Illustration: Ashley Siebels
As a female startup founder, it’s funny to me when I see photos tagged with #bossbabe on Instagram featuring impossibly curvaceous models in stilettos drinking a latte in a power suit.
All of the “boss babes” I know in real life can rarely leave the house without their children’s goldfish crumbs on their blazers or a toothpaste droplet on their sweaters because they were trying to brush their teeth during a conference call on their way to the office.
Why is it that all women in the workplace are portrayed as “fashionistas” in the media while the most brilliant men of our generation are expected to be “too busy thinking” to care about their wardrobe?
People often say that our clothing tells the world about who we are. But in my experience it also tells people how well we perform in our jobs. What we are supposed to wear versus what we actually wear can have a big impact on how people perceive us as successful founders.
Consider the hoodie. It’s a fairly simple garment. Typically made out of a cotton/poly blend and sewn into a shape that will fit everyone from Pacific Northwest loggers to L.A. supermodels, the hoodie is the ultimate in utilitarian clothing.
You can unzip a hoodie if you are too hot. You can protect your neck when it’s too cold. The hoodie is like an adult blankie — there for you even when the rest of the world isn’t.
Thanks to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s signature boyish wardrobe (hoodie and gray t-shirt), and the legendary chauvinist culture of his company in the early years, the hoodie has become a symbol of the tech industry’s juvenile approach to company culture.
One only needs to stroll past the engineering department in any tech company, and it becomes obvious that the norms of business etiquette don’t apply. Conference rooms are named after video games. Nerf guns and ping pong tables beckon players to leave their work behind in favor of supporting a “fun workplace.”
Want to wear a hoodie and flip flops to work while making six figures? No problem, until you have to figure out who’s the boss and who’s the intern. It’s enough to say to yourself, “These people make ungodly salaries — can’t they afford some proper clothing?”
I used to be judgmental of this work uniform of basic t-shirts and hoodies — until I started my own company. Now, I realize that dressing in the same basic wardrobe day after day is not a sign of sloppiness or childishness. It’s actually necessary.
Here’s why: decision fatigue.
When your work becomes less about following directions set by a boss, and more about making hard decisions with abstract potential outcomes that could have real impact on people at scale, it’s difficult to also care about matching your outfit, or even a small stain on your shirt.
As my startup prepares for launch this month, I realize that the more work I have to do, the less I want to think about what I am wearing. Yet as a founder, I still need to be presentable when I meet with potential customers or business partners.
That’s why I’ve adopted my own version of a work uniform:
- White shirt with a collar (long sleeved with a sweater over it in the winter, sleeveless in the summer)
- Slim-fit jeans from Rag and Bone
- Black slip on shoes from WILDFANG
- Gel nail polish (so I don’t bite my nails — thanks anxiety!)
- Naturally dried hair, parted in the middle (because who needs blowdryers in the Portland rain?)
- RMS organic makeup (so I look alive after an all-nighter)
I can do anything and meet anyone in this uniform. Lunch with a customer? Check. Meeting with the dev team? Roll up the sleeves. Pick up dinner on my way home from the office? I can practically run a marathon in this thing.
So if you see me at a conference, you’ll notice that I’ll never be wearing a t-shirt sporting the logo of my startup. I’m not that kind of girl.
But I will be wearing my uniform, and I’ll probably be busy making decisions about our next big product launch, not about what I’ll be wearing to our launch party.
Honestly, I’m a #bossbabe, and I’ve got better things to think about.
Kathryn Brown is the founder and CEO of ScoutSavvy.