Ep #80 | Why Are You Different?

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Born and raised by entrepreneurs, fab’rik Founder Dana Spinola always knew a job could fulfill a bigger purpose. Her dreams to flourish both personally and professionally led Dana to start fab’rik in 2002 around the concept of high-style clothing with an affordable price tag. In 2006, Dana began franchising with like-minded women and has since grown fab'rik to 40+ stores across the U.S.

Dana has always believed clothing has the ability to change lives. In 2009, she launched the brand's nonprofit arm, free fab’rik, which provides free shopping sprees for women and girls escaping sex trafficking. In 2012, fab'rik launched its in-house designed clothing line, Asher. Proceeds from the collection provide financial support for orphans in Kenya until they find their forever homes. At the intersection of passion and purpose, Dana has built a brand that truly delivers High Style with Heart.

Forbes named her, “one of the five great American entrepreneurs you haven’t heard of yet but should know” because of her dedication to not only building a growing fashion brand but for inspiring a culture of people to weave purpose into their companies and their life. She was voted The Atlanta Business Journal’s Business Person of the Year, Women Making a Mark, 40 Under 40 and Women Who Mean Business, and has appeared in dozens of national publications from The Wall Street Journal to Elle. Motivational speaker, inspirational leader and author of ‘Love What You Do.’ Dana is committed to reminding women to dream big and and then chase those dreams relentlessly.  

Dana is a 1996 graduate of the University of Georgia in Management Information Systems. She resides in Atlanta with her husband, four children, two dogs and 20 chickens. While Dana sits at the head of a leading fashion franchise as well as a nonprofit organization, her most rewarding job is being a mom.

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Shantel: Hey Dana, welcome to the show.

Dana: Hey, it's so good to chat with you today.

Shantel: Yes, we are excited to learn more about your history in fashion and style and fab’rik and how you have grown into 40 plus stores all over the states. I'm certainly excited to dive into that. Can you share a little bit about your background? Did you always have an interest and passion for fashion? Kind of let's start there.

Dana: Yeah, sure. It's crazy because yes, the answer is a very hard yes. I was the little girl that wallpapered my bedroom walls and ceiling and closet with Vogue Magazine. I think any babysitting money I got went to ripping out those pages and buying those big Vogues and just that inspiration. So, yes is the answer, however it is not what my first job was. I had no idea that that could actually be a job. How do you actually get into the fashion world? I wasn't a model or a designer or anything like that.

Dana: So I started as a computer consultant, completely on the other end of the spectrum. I went to UGA and walked in one of my first days and said, "Hey, what's a job that makes a lot of money?" And just hit it from that angle and figured I'd roll my passion in later but yeah, so I kicked off my career in the computer consulting, though fashion was really pretty much the heartbeat of what I thought about every night and every day.

Shantel: So you pursued computer consulting, started ... that was your first job. What was the point in which you either quit or started something on the side? Do you remember those moments?

| LOVE WHAT YOU DO |

Dana: Oh gosh, do you remember, right? Like everyone kind of remembers that moment where you're like, "I've got to do what I was meant to do." I grew up, my parents, total hippies. They didn't go to college. They really kind of live off that philosophy of if you love what you do, you'll never work another day in your life, and both of them are artists and pursue their passion pretty much full time, so it got to a point where ... I mean, I liked what I was doing. It was a beautiful company and I was learning like crazy, but I say "luckily" for me. Mine started because of a breakup. The guy I thought I'd probably be spending the rest of my life with, we broke up on my birthday one summer and I kind of just thought for a minute like we all do that my life's over and what am I gonna do? What is next? I luckily kind of took that as an opportunity to say, "I've got to bring happiness in my life. I have to figure out what makes me happy," and as I was in that search, I was taking online tests and all of these wacky things, asking my friends, "What am I good at? What do you see me doing?" It just got to literally pop its head back up of, "I want to own a boutique. I just want to try it. If it doesn't work ... but I believe that's what I'm supposed to do." So I always call it GPS rerouting. My whole life kind of just went "redirecting" and went in a different realm that summer.

Shantel: That's amazing. Have you ever gone back and spoken with the ex and kind of just said, "Thank you, you have really helped"?

Dana: I did. I actually did and he kind of laughed and said, "You're welcome," because he's married with an amazing family now and I'm married with mine and we were both kind of the same person, just very passionate about everything, going in a million different directions, so I really do. I think it's ... When you're in the moment and you could tell any one of your friends this going through a divorce or a heartbreak or wherever they are in life, you know that there's something really where you're supposed to be on the other side of it, it's hard to be grateful in the moment, but man, looking back and just saying, "I'm so glad we both took the right direction for what's next," so yeah, I actually called him to ... I was writing a book and it was in the book and I had to give him a call and be like, "Hey, I've got a question. How do you remember the breakup?"

Shantel: That's amazing. I think that even resonates in a business. I'm thinking of all of the big challenges we've had or the big pivots we've had to make and in that moment it was like, "This is tough, tough stuff." But then thank goodness we had to go through it because we wouldn't be where we are to now or we wouldn't have learned this.

| FAILURE IS THE OPPORTUNITY |

Dana: That's the craziest part about it. What you just said, I completely agree with because people ... people meaning us, but you look at it as a failure in the beginning, right? Pivot is what it is. It's your life kind of going in a different direction, but I think a lot of times we've invested so much into it and you think that you kind of checked it off the list or this is where the business is going, and you don't realize that literally that is not a failure. That is you learning so much about where you should be going, and it's such a gift and I feel like it's so cliché to say that, but do you agree that failure really is just that opportunity to really do what you're supposed to be doing anyways?

Shantel: 100%, and I think what probably makes it even more challenging in that moment is you have so much ownership and you worked so hard exactly like you mentioned and I think it's easy to kind of ... you embody a lot of that blame of, "Oh, I should've caught that or I should've seen that," or, "Oh, if I did this differently." It's a good time to reflect but it's great to get to that other side for sure.

Dana: Absolutely.

Shantel: Okay, so you're starting a boutique. Can we talk a little bit about the capital to do something like that?

Dana: I didn't have any. Let's start with I didn't have any. So, yeah, my job, I made a pretty good salary for coming out of school but guess what, I spent it, and I didn't really ... I wasn't planning for this business necessarily and obviously in hindsight that's what I spend a lot of my time mentoring people now, is plan for it, but you also don't need to have a million dollars. It's really not about the money, it's about getting gritty, because you'll need that grit throughout your whole business, so what I did ... I wrote a business plan, I had an insane passion for this, I was working full-time traveling Monday through Thursday and I took a job on the weekends at a boutique just to make sure this is really what I wanted to do, and then I'd come home every night and fall asleep writing this business plan and brought it to ... I mean, I don't even know how many banks, at least 14. 14, 15 and I was starting to lose count and they would just kind of laugh. Like, "We don't invest in boutiques." What I decided to do was I talked to everyone I knew about who knows somebody that I can sit down and talk to about funding? My dad's like, "I play tennis with this guy," and I always tell this part of the story because you never know, sometimes right in front of you, your best friend's mom works with someone that really cares about what you're doing. So talk about what you're doing, and he's like, "Why don't you guys just sit down?" I went in with my business plan. I'd gotten every friend I know to rip it apart and to tell me what worked and what didn't work and what they liked and what they thought was ridiculous. So I thought it was at a pretty good point and I brought it in, had projections, had everything, and he barely ... His name was Brent Adams, this incredible banker. He barely looked at the plan. He just kind of looked at me and was like, "What is gonna make you different than any of the other boutiques out there? Because we don't invest in boutiques, so why are you different?" I think that question is really what shaped my entire company because at that point I had all of the answers answered in that plan. Projections, marketing plan, my target market, demographics, everything you could ask for from that perspective but I hadn't in a sentence or two said why I was different than any other company, and so I kind of paused, pulled myself together and I said, "Well, can I come back tomorrow?" He's like, "Well, why don't you just think about that. Come back tomorrow and answer that question," and that night I kind of came up with why I personally was different and it's why I was different as a person. Growing up I didn't have a lot of money and my mom made all of my clothing and I really believe that what if you can actually have a boutique that you could shop at for under 100? What if you could feel that high end experience but not have to spend a million dollars or even $200? It really resonated with me, that's who I was. That was a place in the market that 16 years ago was not present, to be able to have a high style but without that huge investment. So I walked back in and said, "This is why I'm different." His eyes kind of lit up. He's like, "I could take a chance on that. That is something that I believe you've got so much behind it," so when you see an entrepreneur that has why they are different, people really get excited about that, and that's really what started it, and he gave me a line of credit, a $70,000 line of credit that I was shaking in my boots and said, "Okay, let's do this," so I started my first store off that.

Shantel: That's amazing. There have been so many little pieces throughout that story that I'm excited to touch on. I think the first, just going back to that tennis player connection and your dad and the power of just putting it out there in the universe ... On our retreat we just did vision boards and we've done it every year and some people, they've never done it before and they're like, "Why are we cutting things out and putting it in kind of ... proclaiming what we want or what we want to feel?" I think there is so much power in sharing how you're feeling with people because you never know who can help or who may have an idea.

| PUT IT IN THE UNIVERSE |

Dana: Absolutely, and it's never the people you think it will be, right? Not never. It's rarely the people you think ... If I say, "Oh my gosh, I really want to get into fashion. I'll call my friend in fashion," and they are maybe a network or connection and obviously utilizes but you're so right, the idea of writing it down or putting it into the universe, that happens, I'd say weekly in my life, that I just say something, declare something for my life and I call it dreaming, and a lot of people are like, "Oh, dreaming's kind of a waste of time." It's not daydreaming, it's actually thinking about what your life can be and being brave enough to put it into the universe and say it at a dinner with friends or sit down and send an email to ask people to pray around it or simply just saying it to yourself out loud in your mirror which I've done plenty of times too, but I love vision boards. I love people. That's what vision is, right? It's putting something down into this world that you can actually see happen. Like watching a movie of your life. If you're not intentional doing that, it doesn't just accidentally happen, I don't believe.

Shantel: No, I agree, and I think there's also probably a level of accountability. You're holding yourself accountable and now you've told all your friends you're starting this boutique. You are going to start it because ...

Dana: Exactly. I remember walking in to shop for clothing for my first store and at that point, like you said, I had an incredible website ... I didn't even have an address. I didn't even have a location. I had a website, I had been talking about this boutique for a year. I said, "I'm gonna open this store in one year" and I gave myself a year to plan it, and by the time I'd gone to buy inventory, people are like, "I've heard of your store. Where is it located?" I'm thinking, "I don't even have a location yet," but I believed in it enough that I was gonna be talking about it and fighting for it and standing behind it before it was even real and kind of allowing whatever changes come. I think that's what people get a little scared at, is if I say my dream and then it changes, is it okay? It is. If you say that I'm gonna open a boutique in Atlanta and then you end up opening something else somewhere else, at least you're getting it down, and don't be afraid to declare something and allowing it to change a little bit when it actually comes into the world.

Shantel: Definitely. I think that also translates to not being afraid that you don't have all the answers, and I think that goes back to when that person asked you, "Why are you different?" I think instinctually a lot of people want to have that answer right away and they're just gonna come up with something but I loved how you paused and reflected and said, "I'm gonna get back to you because I want to put a lot of thought into that," and I think some of that hurdle or overwhelm when starting a company or thinking about starting something, you're like, "I don't even know how to do all of these things," but it's nice to recognize you don't have to know all of that and you can pause and you could think about it and you can come back to it.

Dana: Right, and you can also use that as a beautiful opportunity to realize it's not your thing, and I think that's what sometimes people get stuck on. I'm mentoring a younger girl and I love her energy and I love her fire but I sat down with her and I was talking ... I was like, "Why do you love this business?" She said, "Well, because it makes my dad really proud." I remember just feeling like what a sweet, beautiful thing to do, but to carry you out, you know, in the day to day, the grind of it all, the places that are not as glamorous as the easy parts of your business, you're gonna have to love it, so to pause and say, "I don't know, but I'm gonna find out." The answer might be that this is not where I'm supposed to be. This is hard work and this is not what I thought it was gonna be, or being very convicted that yes, I am going to be a yoga instructor and this is why, and doing that at the beginning is so much better than getting three years in to a lottery that you didn't all the way love or maybe going down a road that you didn't really ask yourself the hard questions in the beginning so you're well set for the kind of work that it takes to make it really successful.

Shantel: I think it's really fascinating, when we've had different people on the show, some people lead with this, "I love this industry so I will craft a career around that," and some people have come in and, "I saw an opportunity and an area that I can make an impact, and so then I've built my career around that," and so I kind of fall in that second bucket where there was an opportunity, I jumped on it, not necessarily ... I'm not in love with scrolling Instagram every day and social media, every component of it, but I've had to redefine kind of that passion and that purpose of it may not be that anymore but it's building the team and that's where I'm gonna pour my heart into. Do you find that sometimes as you're mentoring people, people get stuck on that industry or the tactical pieces of the job as opposed to having to refocus that passion?

| WHAT MAKES YOUR HEART BEAT |

Dana: So much. Yes, it's so true and I think that's one of the things I wish everybody could put on the front of their radar, is people come into our company and everybody wants to be a buyer. I mean, everybody wants to buy clothes for the boutiques and being a buyer is math. That's what it is. It's mathematical data to ensure that things that sell through the quickest, we're replenishing. There's so much math behind it, so understanding what it is, and I think what you said is you said about your passion. That changes too, so I think being really in touch with what makes your heart beat in the beginning is key, than just getting closer to it, so yes, you might take a ... you want to be on TV but you might take a job supporting somebody else that's 10 degrees of separation from that to get there, but if you're exploring what your passion is, it's gonna pull you closer. I mean, my passion is clothing. It always has been. I didn't know how it would actually come into my world but what happened about seven years in is I would open a boutique, then another, then another, then another and all of a sudden I was either having a baby or opening a store and people kept coming up and saying, "Oh, congratulations on all your success," and I kind of had to take a minute and say, "Hold on, my passion is clothing but there will be a point down the road that I wish I would've thought of a little bit earlier, but what's the point, right? What's the purpose?" When someone comes up and says, "Congratulations on all your success," what do you want that to be about? To me at that point it was just kind of growing a fashion empire, which sounds great on paper, I think, until it's like what is this for? Is this for Dana Spinola or is this ... How is this helping our world? I think that piece ... If you can think through those questions, both of them will pull you closer. What's my passion? What makes my heart beat? Then the second one being what breaks your heart? What do I think my purpose is with what I'm doing? With my work? With what I love to do? What are those two things? Am I doing what I love and does it make the world a better place? As you craft your career and your life and your relationships around that, it's kind of cool where that seems to take you and for me we brought in a nonprofit piece to our fashion company because I just couldn't answer that question on "congrats on your success." Success to me at that point meant, "What are we gonna do with this company now that it's being built and long term?" So, yeah. Add in kind of both of those, the passion piece and then as that kind of grows, it kind of changes and bases a little bit on that purpose.

Shantel: I love the concept of success. I think it's really interesting, everyone defines it differently so that person that walked up to you, wow, you have started multiple locations and you have a family, all of this, and then it was neat to just hear you be a little bit vulnerable there and say ... At that moment you were like, "I don't feel that," or "I'm not recognizing it the same way," and then having to make kind of that mental shift of, "Well, what could I be doing more?" So that I can replenish that bucket of how I feel success.

Dana: Absolutely. Replenishing the bucket. I've never said it that way or thought it that way but it's so beautiful. I kind of call it refueling. When your phone's at 1% battery life and you're just like, "Oh, I've got to get to a charger but I don't have time. I've got to finish this call." That's kind of how I was living my life for quite a while and didn't really realize it. I am so grateful for my four beautiful kids and my 40 plus stores, but there's a lot that goes into that, and what happens is if the purpose isn't leading ... The purpose is the part that refuels you, right? That doesn't really all the way refuel your soul. That purpose piece, why you're doing it, and so I think if you can build that into what you're doing and keep that top of mind, that idea of refueling in that purpose piece, then what you get to do is feel the gratefulness in your energy levels refueled. I had, gosh, about a year ago, I took a sabbatical. Not necessarily a planned sabbatical. My team basically came to me and said, "Are you okay?" It's really hard to hear as a leader, the founder of your own company, when your team comes and says, "We would like to offer you a sabbatical. You need a break." I don't like to admit defeat. I don't like to be the one that's tapping out. I'm a runner. I finish marathons. I do not quit, and I just remember sitting there and said, "No, yeah, I'm not okay. I need a break," and my team, thank God, saw that I needed to refuel and we started a year long process of how to get me back focused so that my energy level could be back there, and it's how everybody is, whether you have one child or you're running a company. You do need to take that time to refuel. So I'm coming off that and it's such a ... It's a great place to be in.

Shantel: I think that speaks volumes to the culture you've built, that the team would recognize something like that and also have that voice to come to you and say, "Me, as a friend, as a colleague, as an employee, I want to pour into you so that you could be your best leader, because we need you here, but after some time." I think that's amazing.

Dana: Right, and I think when you think about everybody in your life, that's kind of ... If you're gonna do something and especially if you're an entrepreneur and you want to do big things in the world, then you're gonna leave it all on the table, so I call it wise counsel. I think it's beautiful how those people around you, they're gonna tell you if something's in your teeth. They're gonna tell you when you're off course and they're gonna applaud you like crazy when you're doing something awesome.

Shantel: Now, in that moment, did you hire someone to fill that role in a CEO component or perspective?

Dana: Well, it was crazy because Lisa Dempson, she was the CMO at the time and she's the one that sat down and had this conversation. I mean, she said, "Let's have an outside of the office coffee" and I knew that that meant something was big, so she just said, "I'd love to offer you this," and so she stepped in as interim CEO which led to this beautiful path that I would never ... I almost thought of as being a mom. Like no one else is gonna be the mom to my kid, so I never knew that there was any other direction to grow for me. I was CEO of my company that I founded, and what I got to learn ... I'm 44 and then running this company for 16 years. What I got to learn is there is something else for me. What got you here can't always get you there, so I appointed Lisa my CEO after some time during that sabbatical. A lot of thought and executive coaching and working through, and moved into the role of chief visionary officer. That's where I play best. I mean, I love vision. I love dreaming what can be bigger and better for this company. It's crazy that you think you can plan out your life and then you have really no idea what's even possible beyond a job description, per se.

Shantel: I have not heard of a lot of people sharing this kind of pivot from CEO into a board role, or this CVO role, and I'm glad that you shared that because there are other steps outside of just starting a business and always running it like that CEO role.

Dana: Right, right. Well, I was telling a friend that I almost thought that I was abandoning my company. I'm like, "Well, I can't leave my company. It's my baby." It was over text, and she wrote back and said, "I think your company's grown up and ready to kind of fly with other people." It's like you're sending your company to college, and I do ... It's great when other people can come pour in different perspectives to something you've built and it allows you to continue to grow and do what's needed best for your company too.

Shantel: I've had a few owners on the show that once they get themselves out of that traditional kind of sales ... They're always helping grow the business from a business development standpoint. They almost then have to reflect and redefine that purpose again because they're like, "Oh, well they don't need me. I'm not needed in my own business," which is typically when starting a company what people want to happen, but then when it's happening, it's like, "Oh no…”

| WHAT BREAKS YOUR HEART? |

Dana: Oh, it's terrifying. It's free falling. Don't get me wrong, I'm sitting here telling you how it went down during it. You wake up in the middle of the night like, "Wait, what am I doing? What's my purpose?" That's what's so beautiful about when you do kind of reinvest in other leaders. You get to open up to what that is, and it just fills in the blanks too. You don't have to all the way know but if you stick close to what I've stuck close to, is that question of, "What breaks my heart?" That always leads me to my purpose and for me that's when women have quit dreaming. That is what breaks my heart, and we spend a lot of time in orphanages with our fashion or clothing line and my daughter, we adopted a little girl from Ethiopia and she was abandoned in a jungle and not really supposed to dream big for her life again and luckily we ... She was found and she's five and she's killing it and she's sassy and amazing and strong. We go in the safe houses and we bring clothing and we sit with these women escaping something so terrible for two hours, and you just watch this confidence come again. The world has things that break your heart but if you can use what your passion is, which mine is clothing, and kind of lean into what you can do with it ... So now I have this runway ... What I get to actually sit and plan now is mentor mission trips and how we're gonna get our country over in areas doing Free Sprees around the world and it just allows you to kind of expand your heart and see bigger picture than you even knew was possible when you allow other people to kind of come in and take on things that you were doing, and they frankly can do it a lot better and probably less emotional than a founder.

Shantel: That sounds about right. Did you always have that nonprofit component in your company from the start?

Dana: I didn't, and this is the part where I want to just lie and be like, "Yes, this was my vision the whole time. I'm so smart and amazing." No, not at all. Like I said, I started fab’rik because of a breakup and I wanted to be happy. I wanted to love what I did and I wanted it to just make the ... dress women and that's what everyone said I was great at. I was the friend that you called going on the date and you come to my house and I dress you up, and that's why it started. So no, I went to ... right after the earthquake in Haiti, my husband ... I had one and three year old little boys and growing the business and I hadn't taken a vacation ever, and for whatever reason we looked at each other in church that day and just said, "We've got to go." Or I kinda looked at him and said, "We gotta go," and he's like, "Yeah, yeah, I get it." That trip really was the whole pivot for, "Okay, what can we do with what we have?" So we started spending a lot more time in Africa and Kenya and Ethiopia and just understanding what is outside of our scope? So when we got back from Africa, really, that's when Free fab’rik was formed and we were like, "We have all this ..." Our customers would say, "I have extra clothing to donate. What should we do with it?" I'm like, "I can't believe that we've got all this extra clothing and how good do you feel after you put on an outfit? How can we tie this altogether?" So about seven years into the company, free fab’rik was formed and that's when we started doing Free Sprees for all the women that didn't have back to school clothing and all different types of clothing, and we'd watch ... I mean, you know the feeling, when you have on that outfit and you look in the rear view mirror and you're like, "I can go to this interview. I can pull this day off," and we started watching that happen in the safe houses. These women were like, "This is the outfit I'm gonna wear to go get my daughter back" and we realized the power of an outfit there, so we've woven free fab’rik ... Every store has a donation bin. Every store collects donations, and we do Free Sprees throughout the country. If you work in fab’rik, what's so incredible, I have to share, for anybody that's creating something today, the last probably five years, when people come to interview for fab’rik for a stylist, manager, any job at our corporate, the thing they want to talk the most about is where we give and serve with free fab’rik and I love that. The people it brings into your company, they love fashion. I mean, our mission statement is high style with heart. You've got to love fashion, you've got to love high style, but it's really cool to see the heart piece too. So, being clear on what you stand for as a company in that way really does allow people to align their purpose too and kind of jump in there.

Shantel: I love that. I think it's so neat that people are coming in and that's what they're drawn ... Sure, they're drawn to the fashion piece but they're drawn to the mission even more so, which I think is amazing. Would love to, as last question to wrap things up, dive a little bit into your book, and I apologize we didn't get to touch on that too much more, but ... So, the book title is Love What You Do, which I think kind of resonates with this whole conversation. When did you decide to write a book? Can you talk a little bit into that?

Dana: Never. So, I kind of was talking about that sabbatical time. They took my email address away and I wasn't allowed to go into stores. They really wanted me to decompress. I'm sitting there. I cleaned my closet out a hundred times and I'm like, "Now what?" I was looking at my schedule. Where does all my time go? It went to just women all over asking for coffee. They just were either stuck and underwhelmed with their life or they were just overwhelmed and they couldn't really feel like their life was meaning something. So I was having coffee after coffee after coffee and finally my ... Lisa who I was talking about earlier and my team were like, "Can you just write a book? Can you just put it in one place?" I was like, "I have no idea if I can do this," and I started writing it, and it really is kind of what I care about. I think it's so important. What would it look like if we all loved what we did? You know, the happy factor and the impact of our world. So I wrote it and it really is kind of the idea of creating a life that means something to you, because if you build something and you have a job that ... You have a salary you like or you live in a city you want without it meaning something at the end of the day, I think it's really kind of empty. So I believe you can have both and you can have it all and it can matter. So that's what I wrote in the book about igniting your passion and finding your purpose and then just living a life that's full of meaning.

Shantel: I am certainly very excited to read it and I do imagine being an author in top of everything else you're doing is tough work and a fun challenge.

Dana: Can't say no to anything, learning how to say no ...

Shantel: Well, thank you so much for being on the show and carving out some time to connect. We really appreciate it.