As a mom-owned small biz, we love connecting with and sharing the journeys of other passionate entrepreneurial moms. Whitney Lundeen is the founder of Sonnet James, a clothing company founded on the idea that beautiful clothing should also work for moms. Whitney designs dresses that are stylish but also comfortable and machine washable (what a perfect combination!). She lives in California with her two boys. We had the chance to chat with her about all things business during Covid times, being a mom and appearing on Shark Tank!
1. Would you share with our community what your mission is with Sonnet James and why that is so important to you?
Our mission is to help women feel young at heart, present in the moment and more playful with the ones they love. We want to encourage mothers to be as engaged and present with the people in their lives as possible. The backstory to that is Sonnet James came to be when I was going through a really difficult time in my life. I was seeing a therapist, and they asked me to do an art project to help me get in touch with my “inner child”. I sketched a dress that my mom could have worn when I was little to help remind her to play with me. My parents had a very challenging relationship, my mom was abused by my father and suffered with depression, so that’s where the lightbulb idea came from. From then on, it was always there inside of me. It was also very important for me at that time of life because I was also going through a divorce, and I was really struggling to stay present and emotionally engaged with my 18 month old and 3 ½ year old. I just wanted to detach from everything and everyone. It was like I needed the dress just as much as my mom needed the dress to remind me as a woman and a mother, to be the mothers that we always hoped and wanted to be. That’s the mission behind it all that drives us every day to keep working and gives us so much purpose.
2. We have quite a bit in common between being moms of boys, starting our own business and of course appearing on Shark Tank. Yet the connection I feel the most with you is hearing how you took adversity from your childhood and instead of that holding you down, raised you up. Would you share with us a little bit about that and where you think this strength came from?
When my brother was in business school, a professor said that children who are raised in dysfunctional homes tend to be some of the best CEOs or entrepreneurs because their lives were so chaotic. Nothing can really throw them off because the chaos is kind of normal for them. In some ways I was able to use the challenging parts of being a child in so much chaos to help me to provide a living for my family and navigate the crazy world of running a business. I think you also gain a lot of empathy when you have parents who struggle, and I think that empathy really carried through to me wanting to help as many people as I could. When you love and care for your mom so much and want her to be happy and healthy, I often find myself just thinking of all the mothers out there, if there is any little thing that I can do to help support them in the challenging work that we do every day. That was a huge motivation for me. I really believe I couldn’t have started Sonnet James in any other circumstance, but I was just completely desperate. I had left my husband, I didn’t have any source of income, and I had two little kids. The only possible way I could have worked as hard as I did was because I had to. I guess that is strength. I am always in awe of what mothers are capable of, and what I have been capable of as a mother. I’m just always happily surprised by what that side of me can do.
3. I have heard you talk about being the mom you wanted to be and that really hit me because that is something I spend a lot time reflecting on because I grew up with my dad. There are plenty of new moms who don't have a great role model for being a mother, what advice would you share with 'them'?
I can relate to this. I got a lot of inspiration from the movie, “Matilda”’s character, Miss Honey. Even if she wasn’t a mom, from such a young age, I knew I wanted to be just like Miss Honey. I remember her in her overalls doing cartwheels in the backyard and rollerblading in the house, and I would think, that’s what childhood should be like with your mom. It should be silly and playful, sort of irreverent, doing stuff you’re not “supposed” to. In “The Parent Trap”, Elizabeth James was very inspiring to me with how cool she was, when she lets her daughter watch her sketching in bed. She was so sweet and nice, she wasn’t always in a bad mood. I drew a lot from books and movies, but those were my two biggest inspirations.
4. As every parent knows - you need a village to raise your children but I also think you need a village to run a business. Would you share how Sara Blakely, who you did a deal with on Shark Tank, has become part of your business village?
I really don’t think there could possibly be a better investor. I am constantly blown away by the relationship that I have with her team. I have these long calls with her heads of marketing, legal, and finance where I can ask them anything. It feels so refreshing as a female business owner in Palo Alto, because a lot of the business owners around here are men and vc’s that I reached out to. When they valued my company, they valued it at half of what females who valued it did. There’s been a lot of bad energy around me and my business with men especially, so when I talk to Sara’s team, I have always been ready for similar responses. An example of how they proved this wrong is that a lot of the men I’d consulted with told me to move to a different state to have lower taxes, lower studio rent, etc. which makes total sense on paper and seems like the right thing to do. But Sara’s team’s response was, “But aren’t you really happy in Palo Alto?”, and I was like, “Yeah..?”, and they said, “Well that should probably be the most important factor. If you’re really happy, you should stay where you are”. That was the last thing I expected them to say. Just one example of how amazing and well-balanced they are. They also listen to me cry, I have probably cried in every mentoring session with them. They are so empathetic, they don’t judge me--they know how hard this is. They are just extremely supportive in every way that women are supportive.
5. Here at Tiny Tags our community is everything and I am sure you feel the same about Sonnet James - would you share with us what your community means to you and how you have grown from these relationships?
I know how you feel about your community because I know how I feel about mine. I started Sonnet James 8 ½ years ago with two little kids and I was just in such dire circumstances that I feel like my community really has been a family full of cheerleaders in every possible way. I think the biggest thing is every time something crazy in the world happens, and I’m thinking are there even good people anymore? But then I remember that everyone in my Sonnet James community is good and kind, and it reminds me that humanity is good. Just because we see a big portion of the bad in the news, really, there are so many good people. I feel so lucky that I haven’t gotten any hate messages or cruel things. It’s all just positivity, kindness, support, and love. They really have gotten me through the past 8 ½ years.
6. When you and I spoke we talked a lot about what Covid did to our businesses and to our families. Would you share with us what life lessons you learned over the last year?
I really had to just let go of a lot because California got shut down, and then as far as fabrics and the supply chain go, everything was delayed. So yeah, I just had to let go and really focus on my kids, making sure that they were being taken care of because they were doing school on zoom and it was a big adjustment for them not being social, the fear of the virus and everything. I learned that the most important things are how we treat people around us in our relationships, taking care of the kids, and being gentle with myself. It was really hard to go from having the biggest year of sales in 2019 to feeling really frustrated with how hard we worked to get here and then having no control over our sales or growth or anything in 2020. That was really really hard, and I felt pretty critical of myself because my own mental health was struggling because of all the news. It was so overwhelming--it was hard to work or do anything with the kids at home. It was a very good lesson for me to just be gentle with myself and my kids and also to all my business partners and vendors. It felt very easy to get frustrated quickly with why things were delayed but I learned to give everyone grace.
7. I feel your playful energy in Sonnet James and I love how that comes across in your designs. Where do you get your inspiration from?
I feel like my design inspiration comes from a lot of street style--I study it a lot on different blogs and websites. I also love men’s style streetwear. Whenever I travel, especially to places with a lot of art and architecture, that’s when a lot of ideas come to me. When I stop working and let my mind be free from any analytical and logistical sides of work, that’s when the most ideas come. Being bored is probably my #1 inspiration. Now I get why Agnes Martin had her studio plain as can be with just a bed and her canvas and would sit until she felt inspired. It works!
8. When things finally go back to "normal" and we can travel again - what are you most excited for and what are your boys most excited for?
When we can, we are all very excited to do our NYC trip together and see a Broadway show. :)
We absolutely love the idea of clothing that allows us to be playful with our kids, while still looking and feeling good! It's such an inspiration to read about Whitney's journey and how she created a successful company that is also meaningful. Thank you Whitney for sharing your time and your story with us!