Fran Dunaway of TomboyX: “Prioritize education”

Women control 85% of consumer spending, so I think they have a pretty good idea about what they want to purchase. I also think that the points I mentioned above about how we are raised make for a great foundation on building sustainable, efficient businesses. The data shows that women make great founders, build profitable […]

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Women control 85% of consumer spending, so I think they have a pretty good idea about what they want to purchase. I also think that the points I mentioned above about how we are raised make for a great foundation on building sustainable, efficient businesses. The data shows that women make great founders, build profitable businesses and think about the societal impact of businesses as well.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fran Dunaway.

Fran Dunaway is a media executive turned fashion entrepreneur and cofounder of TomboyX, a Seattle-based gender-neutral underwear and loungewear brand launched in 2013. The brand started as a passion project in collaboration with her wife and cofounder, Naomi Gonzalez, to create the perfect button-up shirt before pivoting to focus on underwear based on the overwhelming demand for their first boxer brief for women. Fran and TomboyX are driven by a belief that brands can be a force for positive change, and their messaging promotes a human agenda to inspire conversation about gender, confidence, acceptance, and inclusion.

Fran is an alumna of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ program, which identifies ambitious women entrepreneurs and provides them with the guidance, resources and access they need to unlock their full potential.

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?

I consider myself an “accidental” entrepreneur. I started this underwear company because I wanted a cool button-up shirt — think Robert Graham but for women. Naomi Gonzalez, my cofounder (then-girlfriend and now my wife), asked the prophetic question, “How hard can it be to start a clothing line?” And off we went.

We chose the name TomboyX because we thought it was cute. We bootstrapped the development of the shirts and in 2013 launched a Kickstarter campaign to pay for their production. I’d like to point out that Naomi and I were quite happy in our careers. We were comfortable with getting paychecks, having health insurance and taking vacations. We weren’t looking for a new career; we just wanted to solve the problem of the lack of quality button-up shirts for women like us. It was about a week into the Kickstarter campaign that we realized that because of the name of the brand, we were resonating with people around the world who were super excited that there was finally a fashion brand for them. We had instant brand recognition and had stepped into a big white space unseen by other apparel companies at the time.

As the business grew, we started hearing a drumbeat mantra: “you should make boxer briefs for women.” It was the number one request from our customer base. We didn’t know that no one was doing that. In fact, when I went to and typed in “women’s boxer briefs,” up came a pair of Spanx and nothing else. We were pretty sure that this was not what our customer was looking for, so we set out to create the most comfortable boxer briefs to fit people who hadn’t been able to find comfortable ones in all shapes and sizes. In September 2014, we introduced two lengths of boxer briefs and we pre-sold them via our website, in hopes of selling enough to pay for them when they arrived two weeks later. We sold out before they arrived, and six months later, we had tripled our revenue. We had found our hero product to build a brand around. In July 2016, we pivoted into an underwear brand and have since expanded into swimwear, sleepwear and loungewear.

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

I think it’s interesting how timing has been so important to our success. We were unknowingly riding the zeitgeist of the times because of our own values and beliefs about equality, fairness and inclusivity. We launched with sizes XS to 4X and have now expanded to XXS to 6X, all for the same price. We didn’t do that for market share — we did it so that we were including everyone in our community. We also care deeply about the environment, so we wanted to make sure that we were using OEKO-TEX certified fabrics and dyeing processes that use less water. We made sure to work with factories that pay a living wage, and we provided health insurance to all our employees from day one. Today, other companies are trying to catch up because customers care more and more about where they are spending their dollars.

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?

When we set out to raise money to fuel our growth, we did the usual song and dance, pitching to various angel groups around the US. At first, we naively thought that anyone hearing our story would, of course, want to make an investment in us. This was before we had data showing that people tend to invest in people who look like them, and there weren’t a lot of people who fit that category for us at the time. A lesbian couple in their 40s and 50s who had zero experience or track record in apparel, and who thought that underwear should be inclusive and comfortable for everyone. I remember sitting in a meeting with eight or 10 white men. After my five-minute pitch, one of the men said he just didn’t get it and would have to ask his wife if she’d wear what we were making. Another guy chuckled a little and asked, “What’s wrong with Victoria Secret?” The room then erupted in laughter. I trust they now know the answer to that question.

It took us a long time to raise our seed round, but I persisted, and we did it. I’m proud to say that 90% of those early investors were women. In fact, the lead investor in that round made a 20-fold return on their investment four years later. That’s a huge point of pride for us.

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?

There is one person who truly made the greatest impact on our business and our professional growth as well. Her name is Deborah Benton, and she recently launched Willow Growth Fund to help fund startup businesses with people of color (POC) and women founders. She has seen how challenging it is for women and the POC community to raise money in the current environment, and being the trailblazer that she is, she decided to take matters into her own hands and make a difference. Deborah was one of our early investors and advisors and loved what we were doing from the get-go. She has no shortage of enthusiasm and positivity, and she really understands direct-to-consumer businesses as well as the challenges that founders face. She was brilliant in spoon-feeding us the next tidbits of information to focus on, helping us to pay attention to what was important then and keeping us from being overwhelmed by what was yet to come. She was always there to talk us off the ledge and lead us to the trough of smart decision-making.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead continues to have impact on me and our company culture. I reread it, play the audible version and listen to her podcasts every week. I just love that her sensible approach to the execution of clarity is kindness.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I’m a strong disciple of the notion to not sweat the small stuff. I think we can all get caught up in our own heads and spiral about things that don’t make a difference in the long run. Especially at 3:00 a.m., when we can’t sleep. Being lighthearted and finding humor in just about anything, that’s a code I live by.

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

I hope we have! We hear from customers on a daily basis, telling us how grateful and accepted they feel by our company. We read a customer review every week at our all-team meeting. They are why we’re here and what keeps us going. We don’t want to pretend to have any answers on how to be cool. We think you’re really cool just as you are. As a brand, we seek to help people feel comfortable in their own skin, figuratively and literally.

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?

I think my example from when I pitched to a room full of white men and their response was to joke about Victoria’s Secret is a great illustration of the main problem — the barriers to entry are guarded by those who have constructed a system where only those who look like them get the help they need. Starting a company is really hard, and marginalized communities aren’t given support or access to resources. Additionally, women have way more societal norms that are about don’ts than men do and are raised in a system that asks them to toe a line rather than draw their own. We need to build pathways for women and underserved communities that aren’t controlled by the same people who assume that a woman-owned company would need to appeal to their wife to be deserving of attention.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

I mentor almost any founder who reaches out and wants to chat — some on a regular basis and others on an as-needed basis. A friend of mine and I started an investment group that meets monthly, covering the basics of evaluating business ideas and investment opportunities. We’re trying to help educate our members in the language of startup investing and take the mystery out of good business principles. It’s a lot of fun, and we hope to make money so that we can invest in more women- and POC-led companies. I also guest lecture at various universities for their business students and budding entrepreneurs. I find it very helpful to be a connector for folks in my network as well.

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

Women control 85% of consumer spending, so I think they have a pretty good idea about what they want to purchase. I also think that the points I mentioned above about how we are raised make for a great foundation on building sustainable, efficient businesses. The data shows that women make great founders, build profitable businesses and think about the societal impact of businesses as well.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Remember that access to capital is the number one barrier for female entrepreneurs. Women aren’t writing investment checks, certainly not like men do. We need to find a way to facilitate women and POC writing checks.
  2. Prioritize education. How do we disseminate and provide educational platforms? There are so many ways that entrepreneurs can raise money for business ideas. In addition to raising money from outside investors, there are grants, small business loans, and educational programs with a focus on small business.
  3. Find ways to help women network better, with more flexible ways to do so. Networks are such a critical and important way to further ideas and businesses. I cannot stress that enough.
  4. Value solid, profitable businesses as just as viable and worthy of investment as so-called unicorn ideas.
  5. Figure out how to better mobilize and defragment the various organizations out there.

You are a person 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.

Get more wealth in the hands of women worldwide.

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.

Sheryl Sandberg. I owe her a thank you for writing the book Lean In. I think she got women around the world to start thinking about ways we can lift each other up and the power of a women’s network focused on doing just that. I know I benefited from the wave of enthusiasm that idea generated. And while I don’t necessarily think that women should have to capitulate to a certain type of behavior in order to be successful, I value the conversation it started and how that conversation is growing.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

To find out what our customers are raving about, check out our website I’m not terribly active on Twitter, but my handle is @fdunaway. If you want to follow my wife and my adventures, you can see us on Instagram at @fnawesomeadventures.

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

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