One question we love to think about here at Career 2.0 is whether women initially avoid pursuing a career doing something they love most because of what is expected of them? Are there expectations of women, especially highly educated women, about what’s a “proper” career path? That’s that question I was thinking about while interviewing Gurjot Sidhu, founder of Gurjot New York, a high-end custom clothier for business women.
Gurjot started sewing with her grandmother when she was seven and she was hooked. “Oh my gosh, I loved it!” she says of her favorite childhood hobby. She took sewing lessons and sewed gifts, pillows, fashion and anything else she could dream up. But when it came time to find a job after college, it never occurred to her to think of it as an option. “I thought, I’m going to go to college and then to work. I never thought of fashion school as a path to that.”
Instead Gurjot took a well-worn, practical route. She went to college and then to business school in her native Chicago, where her parents had settled after moving from India in the 60s. After graduation, she launched a career in management consulting for KPMG, one of those jobs paths heavily promoted by campus recruiters. And from there she opened the NYC office of a Toronto-based advertising agency. Over the course of a decade, she ultimately opened her own boutique ecommerce consulting firm, i2e, back when “online anything was brand new.”
Gurjot juggled building her firm’s business while raising her growing family of four children. But nanny problems caused her to take a step back and begin consulting from home. “I always had projects going on and clients calling me with work, but when I ultimately got divorced in 2007, I found myself wanting to work full time again.”
This time around, Gurjot gave herself the time to think about what she really wanted to do. “I realized I had spent so much of my life doing and being everything for others. I used to try to understand and then meet everyone else’s expectations of myself. My theory was that would make me happy. You can imagine the result.”
The silver lining of the divorce was taking the time to think deeply about who she was and what she really wanted to do with her life. “Divorce takes you out of the mold of expectations–nobody knows what to expect of you and what you are going to do next. Hide? Leave the country? Stay? Being so expectation-driven, this turned out to be a very good thing for me.”
True to her background as a management consultant, Gurjot turned to pie charts and flow diagrams and catalogued every interest she had and how she could make money pursuing that interest. It turned out that all her ideas involved promoting working women–dressing them, making their lives easier, or developing time management software for families.
Gurjot further honed the idea by combining her lifelong interest in fashion with her goal of promoting working women. “It occurred to me that nobody (in fashion) focuses on the working woman – there are no spreads of glamorous working women featured in Vogue –and I could do that. I could dress women as well as I possibly could and glamorize what she does on the front lines every day of her career.”
Once the idea hit her, she couldn’t turn back. “I didn’t have a choice. Dressing the corporate woman was my mission. It’s my game changing contribution. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Gurjot started by attending classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She spent a year, part time, learning about the industry, how to develop a collection and honing her ideas for a collection. The time helped her cement her idea to focus on a very high-end collection to start – she wanted a line that featured suits using only the best Italian wool lined in pure silk, something that was inaccessible to a lot of women.
In the summer of 2012, she started pitching to investors and did a speed pitch sponsored by FashInvest at NASDAQ. While it was an incredible experience, she did not ultimately connect with an investor but discovered she didn’t need to. She continued to grow the business organically.
Gurjot’s first collection was quite large by some standards—she launched with three jackets, two dresses, two pants, a skirt, and some blouses with many fabric and lining combinations. It was a strategic investment that paid off because it helped prospective clients visualize what she could do for them. She settled on a go-to-market plan focused on private events at corporations – law firms, financial institutions, and women’s executive events. Her first collection was launched at a private event in July of 2010 at the London Hotel in Manhattan.
The response was phenomenal. The women loved it. She wasn’t paying all the bills with revenue, but she had enough business coming in that it gave her the confidence to continue. “I remember having a Sex and the City moment two years ago leaving my showroom one night after one of our first sales events. I was crossing Madison Avenue and suddenly in front of me was a street musician playing something awesome on the trumpet, as if he was personally celebrating my success that night. I looked up at the clear sky and saw the stars shining through the city lights. It was absolute joy and satisfaction feeling that I had made so much progress with the collection, and moreover, that people wanted it. I live for those moments!”
She lives for those moments because, despite the best planning, not everyday presents a Sex and the City moment. “There are times when a customer piece doesn’t fit right or a sales event doesn’t break the register, and I’ve learned that you really have to just roll with the punches, and not lose steam just because of a silly thing called expectations. Now I do my absolute best and let the chips fall where they may.”
Within a year, Gurjot had developed a great roster of custom clients and she had enough revenue coming in to know she was on the right path. A year later, in 2012, she redoubled her efforts. For the first time she signed a lease on office space. “I decided I’m in it to win it. I saw the potential and decided I was going to go for it.”
In 2013, after having three years of women asking her when they might be able to buy a “ready-to-wear” Gurjot original, she decided to launch Gurjot New York Ready, a ready-to-wear luxury line for women. The line featured all the best wool and silk linings that women cannot buy in any department store today but at more approachable prices than the custom line.
Four years later, Gurjot is now looking to raise capital. Although she has no plans at the moment to change her business model or own a store, she does hope to expand the number of women that have access to her glamorous looks, because “your life is your runway, I absolutely believe that we should all live as if it is–feeling inspired and motivated”.
- When you are stuck, just find a small path forward: It could be a path that’s only five feet long. Sometimes that’s enough.
- Don’t listen to everyone: After being at FIT for a while, I started to tell people I am designing business wear for women. Even one of my closest friends said “what qualifications do you have to do that?” I felt I had to explain to people my motivation and what I was trying to do with my life. I realized it was because I was doing something very different that people couldn’t necessarily relate to. It was getting me down, so I decided to shut it out. Now I really consider the source when I get input on my vision or business.
- Never stop dreaming. It’s important to manage your day-to-day responsibilities well, but it’s easy to feel you are in a rut. I love having time to myself to envision future possibilities–who knows, they may come true!