For a lot of people, it's not easy to know who you are and what you can do. Take Cecilia Foxworthy, for example.
By her own admission, Foxworthy's background is "a little crooked." Today, she's the founder and CEO of Torus, a platform that helps connect teens to existing afterschool and summer programs based on criteria such as interests, location, cost, and age. She got her start, however, in an incredibly different industry: clothing design. Foxworthy will tell you just how much this supposedly unrelated experience provided her with the tools to tackle the challenges of a startup. In fact, though she didn't know it at the time, Foxworthy's lifelong explorations had always been leading her towards founding Torus.
For today's ambitious professionals, there is no corporate ladder; what they have is closer to a rock wall, and sometimes, the next step up is actually lateral. Fashion did not turn out to be Foxworthy's calling, after all. But the couture culture did her good, and set her up to take her career in the right direction.
"What I learned from that career was (a) how to think creatively, (b) how to get a lot done under immense time pressure, and (c) how to navigate a really, really diverse workforce," Foxworthy shared. Her team included people from 20 different countries, providing an unexpected education in international development.
The Torus platform came out of Foxworthy's creation of Small Fry, a startup that creates economic opportunity by addressing two drivers of a healthy economy: young people, and small businesses. They train and employ young people aged 17 to 24 in marketing tactics, then employ them to work on driving small business growth online. Participants come from myriad backgrounds, with widely ranging skills, attitudes, and expectations. The ability to work on equal footing with people at various levels in the company is something Foxworthy attributes to her very first foray into the fashion world.
"When I went into the apparel industry and met the ladies that I worked with: the sewers, the cutters and the braiders - the ladies that really ran the place - I realized that without them, none of this stuff happens," she says. "They were the gatekeepers in many ways, and if you weren't nice to them and didn't appreciate them, then they could actually throw a wrench into your production cycle. And I took that to heart. We worked brilliantly together, and I've been good friends with many of them for years."
Foxworthy recalls that there was an exact moment when she knew that Torus was going to be "a thing."
"I was on a bus in Brazil going from Rio to Sao Paulo, just looking out the window," she recalls.
Foxworthy had just spent two years living in Bolivia working with social enterprises as well as community organizations. "In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about how I've worked with so many small businesses all around the world and their main problem is always just lack of access to market." The young people Foxworthy had worked with were trying to better themselves, but once they got out of school, "What was left for them? Nothing. They couldn't access any better jobs than they were already doing at the age of 14 or 15."
This experience led to the realization that businesses need access to the market, and young, tech-savvy people need jobs; why not just put those together? This merging of forces - what would become the basis of Torus' mission - was made possible by another combination, that of Foxworthy's carefully considered passions and abilities. She is not some starry-eyed idealist running blindly; she has seen success exactly because of her strategic approach to her career and the endeavor she imagined on that bus.
Foxworthy has no regrets about the circuitous path that brought her to where she is now. There is a lot of conversation out there today about how important it is to be focused, but she maintains that there is a counter argument to be made for being "unfocused" to a certain point, so that varied experiences gained over time will prove useful regardless of where you wind up later on.
Foxworthy's advice to young entrepreneurs: open yourself up to as many experiences as you possibly can, so you'll continually be learning. "I don't think that you can really effectively [learn] unless you put yourself in a lot of different situations, and try new things, let yourself get uncomfortable," she says. "That's how you equip yourself with the tools to succeed when you finally find what you're looking for."