Dress As If: cabi Co-Founder Tips on Style, Entrepreneurship and What's Next
As a child, Sydney Ryan says she only played with dolls because she wanted to design clothes for them.
So it’s not much of a surprise that Ryan later became a co-founder and chief culture officer of cabi, “a company for women by women” that provides personalized direct sales shopping with home pop-up shops and company contract stylists.
Originally from Arizona, Ryan moved to California at age 11 with her family after stints in the Midwest. She studied business at University of The Pacific, graduating in 1983 before going to work in advertising at the firm that would become Saatchi & Saatchi.
After three years, Ryan was recruited to go work for a jury consulting firm, travelling frequently as a consultant and loving it.
“I was traveling about 90 percent of the time,” Ryan says, “and I was all-in.”
In the early 90s, Ryan was recently married, and because she was receiving infertility medical treatments, the work travel was too much for her physically and she quit.
“I didn’t like not working,” says Ryan, who has three children now, ages 21, 16 and 11. She dabbled in personal clothing sales with Doncaster, and then in 2000 met the clothing designer Carol Anderson, who had her own line in retail stores.
“I started working with Carol and saw first hand what was happening in retail, the beginning of the retail apocalypse, and we started thinking about the direct model,” she says.
In 2002, cabi was born—the lower case initials stand for Carol Anderson By Invitation—and at first the 12 co-founders were wondering if the idea of a fashion line brought to a hostess’ home by a stylist would work.
“We wondered if they would want to undress in somebody’s bedroom” to try on clothes, Ryan says. “What we found is they are stripping down in the living room.”
Meeting busy women where they are solves a lot of their fashion, time and networking needs. “There is a lack of time and this gives them the ability to connect,” Ryan says. “We wanted to bring them together around beauty and style and help them transform.”
According to The Work At Home Woman, cabi “sells high-end fashion, shoes, jewelry, and accessories that range in price from $39 – $249. With the cabi business model, you can earn 25 – 33 percent commission on all items you sell, plus an additional commission on team sales. The startup cost (your seasonal inventory) is $2,570, which can be sold at the end of the season for an additional profit and new inventory. According to this article by Fortune.com, cabi has an 85 percent retention rate, rather than the typical 20 percent in the direct selling business.”
More than 3,000 stylists deliver cabi pop-up shops in hostess’ homes in the U.S., Canada and the U.K, with more than 1 million visits by customers, Ryan says.
cabi is one of the top five multi-level marketing direct sales fashion companies in the country in 2019, according to Direct Selling Star. Additionally, Best Direct Sales Companies ranks cabi as No. 4 of direct selling marketing companies for clothing.
cabi answers needs for busy women, Ryan says. The style possibilities, the camaraderie, all of it are what women need and have needed for a long time, says Ryan.
The role of female stylists in cabi’s direct selling reflects the trends in the industry, according to Direct Selling Association. According to the 2018 report, more than 75 percent of direct sellers in the U.S. are women in the industry that has $35.9 billion in sales in 2018, an increase over the year before. The customer base is 36.6 million customers.
There are more than 6.2 million direct sellers in the U.S., and 5.2 million of them are part-time. More than 26 percent are between the ages of 35 and 44 and 24 percent are between 45 and 54 years old, according to DSA.
The industry statistics of mostly female, part-time direct sellers reflect the needs of women in the marketplace looking to supplement their income, create life balance or launch an independent career. Clothing and accessories make up close to 8 percent of the direct sales pie.
For Ryan, it was a frustration with available style options for women in the workplace that prompted her interest in cabi.
“I learned early in my career that I had to stop dressing like a little man. How you show up really matters. You walk into a conference room and people size you up and make snap judgments that can take a long time to reframe,” Ryan says.
But it’s not just about style, it’s about authenticity. “You have to be true to who you are,” she says.
Still, not every working woman is concerned about fashion. “For them it’s a headache,” Ryan says. But everyone still wants to be seen and heard as her true self and to have her own personal style, she says.
“You always want to dress as if you are in the position you want to be in.” says Ryan. “You show up dressing two to three levels above where you are.” She adds, “Dress as if, long before it happens.”
Her advice is about far more than what to wear. Helping to launch an international company and building it from a startup, Ryan says, “You have to paint the picture of where you’re going, otherwise no one will follow you there.”
Perfectionism, comparisons, imposter syndrome—“all this happens in your head and your words can sideline you,” says Ryan. Don’t let it. “Your work helps you get out of bed when the messy middle happens.”
cabi is about more than a vision of women looking better as they go through their hectic days.
“The Heart of cabi” is a philanthropic arm of the company launched in 2005, donating to date more than $56 million in clothing to charities chosen by stylists. That can include communities where people are suffering from a natural disaster or an event. Women in these communities receive donations of clothes.
Another philanthropic arm is the Sister Entrepreneurs program that has women around the world has helped women with 17,000 small business loans in 62 countries. Additionally, the “Make It Change” program allows customers to round up their purchase to the nearest dollar. These funds are helping to build a school in Rwanda.
Through her mentoring of younger women at cabi and working to secure the vision of the company for the next generation, Ryan says she has built a career figuring out “how you can put first things first and still build a career.”
She adds. “I have a long runway and I see myself starting to pass the torch to the next generation.”