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Article: Strong Voices Interview #24: Kristine Zeller

Strong Voices Interview #24: Kristine Zeller

When scrolling through my LinkedIn, there are two fierce women whose advice I absorb: Kristine Zeller and Kati Ernst. With their company ooia, they advocate for female empowerment well beyond period panties, absorbent briefs and nursing bras. Leading by example, the two have created their own way of balancing work, families, and the daily craziness of life without restricting themselves to one role only.
When I met Kristine at a dinner in Berlin a little while ago - thank you, Kristina Lunz, and the CFFP for the introduction (a prime example of how wonderful it can be to bring like-minded people together!) - her assertive presence impressed me immediately. The way she presented ooia and herself was clear, strong; her mission, and strive for female empowerment resolute. Kristine Zeller is the embodiment of a strong voice, and it is an absolute pleasure to share her experiences and tips with you. An interview full of energy, purpose, and the right kind of motivation to believe in yourself and your dreams a tiny bit more today.

ABOUT KRISTINE:

Kristine Zeller is a passionate and clear leader who sets an example every day that women are indeed capable of doing it all. With a career in the fashion industry that has taken her to leadership positions in large online fashion houses, Kristine has led key departments and managed large teams. Having been dissatisfied with the constraining inflexibility of the corporate reality that exists to this day, especially towards working mothers, she co-founded Ooia in 2018. The Berlin-based company focuses on female empowerment, thinking outside the box (or, so to speak, panties), sets an example that sustainability can be integrated into the fashion industry, and continues the dialogue for a progressive future with more gender diversity and equality.
Photo: Jannik Hanne

OUR QUESTIONS:

Before founding ooia, you held leading positions at Zalando for over 6 years. What was the path to self-employment like for you? What were the biggest changes and challenges?

Kati and I never really wanted to found a Start-Up but were both dissatisfied with our current roles. Instead, the idea found us. At the time, a friend showed us period underwear that had been around in America for a while. We found the topic super interesting, especially in the larger context of Female Empowerment. Both business cases and a more detailed market analysis showed a lot of potential, so we decided to quit and found. The biggest change is the opportunity to create ourselves. Decisions made by Kati and me have a direct impact on our business. It's a very big freedom, but it comes with a lot of responsibilities. Sure, we have our network that we can ask. But at the end of the day, we have to make our own decisions and also do stuff we don't feel like doing.

Did you have any doubts during your start-up phase? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

We never had any doubts. For us, the topic of female empowerment was interesting, and we asked ourselves if it excited us enough to want to put all our work into its service for the next 10-20 years. Once we answered yes and saw the potential in the business case, there was no doubt. Our husbands also backed us up and then we knew we were doing it.

What were your biggest lessons learned during the founding process?

I would like to summarize four of them.

  1. Many people advise against starting a business with a girlfriend. For Kati and me, this was a success factor. We were able to build on our foundation of trust, whereas many start-ups fail because of arguments between the founders. A common understanding of the values and the desired direction of the company eliminates great potential for conflict.  
  2. You can build a company super bootstrapped. Initially, we wanted to bring angels on board, but then realized that we could do it without investors. It was exciting, but it worked. It doesn't always work, but I would advise at least trying.
  3. Think big. When we first had the idea of adding nursing bras to the range, we disagreed for a long time. Even though I think starting with a few products and maturing them is good in the beginning, you should think beyond the one product early on.
  4. The network is essential. We were a bit older when we started and had a big network from previous jobs: that helped a lot. It makes sense to cultivate your network, tell people early on what you're up to and make lots of contacts.

You and your co-founder are both mothers, and one of the reasons you started your own business was the desire for a demanding, yet flexible job that combines a career and being a mom. After more than 4 successful years with ooia, how do you manage to combine family and career? How do you find the right balance?

I would say well. In the meantime, my children are older and more independent. But even when they're smaller, it's doable. I don't think it's right to claim that the mother is the best and only right contact person. We clarified early on that I would continue to work full time and that we would share the responsibility for the children, and we also got backup for this. For the right balance, it is important to create time for yourself. The founder's everyday life is stressful and means a lot of work, which is why I already take time for myself in the morning. I get up early, meditate and exercise. Then I have undisturbed time for myself before my day starts.

You are committed to the topic of "female empowerment" - even beyond your brand. Where do you see the biggest problems here that need to be addressed more strongly in order to empower women more?

I see a structural problem here. It's never because of the individual woman, but because of the patriarchal power structures that are strongly prevalent in this country. The patriarchate promotes violence, dominant behavior of men towards women and much more. The biggest goal is to create honest equality. Consequential problems of patriarchal structures also need to be fixed. For women, better structures, more flexible working time models and fair and transparent salary structures that do not favor men are needed. Parental leave for men also needs to be normalized. In addition, we need more female role models in leadership positions. On Instagram, Kati and I share a lot about our careers to inspire and encourage other women. Companies should highlight female leaders more and establish women's advancement programs. Companies should also educate more on unconscious biases. Last but not least, quotas. These should be voluntary commitments by companies to promote women more.

When you founded ooia in 2018, the topic of "period underwear" was still quite unknown, at least in Germany. Did you have to take a lot of criticism for this? Was there a lack of openness on this topic?

At that time, there was no one in Germany. We didn't get any criticism either. In retrospect, some have said that they didn't believe in our success. Now many admire us for what we have built up. You can see that a change in thinking has taken place in society. In the beginning, we received a lot of letters asking if we could hide the name of the company in the debit notes because customers were ashamed of this in front of their husbands. In the meantime, we no longer receive such inquiries. Even if the period is still a big taboo subject, it has been normalized to some extent.

There are now several suppliers of period underwear. Do you have to fight a lot with copycats? If so, how do you deal with it?

Most suppliers position themselves mainly in the initial price segment. The quality and working conditions, which are very important to us, do not reach us. We are the quality and by far the market leader here. Other competitors are beneficial for us in the sense that they help to make the topic more widely known. Sooner or later, people who are concerned with the topic of period underwear will become aware of us and buy from us because of our quality.

If you were to give young female founders one tip for starting their own business, what would it be?

In addition to the above-mentioned learnings from the start-up phase, I would always advise women to think bigger. Women primarily start sole proprietorships. But what if you yourself are the primary workforce in your business and you want to have children? Doesn't that perhaps make sense to build an e-commerce business that continues without one? Go for it - it's the best time for women to start. Venture capital lists are very keen to support women right now. The time is now.

Meeting Kristine is an inspiring experience, as her unwavering mission and strive for female empowerment leave a lasting impression on those around her.

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