BLACK ENTERPRISE | ARTICLE
Citizen Made Co-Founder On Transitioning To Tech, Mentorship And Perfecting Your Pitch
The do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit has taken off, developing into a growing movement of innovators who want to craft cool things, build complex structures and test the boundaries of engineering and robotics. No, this is not the DIY culture of the last century where students were assigned to either home-ec or shop class to bring out their creativity. Today’s DIYer is part of a movement of creative types, mostly millennials, referred to as makers.
With annual events such as Maker Faire, the world’s biggest maker event, and Mini Maker Faire pop-ups, among other events, the maker movement has inspired small businesses and mid-sized retailers to create and sell self-made goods. Saginaw, Michigan native Rachel Brooks, alongside co-founder Bryn McCoy, founded Citizen Made, an e-commerce platform that allows brands to design custom products. Brooks describes the software as “Nike ID for anybody,” and since it’s official launch in April 2013 the company has secured a partnership with L’Oreal and worked with Radio Flyer, makers of the signature little red wagon. Slated to be profitable in the coming months, Citizen Made is in talks with several recognizable companies and expected to sign several big deals shortly, according to Brooks.
The University of Michigan graduate’s passion for creating has earned the 26-year-old various recognitions, including Women Innovate Mobile’s Female Founders to Watch and Dell’s Inspire 100, and Citizen Made was named one of the “25 Coolest New Businesses in Chicago” by Business Insider. Most recently, the young power woman landed an opportunity to speak at TED NYC. BlackEnterprise.com caught up with the maverick maker to chat about her transition into the tech industry, the importance of mentors and what’s helped her nip her pitching issue in the bud.
BlackEnterprise.com: You don’t have a traditional tech background and started your career in fashion and advertising. What made you switch gears and begin a tech-focused startup?
Brooks: I’ve always kind of worked closely with the business side of brand and product, so it’s the business of all things beautiful, and I had to kind of switch focus to advertising for awhile just because the lifestyle, products atmosphere was a little bit tough to be part of around 2009. I ended up getting a different job in advertising, working at the biggest agency in Chicago. That’s where I learned how to build digital products and I taught myself a tremendous amount of programming. I was able to really understand how things happen digitally and that’s where it all kind of came together. I ended up leaving my job in advertising to create a product line of women’s wear and men’s accessories.
This is how I got back into the business side of branding, but I got a little bit deeper into it this time. I was managing the production and I was managing a lot of the parts of a product business that aren’t served by digital companies, software companies, things in manufacturing, things in resource management. A lot of where this started to take form and take shape was after I left advertising. And I really started to get hands-on experience on how you get products to market.
As a NewME alumna, how do you feel your participation in an accelerator has helped you grow your own business?
I looked at it as an opportunity to get me to the next step in a quicker way than I would’ve be able to [do] on my own. They have a network that we were able to access. They got us our first piece of press in TechCrunch and it really helped us to be able to do some of the things that help you early on to continue on as a company that feels like it can be viable.