- Suzanne McKenzie is the founder of Able Made , a sustainable brand that has been featured on Good Morning America, in Glamour Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, and The Zoe Report.
- McKenzie launched the brand in 2012, as an offshoot of her UCal Breakaway Foundation, which she started in 2009 after the sudden death of her husband.
- In an interview with Business Insider, McKenzie talks cold-calling Anna Wintour and discusses how she’s keeping her husband’s legacy alive.
- This is part of Business Insider’s “The Style Series,” highlighting fashion entrepreneurs around the world.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
After the sudden death of her husband in 2009, Suzanne McKenzie decided to launch the Ucal Breakaway Foundation in his honour. She began working in her local Boston community and took on creative projects that eventually included the launch of her offshoot brand, Able Made, in 2012.
McKenzie was even selected for President Obama’s 2015 Global Emerging Social Entrepreneurship initiative at the White House in 2015. She’s also now a part-time faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
In an interview with Business Insider, McKenzie talks about launching her business, founding her company, and her successful cold-call to Anna Wintour.
“My background is really in design and advertising. That’s where I started my career many years ago.”
I started my career at Arnold Worldwide in Boston, where they had a lot of amazing clients and really stellar staff. I really got to build a lot of incredible relationships with such creative people over there.
I started as a project manager but got promoted into their creative department, in the design group. I was there for a total of eight years. I decided I wanted to do more social-impact based work, so I began my own design consulting business.
“A few months after I left that full-time position, I had a huge tragedy in my life: I actually lost my husband.”
He passed away playing a game of soccer, of sudden cardiac arrest. He was just 32 – really healthy and didn’t have any family history of heart issues. So it was completely shocking. He lived a very healthy lifestyle. We had been together for like 10 years, all through college and everything.
“It was beyond devastating.”
We started the Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation in his honour, partnering with Nike and Whole Foods, and we were able to put together a summer camp with really high-level content for kids. We focused on underserved communities, including children from lower-income households or children of single parents. We actually celebrated our 10-year anniversary last year.
“Able Made was started because of this Foundation.”
I did a collection with Nike and I also designed a poster calendar where I leaned on my design network and community and they contributed to original art pieces.
I worked with everyone from folks at Apple to people at design studios. And all of these incredible artists donated original pieces, from fine arts to graphic design to photography. Based on the success of those [collections], I ended up going to Vogue and having a meeting there.
“If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.”
That’s one thing I live by. A lot of the collaborations I have are because of cold calls or because of an email – I was given someone’s email, wrote a note introducing myself and my idea. You have to get past the nervousness or hesitation to ask if someone will work with you.
I will say pretty much nobody has said no. I mean, that’s the reason I had a meeting with Vogue in the first place – because I cold-called Anna Wintour’s office.
“I started with $US75,000, and that was mainly to fund my production.”
I’m very grateful that I took the approach I did and grew slower, carefully, and more concisely, and I learned a lot. Now, I’m razor sharp on where my customer lives, who they are, what they want from us, and what our categories are.
“We really liked the idea of empowerment – enabling people to really empower themselves.”
And that’s actually how we give back our proceeds. We don’t do a one-for-one model. We don’t only donate products. We donate to charities and to nonprofits.
We prioritise education, to include building initiatives that can empower people to lift themselves up and be the best that they can be, and give them the opportunities we feel they should have.
“I think that people are reevaluating and having a fresh look at what sustainability means.”
[Amid the pandemic] everybody in retail has to reevaluate where they are. And I’m hoping this is giving us all the opportunity to either reset or more deeply commit to sustainability and really look at the impact that is having on the environment.
If you’re producing something, it’s never going to be 100% sustainable, right? There’s always going to be some sort of environmental impact no matter how you try to address sustainability. But there are definitely better practices that can be put in place, and I’m hoping that people can really take that in.