On co-founding EBY with Sofia Vergara, studying microfinance with Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus & much more. An interview with Renata Black.Featured
I spoke with @renatamblack, co-founder of EBY, a purpose driven direct-to-consumer intimates apparel subscription service that she founded with Sofia Vergara. She discussed her work in bringing microfinance to women in India, transforming lingerie from a tool for seduction into a means for empowerment, and her advice and hopes for creating impact and opportunity for women globally.Renata was born in Colombia, but her parents died in an airplane crash when she was very young, so she was adopted and grew up in the United States. She attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was in the school’s renowned journalism program. Following graduation, she had hoped to start her career as a journalist at MTV, but was devastated when was not accepted for the role. So, she instead pivoted to volunteering. Around this time, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami struck. Renata decided to go to India to help rebuild villages shattered by the catastrophe, and while there, she encountered a woman who would later change her life. The woman approached Renata and said, “I don’t want your money. I want you to teach me how to make it myself. Will you?” These words stuck with Renata and led her to immerse herself in studying microfinance as a way to empower women to generate consistent income streams for themselves and their posterity, fueling greater fulfillment and social mobility. Renata traveled to Bangladesh to study microfinance for a year with 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus for. Then, armed with greater knowledge, networks, and skills, she returned to India to find the woman who had changed her life. To Renata’s surprise, this woman had also brought 800 other women to learn. It was then that Renata knew the scale of the impact she could have and the true need women in this region had for economic empowerment. Existing organizations, she found, had structural deficiencies that hindered progress for women. For example, they would only work with women if they had credit with proper books kept for at least two years. So, Renata lived in India for two years and helped these women keep their books. During this time, she discovered and was incredibly inspired by the immense camaraderie among the women in each village. They operated much like a large family, pitching in to help each other through difficult times and even with smaller daily tasks. They thought about the future together, not as a competition to get out of their circumstances, but rather as a way to lift each other up. In India, Renata also noticed cultural norms that were quite different from those in the United States. Women in India commented that it must be terrible to need to show your body to attract men (as, in their view, is custom in the United States). In contrast, Indian women wear sarees to cover up their body around everyone except their husbands. At first, Renata viewed these comments as mere cultural differences and misunderstandings, but when she later returned to the states and was watching the Victoria’s Secret Show, she realized that she wanted to turn traditional tools for seduction and objectification of women, such as lingerie, into means for empowerment. While researching, refining, and building out an organization around this idea, Renata wrote to Deepak Chopra, a prominent Indian-American author, who wrote back and loved her idea. The pair stayed in touch, and he incorporated a chapter in his book, The Soul of Leadership, on Renata’s work. Former Victoria’s Secret CEO Grace Nichols read the book and loved Renata’s idea as well. The two connected, and Renata learned all about the business of underwear making from her. In this process of learning and starting what would later become EBY, Renata moved to Sri Lanka where she lived in a factory for four months and learned everything about garment making. But before launching the business, Renata knew she needed to truly understand her consumer to create a product they would love and by which they could feel empowered. She watched women shopping for underwear in stores and realized that they were buying underwear in handfuls without trying the products on. To them, buying underwear was a gross errand, something they had to do periodically and felt awkward about. She also saw that there were limited options for plus sized women, who would frequently feel uncomfortable asking for their sizes and finding out many stores did not carry them. Reflecting on these insights, Renata decided to launch EBY as a subscription business delivering underwear of all sizes directly to people’s doorstep. Shortly after launch, Sofia Vergara tried and fell in love with the product and reached out to Renata. They met and realized their visions for the business and impact they wanted to create for women’s empowerment globally was quite aligned (they are also both from Colombia!), so they decided to team up and become co-founders. –––Through EBY, Renata wants women to feel that with the one decision they make every morning, they can empower women globally. She wanted women to know that they had the power to create real impact: 10% of EBY’s proceeds are donated to microfinance efforts. EBY soft launched in 2017 and officially launched in January of 2018. They are growing 100% year over year with over 6,000 five star reviews and have impacted over 1,800 women and children through the donations to microfinance. EBY also aims to empower the women who wear the underwear: along with the underwear itself, women receive power toolkits with their subscription containing inspirational stories and advice for every part of their life. Reflecting on her inspiration and source of courage, Renata notes the incredible privilege it has been to even grow up in the United States. The obstacles she overcame, starting with her parent’s early death, have made her much stronger and allowed her to see opportunities differently. For her, there is no opportunity to be fearful because she sees the potential of the opportunity as being much greater than any fear. Renata underscores the importance of always stepping out of your comfort zone and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. But in taking these leaps of faith, she notes, it is crucial to always be kind to yourself. Even if you miss many or most of the swings you take, the fact that you are swinging so much at all is something to be tremendously proud of and is a key to creating impact. Looking to the future, Renata is excited to launch and grow more initiatives for products, community, and content that further empower EBY women, adding value at each touch point.