Entrepreneurs are busy by nature. Kyle Smitley may be busier than most. She's a full-time second-year law student in San Francisco, and also the founder of an organic kids clothing line that has become popular with celebrity moms like Jessica Alba and Sheryl Crow. If it seems insane, Smitley admits, it pretty much is. "At first it was just me staying up until 2 a.m. every day figuring out how to get people to notice the line," she says. "I basically just don't sleep."
It helps that Smitley is fighting for a worthy cause. In the spirit of Newman's Own, Barley & Birch's business model operates on the idea of giving back. From day one, she has donated more than half of her profits -- after paying her staff and a business loan -- to organizations that she feels personally connected with, such as CoCoDa, a non-profit that promotes community development in areas of Central America. During college, Smitley spent time living in El Salvador and met some of the people for which the organization's work was benefiting.
When Smitley decided to start Barley & Birch, she wasn't exactly a veteran of the Fashion Week runways. In fact, she had absolutely no experience in the apparel industry. But a summer internship in Washington, D.C compelled her to start the business. As an environmental science major, Smitley had taken a research internship in the summer of 2007, after graduating college. By chance, she ended up doing some side research for the owner of a clothing boutique who wanted to know whether the companies that claimed to have organic or green products were really making them.
Smitley's reports turned up some useful information, including the fact that many of the organic kids clothing companies were not actually using the healthiest fabrics or materials. Some companies, she claims, used harsh chemicals to make prints on their clothing, and others used overseas production facilities, which were not environmentally friendly. "I kept noticing gaps between what companies were saying and what they were actually doing," she says. "I basically made up my mind right then that I needed to start my own line, one that was accountable to the environment and to its customers."
Barley & Birch clothes are made using 100 percent certified organic cotton and water-based inks that do not pollute the environment. The company's donations also include offsetting emissions, and its manufacturers are U.S.-based and have been approved by Green America as environmentally responsible companies. Shipping is done from a warehouse in Ohio, a state that Smitley says she purposely picked for its central location, to reduce travel.
Before launching the first Barley & Birch line in December 2008, Smitley secured a $10,000 loan through the microlending site ACCION and embarked upon a major branding campaign. "I worked really hard to get good mom press," she says. Smitley reached out to mom bloggers, and received a positive response from many, including mentions on DailyCandy and a popular site called Cool Mom Picks. Since then, Smitley's clothes have made their way onto store shelves and online at 25 retailers.
Because of her previous research, by the time Smitley set out to produce her first line, she already had a good idea of the type of fabrics she wanted to use and where she could source them. She then looked for a designer who had fashion experience to help bring her ideas to life. Smitley worked with Jodie Milmore on designing the T-shirts, one-pieces, and pants, and then launched just months after starting her first year of law school.
It didn't take long to get the first sale. Green Genes, an eco-friendly kids boutique in Chicago, wanted to start selling the line, just days after receiving a letter and sales sheet from Smitley. "Our first launch of the line sold out so fast, within a couple of weeks," she recalls. "That was a huge step for me. It meant that we were a legit business."
It also meant that Smitley couldn't just treat it as a side business anymore. Since January, sales have taken off, thanks in part to the media buzz she helped generate. She now has two employees and two interns, who help her keep the business going while she splits her time between classes and business calls. "I try to set a plan for myself," Smitley says, "because if I start not having a schedule, I will do all work stuff and let my studies fall because the business is so exciting."