This is Entrepreneurship: Sew Valley’s Rosie Kovacs
The name “Rosie” just insists on optimism, and Rosie Kovacs was aptly named, for sure. She embodies entrepreneurial determination and a pure force of will to create opportunities and get things done. The C.E.O. of Sew Valley co-founded the nonprofit company in 2017, alongside C.O.O. Shailah Maynard, with the goal of bringing resources to apparel designers and entrepreneurs. The journey, of course, was anything but predictable. She shared with us the ups and downs of stepping away from her and life partner, Hayes’, venture, Brush Factory; the good, the bad, and the ugly that is the fashion industry; and more.
Entrepreneurship journeys look different for everyone, but one thing is certain: When it comes to making something out of nothing, the journey IS the job. To kick off our year-long series sponsored by Main Street Ventures, we dove into the journeys behind five woman-owned Cincinnati businesses.
Just to start off with something fun since we’ll be chatting fashion, tell us about your outfit.
Oh, my gosh. Okay! I’m wearing a cotton T-shirt that I designed and made when I started my first business a long, long time ago. It has a giant coffee stain on it, but that was intentional. I did a lot of tea dyeing and coffee staining. I go places and people are like, “You have a....” [Laughs.] I’m like, “I swear, it’s supposed to be there.” Shockingly, it’s held up for 10 years. Wearing a pair of pants that were given to me by Tessa Clark, and they’re 100% linen. Missing a button right now, so I’ve got a safety pin. And then these Chacos that I saved up for because I’m on my feet a lot. I was watching every day online to figure out when they were gonna release this color; it’s called Celery. So, reused 10-year-old shirt; brand new Chacos.
I love it. So, on the topic of entrepreneurship: Give us your elevator pitch.
Basically, I started off as a designer, myself, and didn’t have any resources. I started Sew Valley to help the person who I was 10 years ago. We exist to give resources to apparel designers and entrepreneurs who have ideas for sewn products. We offer anything from prototyping, sample making, all through the development phase; and then small-batch production; so we’re trying to hone in on that niche market of people who are starting small and need to invest small. We offer a membership space, as well, so it’s contract services, education, and membership.
Earlier this year you made the decision to leave your first business, Brush Factory, in the hands of your partner, Hayes, to focus solely on Sew Valley. What was that process of letting go like?
Really hard. I had to have third-party people tell me, like, “What are you doing?” I have two business mentors that I’ve actually seen through SCORE for two years. So I talked with them a lot, and I talked to a woman who specializes in corporate Enneagram personality typing. She helped me through some very tough times and gave me the kick in the pants to be like, “You gotta move forward; you gotta make some decisions; you gotta pull the Band-Aid and let go.”
My gut knew what needed to happen, but [Hayes] is my life partner. I didn’t want to leave him in the lurch. If you ask him today, he’ll tell you the same thing that I would: It was for the best. Now he can reimagine what he thinks it needs to be, and we’ve basically used it as a great opportunity to start anew.
What Enneagram type are you?
Seven. A lot of my friends who are also entrepreneurs and business owners are Sevens, too. We all psycho. Taking on too much.
Why did you feel Cincinnati needed Sew Valley?
How do I start? Because of the internet, there are less barriers to entry as far as getting a business going, and there are a lot more independent small business owners. There’s a lot of people who are interested in doing their own thing.
And U.C. is a huge thing; it’s a huge resource. It’s breeding a bunch of very talented designers, and I think there’s a lot more interest in [entrepreneurship] among the students. When I was there, that was a very scary thing to think about. It was just like, “No way could I have my own business; I need 25 years of experience before I do that.” But I think mentalities have shifted. A lot of younger people are seeing other young entrepreneurs online and on Instagram. So, there’s a lot more people that wanna do that. But how do they do that? They need somewhere to go. That is why we started, really.
For 10 years alongside of Brush Factory, I would constantly get calls about freelance work. I had a network of a lot of people who had ideas that needed someone to make a pattern or give them some guidance, because they weren’t trained in fashion design. There are a lot of people with ideas here in Cincinnati.
Our clients range from people with ideas to students to people that are already doing it that are out of state. I just had a call with somebody in Pittsburgh; he runs a nonprofit that helps give resources to other makers in their community, so he’s calling me figuring out what we’re doing here and trying to find a resource for them to use for small-batch stock goods and apparel. The need’s there, for sure. Our phone is ringing constantly.
You said you created Sew Valley for the person you were 10 years ago. Give us a glimpse into her experience.
I went to DAAP for fashion design. I graduated in 2009 knowing that I wanted to be my own independent free agent, but didn’t know what that really was or what it meant. I was making things from my heart and soul, you know what I mean? I didn’t really know what it meant to be a business owner or what technical design really was.
I had a part-time job my last quarter of school; I was a tailor and fitter at Nordstrom. I learned a lot about how apparel is actually made. When you’re in school, you just make things up, but there, I was taking apart garments and putting them back together every day. That was a huge education and I had a lot of fun, but I knew I wasn’t going to be in alterations for the rest of my life.
So I started my own thing; I had access to a studio space in the building that was “the brush factory.” We didn’t have a name for it – we just called it that ’cause that was what they did in the building before us. I rented a studio space and put in all my sewing machines and built somewhat of a plan. I think my original plan was to have it be like a retail space where designers from DAAP could put their stuff for consignment. We were in Brighton, which is in nowhere land, but at the time, I didn’t think about it. The place was charming, and I was like, “This is an amazing studio.” I had a lot of great times there.
You have strengths and you have weaknesses, and you need to find people to fill the gaps. You can’t be all of it.
So I started building my line and designing stuff for clients; then I started collaborating with Hayes, too, on various things. He was in the woodshop upstairs where they made the brushes, and he was learning woodworking with his dad. We were learning our craft.
I tell people all the time that we were working side by side, in tandem, not working together but doing opposite things, so that gives you a really good sense of how the business was for a long time. We were both coming from the same point of view and had the same interests and the same perspective, and it took a long time for me to understand that you need the opposite brain to fill the voids.
But we had a great time. We learned all about building accounts; Etsy had just started. It was like, “What is this new weird site? Are people actually gonna buy anything online? Who wants to buy something online?”
It was just an experimental studio, really, without any real overarching direction, but it evolved. It was kinda funny, but we didn’t have any idea what we were doing. We didn’t have a plan. We didn’t have any way to grow because we didn’t have any understanding of not doing something ourselves. How do you scale a maker business, you know what I mean?
In a nutshell, everyone was like, “You really need to focus on what you’re doing,” so we cut out apparel, and I just did that on the side and started doing more client relations stuff.
How was the early journey of Sew Valley different from the beginnings of Brush Factory?
I mean, we’re talking 10 years of experience and life lessons under your belt. I learned a lot in that timeframe and was able to apply all of that immediately. I just knew what needed to be done and I could spit it out. I made a very rough draft of a business plan in an hour.
I told Shailah and [board member] Jake: “Let’s take one more research trip. If we can’t write a business plan on the car ride back, then we don’t have anything.” And so we did. It was great.
I can just say that I used my mistakes and my successes and drew on that. I knew it was something we needed; I just didn’t know how it would manifest, and it surprised me, in terms of timing. The opportunity for the Haile grant came out of nowhere; they were wanting to seed fund us to get it started.
What pieces of your identity came to the forefront during both journeys? Who is the entrepreneur in you?
I have the skill of being able to turn anything into a positive – whether that’s for the good or for the bad [laughs]. I’m able to brush off bad things. I can turn anything into an opportunity, which I think is a skill set that a lot of entrepreneurs have.
I see where there’s a hole or a gap. I can see from above and connect the dots between things, and I feel like I’ve brought that to the table in terms of both businesses.
I have a vast network of people. I would say my network is one of my biggest assets. I’m a pretty social person. I’ve been in Cincinnati since, you know, forever. This is my community. I can really call on a lot of people for advice, for help, for whatever.
You talk a lot about trusting your gut and your instincts.
Yeah. I think that following your instincts is always right. A lot of people question it, but I think it’s a skill you can learn how to hone as you get older. You always know the right thing to do. It’s just in there. Now whether or not you have the balls to listen to it is another thing.
What’s a day in the life look like for you?
I don’t technically have to be into work till 10 o’clock, but I do get up earlier. I walk my dog. I juice a lot in the morning. I try to mentally do a “1, 2, 3” in terms of what I need to get done for the day. I am really, really bad about getting distracted and not knowing how to prioritize things. It’s a muscle I’ve had to exercise for years. I’m always looking at the other shiny thing. So every day, “What are those three things that I need to do that will help everything else be easier?” It’s not an easy question to answer.
I’m doing a lot of strategic thinking these days; a lot of looking ahead, really. The second people walk through the door, I’m Mom. Everybody’s asking me questions every 10 minutes. The only way I can get any real work done is when I’m alone, quarantined in my office. But I’m realizing and accepting that about myself. I’m not one of those people that can just, like, jam in a co-working space with some music and table tennis going on or whatever.
You’re incredibly self-aware.
You have strengths and you have weaknesses, and you need to find people to fill the gaps. You can’t be all of it.
I would say I chip at it a little bit every year. I’m big on self-assessment, goals. I check in on myself throughout the year. I’m really big on growth and education. Self-awareness has really helped with that and knowing, “If I’m really good at this, this is what I should be doing. It’ll come naturally; it’ll come efficiently. I’ll be a happier person and then let everybody else take care of the other stuff, and that’s okay.”
What are you reading right now?
[Laughs.] It’s so dorky: Apparel Manufacturing Sewn Product Analysis by Ruth E. Glock and Grace I. Kunz. This is the kind of shit that I go through; I look forward to getting down and dirty. Even though I’m big picture, I really like to nerd out on the technical. That’s why I was so excited about building this place. I fix my own machines; I love building a physical product and figuring that out. This is really rare. You can YouTube anything about woodworking. Gazillions of videos. Anything about industrial sewing is really hard to find. So this book was brought to my attention last week and I immediately bought it.
And that ties perfectly into what you’re doing here in terms of eliminating that lack of information and community.
Exactly. Shailah and I talk about, in the future, there could be like a Sew Valley radio station or podcast, really showing people what it’s like on the inside. That’s what most people that come through these doors… Nobody knows how to make a garment. We’re here just trying to show people how it works, and we don’t even know everything ourselves. We’re making it up as we go, but we’re learning and doing and experiencing, reflecting, trying to do it better.
Can you talk about some of the exciting projects and people you guys are working with?
Sustainability is a huge value that we have here at Sew Valley, not only environmentally speaking, but also business-related. We also really feel like the world doesn’t need anymore products, but clothes make people feel good, and that makes everybody happier.
S.F.I. is trying to raise awareness at U.C. about the industry and how much damage we’ve been doing to the earth. They do these T-shirts – they’re called split panels. They take old T-shirts that would otherwise go in the trash; they split them in two, color block them, switch them, and then they do some screen printing with a local screen printer. I’m really excited about them. I just have a lot of faith in the next generation.
Lost Art Press is really cool. They’re a publishing company in Covington that publishes books about woodworking – mostly old techniques and hand tools. They have a huge blog and following; they do classes, workshops – what have you. They’ve hired us to make woodshop chore jackets for their customers, which I thought was really fun, and now we’re doing a new style of shop vests.
Can you talk more about how fashion has the power to make people feel good and why that’s significant?
I think that, bigger picture, if we’re all feeling good about ourselves and have more self-confidence, there would be less hurtful, mean people in the world. To me, it’s just a simple concept. I know that the fashion industry is really horrible, and it’s all about money. Material costs are more than labor costs at this point; it’s sickening. The industry has a lot of work to do, and they need to start doing it now.
H&M and all of them – they’ll never be able to turn around; they’ll never be able to really do the legwork because they just wanna make money. It’s a whole mentality that has to shift. My point is: Fashion is really bad in the sense that it’s a business. But everything is a business. That’s how we operate as humans now. But, it’s good because we, individually, can use it as a tool, particularly for women. We love looking and feeling our best – it’s self-identity. There’s so much wrapped up in it, you know?
I remember when I was a kid, I definitely felt like that was my way of talking to the world. It was my way of expressing and I still do it to this day. I think it’s really important to use clothes to make yourself feel good and have confidence and be your best. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people wear clothes ’cause they think they’re cool or trendy and then they don’t feel comfortable. I’m working with a new client now: He’s just a really tall, big guy and he can’t find any clothes that fit him, so he’s trying to make a company that has a made-to-measure type of model.
Can you talk about the power each of us has each time we make a purchasing decision?
We all buy stuff; we’re never gonna stop buying stuff, so if you just let the company know what the demand is, then things will change. I look at our parents’ generation; it was ingrained in them: Get the deal. But now, we’re changing things where we wanna say we’re proud of where our stuff came from and that we know what went into it. If you take the time to stop and look around at all the stuff in your life and think about where it came from, it starts to really weigh on you. I’m slightly obsessed about it, and personally, it’s a mental thing that I have to get over, because I’m just at the beginning of my journey in figuring out where I fit in the world and how this company can do good and how I can do good.
Do you have a favorite resource you look to in terms of that mentality shift?
Green Dreamer: She [Kamea Chayne] does a really thorough job of giving you an overview of all kinds of different industries. Some of it’s a little political, but she’s pretty good about saying how we can directly help.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
I have to say that the top three are my mom, Hayes’s mom [Kit], and Heather Britt. My mom: I grew up with just her and I. Dad left when I was little, so she was a single working mom. She was a nurse. She worked from the ground up, you know? She was in school my whole life. I remember when I was little just, like, living at my friends’ houses ’cause she was at work or school. So she’s instilled a lot of wonderful skills and values in me, education being one of them. You can always learn more.
Kit… She’s just so cool. [Laughs.] She’s super smart and has awesome style and she kind of gave me permission in my young adult awkward phase of figuring out who I am to just totally experiment. She gave me permission to just go for it and think outside the box a little more. She gets it.
And Heather Britt is my dance teacher. I’ve been taking DANCEFIX for 5 or 6 years, and it changed my life. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. I never really did the gym thing. Nothing ever really clicked, and then when I started dancing and really opening myself up physically, it translated to personal confidence internally. She transformed my life completely. She’s a wonderful human.
There is no single definition of an entrepreneur. Check out our year-long series, "This Is Entrepreneurship." Sponsored by Main Street Ventures.