Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
Three years ago, college friends Alessandra Perez-Rubio and Louisa Rechter had a problem.
It seemed like all their friends were getting engaged and they needed clothes to wear to the weddings and wedding-related events that were filling out their social calendars. But they were having trouble finding dresses that they liked that didn’t break the bank.
Perez-Rubio, a graphic designer, was no stranger to the sartorial demands of wedding season. She worked as a graphic designer at the Knot and in 2011, started a bridal shopping website called Idojour with her two sisters.
While Perez-Rubio had always had a passion for fashion design, Rechter’s background was in the business side of the industry. She worked as a sales coordinator, buyer and planner at MILLY and a merchandising manager at Coach.
In 2014, the duo launched Mestiza. From the beginning, they knew that their perspective and backgrounds is what would set their brand apart. The company’s name, Mestiza, means a woman of mixed ancestry, and the brand’s design aesthetic from the silhouettes to the materials used for the dresses are inspired by the co-founders Filipino-American heritage.
Mestiza also partners with the HABI Textile Council in the Philippines to create jobs for women in the country. The textiles the women make are incorporated into Mestiza’s collection every year and the company makes an annual donation to the council.
After three season on the market, Mestiza is sold at Neiman Marcus and BHLDN.com and has been worn by celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Kate Walsh, America Ferrera and Ashley Graham.
We caught up with Perez-Rubio and Rechter to ask them 20 Questions and find out what makes them tick.
The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
1. How do you start your day?
Perez-Rubio: When we get to work we usually start our day with a quick 30-minute meeting. We go over what we need to do for the day and come together with a plan of attack.
2. How do you end your day?
Perez-Rubio: Louisa and I have been getting into the routine of doing work-out classes together at the end of almost every day. That helps us wind down. We always have a little quick catch up when we’re walking to Barry’s Bootcamp and then we go our separate ways.
Usually I go back to Brooklyn, have a glass of wine and hang out with my son. And as much as we try to put work away, at the end of the day we’re always texting until 11:00 pm strategizing for the next day.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
Rechter: When I was in college I was having some difficulty with some roommates, so one weekend I went home and I was feeling really upset about not being able to be clear with my roommates. I felt like I had to be more aggressive with them to get my point across. I was sitting in my parents study, and I saw a book on the shelf that said How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. And I thought, this is going to teach me like how to grab the bull by the horns and approach my roommates and get them to understand me. But the book takes little stories and history from famous leaders and there are lot of friendly reminders of how to treat people with kindness and get your way by using different tactics that weren’t so aggressive.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
Perez-Rubio: The Big Book of 30-Day Challenges. I love it, because it teaches you a lot about self-discipline and how to improve different parts of your life — from health and fitness, productivity and work relationships. It’s an amazing way to understand how to discipline yourself to improve your life and become a better version of yourself at the end of every day.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
Rechter: I’ve come to realize that prioritizing what I need to do and then making to-do lists around those tasks has helped me focus. It makes it so I don’t forget anything; I have an order. It helps me clear my head and focus on what I need to do.
Perez-Rubio: I’m more creatively inclined, so my way to stay focused is a bit of a beautiful chaos. I have all these crazy little Post-it notes everywhere; it’s a bit of a mess.
Also, I try to compartmentalize when I’m creative and when I need to answer emails and be more business oriented. In the mornings, I’ll carve four hours where no one can talk to me and I’m doing design or research. But then in the afternoons, that’s when I shift focus to answer emails or have meetings with Louisa to strategize.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
Perez-Rubio: I wanted to become a fashion designer. I was this eccentric child. I would draw pictures of all my Barbies in different dresses, and I would do little fashion shows for my mom and her friends. And when I was in high school I designed my prom dress.
Rechter: At a young age I knew I wanted to have a business. I always had a side hustle going on. When I was little I had lemonade stands. I used to also have an eBay business where I was selling pretty much everything in my closet, and then I started selling things for friends. I was babysitting, too.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
Rechter: I had a boss who is another woman who told me to not speak in meetings and to just be a sponge. You know that really hurt me. She was so focused and such a smart person, but I was really shocked that she would not want me to voice my opinions and I’ve always said like we’re not going to be like that.
We’ve always wanted to hire people that are actually smarter and that can guide us into making good decisions. We both really listen and value the opinions of the people we work with or partner with. And I think that some of my bosses in the past made the mistake of not wanting to hear opinions.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
Rechter: I would say my parents. When I was a kid they never put a lot of pressure on me. They always told me could do my best and do what I’m passionate about. And they never encouraged me to waste time on anything that I didn’t think would benefit me. My dad is very business focused and business savvy and he’s always kind of guided me throughout my life when I have had problems at the office. He’s really helped me to develop a set of ethics and principles in terms of my career.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
Perez-Rubio: One of the trips that changed me was when I went back to the Philippines to visit my parents over the holidays a few years ago. This was right after we started working on Mestiza. My mom, who’s a philanthropist there, introduced me to the people of the HABI Philippine Textile Council. I met with them, learned their story and they helped us connect with the female textile weavers who season after season, we feature their work in our collections exclusively on our web site. In doing so, we are able to preserve a centuries old craft, show their work to the people in the U.S., help maintain a steady paycheck for these women and give our brand social value.
10. What inspires you?
Rechter: For both of us, I would say other female entrepreneurs. We both really enjoy the NPR podcast How I Built This. It interviews founders and CEOs like Sara Blakely and Kate Spade, and it is about how they built their brands.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
Perez-Rubio: Mestiza. What we wanted to do is create a collection that had a very uncompromised vision of elevated couture-like gowns and dresses but at a price point that wasn’t very intimidating to girls like us with a normal salary. So, that was how we came up with the idea of Mestiza.
Rechter: We quit our jobs, and we went full force. We had some failures in the beginning, but we pivoted and adopted a direct-to-consumer model which lead to retailers taking notice and investors as well.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
Perez-Rubio: One of my earliest jobs was as a retail associate at Bloomingdale’s. I wanted to be in fashion, and it really gave me this outlet to understand how the consumer works and design in a way that was consumer friendly.
Rechter: The most important job I had was my first job out of college working at a fashion house in New York City. They had been around for about 10 years at the time, but they still ran their business very much like a startup. I had my hand in everything, from buying and planning to working alongside the CEO and going into the warehouse to box my own boxes. If I didn’t have that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to start Mestiza and do it as effectively.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
Rechter: [When we started Mestiza] we were living in New York City. I was single, Alessandra was pregnant, and we were entering into a retail market that was less than stellar. That was scary for us and a lot of people told us ‘no’. But then there were people who were like, you know what? I think this is a good idea. You girls have a great work ethic and just go for it. By listening to that, just doing it and stop talking about it was probably the best piece of advice.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
Perez-Rubio: When you’re developing a concept for a new brand and you’re talking about it with anybody who will listen, there’s always going to be a naysayer out there that says there’s so many dress lines, what’s making you different? Don’t do it. So, the worst advice I’ve ever gotten was someone telling me that what we were coming up with already existed. But at the end of the day, because we’ve heard all the things, we were able to pivot and create something that we really thought was in fact different and special.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
Rechter: I have to say to-do lists. It keeps me on top of things.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
Perez-Rubio: We set calendar invites for almost everything we have to do. It’s what connects the two of us.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
Perez-Rubio: Because we love Mestiza so much and we eat, live and breathe the company, so much of our work and life blends together. So, I would say work-life balance, there is none because it’s all kind of one big jumbled mess, and I love it.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
Rechter: Being able to turn it off [is important]. And I also think that when you can afford it, hiring outside help. You have your tasks that you excel at but being able to delegate to other people helps take the load off.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Rechter: I find inspiration by reading and listening to podcasts. We also have cultivated a board of advisers, who have diverse opinions and backgrounds. It’s talking to people, reading and understanding that you’re not alone
Perez-Rubio: When I have a creative block the most helpful thing for me is when I go to the different department stores we want to be in and look at the product they’re holding. So, getting out in the world and touching and feeling the clothes and seeing what’s working and what isn’t is one of the most helpful things for me when I’m designing. It forces me to go out and try on the dress, see how I feel and then come back and go to the drawing board.
20. What are you learning now?
Rechter: We’re not as small as we used to be and now we have to think about scaling our business, and how we want to brand are ourselves. It’s all about creating a voice for our brand and a growth strategy that makes sense without compromising our vision.
Perez-Rubio: In the beginning how we approached each collection was we wanted to have 20 pretty dresses, and we didn’t think about the collection as a whole, who we were selling to, who the customer was and what department stores would be buying it. Now, our strategy thinks about all these different moving parts and puts them together but without compromising the vision for Mestiza.