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.