Carla Harris: Latino Americans’ purchasing power hit $3.4 trillion in 2021, according to a report from the Latino Donor Collaborative, and is expected to account for over one-third of growth in apparel spending in the next five years, as predicted in the 2021 Claritas Hispanic Market Report.
Latinas are largely in control of household spending, yet they are underrepresented in leadership positions at the places they shop. But there are women who are paving the way and working to create more upward mobility for fellow Latinas in fashion and retail.
Sonia Smith Kang: I see myself as a change maker who happens to use fashion as her vehicle.
Carla Harris: This is Sonia Smith Kang, designer and founder of Mixed Up Clothing, a multicultural kids clothing line. Today, we’ll hear how she learned to navigate the complicated world of retail.
Then I sit down with Sandra Campos, an executive and entrepreneur with over 20 years experience in the fashion industry. We talk about how she found her voice as a leader, and the ways in which she’s creating opportunities for Latinas to do the same.
Sandra Campos: I was seeing a lot of Latinas. They were scaling businesses, doing incredible profitability, but nobody knew about them. I said, “Okay, we've got to do something about this.”
Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I'm your host Carla Harris. And we're telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Sonia Smith Kang: Folks do say, what a difference, critical care nursing to starting a business. But I tap into my nursing skills every day. I'm triaging, I'm prioritizing, I'm delegating.
Carla Harris: This is Sonia Smith Kang, a registered nurse turned founder. Today, she’s busy running her children's apparel company, Mixed Up Clothing.
But when Sonia met her husband over a decade ago - she had family on her mind.
Sonia Smith Kang: Just like folks have a business plan, my husband and I had a family plan. My husband is Korean American. I myself identify as Afro Latina. And we talked about the products we were going to bring into our home. We knew we were going to have foods and artwork and music that kind of reflected this multiculturalism of our family.
Carla Harris: But when it came to finding fun, everyday kids clothing that told the story of their heritage - Sonia couldn't find anything that fit the bill at popular retailers. So, equipped with a lifetime of sewing experience, she took it upon herself to create the clothes she wanted her children to wear.
Sonia Smith Kang: I knew I had to do something. I went downtown here in Los Angeles to our garment district and sourced some fabrics that showed different aspects of our culture. Whether it was Asian inspired prints…maybe it had Frida Kahlo on the fabric. So I would just turn them into fun little board shorts for my son or bloomer covers for their diapers. It was wonderful.
Carla Harris: Now Sonia might have stopped there. But when she and her kids stepped outside wearing the homemade clothes, all eyes were on them.
Sonia Smith Kang: Folks would stop me on the street. And then they would start to open up and talk about the different fabrics that were from their culture. If I ever had an “aha” moment. That was definitely it. It was not found in any boardroom. It was in the parks. It was in the street.
Carla Harris: Sonia experienced the power of clothing to connect and to help people be understood. She wanted other children to have the opportunity to see themselves in their clothes, and so, slowly but surely, she took the steps to transform her hobby into a business.
Sonia Smith Kang: I found a team that was able to go from me and my idea, to sketches, to a sample, to cut and sew and having an actual inventory. Mixed Up Clothing was born.
Carla Harris: Sonia ethically sources fabric and trim from around the world to create colorful one-of-a-kind designs that celebrate culture. From comfy girls leggings that say "hello" in different languages to a screen printed tee shirt teaching the "ABCs" of multicultural foods.
Sonia Smith Kang: There are some pieces that really tap into this part of me that I'm really proud of. I grew up in a home that spoke Spanish. We didn't learn “A” was for apple or “B” was for, you know, banana. So, one of our screen print shirts will show, “A” is for arroz con pollo. “B” is for baklava. “C” is for cannoli.
Carla Harris: From the beginning, Sonia wanted to reach as many customers as possible. So she set her sights high.
Sonia Smith Kang: Large retail has always been a goal for me.
I really wanted to give more folks access to Mixed Up Clothing, learn about diverse cultures that we share this world with. How to get there, wow, that was the challenge.
Carla Harris: Sonia tapped into the diagnostic skills she honed as a critical care nurse, starting with the goal of getting into a large retailer like Macy's and backing her way into the solution.
Sonia Smith Kang: I started asking, how do I find the decision makers behind large retailers? They really don't make it easy. So you really have to play detective. Each day I'd figure out through LinkedIn who the buyers were. From there, they told me, “Well, you have to present a line sheet” and I was like, oh my goodness.
Carla Harris: The learning curve was steep...
Sonia Smith Kang: A line sheet will show what your product is, what sizes it comes in, how much it is.
Carla Harris: And there were many moments when Sonia could have thrown in the towel.
Sonia Smith Kang: There's startup fees that I did not expect…structure, logistical, all those kind of things.
Carla Harris: From fulfilling order minimums to adopting technology to process large orders, scaling up can be expensive. But the biggest hurdle was getting buy-in in the first place.
Sonia Smith Kang: The challenge has been... Proving that if given the opportunity to have retail space that there are folks that are looking for this. Knowing that the buyers may not come from that same understanding. There's so much work that you have to do in addition to just presenting your line sheets and saying, “Well, it's because the clothes are ethically sourced and they're cute and, they're comfortable and it's quality fabric.” You have to go in with why you?
Carla Harris: Sonia had seen the demand first-hand for her product on the street and in the parks. So while it was intimidating in the beginning, once she reframed her thinking around the buyer-wholesaler relationship, her confidence grew.
Sonia Smith Kang: It's really a conversation, And the moment I switched and said that these were partnerships that we were building, I started to kind of relax and say, “This is what I'm capable of, this is what I'd like to do, and I hope you'd come along with me on that.”
Carla Harris: Sonia’s hard work paid off. Today, Mixed Up Clothing is carried in three large retailers and counting. And while Sonia is driven to keep expanding the product line, she has a bigger vision for the brand.
Sonia Smith Kang: It's more than clothes, we're trying to change the face of fashion. It's always been about storytelling. It's always been about the education, representation. I want to be a reflection of what the world looks like.
Carla Harris: Twelve years after Mixed Up Clothing's initial launch, Sonia's four children have long outgrown the first prototypes. But Sonia remains dedicated to her life's work.
Sonia Smith Kang: I knew I was strong, but boy, being an entrepreneur, you wake up with, oh my goodness, how do I make this happen today? I could go back to nursing anytime, but this helps also satisfy my mission in life which is celebrating culture. I just happen to be doing it one stitch at a time.
Carla Harris: As Mixed Up Clothing continues to grow, Sonia wants to share her platform with others. To that end, a Mixed Up marketplace is in the works. There, folks who are intentional about raising children in a multicultural environment will be able to find books, toys, and other goods made by creators of color.
Our next guest is devoted to creating clearer pathways for more Latina leaders, like Sonia, to make their mark in the fashion retail industry.
Sandra Campos is an executive, board member, and entrepreneur whose career has touched nearly every facet of retail: from working the shop floor to the CEO seat at Diane Von Furstenburg.
Today, she is developing Fashion Launchpad, an education-tech platform that gives individuals working in fashion and retail the skills to move up in the industry. She is also the co-founder of Latina Disruptors, an annual networking event amplifying the Latina founders.
Both ventures fulfill Sandra’s goal of providing more opportunities for exceptional, untapped talent to excel.
Carla Harris: Sandra Campos, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.
Sandra Campos: Thank you, Carla. I'm so happy to be here with you.
Carla Harris: All right, let's jump right in. Now you've had quite the journey in the fashion industry over the last 20 plus years from working on the corporate side to pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, so let's take it back to the beginning.
Sandra Campos: Well, having parents that were entrepreneurs certainly impacted me. I am first generation Mexican, my parents are immigrants and they moved to the States without having too much of an education. My father didn't make it past the sixth grade and so they were really entrepreneurs out of necessity. We went to an uncle's family to learn the tortilla factory business and moved from El Paso to Dallas to start their own factory.
I was working at a very young age. You know, if I talk about supply chain, I literally was at the back of the warehouse packing up boxes, getting onto trucks. I was on the line. Packing tortillas, counting them, zipping them, putting them in boxes, etc. I actually really enjoyed it and it always stuck with me.
So for me, I didn't necessarily want to work in a tortilla factory, but I certainly understood the hard work that would be required of me to be able to get out and find my own path and to be able to figure out what my next trajectory would be.
Carla Harris: Mm hmm. it's amazing how those early experiences of working, influence you as an executive. For example, I think about my first W 2 job was McDonald's. And before then, I was working with my grandmother in her business, which was also a customer centric business and you learn a few things. The customer is always right. You learn how to listen very well. And you become oriented towards making sure that you deliver for your customer and I think about who I am as an investment banker and all of the above still apply.
Sandra Campos: It's true. I think also humility comes into place, right?
Carla Harris: Amen. No question. So now fast forward, after you've set the goal to become a fashion CEO, what steps did you take to put yourself on that right path?
Sandra Campos: Yeah. Well, I didn't have anyone that had been in the fashion industry. So I had to figure it out on my own.
And I looked at the CEOs that were out in the market. And I said, well, how'd they get there? So I could look and see if it was a retailer, they'd gone through retail training programs, merchandising, buying, going into GMMs, being in stores, etc.
And if it was on the wholesale side, it was really starting up from sales and then layering on planning and merchandising and other components of the industry to where you ultimately ended up having full responsibility of the business.
Carla Harris: Yeah, I'll tell you, that's a major playbook point. If there's something that you aspire to and you're not quite sure how to get there, doing the research and the work on those who are already in those seats, understanding their journey, what the steps were, the barriers to entry, I think it's a valuable point. Now when I think about you as CEO of Diane Von Furstenberg, or DVF, it also occurs to me that you've had a predisposition towards continuous learning. And how did that help you as you stepped into that CEO seat at DVF?
Sandra Campos: Not only continuous learning, you know, my mother started that for me because she was always going and getting an additional degree, night school, after work, all the time. But I also believe it was the ability and the desire to pivot. The ability and the desire to take a risk and learn more so going into DVF as a CEO there, it was definitely about, looking at and understanding what and who the customer was. What did they expect from the company? And now it's an overused word, but very much still an important word, which is community. We had to go back and figure out who is the community? What do they want? What do we need to give them?
So with that, you know, I brought in Daniela Pearson, who was the founder of the Newsette. She was 23 years old at the time and I had found her online and realized that she had a group of millennial women that she was targeting through the Newsette newsletter.
And I said, I need you to come in here and do the same thing for us with DVF. She came in and we created the weekly wrap, which was a newsletter highlighting and featuring women in charge. I believe that it gave me more of an openness and willingness to learn from anyone. And so rather than being dictatorial in anything, it was more about let's open this up to those that know more, those that are more connected with culture today, that was going to get us to our end goal.
Carla Harris: Yeah. Well, that's a powerful playbook message because being able to leverage somebody else's superpower and incorporate it and be the kind of person that is inviting, that people want to now stand next to you, uh, because you value what they have, that is a great unlock no question about it.
Carla Harris: So let me, uh, change gears here and say women are over represented. in terms of their employment in retail and fashion but underrepresented when it comes to C-suite leadership positions. The divide is even wider when it comes to Latinas. So why are you so passionate about working to close this gap?
Sandra Campos: Well, there's 52 million people that work in retail, and of that, there's actually 14 percent that are Latinos and there's only 1 percent of Latinos on boards. And there's less than 4 percent leadership positions. We've got a long way to go. We don't have a lot of people that look like us. The numbers reflect that we have 65 million Latinos in this country today. We have a three trillion dollar GDP. We're going to contribute across the board. We are a younger cohort, and we'll be the predominant consumer in the next 10 years. So, as a business, why wouldn't you want to pay attention to that?
And also, as a business leader, why wouldn't you want to have that inclusive nature of understanding what and who can help you impact the future of that business for those consumers? So to me, that means understanding what the culture is. But in terms of where we can actually help to accelerate. It's providing access, knowledge, but also giving people the voice and the ability to raise your hand and ask the questions.
To be able to be open and hear what people at all levels are experiencing that might help influence your initiatives, your objectives, some of your strategies going forward.I think it's really important to do that. Again, it goes back to just the plain numbers when you think about how many Latinos are in this country today and what they're going to represent. 85 percent of Latina women in a home make the decisions. So why not understand that for your business? Because they are the ones that are going to be ringing the register.
Carla Harris: No question about it. So how would you like to see this consumer empowered within the industry?
Sandra Campos: Well, I think there's two parts to that. One is on the designer side to be able to bring in Latin American designers who have the sensibility. You've seen FarmRio probably, it's a huge brand, and that's from Brazil. The nature of the culture, I think, is really important.
There's so much of that that can actually be influenced and impacted by the design talent that comes out of Latin America, et cetera. There's Estefania Lacayo, and Estefania is Nicaraguan. She lives in Miami, and she created Latin American Fashion Summit, originally as an event series but what she's done is she's bringing Latin American Design talent, not just in fashion apparel, but also accessories and now it's coming into production manufacturers as well, to where they have access to U. S. retailers. One of them, Keiko Vargas, had a very small under a million dollar business and was able to get into Target and became one of Target's designer collaborations and had, obviously, accessibility to a lot more consumers that way and grew her business exponentially.
And then the second part in terms of the consumers is being able to speak to them and include them and involve them in a brand. So thinking through assortment, thinking through messaging, thinking through what the employee base looks like so that it's serving the customers that they support.
And then also doing it holistically so that you're supporting manufacturers from Central and South America, you're supporting the design talent and therefore it becomes much more of a connection for that Latino consumer that you're referencing now.
Carla Harris: So now a 2018 report by the Census Bureau said that Latinos are overrepresented in the retail workforce. And according to a 2022 survey by McKinsey, almost 50% of frontline retail employees and two thirds of retail managers said they planned on leaving within the next couple of months.
We've talked about the customers, so now how do you keep the employees to serve those customers?
Sandra Campos: Well, one is continual education so that somebody doesn't just get siloed into a specific job, and you know, they want to grow, they have the ability to grow and learn just like anybody else does, but we need to give those opportunities. for growth and for learning. Fashion Launchpad, actually the reason that I started that was because of the calls that I was getting from people looking to pivot from their roles within the retail industry and needing to learn more outside of their specific area of expertise. And those stories made me realize that we've not done a very good job of training and development. We used to.
We used to be able to bring people in at the store level and myself, I worked in stores. I worked in stores for three years of my career. I was working across the country, merchandising product, folding product. You have to understand the customer, but you also need to give them a roadmap.
So, Fashion Launchpad is a master class of sorts within the retail industry that brings together executives who can help educate others on every single topic within the industry from design all the way through logistics and production, manufacturing, et cetera.
Carla Harris: Sounds like Fashion Launchpad is going to be incredibly successful.
So tell us about your annual event, Latina Disruptors, and how does it help create more opportunities for Latin innovators?
Sandra Campos: What I was seeing several years ago was a lot of Latinas…they weren't getting the access to capital, which we know happens for women in general, but also they were scaling businesses doing incredible profitability, but nobody knew about them, even within our own community.
I said, “Okay, we've got to do something about this.” So I created a group called Latina Disruptors, which essentially is an event series to bring together entrepreneurs, capital resources and media. And two years later, we've created this peer to peer community of CEOs and founders who are just wanting to be the best CEOs that they can be. They are innovative and disruptive in their industries. They're raising capital. We invite capital providers, as I mentioned before, across the landscape, but we also invite other C-suite executives because we want to make sure that people have the ability to have board members and advisors.
So what's come out of this now is that we have peers who can actually rely on each other, who feel the trust and the non judgment. They will ask questions about, do you know so and so for investment? I need a bridge round. What can you tell me or who can you connect me to for X, Y, or Z?
We've had three LOIs. We've had two investments. We've had board members that have joined these companies. We've had collaborations across, and it wasn't something that I expected, but I feel so fulfilled because what's happening is that we're sourcing these incredible entrepreneurs who, a lot of — whether it's institution or VC, private equity, et cetera — they just don't have the ability or the time to go out and source them themselves. So we're finding these sometimes undiscovered entrepreneurs who are doing things that are unbelievable.
Carla Harris: Yes. And you hit the nail on the head when you talked about visibility and exposure because so often that is the key. You know, we start to delve into things that we have seen or that we've heard about. And if you can't get on the air or you can't get in print, nobody knows about you. It makes it even harder to raise that capital. So well done.
Earlier in this episode, we heard from Sonia Smith, Kang, the founder of Mixed Up Clothing, a multicultural clothing line for kids.
What kind of support networks would you like to see in place outside of specific events for entrepreneurs like Sonia?
Sandra Campos: In order for us to scale across the country to provide those resources, ideally it is that platform. That's hopefully what I'm working for for 2024, is to be able to provide an online platform where these entrepreneurs can go and find those resources, be able to have those, not only mentorships, but peer-to-peer relationships where they can find trusted resources that then can help them scale their businesses and learn where to pivot if they need to, because you know, it's not a linear line, so having that board of advisors through this platform will be something that I hope to be able to accomplish.
Carla Harris: That would be tremendous.
Carla Harris: As we get towards the end of this conversation, when you look at the beginnings of your career in the business of fashion, what are some of the biggest differences between the fashion industry that you entered into and the one that exists today?
Sandra Campos: There are so many differences. We first of all didn't have that many women that were in the C-suite, so it was a lot more competitive.
We weren't sharing as much and there weren't communities like what exists today. So we didn't have a lot of those types of resources and on demand learning wasn't really there. It was a long line to be able to get to the top.
Today's generation isn't accepting that, right? Because guess what? They can make a lot of money online. They can do a lot of things through opportunities and websites online that can actually get them certain places faster.
Carla Harris: No question. And how can creators of color better prepare themselves to enter today's fashion industry?
Sandra Campos: At any age, at any level, whether it's the boardroom, which I'm doing today, whether it's as a C-suite executive, or you're starting at different levels of your career — know that you have a voice and that voice is incredibly important, no matter what anyone does to shut it down. And find those that will help prop it up, because that's who you need around you. You need the mentors, the sponsors and the coaches – all three in your life.
Carla Harris: Yeah, I could not concur more. Sandra Campos, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Sandra Campos: Thank you, Carla. This was fun. I appreciate it.
Carla Harris: Big fun.
Carla Harris: I want to thank both Sonia Smith Kang and Sandra Campos for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity.
What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.