When you think about the way the world works, you realize that every single thing around you has been created by someone. From the products sold to the laws, to the systems, to the regulations, to the environments in which we live, it’s all been shaped by the hearts and minds of people in positions of leadership and power. And if we really want any of those to change, then we need to get involved. The power of one person to change the world is truer than it ever has been, especially as we are backed by technology to amplify any one set of actions. One voice of informed conviction is all it takes to create a movement of change that the entire planet can transform and benefit from.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonia Saint Dunbar.
Antonia is a Co-Founder of THINX, Inc. and is currently the Co-Founder/CEO of new high-tech shoe company Antonia Saint NY.
The focus of Antonia’s companies is to provide much-needed solutions for women, and sustainable alternatives for the planet. With THINX, Inc., she created performance underwear, activewear, and other reusable feminine care items, and with Antonia Saint NY, she makes hi-tech, customized-fit heels and flats that last longer, and feel soft like sneakers on the inside.
Antonia first began her entrepreneurial journey by writing the patent and leading the design of the premier products at THINX that was later named one of TIME Magazine’s “Top 25 Inventions.” She was the Chief Operations Officer for many years, and helped to secure a long-term strategic partnership with Nike’s #1 supplier, while the company went on to be named one of Fast Company’s “Top 50 Most Innovative Companies”, Entrepreneur’s “Top 100 Most Brilliant Companies,” CNBC’s “Top 50 Disruptors,” and #37 on Inc.’s “5000 Fastest-Growing Companies.”
Called a “Feminist Genius” by the press, and nominated to Women 2.0’s list of “Top Founders to Watch,” Antonia is now focused on disrupting the 28 Billion Dollar U.S. women’s shoe industry, with multiple patents and other patents pending for Antonia Saint NY. The market test of Version 1.0 of her shoes had 2.1Million dollars in pre-orders, and in 2019 she officially launched the brand with Version 2.0 of the technology and design to rave reviews.
She now lives in New York with her two young daughters and her husband, a biotech investor on Wall Street, who was the first CFO and angel investor at THINX, and her Co-Founder and first CFO for Antonia Saint NY.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I was born into an entrepreneurial family of artists and designers, which informed my view of the world a great deal. My parents met at Pratt Institute, and my father was actually one of the first industrial design students to ever graduate from there. He went on to be one of the chiefs of design at General Motors, and my mom got her masters in art at Columbia University before becoming an art teacher. They also had their own graphic design business where they created logos and things for local businesses, as well as our music camps that my sisters and I were always shuttled around to when we were growing up.
All three of us were raised to be classical musicians, and even though I went to Northwestern University for a degree in music, I really applied there so I could get in with their excellent acting school, as well as graduate with a good fall-back degree in Communications. Sorry, Mom! 🙂 From there I worked in advertising and PR, and it was only when I met my co-founders for THINX that all of the design training I got as a child became very relevant. That was when I began my entrepreneurial journey writing the patent and leading the design of the period-proof underwear while being the Chief of Operations at the same time.
A few years later, it was while I was walking to our THINX headquarters on the far west side of the city, that I came up with another solution for women, but this time in relation to shoes. My feet were killing me, and I was down to one pair of shoes that were cute enough and comfortable enough that I could wear all day and night, even though I easily had 100 other pairs at home. I consulted with a leading podiatric surgeon from New York City and then created our SoftSurround System that is now found in every Antonia Saint NY shoe we make, providing supreme cushion with every step, in addition to a customized fit via our proprietary system.
I never imagined in a million years I would have co-founded companies that are all about creating solutions for women, but I’m happy to be surprised. In the midst of it all, I also have been blessed to have been able to co-create two wonderful little girls, and being a Mama and an entrepreneur is a daily lesson-giver that I learn so much from each and every day.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
Thought leadership to me is about looking at things differently, and thinking about them differently from the “status quo.” It’s really about changing the way things are.
When we were creating THINX, we knew that if we wanted to change the way women’s underwear was working and failing us, and the fact that millions of girls weren’t in school in the developing world due to something as simple as their monthly periods, we would have to talk about this taboo topic. We would have to change the thinking that it’s gross, or that it can’t be talked about, or it can only be solved in the traditional disposable ways in the developed world, or never properly addressed by the culture in the developing world.
In fact, the word “taboo” actually comes from the Polynesian word for menstruation, or “tapua,” and in many parts of the world, a menstruating woman faces far too many obstacles to this day. And so we broke the taboo. We talked about it, and lo and behold, it got others encouraged to speak, and we found that people wanted this solution we created. We created a best-in-class product and helped address the needs of the woman as well as the environment (for example, every woman typically disposes 17,000 pads or tampons in her lifetime, and THINX helps to cut this down dramatically). Our company helped open the FemTech category, leading cover stories on Newsweek, The New York Times and so many others, and becoming an award-winning company and one of Time Magazine’s Best Inventions.
As for our hi-tech shoe company, I was also tired of being sold the same bill of goods for shoes that simply didn’t perform as they needed to for us women. Shoes were beautiful, but they gave us pain and we were expected to endure it. I took that and turned it on its head, saying things as we’d never break those glass ceilings (ceilings like only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female) if part of our brains is focused on the pain from something as simple as our footwear. So I ended up creating and patenting heels and flats with an elegant silhouette that are so surprisingly soft and supportive, that women began saying they “look classic on the outside and feel like a sneaker inside.”
I also found that companies were getting away with cheap or thoughtless design or components, and I wanted to educate women on the benefits of better-made products for themselves, and the planet, and how to discern them.
With both companies I’ve created, it’s about changing the way we look at our products, and if they either support us or hold us back, if they are good for the environment or not, and doing something about it to make the landscape better for all of us.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One thing I have found interesting is how culture gets shaped by the narratives we are being exposed to. Overwhelmingly, we get our information from the media, and also from our communities. I’ve seen more examples than I can count on the written or broadcast media getting a story wrong from what actually happened. And I learned that you really have to research things yourself and get information as close to the original sources as possible. So often, things are “spun” in the direction that the writer or the one doing the speaking wants you to focus on. It unfortunate, and challenging, but you can’t believe everything you read or hear. And now in times of increasing censorship in our country, and reporters who are influenced by the ad dollars their publications receive, you really have to dig deeper and find the truth yourself.
I know that in business, for instance, with buying any product, we oftentimes look for reviews and seek social validation. One thing I can say is to try to get as close to the source as you can, and if something really interests you, discover it yourself. Do the research yourself by actually buying the product. Then you will really know.
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?
I know you want to hear about a “funny” mistake, but I can’t help but think of the painful mistakes, because those are the ones you really learn the most from. Those can leave you with a lasting impression that changes the course of your future, and the decisions you make from that point forward.
For instance, one thing I learned with both THINX and Antonia Saint NY is the importance of being resilient. With both companies when I was leading the design of the products, there were so many challenges with fit, production and getting the technology to perform the way we wanted to, while also being beautiful. I can’t even count the number of prototypes we had to go through before we got it close to being an MVP (minimum viable product). There were numerous times when I could have given up, saying it was too hard. But every time it was close to impossible, that’s when I found one other way to work around the problem and go onto a greater solution.
I have found that with entrepreneurship you have to be incredibly resilient. The ones who don’t make mistakes or fail are not the most successful ones, it’s simply that they are the ones who keep picking themselves back up and trying again after every setback.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
When you think of the word “leadership” in relationship to “thought”, it’s that this person can see the world being different, and can then communicate the vision they see and lead the people into thinking in this different way to create this change, better future. It’s not easy, but if you can find a way to distill your story into manageable soundbites of information, where the message can be easily carried forward, more can be impacted, and change can occur.
The difference between thought leaders and influencers, in my opinion, is leadership is about blazing a new trail, creating a new world, and influencers are more about sharing what’s hip and current and sharing that with their communities. I see the realm of thought leadership to be more vast, but oftentimes, they overlap, with thought leaders becoming influencers and influencers becoming thought leaders. It depends on how deep they go in setting a new paradigm for reality.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
When you think about the way the world works, you realize that every single thing around you has been created by someone. From the products sold to the laws, to the systems, to the regulations, to the environments in which we live, it’s all been shaped by the hearts and minds of people in positions of leadership and power. And if we really want any of those to change, then we need to get involved.
The power of one person to change the world is truer than it ever has been, especially as we are backed by technology to amplify any one set of actions. One voice of informed conviction is all it takes to create a movement of change that the entire planet can transform and benefit from.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
One example I can think of is the model of having a business for both profit and purpose. When we started THINX, the only other company we knew of at the time for driving profit to create change in the world was TOMS shoes. They had the One-for-One model where they gave a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair sold.
For our focus, we knew we wanted to do something similar because we had researched the issues with finding proper feminine products in the developing world, and found that millions of girls were dropping out of school simply because of their periods and not having the right supplies or sanitation.
When we started our company, we knew we wanted to have a type of giveback, however, we called ours an empowerment model and not a welfare model, or hand out. We wanted these girls to feel empowered to still take care of themselves.
Our first partner was in Uganda with AFRIpads, who was creating and selling packs of 7 washable, reusable cloth pads with local entrepreneurs, and we helped to subsidize those pads so they could be more readily available and affordable with every pair of THINX underwear we sold.
We had great success with this early program, and now THINX Inc. is dedicated to period rights and empowerment via Giverise (https://www.shethinx.com/pages/thinx-giverise).
With the shoe company Antonia Saint NY, I’m working on educating people on being more conscious consumers, and getting them to demand more from their products. We need more solutions and not stuff, and we need things to last longer and help support our health and the planet. We must move away from fast fashion and unnecessary production. Buying fewer, better things is something that I want to impress upon the world to help stop the hemorrhaging of throw-away fashion to the tune of 70 pounds a person each year (http://worldwearproject.com/about-us/global-responsibility), which also negatively affects the appetites of us customers making us feel like we need to buy more and more. We need to be re-trained to not always seek newness, but to buy wisely and slowly, and to seek quality when we do.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
Here are 5 strategies that a person can implement to become a thought leader to change the world:
- Identify the problem — What’s wrong in your world and what bothers you the most? So much so, that you would be motivated to use energy to change it? And if this problem is a problem for many others too, it likely is something that needs solving that others can get behind.
- Think about what you can do to fix it — How would you tackle the problem? What resources do you have? What training, skill or talent? Do you need funding? Can you crowdsource to begin? Once you’ve done that start to map out your plan and build the blueprint for your idea.
- Find the right team — Who can you work with to fix it? Who would be on your team? Think of people of different skill sets that can complement your own. You can never do everything on your own, nor should you.
- Get the right message — How will you distill what you need to communicate in order to create the change you need? It needs to be concise and repeatable, so easily shared by others.
- Create the solution and deploy it — Once you have found the right people to help you make it (strategy 3 above), then you need to get it out into the world. Don’t take forever. Get an MVP (minimum viable product) and launch! You must move to keep moving. That’s why they say entrepreneurs are the ones flying and building the plane at the same time. It’s scary, but sometimes that’s what you have to do! Take the risk.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
There are so many people I think of… Martin Luther King, Malala Yousef, Greta Thunberg, Gandhi…
One of the contemporary cultural examples here in America would definitely be OPRAH.
I was listening to an interview where she shared that after she had an episode about KKK skinheads on her show in the late 80s, she realized that she didn’t want to give people like that a platform to deliver more hate and separation into the world. So she re-thought the way she was doing the show. During this time, talk shows captured much of the country’s attention, and it seemed that things were degrading in a sensationalistic way where the challenge was on to be the most outrageous or revealing in content.
It was shortly afterward that OPRAH began a change in the content she produced and ended every show with “Live Your Best Life.” She opened up discussions on the darkness of molestation, drug use, and racism, to the lighter side of life like spirituality, redemption, and progress. She has helped guide the thoughts and lives of many who have listened to her messages, and as she’s also been someone who has gone through her own times of struggles and triumphs, she’s a personal inspiration to me.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I haven’t been paying attention to this. I think that it doesn’t really matter what you call it, or how you look at it. The only important thing is that you are out there driving change.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I can’t recommend enough a daily meditation practice and the preservation of a good perspective, by keeping up an inventory assessment of your thoughts. You really have to drop those negative thoughts. I personally start my day early with some Kundalini yoga, chanting and music, and it sets the right foundation for the day. It creates space in my reactions that become more thoughtful responses, and a clearer thinking process where better decisions are made.
Another helpful thing is to turn the phone off while at home. It is amazing to me as someone who grew up without technology, how deeply embedded it has gotten into our lives. My first experience with a computer was at 9 years old, and I could only learn the answers to all questions via the Encyclopedia Britannica set at the foot of our stairs (which was incredibly frustrating as you can imagine, no easy search and find options), or asking my brilliant father who knew so many answers.
So while I have an appreciation for technology improving our lives, I have seen a world without tech, and see how it is currently re-wiring our brains and creating new pathways on a daily basis, and often not being helpful, but more of a distraction, to creating a peaceful, effective life of purpose. My advice is to learn to be present at the moment and enjoy more of what is actually happening around you, rather than what you can see of the moment within the screen. It will make you happier, more productive and more content as a result.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
First, let me say that I think everyone has the potential to be a person of enormous influence.
So if I could inspire a movement, it would be to treat others with respect and care (including animals and our precious planet and resources), to live in a way that is the most productive for peace (such as living a sober, thoughtful life that limits the distractions of media and is guided more with purpose), and to work with others to get the truth revealed at every level of industry in our capitalistic society. Because right now I feel there is a great movement already taking place, of people questioning the status quo and really seeking the truth and better solutions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I guess it would have to be the one that has been at the bottom of my personal email address since about 2000. It’s from Margaret Mead, where she says “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
With the co-founding of both my companies, and some of the activism work I’m currently doing in health and medical freedom, I’ve seen that time and again, it is the informed, passionate citizen who can use the power of their voice, and the power of sharing truths, that can change the way this world operates.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
OPRAH 🙂 She’s had a life of profound challenges and great success, and I’ve always admired her ability to choose to direct her life in a positive way, informed by spirit.
By the way, one of my co-founders for THINX, Radha Agrawal, created this morning dance party called DAYBREAKER that starts your day with energy and intention in cities worldwide, and DAYBREAKER is now doing the pre-day dance party kick-off for OPRAH’s 2020 Vision Tour.
So, OPRAH, maybe see you on the dancefloor! 🙂
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me at @antoniasaintdunbar on Instagram and @antoniasaintny. You can also follow THINX by following @shethinx and sister company Speax at @speaxbythinx