You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series, Second Life. Each week, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
If you ask Sue Fuller when her entrepreneurial career began, she'll tell you that she's been in the business since she was 8 years old and operating a "department store" out of her parents' basement. However, she really got started in 2017 when she launched The Oliver Thomas, a line of stylish and functional bags. Like most entrepreneurs, she started a business because she identified a problem and wanted to solve it.
With a history working in merchandising roles for brands like Ralph Lauren and Vera Bradley, Fuller knew how to work with product but was drawn to help solve the needs of the consumer. After growing tired of shlepping heavy bags to and from the airport, the gym, and everywhere in between, she decided to take matters into her own hands and create a product that worked for her. "We were going to try to make the world a little bit better one bag at a time," she tells MyDomaine.
In this edition of Second Life, we ask the entrepreneur and founder behind The Oliver Thomas about leaving her steady career in merchandising for the startup life, the lessons she's learned, and the challenges she faced along the way.
Tell us about your first career path
I have been an entrepreneur in the fashion industry since I was an 8 year old when my siblings and I started our first “department store” in my parent’s basement on their pool table selling clothing with patches on them (this is what customization looked like in the ’80s) and curating our version of a “Happy Meal” with chips and tootsie rolls “borrowed” from my parent’s food pantry. My sister took care of the guerrilla marketing drumming up business from the local neighborhood by riding around on her pink Huffy bike. Bill Gates said that he started in his garage… I started even lower than that in my parent’s basement.
How did you make the transition from your previous career in product at Ralph Lauren Home to launching your own bag company?
I worked in merchandising roles for brands including Ralph Lauren, LL Bean, Kohl’s, Carhartt, and Vera Bradley. While those experiences enabled me to grow and build my knowledge in the business, as I climbed the corporate ladder, I found myself moving away from the actual consumer and away from solving the needs of the consumer. My passion for product combined with my experience in global supply chain, planning, merchandising and design led me to found Oliver Thomas. The biggest thing I have learned is that there is no substitute for continual learning, and the hustle is real! I have been fortunate to surround myself with amazing colleagues and mentors who share a similar outlook and work ethic.
Tell us about your current business
Most entrepreneurs start a business because they want to solve a problem that they have identified. This is exactly what drove me to start The Oliver Thomas. In July of 2017, I found that my combination of frequent travels (nearly 70% of my time had been spent on a plane weekly since I was in my early 20s), being a mother of two boys and a fur baby (the real Oliver Thomas is my beloved Shitzu), and trying to stay fit while going to the gym had me carrying three to four bags at a time throughout the day. All the bags were heavy, didn’t function, and were absolutely killing my back and shoulders. It was then that I realized that no one needed another bag… or did they? One that actually functioned and allowed you to go from day to night and week to weekend without having to carry around multiple heavy bags. Hence The Oliver Thomas was born.
In order to start the company, I knew that I had to surround myself with the most trustworthy, hard-working, no B.S. people I know. I called my best friend, neighbors, former colleagues, and even the real Oliver Thomas’s dog nanny (a former head of sales training for a major automobile company in the U.S.) and explained my idea, concept, and passion around solving for the way that real women live today. While we are still in our infancy, we have set out to prove that if you surround yourself with like-minded team members, have fun, involve the community, don’t take yourself too seriously, take risks, don’t play by the unwritten rules, have a ton of passion—anything can be accomplished. You can also make the world a little bit better and a lot more fun… one bag at a time.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career and why?
Not to settle with myself, people, product, and process, and encourage always moving forward. Everyone is so busy, and it is easy to just check things off a list. I always wanted to ensure that good enough was not an option.
What triggered your need to change this time around?
I really wanted to create a culture and a brand that encouraged creative thinking, and one that continuously solved the needs of the consumer. I also wanted to do things better, faster, and more efficiently while having a ton of fun. And that is exactly what we are doing.
Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
I have endless energy, tons of ideas, and I live for thinking outside the box. I absolutely love my team because they don’t take themselves too seriously and get SH*T done. As we say at Oliver Thomas, “Giddy the F Uu!” This is the culture we have established.
What's the most important thing you have learned in making a big change in your career life?
Every business begins and ends with people. Whenever I am considering any change in my professional life, the first thing I do is to see if I can connect with the team and if we share the same mission and vision and sense of humor.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
I am a person who is driven by desire. The entire team has an incredible energy, and we are constantly collaborating how we can continue to delight and surprise the Oliver Thomas consumer.
What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success? What did you learn?
It might be easier to start with all the things that have turned out perfectly in my career, as those are fewer. I was very fortunate to grow up in the fashion industry with colleagues and mentors who enabled me to take risks and learn from them. Business is always 50/50, and I believe that as long as you have the right people surrounding you, the best thing you can do is take calculated risks, get everyone on board, learn quickly, regroup, and keep the shop moving. It’s so important to consistently stop and ask “What have we learned?” I also swear that having a massive sense of humor helps get through anything.
What do you love most about your current role and why?
I love that I am a part of a team that works hard, that believes in our mission, and gives 110% every day. It is so fulfilling to see this many people (and dogs) as excited as I am to grow Oliver Thomas.