Gemma Sole — an Explo alum just named to Forbes Magazine's "30 Under 30" list — is the Co-Founder of Nineteenth Amendment, a clothing company that matches emerging designers with shoppers and produces only what it sells. Gemma talks with Explo about cultivating your curiosity, building a business from the ground up, and following your interests.
It seems like Nineteenth Amendment was immediately successful — is that true?
We got quite a lot of good press early on, some of it before we were actually ready. We had a lot of traction early on in Boston — 50 on Fire, Future Boston Accelerator, PayPal's Start Tank led by David Chang. Maybe our biggest "break" was being selected as a part of the first class of the New York Fashion Tech Lab, which is run by the Partnership Fund for New York City and Springboard Enterprises, and pairs fashion tech startups with retail sponsors. We are very proud that this led to an exclusive partnership with Macy's where the Macy's website links out to us at NinteenthAmendment.com.
20+ Explo Alums Crack Forbes' 30 Under 30 List
Every year, the editors at Forbes Magazine feature individuals who are the most innovative in their fields in their 30 Under 30 issue. To date, 20+ Explo Alums are among their number. To all of them, we'd like to offer our most enthusiastic congratulations!
Could you have foreseen that you would be in the fashion industry?
As a twin, I was always interested in fashion. It was how I differentiated myself from my sister. I am also a painter, so I love color and the process of how beautiful things come into being. It is very fulfilling to see a garment come to life. Also, all of the clothes available at Nineteenth Amendment are inherently sustainable — they are only made when someone wants them — which is important to me. Nothing is produced until it is ordered. Our goal is ultimately to scale the operations globally and have everything locally made as well. So looking back, it does make sense to me.
Did you always know what you wanted to do?
In college, I thought that I would be a consultant or an investment banker.
Did you have a passion for banking?
No, I had always been creative and hardworking. Investment banking and consulting was what everyone who was smart seemed to be focused on. I really just had no idea of what else was out there. Many good students are funneled into things. Instead of using my college years to explore new subjects, I got the idea that this was something that I 'should' be doing and I got a brutal wake-up call as a result.
I was interviewing for banking jobs in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis. People were literally walking out of the middle interviews they were conducting because they had learned that they were fired during the course of the interview. It was crazy! Hiring was frozen everywhere and the economy was in free fall. All my plans, everything that I had been working towards, went out the window. Everything I thought I should do wasn't really an option any more.
What did you do?
It was the beginning of my path towards more creative thinking. I realized I wanted more control over my career. I had an idea to start a consulting firm that would use college students from the community to work on projects that would help the local economy. I got a scholarship from the Kauffman Entrepreneurship Foundation to make it happen. After about a year, I was recruited by Booz Allen Hamilton, where I worked as a consultant mainly for the U.S. Department of Defense.
That seems like an abrupt shift. What did you learn there?
After starting a small consulting company, I wanted the experience of working in a big one. It was a great place for me to learn how to work with people from all different backgrounds and to experience what was involved in being an excellent service provider. I had great managers there but the whole time, in the back of my mind, I knew that it wasn't a long term career fit for me. In my spare time, I was constantly following tech blogs. So I had very specific goals going in:, I wanted to get promoted, and be there long enough to qualify for a 401(k) retirement benefit deposit. Once I accomplished these goals, I was ready to do the next thing.
What was that?
I attended the six week Startup Institute, where I was introduced to the Boston tech community. I got ingrained quickly in the Boston startup community culture and loved it. This was also where I met my future business partner, Amanda Curtis. She pitched the original idea for Nineteenth Amendment and had the fashion experience. I understood her initial vision and we hit it off.
And it was easy sailing from there right?
Not quite! The idea wasn't ready and I needed a paying job. I went to work at a venture capital firm in Boston while working on Nineteenth Amendment on the side. Amanda and I began getting together every day after work. We would meet somewhere with our dinners to work on the company until 10:00 or 11:00 pm. It was a second full-time job. Let's just say, I didn't have a huge social life.
What was it like doing both?
It was exhausting but fun. I was developing a product for family caregivers. I was talking about flexible spending accounts during the day and pattern making at night — my brain was all over the place. By my second year, I where I created and obtained funding for my company in my "day" job, I hit a wall again. It was an eye opening experience, but I didn't have the power in my position to scale the company, so after it was funded, I decided to leave. By the time I knew that I needed to leave, I knew what I was going to do next. The good news was that I had been preparing for this and saving like a madwoman.
Were you scared?
Actually, it was wonderful. Right after I left to do Nineteenth Amendment full-time, my parents said, "Wow, you look so much happier!"
What do you remember most about that time?
It was fun and crazy and just the tip of the iceberg. We started off based in Boston, but we quickly realized that as a fashion company, we needed to be in New York City — the city that never sleeps. I still go back to Boston regularly though, and I can still tell you everything you need to know about all of the cheap bus services that run between Boston and New York!
Do you have any special Explo memories?
I attended Explo as a day student in 2001 with my twin sister (and now our Creative Director), Lucy, and I remember sitting in this big, beautiful hall and being able to really picture myself in college for the first time. I took a creative writing class and I also made good friends at Explo, two of which I call close friends today.
What advice would you give to your Explo self?
You don't have to do what everyone else says you 'should' be doing. Explore, learn, be curious — fill your time with an expression of yourself. People lose that too quickly.
What advice do you have for Explo students today?
You don't need to know what you want to do with your life by your junior year of high school! Take a year off if you want to. Be confident in yourself — you can't predict where you will end up. Value the time you have to explore. If you keep your curiosity alive, you can create your own opportunities and find something you love.