What’s it like to be a female entrepreneur? Passion Lilie celebrates International Women’s Day

For female entrepreneurs, International Women’s Day is a cause for celebration. Every year on March 8, we like to pause and remember the achievements of women who paved the way for us and think about how we can continue blazing a trail for those who will come after us. International Women’s Day “celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.”

Female entrepreneurs leap over an expansive gender gap

 A global study conducted between 2014-2020 shows that the gap in male and female entrepreneurs remained stable over the six-year period: the average number of female entrepreneurs was way below the number of male entrepreneurs. In all economies studied, the data showed:

  • There are more men than women who own or manage limited liability companies.
  • Women represent an average of 1/4 of new business owners and directors, while men represent 3/4 of new business owners and directors.
  • The average share of female sole proprietors is about 1/3 compared to 2/3 for the average share of male sole proprietors.

The study concludes that some of the major contributing factors to the disparity are invisible barriers and ingrained cultural beliefs that hinder female entrepreneurs from reaching the same successes as their male counterparts. For example, even after decades of work to close the gap, about 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against women.

With that staggering statistic in mind, we want to recognize International Women’s Day by talking to Passion Lilie’s founder, CEO and designer, Katie Schmidt, about her experience as a female entrepreneur.

An interview with Katie Schmidt, founder, CEO and designer of Passion Lilie

Passion Lilie Founder, CEO and Designer Katie Schmidt embraces equity with the IWD 2023 pose

How did you decide to start Passion Lilie? What was it like starting a business for the first time?

Starting Passion Lilie was a journey that began with my love for sewing, design and textiles. It all started in 2010: after many years of working as a costume designer in California, I moved to France to pursue a master's in Luxury and Fashion Management. It was there that I first learned about social impact business which led me to seek a job in fair trade after graduating. I moved to New Orleans and became a manager at a fair trade shop. I dove into learning about fair trade and visited India in 2012 to learn more. I decided to start Passion Lilie in 2013 because I felt that the fair trade apparel market didn't have enough stylish, well-fitting, and affordable options.

I would not have started Passion Lilie if it wasn’t for a few people in my life. One of them was Erica Trani who started the fair trade shop that I was managing. At a board meeting, where I was full of ideas, she simply said, “Why don’t you start your own business.” She knew that I loved to design and I needed to grow outside of the role that I was in. I looked at her kind of puzzled thinking - really, I can do that. I can just start a business. And at first it was super scary, but my way of overcoming fear is to keep myself busy. So I spent every day from morning to evening researching and figuring out how I was going to start a business. A few months later, another person said, “Just launch a product, even if it's not perfect.” I was so stuck in the business planning phase and I kept feeling like I wasn’t ready to launch a product, but I needed to make that jump. And in fact, I remember feeling that way a lot during the start of my business - at first doubting I could do it, and then somehow pushing myself to do it.

Did you encounter biases or challenges when you were starting your Passion Lilie? Do you experience them today?

Yes. When I started I was young, 28 years and a woman, so a lot of people did not take me seriously. I remember a lot of unsettling comments from store buyers and even customers (both men and women) mostly about them not taking me seriously or thinking they could walk all over me. I remember in the beginning cutting my long hair thinking it would make me look older, but it didn’t. So I realized that I had to believe in myself, take myself seriously and hold myself up with confidence.

I am not by nature a sales person. I am actually kind of shy at first when I talk to people, but I love what I do, so I have learned how to talk to anyone about my product - with knowledge and confidence. And now I am a great salesperson. If I love a product, I can sell it.

What drives you? Why do you do what you do?

I want to make a difference in the world I live in. I do not want to be a part of the problem, I want to be a solution to the problem. I LOVE nature more than anything. Nature inspires me, gives me hope and it is what drives me. I also love design, color and textiles. Creating satisfies a part of me that nothing else can.

What is it like being a female entrepreneur in New Orleans?

 Maybe it is just the people I surround myself with, but I think the New Orleans community is the greatest. My fellow creatives are so supportive and my customers, friends and followers are amazing! They do not expect me to be perfect and they support Passion Lilie through all of our challenges and triumphs.

When I started Passion Lilie I also leaned heavily on the resources that are available for new business owners like: Good Work Network, Idea Village and Propeller.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

 International Women’s Day is a chance to raise awareness for all the amazing things that women do across cultures despite all the obstacles that they face. Too much of the time we are shown the world through a man’s point of view, and my hope is that we can start to see more of the world through a woman’s view - and not just a white woman’s view, but a viewpoint of women across skin colors and cultures.

What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

 It is one thing to be good at something and it is another thing to be passionate about it. The most successful entrepreneurs lead with passion and they are extremely hardworking and - most importantly - resourceful.

Also, never compare yourself to another person. We live in a very fast paced culture, and most banks and capital investors want young entrepreneurs to grow fast and make lots of money, but I believe that slow and steady wins the race. If you put your values first and think in the long term, you will have a successful business for years to come.

What does Passion Lilie do to help women and girls around the world achieve gender parity?

Our trainee, Jayanthi, works at her sewing machine.

One of the best things about owning Passion Lilie is the ability to uplift female entrepreneurs around the world. At Passion Lilie, a focus of our sustainable business model is building a more equitable workplace. Long-term, sustainable change is more than just paying fair wages. We work with our Indian partners to provide artisans with opportunities to deepen their skills.

While women comprise more than 60% of workers in the apparel industry in India, few rise to the more advanced—and higher paying—position of tailor. To elevate more women to become tailors, we've developed a free job training program.

Through our training program, women interested in entering the apparel industry receive three months of free job training, a salary, and a loaned sewing machine and free space to work in our partner's sewing unit. The trainee learns valuable advanced sewing skills on a variety of garments and fabrics allowing them to become a skilled tailor and receive an increase in salary.

Upon completion of the program, the trainee is offered a job at our Partner's Unit. During the training program the participants do not work on Passion Lilie garments and if they do not wish to complete the program, they have no obligation to do so.

What do you want to achieve next?

I want to figure out more ways that Passion Lilie can give back to our local community. I am thankful that we have been able to sponsor the training program in India, and one day I hope to do something like this in New Orleans - the city that has been so wonderful to Passion Lilie.

IWD #EmbraceEmpathy Pose

You can make a difference on International Women’s Day

  • International Women’s Day is a day of advocacy. This year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity. Post on your social media, advocate in your workplace, and rally your community to help forge an equal world.
  • Show the world your huge embrace. Strike the IWD #EmbraceEquity pose to show solidarity. Share your #EmbraceEquity image, video, resources, presentation, and articles across social media using #IWD2023 #EmbraceEquity to encourage others to help forge an inclusive world.
  • Shop brands owned by female entrepreneurs, like Passion Lilie. Your support is a vote of confidence in our products and our mission to make the world a better place.
  • Elevate the voices of female entrepreneurs. Engage with them on social media, share their work, and tell your friends about them!
  • Donate to an organization whose mission aligns with your beliefs. Nonprofits rely on your generosity to keep serving the people who need them. On International Women’s Day, look for an organization that supports and empowers women in your area!

If you have more questions for Katie or ideas for how to celebrate International Women’s Day, please share them in the comments. Happy International Women’s Day! 

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