Applying what you have learned from others and from life experiences, in general, can either make or break you. As for Stephanie Higgs, she uses her learnings to catapult her unique bespoke clothing business to greater heights. As a Millennial CEO of Cielo Brands in New York, Stephanie shows us how she is re-imagining her company by using her experience in dressing famous celebrities like Lebron James. Today, she shares some key takeaways from Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale and Succeed your Business. Changing negative company culture to one that is positive, more interactive, and more focused on building relationships, Stephanie is making Millennials proud through her notable leadership skills.
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Stephanie Higgs: Millennial CEO
We’re going to be talking to Stephanie of Cielo Brands in New York City. Stephanie has got a very interesting background. She was introduced to Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale and Succeed your Business as an intern in high school at Mustang Engineering. She took what she learned and she created her own company, Cielo Brands in New York City to make bespoke clothing for people like Lebron James. The jackets that he wore to the NBA Finals, to entertainers and movie stars on television and on Broadway. She’s taken that experience. She’s taken it to business people. Now she’s re-imagined her company. Stephanie, welcome.
I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Could you talk a little bit about that internship? You’re a 2008 grad from college, so you’re a Millennial. In those high school days, what was that like?
It’s funny because one of the most impactful events of that entire internship was the exact first day. There was a new hire breakfast at a country club near where I grew up. Lo and behold, you, the founder of the company, showed up to new hire breakfast wearing a Statue of Liberty costume painted green. I remember being impacted by that because it was cool. There were a lot of other young people like me, but there were other more tenured people in the company. It helps take away that anxiety of being an intern at the large company. It made it feel approachable at that age, I remember.
We went around the room because we had a lot of managers and founders in the room as well as the new hires. Each of them talked a little bit about their department, what projects they were doing. They all emphasize the culture and cross communication between people. Do you remember that?
Complete to be transparent, at the age people are in different departments was completely lost on me. That’s why it was so critical and helpful that you dressed up, had an elaborate breakfast. As a kid, I don’t even know how old I was, maybe fourteen, fifteen. The takeaway was the experience for me versus learning from older people.
The key thing for us in Culture Code Champions is that step one, which is opening up the communication, what you were seeing demonstrated there was that all of the management team, they were joking back and forth. When somebody would say something and they were trying to get the feeling to all these new hires that you can tell it like it is. You can talk to anybody in the company up, down, sideways. It didn’t matter. It was working that step a lot.
At that age, I couldn’t completely appreciate it, but as I had more jobs since then I can look back and fully appreciate the intention it took for those high-level people to take time out of their day to be there and have those exchanges. It was very twofold for a very young person to be able to hold onto that experience at the moment as I moved on further in my career.
I like the word that you used intentionally. When you started Cielo Brands, they’re in Brooklyn, New York City, a place any young person would love to live. You intentionally tried to create a process and culture within Cielo Brands. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I had gotten into an apprenticeship, the company that I was working for before I spun off to start my company. They are one of the largest custom suiting companies in the world. I got a lot of wonderful experience and training from them. Something that kept striking me was it felt like there was a lot of that same intention that I had experienced at Mustang. Lots of trainings, seminars and intentional practices towards culture. Away from those conferences and away from those outside networking events with other people on a day-to-day grit, it was very unprofessional. There was drama. Leaders were crossing boundaries with their clients as women. For me, it was like there was this facade of culture. In the daily existing culture, for me, it was toxic and it was something I didn’t want to share a reputation with.
They weren’t living it. It wasn’t coming through in an authentic manner. The hearts and minds of the leaders. They weren’t getting the hearts and minds of the people that were working with them.
The upper leadership outside of my branch were completely committed. Unfortunately, the leaders within my particular office, either the upper management look the other way because they didn’t let go those few leaders in the office. Nonetheless, it made me leave because I wanted the culture to be authentic through and through. I wanted to have respect to my industry and not have to share assumptions because other of my colleagues were doing thing I didn’t agree with.
You went off and started your own brand and you decided that you were going to make suits from scratch in the USA in Brooklyn. You had to go out and hire tailors. You had quite a communication gap because most of the tailors you could hire, English was their second language. Tailors in that New York City environment were treated very poorly. They’re put in the basements of buildings. There’s no lighting. They worked hard. What I understood from talking to you is you tried to change that in order to create a different flavor and culture at Cielo Brands. Could you elaborate on that?
What I had experienced in my previous job was that the tailors weren’t championed. The winds of an office and the winds of the company were celebrated at these conferences, but the tailors were never there. I felt this big divide. It’s like no wonder there was this big gap between communication with the people making the garments and the people selling the garments. To your point, when I started my company, I thought, “If I get everyone to be a team top-down, bottom-up, I hope that we can have better quality because there will be direct communication and respect at every level, which is such a key takeaway from Culture Code Champions.” Every single person no matter what their ranking is worth value and should garner the exact same respect at any level.
You did it to where you brought lunch every day and everybody sat around the table. You would learn about their families and what was going on within their life as an individual, as a person.
We were a small team and that was feasible. It was important for me to create an environment where the tailors could thrive. We went through the whole list of what are the brands of scissors that you prefer to work, what kind of threads, machines you like to work with. We got back pillow pads because they’re sitting there all day long and their backs would ache. That little pad was $45 off Amazon, but it made the tailor feel appreciated. That as a whole bonded us all. It took some time, but we made huge strides in communication despite their first language being Spanish and my first language and largely only language being English.As an entrepreneur or small business owner, you will be pulled in so many directions. Click To Tweet
You worked their environment and took their feedback to do it. One of the problems you had is that tailors in the US only adjust garments, but you are going to build garments from scratch. You and they had a big learning curve. There were a lot of errors and reworking garments as you went. One of the things that you had heard about and learning Culture Code Champions was to create a repeatable process that could guarantee quality the first time. Could you talk a little bit about how you created that repeatable process on something these quality tailors hadn’t done in ten or fifteen years?
The way most people operate in manufacturing is they are split up and they’re operators. They have one task they do over and over. It’s very niche, hyper-skilled. What we were doing was what’s called bench made. Originally, the tailors would do a whole garment from start to finish. It was incredibly labor-intensive for the tailor and require them to have a massive scope of work and skill set. These tailors that I found have experienced doing that whole bench made process. Having worked in his factories, those skills become rusty because they had been doing primarily one job. It took a lot of patience, a lot of practice, a lot of training. It took a ton of humility on the leadership end to go out, ask questions to other people. I had never run manufacturing. It’s crazy to me and too much to chew. It took the humility of the tailors and trust to be vulnerable to get to a point where they could say, “I don’t know how to do that.” It’s very much not a practice of this industry culture.
For that industry culture and for the masculine culture in the Latino world to admit, “I need some help.” One of the things you ended up doing is you did break things down into pieces. You’re eating the elephant one bite at a time and you created hard-copy checklists. You had good hard-copy communication to where at each step they could fix a problem before the whole garment got made and it would take twenty hours to fix something that took five minutes if you did it at the right time.
Straight from your book, two things change my business, which also changed my life because as you can imagine, the extreme amount of stress trying to make a profit with so much rework and clients being frustrated with delays, etc.
Your schedules were getting affected?
Internally, it was chaos and externally, clients were aware of what was going on. It was putting out fires every day almost learning as we want. Two takeaways that were critical from Culture Code Champions was the cost influence curve. To your point, catching things early before that costs got so much more significant. Catching if on an order form the lining color was incorrect versus sewing in the lining, going to a fitting and realizing, “The lines are purple instead of black.” That would be a massive alteration. The other thing literally changed my life, stage gate.
It’s setting up the stage gates with checklists to catch it early.
It was minutes. It was like a pamphlet of stage gates, but we ended up getting it concise so that people would use it. Going through, we would have checklists to where both the manager and the tailor would have to sign off with their name and their date because I have found especially in that culture, there is a high level of integrity. A lot of the communication states were happening. They were happening not because of integrity issues, but because of education and fear issues, fear of losing their job if they admitted they didn’t know how to do something. With those stage gates sign-offs, it was critical because both of us were saying, “We’re putting our name of integrity.”
Now you’re getting accountability and a lot of what you’re talking about is what I call step two in Culture Code Champions where you’re creating that repeatable process. The influence curve says that you have the greatest ability to influence the outcome of something early when you’re making those decisions and catching things. You implemented that and your stage-gate of breaking into bites. What I understood is you are able to move to make a jacket from taking 80 hours to doing it in less than twenty hours, which is hugely significant for you to create a bottom line.
It was massive. There were many inefficiencies at that checklist even uncovered. It made such a radical difference.
One of the steps that it seemed like you couldn’t handle with Culture Code Champions was selling while the shop was full. When your shop was full, you were like burning the candle at both ends. It was hard to get out there and sell. You would have some downtime at times because you needed another salesperson to be selling while the shop was full and that would have helped you?
Any entrepreneur and small business owner can all relate that you’re pulled in so many directions. How can you possibly handle it all? Another key takeaway from Culture Code Champions was in hiring the right people as you grow. To your point, looking back, a critical mistake I made was feeling the sense of loyalty to keeping the first where to with me farther into like year five, year six. That was such a huge mistake. Looking back, I could have replaced one or two of those original people once the company outgrew their capabilities and replace them with the salesperson. It would have been such a win for the whole company, all the employees for myself. That was such a key takeaway that I’ve heard.
I’ve seen that with a number of young people where they feel such loyalty when they hire someone and they’re putting themselves into creating that loyalty. It’s hard to look past and go, “It’s time to move on.” When we started Mustang, I thought we would hold hands and go to retirement with the first twenty people. As the company grew, it’s like, “No, they’re not the right person anymore.” Only four or five of them survived the entire duration of the company. It’s interesting to hear you say that. That’s a big takeaway, especially for young people. It’s like, “Once I’ve got a person, I want to keep them forever.” The other thing with young people is you need a person for each job. You started to learn that a manager can handle four or five of the jobs. Could you talk about that?
Case in point, sales. I needed everyone to have this sense of, “We’re all selling.” They know random people who we could have done outsource alterations for. The manager at the time was more people who got us connected with LeBron James. He did an awesome job. You never know who in your company might make that connection. That is a mistake we make because as an owner we get used to thinking we have to do everything ourselves.
Whereas if you can get that communication, get that buy-in, you can have your people helping you do that. The seventh step in Culture Code Champions is to give back to the community and you are able to get into some of those things. Can you elaborate on how your energy has pulled in that direction?
For me, a big part of the driving passion and force for what I do and with Cielo is being somewhat of a pioneer as a female in this very male-dominated industry. For me, a huge thing with any of my male clients is helping educate them on maybe unhealthy interactions that they don’t think are unhealthy.In building culture, it is ideal to treat people with respect, be empathetic, and create a situation of trust. Click To Tweet
How they talk to you or react with you?
How they talk to me or reference women as a whole, it’s something that I stand up against and not in a defensive way, but in an educational way. Everybody I work with is highly educated, successful and have a position of power. For me, education has been a tool I take very seriously. I’ve also mentored along this course as many women as I can, whether it be through emails or Instagram or client’s kids. They ask me to sit down with when I’m at their house out for a fitting and chat with for 30 minutes if they’re in high school or college. Being a strong-willed woman and having a healthy balance between being strong and also being empathetic to what can be productive through healthy communications.
Most of the companies you’re going into, you’re going into the C-Suite level in banks and Wall Street companies. You’re talking to people in a position of power. It’s pretty neat that here’s a person who’s selling a tailored suit talking to them a little bit about how they’re dealing with a woman. That might affect how they deal within their business. That’s a pretty big give back.
When I work with professional athletes, people forget they’re kids, generally between 19 and maybe in their 30s. I worked with some of these rookies in NBA. I try to take the time to get to know them and be some sense of mentor even though I’m only in my early 30s. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of unhealthy people in that industry who want to use and abuse these guys. I tried to be a source of reason, remind them of that. Unfortunately, there are a lot of sharks, not trust everyone that you come in contact with and set boundaries and situations with women because you can set yourself for failure.
How do you think that Culture Code Champions has helped you land some of these clients? How has your culture helped you penetrate?
Having to be able to shift to outsourcing locally here in Brooklyn and assemble overseas, it’s been so critical. The most critical is taking care of everyone and treating everyone with respect, to your way in the book.
Making heroes of everybody you touch.
Making heroes even through your vendors. I can specifically remember that line in your book. It stood out to me because that’s been ingrained in me as a person. In my business, I always treat it that way. When I made the choice to outsource, I asked my fabric vendors, my thread vendors, all of my trimming vendors, “Do you know anyone who does great production, who treats their people right?” I referred pretty pointedly to the people I’m working with now. That same ethos of my company culture sharing with these vendors, even though they’re monster companies, sharing the wins. I forward the pictures. I forward emails for my clients, text messages that say, “Thank you. I got the promotion. I landed on the cover of whatever,” I forward those things. It’s a team win even though technically they’re not an employee of Cielo.
One of your favorite phrases is that you’re celebrating what you want to see more of. You’re making that client a hero. You’re celebrating with your vendors and say, “Look what happened. You’re tying me to people with the type of DNA that I like. We’re working together as a team.”
I remember you also wrote in the book how you would have live bonus pay if someone did a great job and in addition to a potential year-end bonus, it would be those celebrations throughout the year. I used to do that with my tailors when I had them in-house. Now with my vendors, I’ll send little Thank You gifts and little Thank You emails as it goes along throughout the year before the year-end tips.
With your tailors, you are celebrating how many days they’d gone without making an error and put that into a competition to where they wanted to get the most days in a row. It was huge for your bottom line.
We had to build some board with stars on it and the whole thing. In some ways, I see me as a Millennial that may sound dated to have a bulletin board or something on the wall. Especially in my industry, working with eerily creative people, tangible visuals are critical. For us, having those physical reminders and visual reminders was important instead of an email.
That’s step four, hard copy communication and celebrating those wins. One of the things we’re going to do is we’re going to recommend and put you in for enshrinement in the Culture Code Champions Hall of Fame. When we put you in there, what would you like to be remembered for in what you’re doing in building a culture and using these seven steps?
One of them is treating all people with respect because it’s easy in my world working with celebrities and people with power. It’s easy to forget small people and to lose my footing. I’m proud of that. They treat everybody with respect, even when I go to clients’ offices or their homes. I get to know the doorman and I get to know their admins. I like to think I’m very intentional in that way. Two, being a beacon of education on how men and women can interact. What I do isn’t very corporate necessarily. It’s very personal. There are homes that were talking about their measurements and their clothing. There is an environment where people can get comfortable. That’s something I’m proud of. Being empathetic and creating a situation of trust with my clients.
At the same token, holding them accountable if they say things that might be inappropriate with me or with anyone else that they might work with. If clients are always complimenting, I understand that in the aesthetic industry. I say, “I would appreciate a compliment about my work and my craft.” It’s those little things. To me, that’s important. Lastly, having integrity in this industry, a lot of people in the tailoring industry have this practice of if the client doesn’t see it, don’t say anything.
A lot of companies get burdened with making that mistake. If you can cut a corner, cut the corner because it’s going to hit the bottom line. That little corner, we’re going to add that to the bottom line. On par with your book and with the way I do my business, it’s by not cutting orders. I have grown quicker as a company and how to help your bottom line now by being completely honest by my clients and my vendors. They’re very transparent and making it a win-win like you say in the book creating a constant win-win transaction instead of a win-win transaction.
Win or lose is how most people think business has to be done. They want to be on the winning side. Whereas with the right culture, taking that culture and taking it externally, you can create that win-win. I want to thank you a lot for being with us. You’ve had the advantage. Some other people haven’t had, haven’t you?
I have from the womb. I’ve been hearing about Culture Code Champions, so I’ve had a little more extra time than moves time to learn from the guru.
We’ve talked a bit about opening up the communication building and bonding as a team, some of that key steps in the seven steps of building a great culture and using that hard copy communication and then sucking your clients into that culture. What I’d like to tell the team out there is until we talked to you next, get out there, do what Stephanie did. Go and make heroes and make your culture count. Thank you.
About Stephanie Higgs
Instilled by her lineage of entrepreneurs. In a male-dominated industry she brings a female point of view to design, service and production of custom clothing. Her inspiration and expertise draw from avid global travel to deeply understand aesthetics, culture and tailoring.
We are passionate about design and people so we have woven the two together by providing styling and personal brand consulting with every garment made. Our showroom is in Brooklyn, though we operate as concierge service, so we will come to you for fittings, styling and personal shopping. Having dressed a vast clientele of celebrities, athletes and 4 Star Generals to the most high-powered of executives, Cielo continues to be a tastemaker of design and style for its clients.