Keep moving at all costs: Speed to market is key. While you contemplate a perfect product, somebody else may be building your idea. Your plan will never be perfect anyway. I’ve learned to see entrepreneurship like Super Mario — sometimes you miss coins, sometimes you blow monsters and get double points. As long as you have the vision of saving the princess, all the ups and downs in between are part of the process. You have to keep moving for the sake of your ultimate destination.
Melis Sawerschel is the Founder and CEO of She Is Rebel, a fashion brand offering fashionable clothes in a sustainable way. Launched in late 2017, She Is Rebel marries a fast-fashion business model with environmentally friendly practices, which sets it to be one of the fastest growing fashion brands in Switzerland. Melis has established She Is Rebel’s ethos in feminine, bold, seasonless pieces. The Istanbul-born founder has nearly 10 years of experience in digital and user experience projects in Switzerland. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering from Istanbul Technical University and completed a master’s degree in Management, Technology and Economics from ETH Zurich.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 6, I used to sew clothes for my dolls, then give them speeches for hours. I had already decided to be an inspiring businesswoman. To achieve this, I planned to study engineering, then do a master’s degree in management. At university I wasn’t very good at finance-related classes despite graduating with high honors. So, to challenge myself, I took a job in banking and grew my career in digitalisation projects. When I turned 30, I felt it was time to get back to my core, as a Materials Engineer who loves fashion and inspiring people. I felt an urge to make a bigger impact on society with my own product — by offering design, value and sustainability. I followed the rebel in me and quit my corporate job with no plan. She Is Rebel was born shortly after — a fashion brand manifesting the power of women through style without trading off the Earth and pockets.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
In transitioning from the corporate banking world to fashion entrepreneurship my environment changed from collective efforts, long meetings and blurry outcomes to fast delivery, clear goals and personal accountability. It was an adventure to find fashion and retail networks in Switzerland as 70% of the industry relies on banking and insurance. Instead of seeking expert opinions, in the first year I decided to experiment with everything relentlessly until I figured out what business plan and manufacturing model worked best for She Is Rebel. I noticed that even the most amateur decision is better than no decision at all, or paralysis waiting for the perfect decision. I learned there is no right or wrong choice; you just have to work around each decision you make and move on.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
My stubbornness, boldness, brutal honesty and creativity in problem solving help me all the time. My engineering background got me used to trial-by-error and problem-solving. I see failure as a helpful tool for moving forward. My mantra is ‘go big or go home’. Therefore, I start with what seems the most impossible and go to any extreme to achieve it. I also share with honesty where I stand and what I need; people then genuinely help me.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Leadership is not enough: To create a vision and keep people following you, you need leadership skills. But for day-to-day operations managerial skills are king. You must have come across one of those comparison charts between a leader and a manager; they always praise solely being a leader. The truth is, as CEO, you need a blend of the two. When I share our sales targets with my team, I inspire and motivate them with our vision and the assurance that we are in this side-by-side. This is leadership. An hour later, if someone asks to leave early for family reasons, I need managerial skills to arrange resources and the deliverables in an efficient way.
- Know your people and learn how to fire fast in the beginning: Terminating someone is brutal for both sides. Rather than seeing it as one side ruling over the other, I’ve learned to see it as a professional mismatch that sometimes just happens. It is better to set each other free early and to pursue better suited options. Especially in the first years of start-up, you can’t afford to have people who are not fully ‘there’ and you need to base your decision on both gut instinct and performance.
- A company is never complete: I used to obsess over making one right decision, then finding the next one, but there is no single moment to define a company’s status based on a single decision. Building sustainable practices at She Is Rebel is a great example. I used to strive for the perfect supply chain so as to be considered eco-friendly. In reality, there is no one moment anyone can claim full sustainability. Business is an ongoing process and there is always something to improve on, which is a great sign of growth.
- You can’t be everything to everybody: Because this is how you can stand out. In my corporate life it was all about everybody getting ‘approvals’ from everyone else. Overlooking a company has taught me you can’t please everyone, and that that is ok. Some people not liking your product or approving of your opinion can actually guide you towards where to put your resources. As a start-up founder, I’ve learned to focus on serving better those who like our product, rather than convincing those who don’t.
- Keep moving at all costs: Speed to market is key. While you contemplate a perfect product, somebody else may be building your idea. Your plan will never be perfect anyway. I’ve learned to see entrepreneurship like Super Mario — sometimes you miss coins, sometimes you blow monsters and get double points. As long as you have the vision of saving the princess, all the ups and downs in between are part of the process. You have to keep moving for the sake of your ultimate destination.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t listen to anyone but yourself. People’s advice is based on their own experiences. (including mine!) Thus, they are biased by definition. Unless that person is where you wish to be, be selective in integrating ideas into your business. Otherwise, you get lost in the sea of ‘you should do’s’, which will lead to burn out. I remember going wild about applying every bit of business guru advice I found. Nothing worked until I actually stopped listening, then I prioritised and did things my own way. Sometimes your marketing efforts may not work while your product thrives, or your brand may be amazing when your product needs improvement. It is all about finding your own harmony among the elements of your business rather than making every element perfect.
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?
I am a ‘self-warrior’ as my family and friends say. I ask lots of questions to people around me and make my own mind at the end. Perhaps I can thank my primary school teacher who kept calling me out as a rebel for being outspoken and ‘too’ smart. Though she still couldn’t stop me from becoming even more rebel.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I am committed to having a better work-life balance and allocating more ‘me’ time. I am improving my French after our recent pop-up in Paris was very successful. I want She Is Rebel to be present in fashion capitals, starting with a flagship store in Paris next year. My goal is to introduce consumers to a world in which they can feel empowered and get stylish clothes without sacrificing the planet and their pocket. I believe no woman dresses to ‘save the planet’ when she wakes up. Thus, I work to lead consumers with a cool brand and product, while continuously figuring out the best sustainable and ethical practices.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
My mission is to make women feel powerful and stylish in a socially and environmentally responsible way. I am motivated every day to break the mold of what fashion is for women and how to offer it in a more sustainable manner. I hope to make sustainability a norm in the fashion industry and reach every single woman in Europe and the world. That being said, I want to be remembered as an inspiring rebel-spirit businesswoman who disrupted the fashion industry.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I have always worked in male-dominated environments, even in fashion. I never hesitate to ask for what I want and to assert myself. I have seen female colleagues who couldn’t get the titles they wanted make excuses and withdraw to misleading safety zones. But this mindset only perpetuates the categorisation of women as weak, or, in a modern way, ‘feminist’. We should create a world in which feminism is not needed. The idea of ‘women standing up for what they believe in’ as individuals resonates with me a lot. Today, too many women are afraid to raise their voice, demand a salary increase or simply dress the way they want. The ‘She Is Rebel’ movement aims to encourage women to be more confident in their intelligence, their capacity and their body. It would finally decategorize them.
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