In this blog series, entrepreneurs share their venture capital experience. From funding to mentorship, we’ll take a look at how Elevate Capital invested in their success. We recently sat down with Jennifer Ferguson, CEO of Handful.
If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur with a passion for products, check out Jennifer’s story about creating a meaningful clothing line for women.
Jennifer, tell us the story you’ve told a thousand times. What compelled you to start Handful?
Having been an active person my whole life, and teaching fitness classes for over 20 years, I was frustrated with the lack of proper equipment for women. The activewear products I wore were either uncomfortable or unflattering, or they weren’t fashionable.
After searching in vain, I decided to launch Handful—the original sports bra designed to flatter, not flatten. Each sports bra has a hidden pocket with optional modesty padding, where someone can also stash essentials like a key or credit card. The padding is also a great option for the 1 in 8 women in the U.S. still getting diagnosed with breast cancer.
I am so passionate about the fight against breast cancer. We are launching our Battle Cry Pink Handful bra in our core assortment, so anyone can wear it to show support. Breast cancer survivors only get limited options.
We want the mom, the sister, the cousins, and the daughters to be able to wear the same items. It goes back to that feel, function, fashion, and #FUcancer that is really why we get up and do what we do every day.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you “grew up?” And, how did that dream turn into this one?
I always wanted to be the first female president of IBM. I was the first person in my group of friends and family that owned a computer—it was a ginormous computer! I was a page in Washington D.C. my junior year in high school, and I was Stanford-bound. I was getting out of Montana.
Then my oldest sister sat me down and said: “Do you really need mom and dad to spend this much money?” I didn’t have the perfect PowerPoint presentation to back up why I felt like I needed to go to an Ivy League school. So, I stayed in-state and went to the University of Montana.
From here to there is never a straight line for any of us. It’s always great to have goals, then adjust accordingly along the way. The life lessons from there to here is what helped me launch Handful and work with my amazing team.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Handful?
Our vision at Handful is that women confidently and unapologetically prioritize themselves and “find their happy active”—whether that is walking the dog or training for Ironman.
We recently hired an amazing internal saleswoman who just had a baby. We were all talking about our mission, vision, positioning, and she came into work and said: “Last night I confidently and unapologetically prioritized myself. I went to bed at 7pm without even telling my husband.”
Sometimes your happy active is a nap or a rest. And that’s really what Handful is about...encouraging health, wellness, and empowerment.
What seemed like the impossible challenge when you were in the early stages of Handful?
What didn’t seem impossible in the beginning? There are so many challenges along the way with life, especially as entrepreneurs. Cash flow is definitely a challenge in our product-driven industry.
We need to purchase items well in advance. By the time products arrive and we ship them out, and retailers or customers pay for them, oftentimes it’s a good nine months. There is a big need for a chunk of cash flow to produce products, to keep growing and producing more. Another challenge is finding gaps and filling in our team with the right people to keep the ship moving forward.
Can you share an “aha” moment from your first year in business?
A really big “aha” moment for us was knowing we wanted to be a philanthropic company that fought against breast cancer. We started out as a bra company, so of course it made sense to have that focus.
Everyone kept telling me to meet Margy from Just Like a Woman, who is an incredible woman that supports women going through surgeries and cancer at her retail location. She’s really an expert.
Originally the opening for our pocket was at the top for our modesty padding, but Margy recommended we move it to the side. That way breast cancer survivors could easily put their prosthesis inside. I will forever give Margy credit for that “aha” moment for us!
Running a company can be tough on work-life balance. Do you have any rituals that help you stay healthy and productive?
I have a philosophy...what you do in a day is what shows up in your life. That is easier said than done for all of us, and I’m fortunate to have a really supportive family and work team. I get off the grid when I can.
As a Pisces, I love the water, but the great thing is that I can’t check my email when I’m on my paddleboard. A lot of my favorite places to travel don’t have reception, which helps me get off the grid.
Elevate Capital works with underserved entrepreneurs, such as women and minority-owned startups or those living in areas with fewer business opportunities. What are some of the challenges underserved populations might experience when launching a startup—and how can they overcome them?
How much time do you have? You know, it goes back to cash flow and team resources. I feel very fortunate to live in Portland, Oregon—we live in the backyard of what I call Silicon Valley for activewear. All the big dogs are here, so there’s a lot of support and we work with world-class talent on pretty much all levels.
I was actually born and raised in Montana. I often wonder if I could have accomplished all of this in a less populated area. I’ve known a lot of successful businesses in Montana, and I can only imagine the challenges they have faced and how extraordinarily resourceful they have been.
As a women-owned company, we are underserved entrepreneurs. But, I feel like this is a really exciting time and there’s a huge amount of support for women. We interviewed an advisor the other day and he said that he loved working with Handful because we are badass women who are supporting other badass women. We’re truly grateful to be here doing what we do.
Why did you decide to put your trust in Elevate Capital to fund Handful? And, what was the experience like working with Nitin Rai and the Elevate team?
We feel very fortunate to be supported by Elevate. It’s a good fit with them supporting other women-owned and minority-owned companies. We even have the word “elevate” in our mission, because we are here to motivate and support women to grab life. That’s obviously what Elevate Capital is about too.
It’s been a great experience working with Nitin. We had the pleasure of pitching at Bend Venture Conference (BVC). I first pitched to Nitin and the Elevate team at their office, then he committed to investing in Handful at BVC. After the pitching happened, we all went out and celebrated together. Our teams are a really good fit.
Venture capital is, of course, important for a startup—but so is having continued support. What specific type of mentorship has Nitin and the Elevate team provided to guide you toward success?
Elevate made it very clear they’re here for us by connecting us with additional team members. Even today when I came here for this interview, I realized my wallet was in my bike-commuting bag and I had no money for parking. Scott from the Elevate team just walked out to my car and paid for parking.
Elevate supports us on all levels—down to a parking ticket. I know Nitin and the Elevate team are here in our back pocket, and that’s priceless to me. They are a talented, amazing group of humans who are pulling for you. They will roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done each and every day.
How has networking with others in the Portland and Greater Oregon community helped your business?
Networking has tremendously helped Handful. There are so many opportunities in Portland, and it can be challenging to choose where to spend your time wisely.
When we first started out, Sue from PDC (Portland Development Commission) met us at Outdoor Retailer and invited us to join the peer-to-peer group. I really appreciated the peer-to-peer group led by Sean Beers, because he walked us through the soup to nuts of business in a two-year program. That was a really amazing start.
Now we are in a group called Starve Ups. At first I thought I didn’t need to drive downtown to cry with a group of entrepreneurs, when I can cry in the shower all by myself. I kept meeting all of these amazing people at Starve Ups. I’m always blown away by Portland, because we have a great supportive cycle here.
If you were in an elevator with another aspiring entrepreneur—and you only spent five floors together—what lasting piece of advice would you give them?
Know your voice. That’s a big thing I’ve learned as an entrepreneur. When going through the investment process, investors kept saying “we bet on the jockey, not the horse.” There have been times when investors said we needed to come back when we had our own voice.
Also...feel the fear, and do it anyway.
It’s time to begin your own success story. Take the next step with Elevate Capital.