Photo: Brittany Coleman

Socking It to the Glass Ceiling

Brittany Coleman, founder of Tough Cutie, is empowering women through socks.

By Anna Callaghan 

As part of our series on pioneering women, for Women’s History Month, we’re sitting down with Brittany Coleman, who recently launched Tough Cutie, making socks for women. Coleman spent years climbing the corporate ladder at an apparel company, but then she started to sour on how decisions were made around women’s products. She didn’t like how the business viewed women and designed for them—they were positioned in relation to a man, and as “the girlfriend” rather than a whole individual. So in 2019 she decided to launch a sock company with the goal to support women from the ground—or feet—up. We talked to Coleman about her entrepreneurial journey, what makes Tough Cutie unique, and her big goals for the future. 

ANNA CALLAGHAN: What was your relationship with the outdoors like when you were younger?

BRITTANY COLEMAN: I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, and had a very urban upbringing. I didn't learn until later in life that the outdoor community in Las Vegas is actually fairly robust. That was not my experience growing up. We lived in apartment buildings, and for a while my mom and I were homeless. With the exception of me being a really active child and playing at the park, I didn't have too many experiences with the outdoors growing up. 

What’s your relationship to the outdoors like now? 

To build a great product, you have to put yourself in your customer’s shoes—quite literally. Through building out our hiking sock, I’ve gotten to experience the outdoors from my customer’s perspective and understand what it’s like to be outside and be supported with quality products. 

Why did you decide to start with the hiking sock? 

I used to manage the sock division of an outdoor brand, and the decision at the company was essentially that we would be designing for the girlfriend of the “real outdoorsmen.” She didn't really need quality gear; she was just supposed to look the part. This decision to design a cutsie hiking sock was the last straw for me. I had enough product development experience, I knew the factories. I didn't have all the answers, but I had enough to figure out how to do it myself and to make sure that women were centered in the product development process. 

When you talk about being in a room where people are talking about designing for the girlfriend, the image that’s in my head is like a conference room in the 1970s. What was your experience sitting there in that room? 

At the time I just had to kind of deal with it. I didn’t have any power in that situation. That was a very uncomfortable place to be. Not only was it ethically wrong, but from a business decision-making standpoint—how you choose to go to market and build a relationship with your customer—this was just not the way to do that. I was stewing. I ended up leaving and writing a two-page origin story for Tough Cutie that I wrote in anger. A lot of what I ended up writing became the first bits and pieces of the company that I’m building now. 

Did you always have an entrepreneurial spirit?

No, absolutely not. I was very much a corporate ladder climber. I thought I was going to find a good job and work hard for 30 years and become a VP of something. In grad school, I did a startup weekend where you basically build a company from scratch in two and a half days, and then you pitch it at the end. My team ended up winning. It was validation even before Tough Cutie that like, wow, I can do this.

What challenges have you faced breaking into this space on your own? 

It’s expensive to build a business, especially because I decided that I was going to focus on a women-owned value chain as much as possible. I spent the time to actually find a women-owned factory, and there aren’t very many, but it was very important to me that the factory be women-owned and, as much as possible, women-led. I was lucky enough to find that, and have it be based in the United States, which was another key criteria. Doing that is not as cheap as finding some factory overseas. Another challenge is that I’m having to put my own face and personality out there. Even though I’m a millennial, I definitely like to kind of just be in the background, so this is pushing me out of my comfort zone, which is a good thing. 

Photo: Brittany Coleman

Can you talk about the importance of using a women-owned factory? 

Despite the fact that women have so much purchasing power, women don't control money, which means we don’t have as much influence and we don’t get to make as many decisions. And so for me it was about finding a factory where I felt like any economic value I was generating was putting more money in the hands of women. I could’ve gone to some random factory or gone overseas, but it’s not just about the socks. Of course we make great socks, but it’s just about a belief that women deserve power and we deserve to be in control of our lives. 

That seems pretty central to Tough Cutie. What’s the story behind the brand identity? 

The way that we define Tough Cutie is very intentional. The word tough for us means able to endure hardship or pain and also having the confidence and determination to cope in difficult situations. A cutie is an attractive or endearing person. And as women we’re often forced to choose. Like we can't be powerful and feminine. Being strong is interpreted as bossy or something negative. It’s never in our favor. I don’t know any women who haven’t felt the need to choose. And so for us it’s just about having an opportunity to have real conversations, but at the same time kind of poking fun at it. It’s also taking back the word cute, and not having it be used like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna pat you on the head. You're so cute.’ 

What does success look like to you? What’s in Tough Cutie’s future? 

Immediate success is getting the product on as many feet as possible. I think the longer vision is to build a company like some of the ones that we admire today that are doing so much for women, in their branding and marketing and the athletes that they sponsor, just creating a new pathway. And hopefully in the longer term we won’t just be selling socks. We'll be a completely diversified brand supporting women from head to toe. 

One of your pillars is increasing diversity in the outdoors. How are you looking to do that?

It’s certainly not lost on me that female founders are rare. But then when you think about the fact that in the outdoor industry only 1% of outdoor retail brands are owned or led by people of color—it’s just a whole other dimension that I’m working in. I feel a lot of responsibility to build a brand that feels inclusive and authentic for all types of women and of various shades and ethnicities. I feel like people are yearning for that, that they want an inclusive space that’s truly sticking to their values and represents more than a marketing campaign or something that’s hot for the moment. I’ve always been a woman of color. I’m always gonna be a woman of color. I feel like my existence should invite a whole new cohort of people to the outdoors, people who say, that's my brand. People who say, ‘I feel like I am that, I am her, and I have loyalty because I see how Tough Cutie is trying to make the world better in a more inclusive space for all kinds of people.’ 

What sets Tough Cutie apart?

The socks go toe-to-toe with anybody on the market today. You will get the same quality, if not better, because we actually packed it so full of so many features that women actually asked us for. But from a higher purpose, our brand and the way that we have built our value chain just really centers women. When you make a purchase from Tough Cutie, 100% of sales are going to support women-owned businesses. So if you’re someone who believes that women deserve to have products made for them, not just men’s products that are made smaller and in pink, then this is a brand that you should buy from. If you believe that women have an economic right to participate at the same level as men, to be paid as well as men, then you should buy from Tough Cutie. And if you believe that the outdoors needs to be a more diverse and inclusive space, then you also need to buy from Tough Cutie. 

What’s your approach then to inclusivity?

Even though this is a women’s-centric brand, when I say inclusive I do mean men are included as well. I’ve had a lot of really great men help me throughout this process of building my business. The problems that we're talking about in terms of women empowerment, diversity, and inclusion—all of those things include men in terms of the solution. So while men may not be the end users of the socks, if they believe those things I said before, this brand should be for them and they should buy for the women in their lives.

I think about my mom and her mom and in so many ways the world is better for women now. And I’ve got some little people coming behind me, my nieces and nephews, and I really want to be a part of building a world that is better for them. So that hopefully when they’re my age, maybe they’re talking out something else, right? I think that’s what’s keeping me going.

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