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Not every bride wants to wear their mom’s outdated wedding gown with puffy sleeves and sequins from the 1980s. But many wives-to-be do want to preserve the memories associated with that garment. That’s where Grace Lightner comes in.
In 2017, Lightner founded Unbox the Dress with her mother, Lorraine Stewart. The company helps women redesign wedding dresses, whether that be their own or a family member’s, into heirloom gifts that last a lifetime. Customers can select from dozens of product options, turning sentimental fabric into baby booties or holiday ornaments.
The business concept has been so wildly successful that Lightner expanded to a 4,500-square-foot production studio and design facility during the pandemic. We spoke with Lightner to hear more about what it took to wade into the waters of entrepreneurship as a woman in her 20s.
What’s the origin story of Unbox the Dress?
I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family — my grandparents ran a local brick and tile manufacturing plant and my mom started her own consulting practice. I’ve always had that itch to start something of my own, but I was just waiting for the right idea to give me the confidence to take that jump.
I was helping my mom clean out my grandmother’s house and we found a few boxed wedding dresses. Of course, when you’re cleaning out a house you’re in a very get it done, donate or trash kind of mindset. But when we came to these wedding dresses, we just stopped dead in our tracks.
Since the dresses belonged to my aunts, we called them to see what they wanted us to do with them. The emotional reaction they had in response to these dresses that they hadn’t even seen for 20 years fostered a lightbulb moment. We realized these dresses are more than garments — they have all this sentiment tied up in them and yet they’re not serving any purpose. We asked ourselves, “What else could we do with this beautiful fabric and lace?” That was the impetus for Unbox the Dress. I started the business with my mom and it’s just grown like crazy.
Many people warn that you shouldn’t work with family. What has the experience of launching a business with your mom been like?
I’m very fortunate that I have a positive relationship with Lorraine. We had a good foundation and knew that we could work together well. I think a lot of that comes from our complementary strengths. While I’m a little bit more creative and action-oriented, she’s more planning-oriented and data-minded. We’re able to listen to each other and then push each other in a good way.
Before founding Unbox the Dress, you worked in corporate marketing. What was it like learning how to launch your own endeavor?
That’s a fair question because I’ve learned so much. You have to like the learning process. I’m a person who likes change. If you’re someone who takes comfort in doing the same thing every day and going really deep and perfecting your skills in one area, starting a company isn’t the right choice for you. What I was doing six months ago is completely different from what I’m doing today and what I was doing six months before that was completely different too. It’s always changing, so you have to love learning and love changing your role.
For example, our team is growing so lately I’ve taken on more HR responsibilities. I’m figuring out how to engage a larger group of people and orient new people to the team. I didn’t do much of that at all in our first couple of years.
I definitely built on my background in marketing and advertising. The kind of business we decided to build is so tied into storytelling and we always knew we were going to be a digitally savvy company. So, of course, that foundation was very helpful but I think it’s more the propensity to want to learn and grow and create something from scratch that makes you a good candidate to found a company.
What motivated you to take that leap and leave your corporate job?
I’m really thankful for the period of time after college when I had a steady corporate marketing job because I was able to learn a lot and develop my skills. I know some people start a company right out of school, but I’m happy that I had the chance to learn from different mentors.
At the same time, I had been experiencing a lot of migraine pain. I’m a chronic migraine patient and my lifestyle of working 60 hours a week and living in downtown Chicago wasn’t allowing me to really care for myself. I re-evaluated what was important to me, and ended up moving from Chicago back home to make that change. It was definitely a scary leap. I didn’t take a salary for a long time as we grew the business. You have to believe in your idea and get personal fulfillment from the process of building a business from scratch.
What’s something you can do now as an entrepreneur that you couldn’t do working a 9-to-5?
I’m a night owl but corporate America requires a set schedule. There were many times when I would have a migraine in the morning and not be able to work, but then I was able to pull myself out of it and have a substantial chunk of work time in the evening. I’m a firm believer that it’s more about what you accomplish, not how many hours you put in each week.
You opened your first production facility during the pandemic, correct?
Right. Previous to that we were working with a network of subcontracted seamstresses, but we always knew we wanted to have everybody under one roof because it’s more efficient and more fun. That’s what brought us to North Carolina in the middle of a pandemic.
Wow. That must’ve been difficult. What skills or tactics have you used during these challenging times to stay focused and motivated?
Whether you’re leading a company or managing a department, it’s really easy to get caught up in the tactical stuff that can fill up your plate. So I think it’s important to make time for the high level, big impact, energizing kind of work. It’s important to give yourself permission to take a half-day and just dream big because that’s what gives you the gas in your tank to go the distance in the long run.
Have you encountered any barriers as a female business owner that you didn’t expect?
We decided to grow the business through venture capital and it’s no secret that the percentage of venture capital funds that go to women-owned businesses is pretty abysmal. I think it’s like three percent. There are some emerging funds in the community to try to catalyze investing in minority owners and women owners, which is wonderful, but it has been a challenge to communicate our value to people who aren’t necessarily in our target market.
We primarily serve women customers and they understand the powerful connection between sentimental gifting and connecting generations of women. I’ve definitely pitched to audiences of just men. Are they really going to believe in the idea and see the potential in the same way that a group of women would? Maybe, maybe not.
This is something to be aware of and it’s something I hope to improve in my career because I think women make fantastic owners and leaders. We bring a whole different set of experiences to the table.
Earlier you mentioned that your mom owned a consulting firm. Can you talk more about that? Is it fair to say that she inspired you to branch out on your own?
Absolutely. My mother had four children and started a consulting practice that basically helped major companies find the right advertising agency suppliers. I don’t know how but Lorraine did it all. She was so involved with her children but then we were able to see her put on her suit and go do amazingly well in her own career working with incredible companies from all over the country.
She was just like superwoman to me. I’m so thankful to have her. From the very beginning, she was someone who said, “Yes, you know you can do this.” She helped point out the indicators that we were onto something that was striking a nerve. It’s so important to have someone who believes in your dreams the way that you do so that in those moments when you have doubt, you have someone else to say, “Stay the course.”
What else did your mom teach you growing up that made you into the leader you are today?
I’m very free-spirited and very action-oriented. I think that my mom helped me find ways to methodically move toward the goals that I set, even from a really early age. We poke fun at her but even in middle school, she helped us have goal-setting sessions. She would ask, “What do you want to achieve by the end of the year? How do you think we can do it?” It could’ve been anything — creative or academic.
How has your leadership style evolved as Unbox the Dress has evolved?
In the very early days, I did all aspects of the business. I was very, very involved. But now as we’ve grown, I’ve had to take different aspects of what I once did and hire people on as the experts. If you’re doing a good job at recruiting your team, you’re hiring people who have more experience and better skills for that specific piece of the business than you do. For example, my production manager comes from a background in theatrical costume design. She managed a student theatrical costume department at a university and is much more technically skilled than I am. She’s so great at coaching our sewing team. As the business grows, I have to rely on my team and make a safe space for them to tell me what they need.
I try to create a safe space and say, “If there’s a piece of equipment you need or a person that you need on your team or if you have an idea for how to improve a process, please come tell me.” I no longer have the capacity to be as deeply involved in all areas of the business. Establishing those trusting and open relationships with key team members is something that I’ve been working on and enjoying because it’s rewarding to see people embrace your mission just as much as you do.
Creating a safe space sounds very important to you. Is that something you experienced in your previous workplaces? Or is that something that you lacked but now want to foster for your own employees?
It’s a mix of both. One reason why I love the startup world is the fact that a good idea can be implemented very quickly. In my personal experience in corporate America, a good idea is often heard and recognized but almost always put on the back burner because of resources or just other burdens. But at a startup, you can apply a good idea as soon as you come up with it. I love that about where we’ve come from and I hope to make that a part of our culture even as we grow bigger.
Do you have any advice for other female entrepreneurs?
Something that has helped me stay the course and ride the waves of entrepreneurship has been an alignment in my company’s mission and values. In addition to obviously being a very joyful company, we are focused on two core pieces of the business that motivate us to do what we do.
One is connecting generations of women — just creating those unique experiences that help a grandmother connect to her grandbaby or a mom and a daughter connect on the morning of the daughter’s wedding. The second is sustainability. More and more, we are serving modern brides who have seen how wasteful the wedding industry can be and want to make a sustainable and green choice by taking a garment that would usually be worn once and repurposing it into something they can enjoy for their whole life.
Those two things align with my personal values and get me excited, so when there are challenges or hiccups, I can stay focused on what I’m bringing into the world. That gives me the motivation to keep going and to keep building a more beautiful business. I’d encourage anyone interested in starting a company to look inward and figure out what excites and motivates them, and then try to align their career with that.