours, being a founder isn’t for you. And that’s OK! Founder life is over-romanticized. It’s a lot of high-highs, low-lows, and a whole lot of trudging through the muck. If you are seeking stability — of any kind — in the work you do, a “regular job” is going to fill that need much better than being an entrepreneur. Personally, I could never have been a founder before this particular moment in my life. I don’t come from a wealthy background, and when I graduated college, my first priority was on creating financial stability for myself. It was only once I achieved that financial safety net that I was able to seriously consider starting a company. Having that self-awareness is the first step in finding a job that you love — founder or otherwise. Anecdotally, the traits I believe most good entrepreneurs share are grit, resourcefulness, optimism, good communication, and passion.

To found a company, I think you need both dreamers and doers. I am 60% dreamer, 40% doer and Jane is the inverse. That’s what makes us such an awesome founding team. I can develop the big picture vision and strategy for our company and she dives headfirst into the unknowns to make that vision a reality. If you’re not a dreamer, find a company whose dream you believe in and then be a doer. If you’re not a doer, find and inspire a co-founder who is, because your company won’t make it without one!

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Jane: #1 — An ability to roll with the punches- The thing is that nothing will ever go as planned. Heather and I never planned to start a company in the middle of a global pandemic, but we believed so strongly in this idea that we were going to take what we could get. Setting up a supply chain in a time where there are port delays, out of control shipping prices, and backlogs everywhere means that things will go wrong. You’re allowed to be sad and upset, but then you have to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. People have told us “DHL has never lost a shipment in the 11 years I’ve worked with them,” but we lost a shipment our first time shipping from overseas. We had to keep rolling with it.

Heather: #2 — An Authentic Personal Leadership Style: Gone are the days when “act like a man” was the prevailing advice for female leaders. There is room for so many different working styles. The key is finding the one that feels true to you. Part of the reason I left consulting was because I didn’t feel like there was room for a leadership style like mine. I came to business school hoping to learn how to adapt my style to fit into a male-dominated field where showing emotions was synonymous with failure. Instead, I walked away with conviction that my emotions are a strength. My clarity of conviction helps me build trust and rally others around a common cause.

Jane: #3 — Willingness to take feedback: It can be natural for you to get defensive when someone doesn’t like your product. However, in order to improve your offering, you have to be willing to hear the feedback from your customers on what’s working and what’s not. It wasn’t fun for us to hear that the first iteration of our bodysuit was on the shorter side, despite extensive testing. However, we took that feedback and ensured that every bodysuit afterwards was 2 inches longer.

Heather: #4 — A Support Network: No woman is an island. I am so grateful to have a co-founder to lean on, amazing mentors to guide me, and a supportive partner who loves me. And don’t forget about your peers! I think people immediately go to mentors and advisors when thinking about a network, but most of our most tangible advice has come from peers. When we were first getting started, a mutual friend connected us to Amy and Showly, the co-founders of the (now discontinued) brand, Pairess. They started their company about a year before we started ours, and it was so helpful to basically have “big sisters” to ask questions that we felt stupid asking more senior people.

Jane: #5 Being non-consensus: In order to start something, the idea or concept has to be at least a little bit non-consensus, otherwise it will already exist. Throughout the life of your company, you’re going to have to be okay with some subset of people thinking that you’re crazy. My parents initially thought I was insane for taking my MBA to go make clothing. However, they eventually got more on board with the idea. You need to be comfortable with going against the grain, since in order to make your product, you may have to convince someone to get on board.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Heather: I love this question! So much of what we do at Frankly revolves around creating a more inclusive, ethical, and sustainable fashion industry. Our vision statement is “empowering women to ask for more, starting with what we wear.” In that spirit, we find that our customers are always asking more of us! This year, we are focused on applying for B-Corp certification to help legally reinforce those commitments to our customers and ourselves and to help drive other fashion companies to do the same. On a personal level, Jane and I spend a great deal of time mentoring other founders, with a special emphasis on female founders.

You are both people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Jane: When thinking about the United States, the first thing I always think of is ways to empower working women. We have all of this data about women, the workplace, and the amount of labor that women do caring for children and managing households, but we still lag behind so many other countries in regards to support and appropriate leave policies. We should do better in so many ways, from supporting women in the workplace to creating part time opportunities for those who have other jobs and priorities.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Jane: We love Serena Williams for so many reasons! She is a powerhouse and is the GOAT. As a former athlete, I obviously admire her for all of her accomplishments, but even more so, I respect what she went through as a Black woman playing Tennis. Serena Ventures is a dream funder for us, as she has amazing investments across so many industries and expertise across those as well.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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