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How This Millennial Entrepreneur Founded a Successful Company With OCD

Liz Funk, founder of And We Evolve, discusses mental health as an entrepreneur.

Photo credit: Liz Funk

"The fashion industry is really, really bad for the environment."

These words on And We Evolve's website sum up the sad state of the clothing business today. In an age where "fast fashion" rules, And We Evolve (AWE for short) cares about doing business differently.

Headquartered in the emerging entrepreneurial hub of Philadelphia, they are focused on both sustainability and style. The company offers a fashion subscription service for secondhand clothing in like-new condition, helping women build wardrobes they love that reflect their unique style.

As a lifelong thrift store lover, I instantly fell in love with And We Evolve's mission the first time I heard about it. But what intrigued me most was the story of AWE's founder, Liz Funk. 

Beyond creating the company, there's a lot you can't tell about Liz from the outside. While it's clear she's brilliant, driven, and dedicated to helping women feel their best in a socially conscious way, what you can't see is the lifelong battle with mental health that shaped her path. 

In this interview, Liz opens up about her diagnosis of OCD, navigating self-care as a busy founder, and how she stays balanced: 

Melody Wilding: What inspired you to start And We Evolve?

Liz Funk: I got into thrift shopping and going to vintage stores when I was 20, going to college in New York City.  With vintage clothes, I loved that the clothes had a secret, previous life totally unbeknownst to me. With secondhand, the equation was simpler: this dress is $2!  How thrilling!

Then, a brilliant journalist named Elizabeth Cline published a book called Overdressed: the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. The book looks at the fast fashion industry, and how stores like H&M, Forever 21, Zara, et cetera, got us hooked on poorly constructed, inexpensive clothes that we replace constantly. She travels across Asia to report on the factories where our clothes are made; it’s grim, to put it delicately.  At that point, my interest in secondhand shifted from a way to find unique, interesting clothes, into a way to close the gap between my values and my actions.

I’ve always been fascinated by this challenge, that every woman has clothes that she no longer wears and many women have an entire wardrobe in a size she no longer wears. I was really curious about a solution--how do we create a cycle so women who want new clothes can access the abundance of clothes that already exist?

Today, And We Evolve is a subscription box service for secondhand clothes in like-new condition. We’re like if Stitch Fix and Buffalo Exchange had a likable hipster baby.  Customers fill out a style questionnaire and share what they need in their wardrobe, and we send them 6-8 items in like-new condition. We have two plans: one allows for returns and customers pay for what they keep, and the other is a flat fee, and customers keep everything in their box at a significant discount. 

Wilding: You’ve been open about your journey with OCD and anxiety. What gave you the courage to speak out and share?

Funk: I was diagnosed with OCD when I was 24.  At the time, I thought I was a freakshow: I had all of these rituals and these weird obsessions. I had heard of OCD, of course, but when you’re so in it, you think that your worries about whether you left the space heater on or whether there were any typos in the emails you sent during the work week reflect real threats.

I really struggled to find the care and professional help I needed.  I ended up creating this kind of piecemeal recovery plan--meditating, reading Deepak Chopra, reading the book Brain Lock by the leading OCD researcher Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz--until I found an OCD specialist and convinced her to squeeze me into her schedule.

It took a solid year and a half to master the tools I needed to live my day-to-day life without interruption from compulsions and intrusive thoughts.  Once my vision was clearer, I felt really called to share what I learned with others.

I spent two years traveling to speak at colleges about OCD awareness and how everyone can benefit from learning to observe their thoughts and wean off worrying about things they can’t control.  At the end of each talk, like clockwork, at least two students would come to talk to me, and tell me about an unusual compulsion they struggled with--that they had never told anyone about--and they’d say, I think I have OCD!

I think way more people have OCD than we as a culture are aware of; in fact, I think we all fall somewhere on an OCD spectrum, and we all have small rituals or areas of magical thinking that make us feel safer.  The more public awareness there is about obsessions, compulsions, and the brain wiring that triggers them, the less likely people will be to fall into downward spirals where obsessive thinking interferes with their functioning.

Wilding: What has starting a company taught you about mental health?

Funk: This is such a great question. One of the most surprising things about starting a company has been how much emotional self-regulation is required.  When we first gained traction, and had our first 50 subscribers, it was really surprising to get customer complaints via email. At first, I took negative feedback from customers really personally; there may have been a day where a single customer email had me crying on the fire escape--I didn’t want our summer interns to see me lose it.  

Six months later, I’m pretty good at solving the problem at hand (if there is an opportunity to solve a problem) and not getting upset or ruffled.

Of all the things I know now, that I wish I knew going into this venture, it would be emotional self-regulation.  Things are going to go wrong, you’re going to get tired, there are going to be some major hurdles and flops. Acknowledge whatever is going wrong and feel what you feel. But spiraling to the tune of “Why did I ever start this?” or “This is a garbage fire!” doesn’t help. Instead, these days I like to channel Winston Churchill: Keep calm and carry on.

Wilding: What does self-care look like for you as a busy CEO?

Funk: Self-care is a foundational part of my life.  I’ve had moderate periods of burnout and self-care is an obvious way to prevent burnout, but it’s also an important aspect of being a good friend to yourself.  So, I have a few self-care strategies:

  1. I non-negotiably get 8 hours of sleep a night. I’m one of those people who needs 8 hours of sleep.
  2.  I don’t drink. I’ve been sober for a year and a half. Figuring out how to live my life without pinot grigio has yielded significant dividends, in terms of my productivity, my energy levels, and how I use my time.  If there is an after-work activity or get-together on my schedule, it’s because I’m really excited about it or because I’m really eager to meet the other person. Now that I’m sober, I’m incapable of forcing myself to do social things that I don’t actually want to do. It’s amazing how much time to save! I think I used to be a lot more casual about going to networking events that sounded generally interesting and meeting up with other women who I met at networking events who seemed generally interesting, because I was like, “Whatever! We’ll have a few drinks, get to know one another, we’ll discover we have some things in common, and at the very least, it’s an evening’s entertainment.”  Now that I’m sober, I really can’t handle big networking events and meeting people for coffee without a gameplan in mind. Does that make me sound like a scrooge? I hope not. What I’m trying to say is, I am much more deliberate in how I invest my time. I’m much more aware of, Is this activity nourishing me and charging my batteries?
  3. I don’t work on Sundays.  Having one non-negotiable day off a week is really important to me.  I usually make an effort to do something novel on Sundays: go to a museum, go to a cute town tucked in the rural areas around Philadelphia, go to the movies.  I also love binge-reading: tucking into a book and reading 100 pages or so in a sitting.

Wilding: What's next for the company?

Funk: Scaling!  What’s really exciting is that the secondhand clothing space is on a tear.  There are a number of companies operating in this space and we all benefit from the fact that one another’s work and growth and success normalizes wearing secondhand fashion.  For example, ThredUp is a massive marketplace for secondhand fashion that posits itself as “the world’s largest thrift store.” The Real Real is a huge marketplace for secondhand designer fashion and luxury accessories.  Poshmark is a peer-to-peer marketplace for reselling clothing and accessories. And We Evolve has a unique product/ position in this space, but we benefit from the work of larger, venture capital-backed companies that are clearing a path, in terms of changing the dialogue around wearing secondhand clothes. Saying “It’s secondhand!” is no longer a way to deflect a compliment on your outfit; rather, it’s a statement about consciously wielding your spending power (by not stimulating demand for factory-new clothes) and about deliberating building a wardrobe you love, that acts as an extension of how you show up in the word.

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