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"The Time Is Always Now" Courtney Gunter Rowson ’95 (left) and Lindsey Dorman Johnson ’07 launched businesses that are winning attention from the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Forbes.

America Inc.’s long line of entrepreneurs begins with colonial-era icons like Ben Franklin and runs through modern-day mavericks like Jeff Bezos and Oprah Winfrey. Yet following the Great Recession, that line thinned as capital dried up and faith in new ventures faltered. The number of start-ups launched each year dropped precipitously and even now lag their previous highs.

Enter Courtney Gunter Rowson ’95 and Lindsey Dorman Johnson ’07. Amid the storm clouds, the two started businesses that have emerged as bright lights and models of how to get things done.

Rowson’s SDCO Partners, a design and branding firm she started with fellow graphic designer Amy Pastre, has worked with such retail giants as Target, Le Creuset, Waterworks, and West Elm. It also recently helped rebrand Draper James, Reese Witherspoon’s Southern clothing company. Johnson’s company, Weezie, has become a fashion and business sensation for its e-commerce model and luxurious, organic-cotton towels and robes. “A Start-Up Called Weezie Is Going to Make You Rethink Towels,” Forbes.com declared last year. Inc. magazine named Johnson a “rising star” for 2019.

The two firms and their founders are very different. SDCO is in its second decade; Weezie is approaching its second year. Rowson started her agency after years working as a graphic designer for other firms; it’s purposely small, with just 11 employees, and prides itself on creative, high-touch solutions for clients. Johnson, meanwhile, left a budding career in finance (MBA from Columbia University; stints at Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, and a hedge fund) to start Weezie, a direct-to-consumer company that aims to grow fast. It already has more than two dozen employees operating out of four cities.

Yet the two women have a great deal in common. Both started their businesses with a friend and based operations in the South. Neither considers herself a natural at business management, yet both are trying to create corporate cultures that inspire creativity and loyalty and establish a healthy work-life balance for themselves and their employees. Both are also EHS alumnae who point to their years at Episcopal as critical building blocks for their success.

Rowson and Johnson came to EHS this fall as part of the biannual CONNECT on Campus event, a daylong program in which alumni talk to students about careers and life and begin valuable connections. The two spoke with us about their ventures and their business philosophy.

What's the hardest thing about starting a business?

Johnson started Weezie with her friend Liz Eichholz after their research showed unmet market demand for luxury towels.

Lindsey Johnson: You hear no so many times. Significantly more people told us this was a bad idea than told us it was a good idea. I used to let that get to me, but then I decided I wouldn’t take no for an answer. You have to develop a thick skin and just say, “Okay, I respectfully disagree” and move on. Sometimes that is easier said than done, especially when you are young and it’s your first business. It’s always a great idea to solicit feedback and advice from others, but learning not to rely on experiences of others as a playbook for your business is the hard part. No one knows your business better than you do, and learning to trust your gut is so important.

Courtney Gunter Rowson and her team work out of a charming townhouse in Charleston.

Courtney Rowson: I’ve learned that in order to succeed, you have to believe in yourself. And if you’re going to do it, you have to go all in. The minute you start asking other people for their opinions, they become decision makers. You can’t get them out of your head, and their opinions are at the table with yours. It becomes a distraction. Do you disregard them? Do you listen to them? So be careful whom you ask, and always go with your gut because ultimately you know your business better than anybody.

What are the advantages of starting a business from scratch?

Johnson: You’re the master of your own destiny, so to speak, and that is both an advantage and a challenge. It’s a challenge because you’re looking up at a mountain of things that you have to get done, but it also represents an opportunity to build a business from scratch. You get to establish the culture, pick the people you’re working with, decide how to invest your resources, and so on. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that the success or failure of the business is your own, which is so empowering. I’ve never cared so much about anything in my career; the stakes are high, but that’s what makes the whole experience so meaningful!

Rowson: I feel the same way. Obviously, I would give 100% at any job, but because my name is on the door, I’m constantly trying to evaluate and reevaluate, setting new goals, and trying to achieve them. It is so fulfilling when it is for you and your family.

As a female, I feel fortunate that I am able to shape the culture of our studio. It was important to me to create an environment that valued work-life balance. Our team arrives each day focused on doing good work, with the expectation that doing good work can be accomplished within regular hours. We all have personal lives, families, and outside interests, and we try to protect that for our team. It ensures that we all stay energized and balanced.

Johnson and a friend started Weezie, which she founded with her friend Liz Eichholz, after their research showed unmet market demand for luxury towels.

Talk about the culture at your company.

Johnson: I like to think our culture is very flat. Everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone’s opinion matters. I also try to be as transparent as possible with our vision for the future so that everyone understands where we are headed, and how their role fits into that bigger picture.

Rowson: Looking back on a decade in business, one of my greatest realizations has been the importance of establishing synergy — with my business partner, our clients, and our team. When Amy and I started the company, we had one main goal: to collaborate with each other and do really good work for fulfilling projects and people and ideas. That’s still true. We still practice that collaborative spirit every day. If I know the project needs more illustration, I’ll make sure I pull in a designer whose strengths lie in that area. We try to make sure that there’s no ego involved, that at the end of the day it’s “our” project, not “my” project. We firmly believe that we are the sum of our parts at SDCO.

What does it mean to you to be women entrepreneurs?

Rowson: In the 10 years that we’ve been in business, we’ve never positioned ourselves as a female-founded company. We never talked about it. We wanted to be known for our design, and that was it. But it’s something that we’re getting asked about more. We find ourselves working with so many female-founded companies, and I’m so inspired that they are taking more chances and creating products and companies that feel disruptive

Johnson: Similarly, I see ourselves just as entrepreneurs who happen to be women, but there is an increasing focus on female-founded businesses and women investing in women in both the venture capital and direct-to-consumer community right now. We certainly didn’t think about it when we started the business, but it is a powerful shift in dialogue. More women can look up to other women entrepreneurs and say, “They did it; I can, too.”

What is the hardest thing about your work?

Rowson: Finding and procuring talent and employees. I’m a designer; I’m not a manager. I’ve had to learn how to manage people, but it’s not always a natural fit for someone in a creative field. We didn’t go to business school; we didn’t know about employee health-care and maternity policies. Also, every new hire changes our dynamic. We have to be very intentional about our hires and the clients that we take on to make sure they are a good fit, because they make a big impact on a small team.

Johnson: Our business is only a year old and growing rapidly, so everything is hard! Every challenge we face — from the supply chain to customer acquisition to the technology to the operations — is new. My job is to figure out how to solve problems in a scalable way, ensuring that they aren’t as much of a headache the second and third time around. Still, I would have to echo Courtney and say that people are the most critical part of the business and finding, developing, and maintaining great talent takes a lot of care and attention.

Clients for Rowson’s firm include Palermo skin-care products and Brightland olive oil.

Is there anything from your Episcopal experience that comes into play in your world?

Johnson: So many things! Independence, leadership skills, confidence, an “I can do it” attitude are at the top of the list. But perhaps the most important was the ability to manage my time. At EHS you have to decide how to balance sports, friends, homework, applying to colleges, and more, and you’re managing all these things without your parents holding your hand. You’re learning to make decisions, tackle challenges, and prioritize your time in a way that you might not at a less-rigorous institution.

Now, as an entrepreneur, I know how to manage my laundry list of competing priorities and how to take on complex problems in a way that I probably wouldn’t have had I been at home with my parents helping me along the way.

Rowson: I came to Episcopal from a small town in North Carolina where I was doing great in school and everything was easy breezy. At the School, you’re challenged and you’re encouraged and you have all these new feelings and influences in your life. It opened my eyes to so much more and to the idea that there’s so much more I can do. I can work harder. I can work smarter. I can manage my time differently. It does give you real-life experiences so early in your life.

When you talked to students, what was your advice about entrepreneurship?

Rowson: I have had so many job experiences that informed the way I create our office culture or the way I interact with our employees or clients. I worked at shops that were crazy creative, and I learned so much about design. Then I worked at others where I really admired how they operated the business, and I learned so much from them. I told the students today not to limit themselves to one track. You can be focused on, say, design, with your head down just looking only at design, but that creates a very limited experience. So I told them to try it all. Go for it.

Johnson: Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Even if you fail, you will learn something. Before starting Weezie, I was on a very comfortable career path in finance and was hesitant to deviate. Starting a business is scary, and it can be tempting to toy with the idea and dip your toe in the water slowly, but I don’t think you’re giving yourself a real shot unless you fully go for it. The longer you test the waters, the less likely you are to take the plunge. My advice to students is if you are interested in entrepreneurship, just go for it. The time is always now.

*Editor’s update: Since the coronavirus outbreak, staff at the graphic-design firm that Courtney Gunter Rowson ’95 founded has made a smooth transition to working remotely. Most of their clients are national, so the firm is accustomed to connecting and collaborating through video calls and email. “I'm learning, both working remotely and sharing the day with my family, to be more flexible and to take it one day at a time,” she says.

*Lindsey Dorman Johnson ’07 writes of her e-commerce firm Weezie: “Since this article was written, Covid-19 has flipped the retail industry on its head. ... More than ever, I'm leaning on those lessons of prioritization learned at EHS, particularly as things evolve on a daily basis. While we don’t know what the future holds for the retail industry or the economy, I’m confident that Weezie will weather the storm and emerge stronger once it has passed.”