How founder Marissa Heyl turned a passion into her own company: Symbology – an ethical fashion and homeware brand.
When I Skyped with Marissa Heyl last Monday morning, she was coming off a packed weekend at a designer showcase. She’d already had an hour-long investor meeting. Later, she had another Skype meeting with a global department store interested in her brand. And hours more work to go after. All her days are like this— working from home and staying in constant contact with a remote team, coordinating with suppliers and manufacturers ten time zones apart, pitching to new investors, building brand awareness, designing new pieces… and the next day, she does it all over again.
As we talked she apologized repeatedly for being tired–but spent the full forty-five minutes upbeat and thoughtfully engaged. How does she do it all and still stay energized? She focuses on purpose.
How does she do it all and still stay energized? She focuses on purpose.
Graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007, Marissas studied journalism and anthropology, focusing on human rights. But she’s also always been interested in design. Drawn to exquisite and unique art, she visited artisan communities in India on a grant and fellowship. She spent hours listening to women artisans; many wanted to provide more for their families and achieve more for themselves. They were talented, but there wasn’t the infrastructure nor the consumer demand. So combining fashion and women’s empowerment made sense to Marissa.
She found purpose, and hasn’t turned back since.
Her company: Symbology. A recent winner of Belk’s Southern Designer Showcase and previously featured in Elle and Marie Claire, Symbology works with women artisans in Jaipur and the West Bank. They create handmade clothing and homeware that preserve cultural traditions. Some of these artisans are earning an income for the first time. This community of women, with “a handful of brave men!”, has fostered conversations and connections. This fuels Marissa. Yet, she is cautious of overstating Symbology’s impact. She is aware of the complicated system of inequality that exists, and keeps herself constantly informed through conservations with those she works with, and with her husband, who is Indian.
“It is incumbent on me to create something that sells itself,” says Marissa.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Marissa wants to empower others with a sense of autonomy. Her own autonomy and creative control of Symbology has allowed her to focus on what matters most. “It is incumbent on me to create something that sells itself,” says Marissa. The clothes have to look good, and have to be made well – both in terms of the ethics of the production and the product quality. She wants to make clothes that people want to wear, and wear often. She listens to her customers very carefully, and her designs and company are continuously evolving.
Marissa’s passion keeps her going. But she also makes sure to make time at the edges of the day to disconnect. She starts most mornings – not always by her will, since her puppy, Ginger, forces her out the house – with a walk to a nearby creek. Surrounded by nature, Marissa expresses what she is grateful for, what she has and what she hopes for. She’ll usually also spot a blue heron, now affectionately named Bob (Marissa loves animals – if she wasn’t running Symbology, she would have loved to be a primatologist). After the walk, the work starts.
At the end of the day, Marissa finishes with some mint tea (on the weekends, it’s a Moscow Mule or Jalapeno Margarita). Tomorrow, she’ll have to do it all again.
And that’s fine by her, because she believes in it all.