047 - Sustainable Success: Kristi Soomer's Ethical Fashion Revolution

Welcome to another empowering episode of Women Powering Ecommerce. Today, we're diving into the world of sustainable fashion with Kristi Soomer, the driving force behind Encircled. Join us as we explore Kristi's journey, the challenges she's overcome, and the lessons she's learned in building a successful ethical fashion brand.

Welcome to another empowering episode of Women Powering Ecommerce. Today, we're diving into the world of sustainable fashion with Kristi Soomer, the driving force behind Encircled. Join us as we explore Kristi's journey, the challenges she's overcome, and the lessons she's learned in building a successful ethical fashion brand.

Meet Kristi Soomer: Shaping Ethical Fashion in Toronto

In this episode, we had the pleasure of chatting with Kristi Soomer, the founder of Encircled, a brand that's making waves in the ethical fashion scene in Toronto. Kristi, a seasoned e-commerce entrepreneur, takes us behind the scenes of her journey, sharing insights, highs, lows, and the inspiration behind her mission.

Encircled isn't just about fashion; it's about sustainable style with integrity. Kristi's commitment to ethical practices extends to the brand's core values, creating small-batch, sustainable, and locally-made clothing. As a B Corp since 2018, Encircled proudly stands among the minority of brands choosing ethical and sustainable manufacturing.

The Journey from Corporate to Entrepreneurship

Kristi's journey into entrepreneurship is a testament to the power of inspiration and the unexpected turns life can take. Starting almost a decade into her corporate career, Kristi transitioned from consumer packaged goods and management consulting to founding Encircled.

Her "aha" moment occurred during a vacation, a time when many entrepreneurs find inspiration strikes. Kristi envisioned a product that merged style and functionality, leading to the birth of Encircled. From there, the brand evolved, staying true to its roots while adapting to changing consumer landscapes.

Navigating Challenges: Manufacturing and Beyond

One of the significant challenges Kristi highlights is the complexity of manufacturing, a challenge familiar to many product-based businesses. From fabric mishaps to unexpected label issues, she emphasizes the importance of meticulous processes while acknowledging the unavoidable human element in handmade products.

The conversation shifts to the evolving focus of Encircled. While the brand began as a travel clothing line, it has transitioned to cater to consumers increasingly seeking ethical options. Kristi emphasizes the need to balance fundamentals with consumer-driven shifts, all while staying true to the brand's values.

Adapting to Change: The Role of Freelancers and Agencies

In a rapidly changing market, Kristi shares how Encircled has adapted its approach to hiring. The struggle to find specialized talent, especially in digital marketing, led to a shift toward freelancers and agencies. This strategic move emphasizes efficiency and specialization, allowing the brand to navigate the challenges of a shifting labor market.

Time Management and the Entrepreneurial Balancing Act

As a successful entrepreneur, Kristi delves into the critical aspect of time management. Acknowledging the ongoing challenge of prioritizing tasks, she emphasizes the need for entrepreneurs to focus on their strengths and delegate responsibilities where possible. Balancing time between personal and professional aspects, including implementing AI tools for customer service, remains key.

Lessons Learned and Advice for Entrepreneurs

Reflecting on over a decade of entrepreneurial experience, Kristi offers valuable advice. She stresses the importance of being known for something specific in a saturated market. While certifications like B Corp are beneficial, she encourages entrepreneurs to focus on what matters most to their customers, ensuring authenticity and relevance.

Community and Mentorship: Marie Forleo's Impact

Kristi credits part of her success to the support and community she found in entrepreneurship. Mentioning the impact of Marie Forleo and her B-School, Kristi highlights the significance of community in overcoming the isolation often felt by solo founders. Forging connections with like-minded individuals provided encouragement and played a pivotal role in her entrepreneurial journey.

Connect with Encircled and Kristi Soomer

If you're curious to learn more about Encircled and Kristi's journey, visit Encircled's website or connect with them on Instagram (@encircled_). You can also follow Kristi on Instagram (@kristisoomer) and catch a glimpse of her adorable Insta-star golden doodle, Harlow (@harlowdoodleto).

In conclusion, Kristi's entrepreneurial journey with Encircled offers a wealth of insights for aspiring and established business owners alike. From navigating manufacturing challenges to adapting to changing consumer landscapes, her experiences provide a roadmap for sustainable and ethical entrepreneurship.

Episode Transcription

047 - Sustainable Success: Kristi Soomer's Ethical Fashion Revolution

Suzie Cyrenne (00:01)
All right, well today we're diving in with Kristi Soomer. So Kristy is actually shaping the ethical fashion scene in Toronto with her brand Encircled, and she's all about sustainable style, leading with integrity. And another great thing I learned about Kristy is that she also has an Insta-star golden doodle named Harlow. The dog has the cutest Instagram page. So welcome, Kristy, happy to have you today.

Kristi Soomer (00:27)
Thanks for having me, Suzie. She may make an appearance because she's just out for a dog walk right now and she always comes in to say hello. So if you see a ginger golden doodle, that's who that is.

Suzie Cyrenne (00:30.)

Suzie Cyrenne (00:37)
That's wonderful. I looked at the her account and that dog is like the same as mine. I could have mistaken it. It's crazy. So, yeah, lovely dog. Yeah, they are. So, um, so Christy, you and I met, um, a few months ago around a female networking event, um, through a wonderful community. I'm just going to shout it out because it's really good. It's a.

Kristi Soomer (00:44)
Aww, yeah, they're so cute.

Suzie Cyrenne (01:01)
It's a community for experienced e-commerce sellers. It's called e-commerce fuel. So just a shout out for Andrew and Patrick. Definitely go and check it out. So here we are today. I'd love for you to tell us a bit about your background with Encircled, but before Encircled too, I think your early days were in management, consultant maybe walk us through a little.

Kristi Soomer (01:25)
Hmm, sure, I'll give you kind of like...

The long story short, so I've been doing this a while. So I started in circles almost 10 years into my career. So it wasn't like I came out of undergrad and started a business. I was already pretty far into a corporate career, bouncing around between consumer packaged goods and consumer services. And then I ended up in management consulting after doing my MBA and thought I had found my dream job for sure. And I did love many aspects of it.

Suzie Cyrenne (01:29)
Yeah, it's okay.

Suzie Cyrenne (01:55)

Kristi Soomer (01:57)
loved. I worked in retail was actually my vertical. I enjoyed the travel. I think the travel was a little bit difficult, but I did like it. I loved working with the companies I worked with, but at the end of the day, I didn't feel very fulfilling emotionally. I didn't feel like I was like partnering with brands necessarily that I wanted to see do better in the world. And I think that's kind of all came to a head and just in one fateful moment, when I was on vacation, actually traveling for a yoga retreat,

Suzie Cyrenne (02:27)

Kristi Soomer (02:27)
with this product idea. And I was like, I think this is kind of smart. And then I was like, should I do this as a business? And it literally spun out from there and formed into what is in circle today.

Suzie Cyrenne (02:32)

Suzie Cyrenne (02:40)
Hmm, that's amazing. And talking about in circle, I think your mission behind it is great. You kind of pivoted a little bit during your couple years. So what are you focusing on more today within circle?

Kristi Soomer (02:55)
Yeah, so we've always been ethically made. We've always been made in Canada, which less than 2% of brands, I think, are making their clothing here, which is crazy. So we're definitely in the minority in that sense, but that's always been core to our business. We've always been small batch, sustainable. We became a B Corp in 2018. Those values have always lived with us. But I would say the biggest shift is the brand started as a travel clothing brand, originally inspired by my love of travel need for travel clothing that I could go carry on only with and still be stylish and comfortable. And I would say today that's still a big driver for purchase with a lot of our products, but we're definitely seeing a shift over the last particularly I would say three to four years, maybe five years, towards people finding us more for the ethics of our business than I would say the travel and like the quirkiness of some of the products and stuff like that being like versatile.

Suzie Cyrenne (03:27)
Mm-hmm. Yes.


Kristi Soomer (03:56)
We still focus on making these really comfortable, wearable, high quality wardrobe essentials, which is really core to our business. And we do play around and have these fun pieces from time to time, you know, a jacket that turns into a dress and stuff like that. But definitely we're still just really focused on doing the fundamentals really, really well in the business. But I think the consumer landscape has changed quite a bit. In the last little while, I would say in particular in the last three years where people are looking for more ethical options for their clothing, and home goods and beauty. So that's becoming more of a driver for purchase.

Suzie Cyrenne (04:31)
Mm-hmm, absolutely. I love it. And yeah about traveling to last week two weeks ago I was on a plane and I was wearing those jeans I'm like I should have thought this out before it was so uncomfortable So yeah still a knee, but I love the fact that you now want to really take into account what the customers are really interested in and you really go along with your very customer focus and that's wonderful that really makes you unique so thank you for that thank you for doing that for Canadians so um so yeah i'm sure i mean it's been almost maybe a little bit over 10 years that you started in circle i think so i'm sure it was not a linear straight easy line all along

Suzie Cyrenne (05:18)
Could you maybe give us one challenge that you faced and how you overcame it?

Kristi Soomer (05:24)
Yeah, so we're coming up on our 11 year anniversary, which is crazy. And I'm coming up on my ninth year of quitting my corporate job, which is like beyond me. I never thought I would last even a year, to be honest. But so one challenge that we overcame, I would say.
 manufacturing a product, and I'm sure you can relate to this, is just a very difficult process. Like there's so many pieces that have to fall into place at the right time, the right place, and like even if you're lacking in like one little aspect of that process, if you leave too much room for like assumption, things can happen that you don't want to happen. So you can literally make, we've fabric and then you know we use a lot of these iron-on labels for comfort and then they iron on a label which has a different content so you can't even sell this product at that point or you have to try and get the waistband off so I mean I would say that's probably the biggest challenge we've had and that just increases in gravity year over year because like when we made you know 50 leggings like that you know eight years ago it wasn't that big a deal it felt very drastic but now when you're running thousands of pieces is like that just necessitates to have a lot of processes behind the scenes kind of directing that and things still always go wrong. And that's what I think is really important for entrepreneurs to know. You can process the heck out of stuff and you can plan, you can be communicative, but there's always gonna be that room for error because there is a very human element to manufacturing, specifically with clothing as well. It's all handmade, there's no robots sewing it. So it's just, it's something to be aware of and I think that's a unique challenge

Suzie Cyrenne (07:17)
Mm-hmm, absolutely. I get you. We just had this really huge inventory failure lately because I'm in the health industry And we have those expiration dates and then we just didn't forecast properly and then we just have we're left with all this stuff That we just have to liquidate or do something about it. And then you know, it's manufacturing inventory You we see it all and like you said in the end

You can plan out as much as you want, but you have to be okay with the fact that there will be challenges, there will be problems, and you just have to be okay with, you know, handling those every single day and just, you know, crossing things off a list and finding solutions. So absolutely. And I'm curious. I mean, every time we talk, you feel like you're this superwoman doing it all.

How do you deal with time management? How do you, do you feel like you're delegating enough? Do you feel like, you know, you got it all pretty together or just, I think that's a common thing that we all go through and find challenging sometimes as an entrepreneur.

Kristi Soomer (08:28)
I think that's like one of the biggest challenges is prioritizing your time and making sure you're working on the right things in your business. I do some coaching in another business that I have and that's often the biggest issue to scaling is founders getting stuck doing things that aren't maybe income producing activities. I would say it is hard. I'm still very heavily involved in the marketing side of the business. I mean that's my background. It's kind of what I'm generally most effective at.

I think it's something where you have to look at where your strengths are. And I know people are like, oh, you should develop your weaknesses. But you know what? At my age, that ship has sailed. I'm not developing my weaknesses at this point. If I don't like supply chain, then I'm not going to be involved in supply chain. I'm going to find somebody who can do that better than me. And then that brings a little bit of joy back into my life. So I think it's about having the right team members in place. And we've got a very different setup, I would say had like even four years ago, where you know, probably 40% employees, 60% freelancers and agencies. So we're very much more heavily weighted into the freelancer and agency world now than we were ever before. And that's because that specialization just makes such a difference in terms of efficiency, at least in our experience. So I think having the right team is key. Staying focused on your priorities is really important. So making sure you know what you're supposed to be doing.

The week, you know, when you go into your work week, I always look at my schedule on Sunday and I say, okay, what are my three priorities for the work week? I'm going to work on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, I got a holiday shoot, I've got, you know, these retention emails I want to do and I make sure I block out that time in my calendar in advance for all that work so that all that stuff that comes into your inbox, it's like 911 emergency, you know, you get to like pause and evaluate, do I actually have time to deal with this or should I actually be working on what I'm working, what I said I would work week. So I think those two things are key and then as much as possible trying to delegate for sure is a great option even in your personal life like that's important too like knowing when you know when it's better sometimes to like just order those groceries in versus going to the grocery store or you know having a dog walker I love my dog but like you know sometimes it's good for her to get out and get a walk with somebody else so you know knowing where you can optimize your time without fully outsourcing your life I think is really key to being productive but nobody really has it figured out. Even if it looks like I'm super productive and have it all figured out, you know, everybody struggles with time management. It's just an ongoing learning lesson.

Suzie Cyrenne (11:05)
Yeah, and I realize we have it, we feel like we haven't figured it out for one day and then something comes up and everything shifts. So you have to start again. So it's something you just constantly have to manage. Yeah, and I'm curious about the freelancing. You talked about specialization, but that's maybe some.

Is there a reason why you're freelancing that work? Is it because there was a lack of people in your area that you could just contract it to? Or what brought you to have everything more remote?

Kristi Soomer (11:42.233)

Yeah, I think we've struggled with hiring over the last few years, probably since 2020. There's been like a big exodus, I would say, in HR, like a lot of people moving roles or going freelance themselves. So that's created a labor market. I think specifically in our market in Canada, I can speak to Ontario, specifically the province I'm in, where it's hard to find people. People don't want to move jobs either because there's also a bit of a recessionary economy right now. There's a lot of fear.

So taking a leap to like a smaller business can be quite scary. So I've just found that we've struggled to find the right digital talent. And I think marketing is tough because you really need people who have a bit of knowledge about everything. Um, to a certain extent, like a generalist is really great, but that's also really hard to find. Cause if you pull somebody from corporate, you know, maybe they've got depth in email, but they don't understand anything else. So, so I think it's just been a tough hire as an employee to get the right people. We still do, like majority of our employees are in like the design and production side of our business where we still are able to find really, really great talent quite frankly, which is awesome. But it's like that digital marketing and even customer service side where we've had to really get creative and we actually just implemented a tool in our customer service inbox that's AI driven to help and it responds to like emails and social messages and stuff like that.
It takes a lot of training for that tool to get up and running and whatnot. Like we had a person part-time training it for a month or more and still ongoing refinement. But we're doing that because it's becoming harder and harder to find people to work in customer service. So, so yeah, we've had to kind of get a little bit creative, I would say in that respect. And I'd love to find some amazing hires full-time. It's just, it's not been in the cards for us to at least in the last 24 months.

Suzie Cyrenne (13:39)
Wow, that's wonderful. Yeah, definitely. We the AI tool is I mean, it's coming at a good time for all of us who are struggling to find some employees or freelancers. And I definitely agree for the marketing side of things with time. I realize that you can have one marketing role and they have the same responsibilities, but their experience and skills can vary so much. I we've hired a few roles and they look similar, but there are two have very different skills so it can be very challenging to find someone that suits your company and your needs so yeah love it thank you so much and maybe with all of these years that you've gained your experience is there when you go back and think is there a piece of advice you would you would give to other entrepreneurs or even your yourself from 10 years ago from what you've learned along the way now.

Kristi Soomer (14:41)
I think, yeah, I think it's good to be, and I know this is a hotly debated topic probably in the industry a lot, but I do feel like it's good to be known for something very specific. The internet is a big place and it's really hard, depending what category you're in, of course. But if you're looking at like beauty, jewelry, accessories, clothing, like those are very saturated markets with a lot of fragmentation. And it's better if you're niched down on something specific and the more specific you can be and the more problem solution oriented you can be, the easier your marketing journey will likely be which is challenging in some industries, fashion specifically and probably jewelry as well because it's very style driven. But I do think it is helpful because otherwise you kind of get caught in the noise and I do feel like with our ethics and our values, with that coming forward and center, I do think it's a differentiator right now but in the future at least my hope is that from a sustainability standpoint that you know the Canadian U.S. government start regulating some requiring companies to certify that they're free of sweatshop labor and free of harmful chemicals and stuff like that. So I don't know how long that will like the longevity of that in terms of a differentiator I suppose. So I do think that's like really important is to think about like what's that hook that can get customers in and understanding you know why you're different. I think you don't have that much time with them and our attention spans are decreasing every day, I like thinking about 10 years ago and how many emails are in your inbox and stuff like that. So the more you can kind of stand out for being known for something, I think the easier it will be for you to acquire customers.

Suzie Cyrenne (16:40)
Mm-hmm, absolutely. Yeah, that's really wise. I used to my first e-commerce years That was like almost 15 years ago. I had this online drop shipping e-commerce store for purses and it took.

Not so long to realize I was competing with Macy's and all those big brands. So you need to niche down. You need to make yourself unique. So definitely agree with that. And you were talking about regulations and certifications. I think at insert gold, you have a some type of a certification, the B Corp certification, right? For someone who's interested, maybe in that, how does that work? What what's what does it mean?

Kristi Soomer (17:23)

Yeah, so we pursued that certification in 2018. We actually started looking at it, I think, two years prior. And one of the reasons why is because we started to see more and more green washing and ethic washing happening in the industry. And it was just like, how do you stand out from that? And who's going to say you are actually ethical? So it is a moniker to a certain degree, I would say, of the ethics of your business, how you govern your business and pay your employees and your suppliers and stuff like that.
I wouldn't say it's like a perfect certification. So it's not like it's saying you're, you know, like it's not like a hundred percent of B Corps are paying living wages because, you know, it really depends on the assessment. And basically the way it works is you work with this, the B Corp lab and you go through an assessment with your business and answer a bunch of questions. It's quite long. And then you're required to provide obviously evidence for those answers you're giving and stuff like that of weighting scale and you have to pass a certain threshold and then you know you got extra points and all this kind of stuff. So I would say the threshold is achievable probably for most small businesses. What's harder is to probably get your brand above you know 90-100 points because that starts getting into a lot more of the nitty-gritty details around your sustainability and ethics. So I would say right now it's a great certification. Do I think it's worth it? It is a lot of administration for smaller brands to go through so that would be like the biggest con is it just takes a lot of time and as a small brand you may not even be tracking half the stuff you're doing or more. So like to ask what our carbon footprint is of our fabric. I don't even figure that out. But like big brands would know because they've got like really big systems around some of this stuff. So I feel like in some ways it favors bigger brands, but I do think it's good to think about what your customer would find relevant as well, less so than going for a certification just for like the heck of it kind of thing. So like what does your customer actually care about? Do they know about a B Corp certification or are they more looking at like certifications organic or chemical free or what are those things or vegan. So I think it's better to have a deep dive in that. While we'll continue to maintain this certification, I do think it is an access to best practices in the industry and whatnot, ways we can improve our business. But I don't think it's got the consumer appreciation yet, where it's so broadly known amongst the general population. So I think if it's able to get that kind of approach, of scale then I feel like it would be a real differentiator.

Suzie Cyrenne (20:14)
Yeah, absolutely. And just for that certification, I feel like a lot of owners and entrepreneurs don't really know about it. They've heard about it, but they don't know what it is. So to ask for a consumer to know about it is like that other level. So but it's good to put it out there. It's good to let others know. Just it gives that credibility. So you definitely will get gain from it. But yeah, there are all kinds of certifications and to just survey your customers first and make sure your customer focused what is important for them is definitely the way to go. Wonderful. Maybe one last question for you. What is one resource such, it could be a book, it could be a person that really helped you or that you look up to that has had a significant impact on your journey?

Kristi Soomer (21:05)
Hmm. That is a good question. I would have to go with Marie Forleo. She's a business coach who runs a program called The School Out of States. And the reason I choose her is because when I first started in circles, I come from a family of non-entrepreneurs. I have one entrepreneur in my family and he's regarded as being like out there, right? So I come from a very traditional family of you know office jobs like go to work nine to five kind of thing. And so I think entrepreneurship it's just I didn't have a community around people in entrepreneurship and specifically my friends were also in corporate jobs. So when I was first deciding even to start this business it was very lonely because I think a lot of my friends thought I was kind of just joking around like this is just like a fun hobby she's got going on. So I really credit Marie Forleo for creating an amazing community through her B-School which I took in 2013 and I found like a bunch of entrepreneurs who are all in the same space all over the world and connected with them and they really like encouraged me to like keep going and do a lot of the things that I've done today and I think community is so important. Especially if you're a solo founder because it can be such like a lonely and isolating process so finding people who can be like your you know one of my I wouldn't even call her my biz bestie she's like one of my close friends now but originally like a biz bestie I met through uh somebody I met in that program she wasn't even in the program she was like a friend of a friend who she interested me to over twitter and she lives in Toronto and we just became really good friends and we've been friends for like you know nine years now um so you never really know where those connections are. So I do think that was like a really pivotal moment for sure. And I've worked with Marie ongoing in coaching in her programs and stuff like that with my other business. And she's just such an inspiration with everything she's built. But she's truly at the heart of it created an amazing community, which is something that ECF does as well, quite well. And I think that can be a real accelerator for growth.

Suzie Cyrenne (23:20)
Mm-hmm. Yeah. That's true. Definitely an accelerator and it can get lonely sometimes. So I definitely get you. And yes, I follow her too, and she's definitely wonderful. Haven't tried her program, but it looks really great. She's doing a lot of great stuff. So wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing that. Kristy, where can people go to find you online if we want to know more about you or your company?

Kristi Soomer (23:49)
Sure, yeah, you can check us out in circles online at encircled.ca. That's E-N-C-I-R-C-L-E-D.C-A. We're also on Instagram @encircled_ and you can find me on Instagram at Christy Sumer as well. Or you can pick up my dog @harlowdoodletl on Instagram as well. I'm sorry she didn't make an appearance, but she sends her love.

Suzie Cyrenne (24:09)
Absolutely. Oh, next time maybe. But thank you so much. You deserve that place in the in the shout out. So thank you so much, Kristi. It was so nice having you today. Till next time.

Kristi Soomer (24:22)
Thank you.