Interview with Jen Lenzan, creator of Bella + Sophia Clothing
Posted on January 22 2016
Your gorgeous girlswear line, Bella & Sophia, is named for your daughters. Did you always know you wanted to be a mom?
Thank you for your kind words Heather. This is an interesting question for me. I am not going to sugar coat my story as I think it plays into my journey. I am the oldest child in my family and I grew up with a single working mom. So, in many ways I always played a motherly role in my life without really thinking about it. I had a very difficult upbringing surrounded by things like gangs, drugs and domestic violence. My life could have gone a number of different directions, but I always knew I wanted to remove myself and my younger brother from that negative environment.
So, I really took on a mother-like role at an early age. My little brother (we are 4 years apart) used to call me mommy jenny when we were younger. I took my role as his big sister seriously and I always say he saved my life. Today he’s working hard saving other peoples lives as a police officer. My responsibility to him kept me on the straight and narrow as I didn’t want us to fall victim to our circumstances. He even lived with me and I was his primary caretaker for a couple of years during his highschool time. Needless to say, I grew up fast. So, initially when I thought about kids, I wasn’t sure I wanted to have any. It’s not that I didn’t love children (I was that babysitter who was the baby whisperer for some time), but I wasn’t sure I was capable of being the mother I knew kids deserved. You can say it was the situation I grew up in and the hardships we faced, but I just was scared I couldn’t give a child any different of a world than what I had growing up.
Fast forward to my early twenties and my senior year of college, an unexpected pregnancy changed everything for me. I wasn’t in a terrible spot. So, it’s not like one of those teen pregnancy experiences. I had a good job, was living in a home my now ex-husband purchased and I was almost done with college; the timing was just off. Yet, the moment I realized I was pregnant, something inside me changed. I never felt true love before that moment. That moment I fell in love with my unborn child and I realized I would fight the world for her. I always worked hard, but now I worked even harder because it wasn’t just for me anymore. I had someone else to take care of. I was 22 when I had my oldest: Bella. It was my senior year of college, I had worked and gone to class up until the day before I gave birth. I worked things out with teachers so I could get homework in and I returned to school the following weekend via webcam and 2 weeks later in person. It was one of the hardest things I had to do leaving Bella at home at just 2 weeks old, but I was lucky she had grandparents who could care for her while I worked and finished up school. I graduated without missing a beat because I was not just working for me anymore. I was working to give this little human the life she deserved, a life I never had.
I went through a divorce when Bella was a toddler. Met an amazing person and had my second child a few years later when Bella was 5. We are truly a modern blended family. Perfectly imperfect. Bella’s father and I work to co-parent her the best we can and for that I am grateful. Dwight, her step dad, loves her as his own and Bella and Sophia just love each other only as sisters do.
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a mother, but I am glad that things worked out so that I was blessed with two beautiful girls. They are my fire, my constant inspiration and my world. I work hard for them and it was only fitting that I name the line that they inspire after them.
How are you inspired as the designer of Bella & Sophia?
First and foremost, my inspiration comes from the girls. Things they are drawn to, colors they use to create their artwork. The things they tell me like, “mommy this dress is too itchy, I like how it looks, but can you make it softer?” They are a constant source of inspiration. A lot of the prints you see in this recent collection, Bella actually helped with creating.
Then, I do what most designers do when it comes to sourcing inspiration. I research. It might be the teacher in me, but I love how history intersects with fashion and style. I might start with a time period, specific decade, place or artist and use that as the source to find prints, colors and themes. I will go to the librabry and find books, I will pull inspiration from magazines and I also do a lot of sketching to just start my silhouettes and pattern inspiration. The 80s inspired this most recent collection and I took it in a more modern direction to add a twist. The colors and prints are directly inspired by the pop culture and inherent LA girls just want to have fun vibe of that time period. Yet, I brought in modern styles like moto leggings that were crossed with more traditional techniques like quilting.
I find inspiration online constantly. Whether I am researching using a site like WGSN or scouring tumblr, Pinterest or Instagram – I am constantly inspired by the abundance of creativity that is continuously developing online.
Jen, you seriously produce more than anyone I know. How do you find time and more importantly, energy, to do everything you do? And are your endeavors tied in some way? Do they complement each other?
Haha! Thank you, but I think I have a problem sometimes, LOL! I work a regular job as an adjunct professor outside of my creative endeavors as I try to build these brands up. I almost feel that Bella+Sophia and Halfstack (the indie mag I run) are my creative lifeblood. I am an artistic person through and through, but my past corporate jobs didn’t always allow me to spread my creative wings as much as I wanted.
Teaching is a whole other beast that I have to be creative with in a much different way. Bella + Sophia and Halfstack weren’t always tied to one another, but as I have developed each, I realize they are both a part of me and may intertwine from time to time. The audiences are very different. Bella+Sophia focuses on the mom, while Halfstack focuses on a millennial readership, but they are both fashion related and allow me to utilize the skills I developed during my career and while in Art School. If anything, they do complement one another with regards to the skills I gained creating both (marketing vs. design vs. business).
With Bella+Sophia Clothing and with Halfstack, I can take my ideas and vision and bring them to life. Even after an 8 hour work day at school, I will come home and take care of the kids and once they are in bed, I am back to work by 8PM. It’s the passion and drive that keep me up til 3 am working some nights when I am on deadline for the magazine or to get orders out for the kidswear line. It’s the fact that I feel creatively fulfilled and I find personal happiness in creating that keeps me going when I am running on just a few hours of sleep some days.
I don’t have a magic potion that helps me accomplish things, but I know what works for me. I use the passion planner to schedule out my weeks and months. I dedicate specific days of the week to Bella+Sophia clothing and others to Halfstack. I block out the time I am with family, add appointments and I also use my iCalendar on my iPhone to sync calendars with Dwight in order for us to make our schedules flow much easier. I will say that the way I really make it work is because of the support system I have in place. Dwight is currently in grad school and both of our schedules are hectic, but he’s the type of dad who isn’t scared of cooking, housework and taking care of the kids on days I am not home. I am overwhelmingly appreciative of that. As much as I wish I were super mom, I just can’t do everything and the fact that I have a partner in life who can pick up the slack when I drop the ball is instrumental. That passion planner I mentioned earlier was actually a gift from Dwight. It helps do more than just schedule and plan my days, it acts like a diary in a sense as well to write down my thoughts on how each month or week went overall. It’s a place to highlight successes and failures and way to really map out what I am attempting to accomplish with my dreams. I am lucky to have people in my life, who believe in my vision. Without them, I couldn’t do this.
Can you describe a typical "day in the life"?
Oh man! Sometimes, I feel like all my days roll into a big blob. Right now I am teaching Mon-fri at the two different colleges I work at. As an adjunct I have to teach at multiple schools to be able to make a living.
It’s a tough schedule, but I am making it work. I am lucky to work while the girls are in school. When I am teaching during the day, I focus on teaching, but may answer emails about the side businesses on my phone during breaks between classes. When my teaching day is done (usually starts at 7AM and ends by 3PM), I head home and make it a point to focus on the kids.
They are getting to an age where if I am on email too long, they will say, “Mom, pay attention!” So, I am working really hard to be mindful of that, but I won’t lie – I do get distracted sometimes, but that is the reality when you are trying to build an entrepreneurial endeavor. But for the most part, family time is family time. My girls are the focus from after school until bedtime during the weekdays and I need to be in the present. That usually includes homework and reading time, perhaps driving them to afterschool activities (gymnastics and pottery are the popular ones this winter), then getting dinner prepared, maybe some time for art or cuddles and then bed time. The kids are both in bed between 730PM-8PM.
Around 8:15, if Dwight isn’t in night classes, I will catch up with him and have my evening tea and then depending on which day it is, I will start up my work night either on the Magazine or the line Right now, the collection is done and I am just working on sales. I may work on getting orders packed up and ready for Dwight to drop off at the post office for me in the morning. Then there are things like SEO for the site, google Adwords and emailing out pitches to bloggers, journalists and boutiques. During a time when we are production, I may be working on things like concepting (drawing out my ideas), sourcing fabrics and notions, CAD design work for the textile designs I make, pattern making, protoype sewing and creating tech packs. I outsource the digitizing of my handmade patterns to one of my old students: Cindy and I also outsource to another alumni of mine: Lauren to help me standard tech design work. When I am done with concepts and patterns are digitized, I work with an amazing small batch manufacturer to help me with size samples and actually producing. When I first started, I was sewing all of my orders, but in order to grow this year I realized I had to outsource production. The better half of 2015 was dedicated to building that relationship and working with the manufacturer to get the most recent collection done.
For the magazine I work with 20+ other creatives for Halfstackmag.com and for our publication: www.issuu.com/halfstackmag. Most nights I work on Halfstack, I am usually working on things like sending out article assignments to our bloggers, working on writing pieces myself, editing our podcasts, editing Youtube videos, coordinating photoshoots for our editorial magazine which includes art direction, sourcing locations and models, meetings with my photographers and following up on story assignments.
I also work with a team of about 5 different graphic designers who help me with layouts of the magazine that comes out online every 3 months. The team I work with is truly amazing and they are really the reason why Halfstack has grown into what it is and I am lucky to have so many talented people who believe in what we are doing with the publication. I also have to work on the business side of things like pitching brands for possible sponsorships and advertising.
It’s a lot and it can get overwhelming sometimes, but I don’t think I could ever stop now that I started. I’ve been running Halfstack for 4 years now. It’s grown so much more than I could have ever hoped for when I first launched it in 2012. I’ve been running Bella+Sophia Clothing for 2 years now. It’s still in its infancy and just like a child needs to be supported and I am hoping that if I put enough TLC into it, it too will make me proud.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I think the hardships I faced growing up helped me establish early on, that I am the bearer of my own destiny. It’s up to me to make a difference in my life, in others lives and in this world. I saw my mom working really hard at all these jobs with bosses who didn’t appreciate her. In college, I had the opportunity to intern with a small business owner and I had first hand experience seeing what it was like to be your own boss. I knew I wanted that.
I worked many jobs throughout college, during grad school and during my time in the corporate world. One thing I noticed, was that so many workers were considered expendable. In today’s day and age, the corporate world isn’t what it once was. Businesses made investments in their employees and appreciated them and paid them well for it. They offered them benefits and time off. Today, a good corporate gig is hard to come by. I am not saying it doesn’t exist, but I see so many places that want the most out of you for the cheapest. It’s the small businesses that I see today making those investments in people. I don’t hear of many people staying places for 10-20+ years like people did in the past. The work world is changing and I don’t want to put my destiny in someone else’s hands. There is this quote that I read years back that has stuck with me. “If you don’t build your dream someone will hire you to help build theirs.” I went to graduate school to get an MBA, but my focus was in small business and entrepreneurship. It was during this time I launched my first business. I was freelancing doing design, social media, marketing and content writing work for small businesses. I was able to quit my retail job and focus on grad school and doing freelance work to pay the bills rather than working for a retailer that didn’t quite appreciate me.
After graduation I took a corporate gig and started teaching but I still maintained my freelancing. I knew there was something more that I wanted outside of just a corporate job. It’s been a risky endeavor to pursue my small businesses over the last 4 years, but I know it takes time, energy and commitment. I don’t want to work for someone else, being part of the system that makes them millions, while I only see a small percentage of that wealth. The reality is, it is even smaller since I am a woman. I don’t have to fight for “fair wages” if I am paying myself what I know I am worth.
I am pursuing building my own brands so that I can also help others. Whether that is through my charitable efforts through Bella+Sophia or through hiring people who are looking for something more, I want to be a change maker.
You're clearly a change maker, Jen. So, what is one of the most significant sacrifices you've had to make to do what you love?
I would say leaving behind the corporate world and a steady paycheck has probably been the most impactful. It can be scary at times because even with my “day job” as an adjunct I am still only a contract worker for the schools. I don’t always know if they will have classes for me. But, that is where the hustle comes into play and really pushing to grow my small businesses. I am always working because I know that I only get out of my businesses what I put in. I think working 3 jobs during college and my early twenties prepared me to better handle what I am doing as an adult. I can prioritize and I am not afraid to put myself out there like I once was. If I have a business proposition or a pitch, I am going to make it because, “what do I really have to lose anymore?” Because I have made sacrifices and taken risks, I also understand what I am worth and what I stand for.
Right on. Jen, who is your support system?
My family is most definitely my support system. Dwight is my go to as I mentioned earlier. He’s right there by my side making sure things get done. If I need someone to drop off packages to the post office, I don’t have to even ask – he is ready at a moments notice. If I have been up til 3am working and I have a later start class – he will let me sleep in and get the kids up and ready for school and then wake me during breakfast. Our family helps so much with the kids as well. I am lucky I don’t have to leave my girls with strangers; they are with grandparents who love them when we are working or at school. My younger brother is also still my best friend. He’s one of my biggest supporters as I am one of his.
When it comes to the businesses, it is my group of creative friends who help make things like Halfstack possible. When I am tired and feel like giving up, I have people texting me to keep going. I have people calling me or messaging me late at night because they are up working late on our deadlines. I have an amazing group of people who inspire me constantly and it is because of them these things are possible.
You are a champion for other moms, and really, all people who have struggles. Who/what do you support specifically in your local and greater community?
When it comes to support in the community, at the heart of what I do is a genuine hope to make the world a little better than when I came in it. The violence & heartache I saw as a child affected the decisions I have made as an adult and now parent to do better and make the world better for my kids. For Bella+Sophia clothing 10% of each of our sales goes straight back to local organizations catering to the underserved, minority and at risk youth. Right now we partner with an organization called: 360 Youth Services. It is actually an organization that helped me as a kid and I work with them beyond donations offering my time on their board and as a mentor and volunteer for their programs.
When it comes to Halfstack, I really focus on giving a voice to the creatives. I don’t want to showcase people who have tons of attention, rather I want us to be the curators of cool and spotlight indies who are new to the game, but are making an impact. We showcase musicians, designers, boutiques, brands, artists, local entrepreneurs & social changers who are the rise because of the impact they are making and the hard work they are putting into their craft. It’s my way of giving back to the global creative community I am a part of. We also don’t charge for the issues or content because I believe that information and knowledge is power. I hope to inspire people from all walks of life to follow their goals and dreams through the content we share through Halfstack.
Jen, once last thing - If you could give just one piece of advice to moms who are trying to "juggle it all", what would that be?
I would say, do what is best for YOU. So many people try to tell you how to be a mom or how to run your household or if you should be home with the kids instead of working. You know what is best for your circumstances, not other people. I would also say be supportive and find support. There’s too much negativity in this world and too many opinions to count. Let’s raise each other up, not drag each other down because of our opinions on HOW we should do things. Everyone is different, what works for one mom, may not work for another. For me, what works, is a planner, yoga (so I don’t go crazy) and prioritizing my time.
And that idea of “work life balance” just doesn’t exist, especially if you are an entrepreneur, there isn’t the perfect balance and that is ok! The reality for a small business owner is that your work is part of your life.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know, we are moms; we are supposed to do it all! I can tell you I try to do it all and sometimes I end up in a puddle of tears because something didn’t go according to plan and I probably just should have asked for help. It’s ok to ask for help. I know it’s hard, it’s something I am working on as well.