“Take some time to appreciate what you’ve already accomplished.” With Penny Bauder & Casey Dworkin

For me, one of the most interesting facets of running a company is all of the amazing people I get the chance to meet. Even now amidst the new coronavirus, when I’m spending my days inside my New York City apartment, I have extremely inspirational phone calls and Zoom meetings with new people, and it […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

For me, one of the most interesting facets of running a company is all of the amazing people I get the chance to meet. Even now amidst the new coronavirus, when I’m spending my days inside my New York City apartment, I have extremely inspirational phone calls and Zoom meetings with new people, and it gives me such renewed energy!

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Casey Dworkin.

Casey Dworkin is the Founder and Creative Director of sustainable footwear brand, Sylven New York. Her shoes are known for their cutting-edge combination of bio-based, renewable, recyclable, organic, and biodegradable materials, and are all handcrafted in Italy. Dworkin was born on Earth Day, and has been dedicated to sustainable practices from a young age as a result. Her creative interests led her to pursue fashion, and graduated with a degree from Drexel University in a combination of Product Design and Fashion Merchandising. Her alma mater recently recognized her for her work in sustainable shoe design and production in their 40 Under 40 profile.

Prior to launching her own line, Dworkin spent her professional career working within small footwear and fashion companies, and attributes a lot of her early knowledge and experience to “being thrown in the deep end.” When she decided to launch a company of her own, she felt compelled to base her brand equally on craftsmanship, design, and mission — finally getting the opportunity to combine her affinities for both fashion and sustainability.

Recently, Casey has been working to redesign footwear from the inside out, and has been focusing on materials and components such as apple leather (a vegan material made from organic apple waste), linings made from wheat and corn byproducts, leathers treated naturally with tree barks, and vegan leathers derived from 100% recycled fibers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Ihappen to be born on Earth Day, so growing up I always felt super connected to nature; I made it a point to educate myself on sustainability long before it became the craze that it is today. Back in my high school days, I founded and presided over my school’s environmental club where I brought students together to work on projects like improving our school’s recycling systems. It was around the same time that I also became enamored with fashion. I made the decision to study fashion in college and studied abroad in Italy, which was a huge catalyst for my decision to become a shoe designer. I fell in love with the leather markets in Florence and was drawn to the centuries of history and design. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my love for bettering the environment and heritage Italian craftsmanship would become the meaningful pillars for everything that I work toward today.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

With my company Sylven New York, I am looking to take the historically resource intensive and exploitative practices of the fashion industry and reshape them in a way that’s beneficial to our planet and its inhabitants. Whether we are focusing on ethical labor practices, or sourcing regenerative materials and components for our luxury footwear, we are always working toward a true intersection between fashion and sustainability.

Being a mission-driven brand, we are constantly working on social impact based projects. While our footwear is typically the driving force behind our social impact campaigns, with the advent of COVID-19, we started to think about what would be “sustainable” for the world as it stands right now.

Recently, we launched a “Dust Bag Drive” to take dust bags — the protective cloth shipped with every pair of shoes — and upcycle them into face masks. With the ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment, we wanted to do our part to help protect those most in need and to leverage the collective power of my community to make as much of an impact as possible. Every dust bag we collect can be made into 1–2 masks. In addition to donating a few hundred of our own dust bags, we are asking both brands and individuals to participate and donate their dust bags to the cause.

We partnered with a wonderful organization called Masks for Humanity that created a nationwide network of sewers and distributors. They are an incredible resource connecting makers, supplies and frontline organizations. Through Masks for Humanity, we have an infrastructure to take all the dust bags we collect and turn them into masks, which we then distribute to domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, essential workers, and other vulnerable and at risk communities. So far, Masks for Humanity has received upwards of 425,000 requests for face masks, and each one we help to create can make a substantial difference.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

While there has always been a large social impact initiative built into my shoe brand, I wanted to find a way to assist with the pandemic, and started to brainstorm what I could do, both as an individual and as a brand, to help.Especially within the fashion industry, I saw a lot of my peers turn to mask making, but with my factories overseas in Italy and no real viable sewing skills of my own, that didn’t feel like something I could authentically contribute. As I sat in my home office next to a stack of dust bags that I keep to protect shoe samples, I thought about all the homemade masks I had seen being made. Especially with drawstrings, dust bags are a perfect material to be made into masks. Sitting next to me alone was close to 100 dust bags, and I realized that if I had 100 just in my home office, what might other brands and shoe collectors have available?

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I definitely attribute my “Aha Moment” to the reminder of just how short life can be, and how, with the blink of an eye, absolutely everything you know can change. About six years ago, I had a devastating apartment fire that left me with only the clothes on my back. And I was so lucky to walk away with that! While it was hard to rebuild my life, it became a fresh start. Starting over with nothing was a reminder that “nothing” is only “nothing” if you allow it to be. I still had amazing relationships with friends and family, and my health, and my creative brain.

My mindset around material goods had changed, and I think, for the better. I started to think more practically about rebuilding my wardrobe, and the spark of designing my first collection of shoes began out of necessity. Here I was, living in NYC, still working in fashion, and I no longer owned any shoes. So I started to develop ideas — if I only had one pair of boots, what would they look like? That pair of boots became the foundation for my first collection of Sylven New York.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

It all starts with an idea… and then another idea… and then another idea. I think a helpful impetus for me to just start was the added perspective that life is short, so there will never be a better time to take a risk. Once I started to think about those first few styles that could make up my own collection, I challenged myself to also identify the values that were important to me. I wanted to make sure I was only working with sustainable materials, I wanted more control over the timeline of my day-to-day life, etc. I sat and wrote out a master list that I organized into categories. It became my business plan. It became my mission statement.

My biggest piece of advice is just to put your ideas on paper. Let them evolve. Let them grow. Let them build off of each other. Those ideas will lead you to understand where your passions lie, where they don’t, and that will help to shape what steps you need to take to move forward.

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

For me, one of the most interesting facets of running a company is all of the amazing people I get the chance to meet. Even now amidst the new coronavirus, when I’m spending my days inside my New York City apartment, I have extremely inspirational phone calls and Zoom meetings with new people, and it gives me such renewed energy!

For example, when I first began my Dust Bag Drive, I was connected to Jayna Zweiman, the founder of Masks for Humanity, and our partner in the initiative. We had an initial call about logistics, and I remember that I just didn’t want to hang up the phone! Her energy was so electric, and our connection was palpable. We ended up speaking for well over an hour, learning all about each other’s lives (both personal and professional) and I feel like I gained a lifelong friend.

So many of my interesting stories follow this same premise. I love getting to meet such driven, and creative people, and having a company with a clear mission is an amazing vehicle to meet them!

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

I feel like one of the keys to entrepreneurship is an ability to appreciate the value of “mistakes.” I truly believe that mistakes should be thought of as an opportunity to learn. Everything becomes a learning experience, because you are constantly met with challenges and situations that you have never experienced before. The only way to figure out how to move forward is to keep testing things and focusing on what works best for you. And if you can laugh while doing it, then even better.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

While I was just starting to get into fashion, my cousin Brian was working in marketing at Ralph Lauren in NYC. When I graduated school in Philadelphia and moved to New York, the two of us would get together and talk about different brand campaigns and goings on in the industry, and I always looked up to him.

When I first launched Sylven, I sent him my initial brand development deck. He helped me understand the “marketing funnel” and really instilled the importance of strong storytelling. He always asked me about Sylven at family gatherings, and our fashion chats continued.

Almost two years later as I was rebranding, Brian asked if he could use Sylven as a case study for a digital marketing executive education program. Something clicked, and we went from having casual chats to talking about marketing strategy on the phone almost daily. We found that our working styles really complimented one another, and Brian officially came on board as the Head of Marketing and Communications. Especially with the strangeness of the pandemic, we have become each other’s cheerleaders. He’s always there to help me develop my ideas, encourage me to be my best, and lift my spirits. Also, working alongside someone who has known me my entire life has kept me balanced, energized, and on course.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Our Dust Bag Drive is helping amazing people and organizations who are otherwise at a loss for PPE. Through Masks for Humanity’s infrastructure, organizations and individuals can request specific quantities of face masks. For example, The Foothill AIDS project from San Bernardino, CA submitted a request for 1,000 masks, and through the incredible sewers at Masks for Humanity, all 1,000 masks were made and shipped as a donation to people in three different countries around the world. We’re eager to replicate that impact for as many more people as we can.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

If I could narrow it down to three things we could adopt societally, I would implore us all to think more holistically as a community, to be mindful of the choices we make and the impact we have, and to focus on solutions.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I’m a big fan of numbered lists, so in no particular order: 5 things I wish someone told me when I first started:

  1. Don’t let the fact that you’ve already done a lot of work prevent you from pivoting or walking away from something that isn’t the right fit. Maybe it’s all the uncertainty that comes alongside the pandemic, but especially right now I keep wanting to do things the way I had originally planned, and then realizing it just doesn’t make sense anymore given the circumstances. I may have spent a year or so developing a product or an idea, but if it’s not the right time or the right fit, it’s okay to walk away. It can be really hard to let things go, but it’s so important to look at things from a bird’s eye view, to become comfortable with uncertainty, and to be ready to pivot gracefully.
  2. Take some time to appreciate what you’ve already accomplished. It’s easy for me to get caught up in future goals and plans, and in all of the items racked up on my to-do list. But, I try to remind myself to appreciate the wins, big and small, and remember when I wanted so badly to be where I am right now. I think in fashion, in particular, when you’re working a few seasons ahead, everything feels like it’s future focused, and remaining present feels nearly impossible. In situations like now, however, where the future of fashion (and of so many things) is uncertain, focusing on the present and having gratitude for all that you have already accomplished, allows you to try new things. That’s exactly how our Dust Bag Drive was born.
  3. Things are going to get hard, like, harder than you realize. Starting something of your own comes with high highs and low lows. Things get really tough, and then you pull through. And then something tougher comes along, and knocks you right back down. And you might cry. And that’s okay! It’s a tough thing to prepare for. I think entrepreneurship is often glorified, and it can be wonderful, but I think it’s also important to remember that things are going to be hard. You’re going to be challenged constantly, so having good coping mechanisms, outlets and support systems are paramount.
  4. Always do what feels authentic to you. There are so many new initiatives, brands, non-profits, and companies with lots of people offering advice on what they think will be right. Listen to them, but form your own conclusions about what feels right for you. I often find that when I stop being influenced by how I think I should do something, and I lean into doing it my own way, I find the best results. Trust your gut, listen to others and seek advice, but do what feels most authentic to you.
  5. A global pandemic is going to happen in 2020 that will knock your entire business upside-down; remain agile. You know, if someone had a crystal ball and could have warned us, things could be so much different! Of course, there are things I would have done differently, had I known what was coming. We all would have. But honestly, there are going to be unpredictable setbacks all throughout life. There is so much that is out of our control. All we can do is teach ourselves to be flexible and agile and adapt as best we can, while remaining kind to ourselves and to each other.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would relay how immensely gratifying it is to know that all of the hard work that you’re putting in is for a greater good. No matter what you do, you’re going to work hard. But, at the end of the day, working on something that you’re passionate about will get you out of bed in the morning feeling inspired. Find that purpose and it will be the best decision you’ll ever make.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This is tough! But, you know who I think would be amazing to eat lunch with? Jameela Jamil. First of all, I feel like we would have the best time and could crack each other up (I’m only now really picturing this and totally hope you do tag her)! Secondly, she is such an amazing example of someone who is authentically themselves (which is so hard to do over social media) while also being a true activist. I have found her words encouraging on many occasions and I think we could all benefit by taking a few notes out of her book. Maybe now she’ll share them with me over lunch!

How can our readers follow you online?

The best way to find us is through our website www.sylvennewyork.com. We have pages dedicated to our Dust Bag Drive as well as to all of our sustainable practices. Signing up for our newsletter is definitely the best way to get all the info you need! We love to keep in touch.

You can also find us on Instagram at Instagram.com/sylvennewyork and newly on Tik-Tok!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

You might also like...


Olivia Chessé On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia

Julie Allen On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia

sHeroes: How Maria Casey of BUHO is bringing sustainable and ethical goods into homes across the country

by Alexandra Spirer
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.