Instead of looking for a job after graduation, Rachel Weeks created one. For Weeks, founding School House, a socially responsible clothing company specializing in collegiate apparel, was a passion of hers since her time as an undergraduate at Duke University, but her journey was anything but simple.
"I had a nonexistent business background when I started School House," said Weeks, CEO of School House. "I went to Duke University and graduated in 2007 with a degree in women's studies. After graduating, I moved to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright grant to research the apparel industry and try to get my feet wet learning about apparel manufacturing."
Despite being in a new country halfway around the world, Weeks remembered an experience from her time in Durham, N.C., that prompted her to think about starting her own business.
"Having been a college student who shopped at the Duke bookstore, I wanted to show my school spirit (by wearing Duke apparel) while also being a fashion-conscious college girl," Weeks said. "I felt the market really lacked more lifestyle-oriented, fashion-driven products. So the idea for School House started when I was an undergraduate."
Weeks, however, also wanted to make fashionable clothing with a message. An internship with Women Thrive Worldwide in Weeks' junior year, gave her the push to start a socially responsible company.
"I was interested in ethical manufacturing and the idea of socially responsible apparel manufacturing ," Weeks said. "The idea (for School House) was collegiate apparel that had a socially conscious manufacturing mission."
It was under those guiding principles that Weeks started School House.
"I decided to take the plunge while I was there (in Sri Lanka)," said Weeks, who established the first living-wage factory in Sri Lanka. "I had $20,000 from an accident that I was in when I was living in New York City, and I used that money to invest in a freelance fashion designer and our first branding work. I designed a large collection for Duke, developed the samples, and got our first order from Duke."
The first order from Weeks' alma mater was just the start. School House products are now sold in 100 schools across the country. Today, Weeks' journey has come full circle since moving all of School House's manufacturing operations and the company headquarters from Sri Lanka back to North Carolina.
Weeks credits her time in Sri Lanka and her interactions with another culture with giving her the knowledge she needed to be successful in her business career.
"Moving to Sri Lanka and learning that side of the garment trade was absolutely invaluable," Weeks said. "I think that there are so many people involved in the fashion industry who never get to see the other side and the realities of garment manufacturing. While it was a difficult year and a difficult place to work and do business, it is an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I think it made me a better businessperson."
It was Weeks' roots in her home state of North Carolina, though, that brought her and School House back to the Tar Heel State in spring 2011.
"We spent two years making (social responsibility) a reality in Sri Lanka, but ultimately decided that we wanted to try to expand our impact here in North Carolina," said Weeks, who noted that 98 percent of clothing worn in the United States is manufactured overseas. "That was important to me being from North Carolina and being someone who witnessed so much unemployment and poverty in my home state."
Don't be afraid of failure
Despite Weeks' passion to start her own business, a fear of failure nearly kept her from starting School House.
"As a young entrepreneur coming out of a great school where you feel you need to follow a traditional path and get a great, high-paying job, the prospect of failure is really terrifying," Weeks said.
It was a friend of Weeks who gave her the confidence to follow her passion.
"I had a friend of mine who went to Harvard Business School and was a successful entrepreneur," Weeks said. "He told me no future employer would ever blame me for trying to start a company even if it failed. He really gave me permission to fail."
Weeks now has her own bit of advice for other business owners.
"There have been really, really trying times for me, our company and our team over the past years," Weeks said."The one thing I have never given into is the idea of giving up. That is not in the realm of possibility for us. If you stay centered and focused you can make it happen. Staying determined is absolutely the most important thing at the end of the day."