As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Cindy Simmons, Founder & CEO of Chandra Yoga & Active Wear.
Cindy Simmons is the mother of three young boys, a yoga fanatic, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of Chandra Yoga & Active Wear. Cindy established the athletic apparel company in 2015, whose foundation was built upon four simple concepts of fashion, quality, value and charity. Her goal is to design and provide high-fashion and proper fitting yoga and active wear using the best quality materials at a price point offering an excellent value for the money. Cindy personally inspects her factories to ensure that they provide safe and good working conditions, she utilizes artistic creators in third world and developing countries, and gives back to the communities that need the help through World Vision as an Official Partner.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to participate in your “Women of the C-Suite”! Although I won’t get the ability to place next to Shaq on the home page, it’s still great! Haha
My backstory… Well, originally my plan was quite different to what has transpired through to this day. It almost seems like a previous life when I was leading a sales and marketing team for a government program with the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
What was supposed to be a recruitment drive with my team on the holiday island of Phuket turned into a virtual whirlwind and life-changing trip as I met my husband-to-be there. I had the most romantic date of my life, being treated to a multi-course dinner on a private boat through watching the moon set over the ocean while enjoying Champagne on the beach. A few months later I was engaged and decided to quit my job to restart my life in Phuket.
Having practiced yoga for 15 years and meeting a lot of practitioners with the newly available time on my hands gave me inspiration to explore other opportunities. Personally, it’s not easy for me to stay home, do yoga and just relax. Wanting to be constantly challenged and with a desire to improve the lives of others inspired me to find another calling.
In the studios, I loved seeing friends wearing bright and beautiful clothing that matched their personalities, but was upset seeing that many brands, even expensive ones, didn’t seem to fit real bodies, were see-through and designed for only slim models or mannequins. Another issue that I had was the cost of the clothing versus the quality of the material used. This was the inspiration that led me to create a new brand, Chandra Yoga & Active Wear, for real people’s figures, using higher quality fabrics that aren’t see-through, with a reasonable price and giving back to charity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My first intention was actually to create yoga and active wear for my friends and locals in the yoga community, as it’s pretty huge here. The products started off only being sold through yoga studios and small clothing shops in Phuket, Samui, Chiang Mai and Bangkok. What I hadn’t expected was that tourists would start purchasing our clothing and then posting pictures of themselves wearing our leggings all over the world. When I received tagged images of customers parachuting, scuba diving, horse riding, climbing Mount Everest and at other exotic places in our clothing, I was so proud and excited as this meant our products were appealing to a wider audience and we had an opportunity available to expand beyond Thailand.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When you work with someone who puts all the measurements in inches, and you think the measurements written down are centimeters then you end up with doll clothing. No, I’m just kidding. That didn’t really happen.
A big lesson I learned when we first started was from taking the creators’ patterns and artwork to design the clothing. It’s important to first produce virtual designs through a 3D generator to see what the product will look like with the pattern or artwork prior to doing anything else, such as making samples. In our first sample run of sports bras and leggings, one of the designs made the sports bra look like we were really trying to draw attention with two red round circles over each chest pad and one pair of leggings had such an odd design on the front seam that it made all of us break out in immediate laughter when we saw it. You can be sure those samples never made the light of day!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It was my husband, Dan, who believed in me and encouraged me to start Chandra Yoga & Active Wear after he heard the reasons that I wanted to design my own active wear. Dan found a technical creator in California to develop clothing patterns for a wide range of body types and handled the technical aspects for us, such as managing the development of our website, ChandraActive.com. He also offered advice on branding, business strategy, intellectual property, legalities, and other professional aspects when we needed it. As a previous senior executive, CEO and entrepreneur of his own, he is my fallback guy whenever I need help.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
That’s easy: I eat very healthy, meditate, exercise and do yoga daily! It keeps my mind and body in sync, keeps me from stressing over non-important issues and allows me to focus on what is important. Maybe I’m lucky that my lifestyle and occupation co-exist in harmony, but my personal opinion is that if people take care of their body it will take care of their mind and relieve their stress.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Differences in individuals brings awareness, alternative choices, varied experience, and more creativity than would come up if you, for instance, have a roomful of women of the same nationality. It’s important to have diversity not only in the executive team, but also in your key partners and consultants. This will lead to a better understanding of customer requirements, employee happiness, product innovation, improved corporate strategy and quicker business decisions.
This may seem like a childish analogy, but having a native Californian husband and biracial children going to international schools in South East Asia clearly displays the advantages of diversity in any setting. The school socials and events with a large mix of nationalities end up being the most creative, exciting, and fun with a great assortment of food. This same “United Nations” approach to recruiting your executive team will only lead to greater success in business.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
In my opinion, the first step, while this may sound cliché, is to lead by example. If executives, team members or employees hear prejudices or biases from their leaders, it gives them the excuse to act the same way. These behaviors will alienate and divide your company, creating a toxic environment and reducing productivity among many other unwanted aspects. Others may interpret your actions to mean that they must mimic your negativity to advance or fit in. A CEO is always under a microscope and should always set a positive example, not only when convenient, to ensure the business’ prosperity and protect company values.
Next, which relates to your previous question, is to create a diversified executive team and company. While we cannot directly control what happens in the outside world, we can shape our companies by hiring a diverse team. How this is done ranges greatly depending on whether you have an established company or a startup, but there are still basics that will help regardless of size or structure. Developing multi-source recruitment platforms while excluding biased language concerning age, race or gender in the job descriptions will lead to a greater number of applicants along with more diversity.
It’s been proven that diverse organizations outperform their competitors. Sometimes re-education of this fact is necessary with your executive team using articles from respected research firms. When your executive team is on board with your DE&I strategy and believes in the benefits associated with it, half your battle is over.
Don’t forget to get input from your existing employees and remember that many will be afraid to give you honest feedback for fear of retribution. Therefore, the feedback that you solicit should also offer an anonymous survey available online that employees may do from home. Don’t make this a single effort or one-time event either. Have small sessions, informal or scheduled, and listen and take notes of employee topics, frustrations and wishes, even if far-fetched or ridiculous.
When developing Chandra Yoga & Active Wear’s company environment, I started with the thought of, “What type of company would I want to work at and what does that look like?”. With profits and corporate pressures on so many top executives’ minds, keep reminding yourself that a very happy and diverse workforce is going to be more productive and ease those pressures.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO’s responsibility does not fall only on the company’s success, but requires being the leader and strategist, providing the right employee environment, tracking customer satisfaction, seeding growth, safeguarding vendor happiness, being strong willed and firm where needed to ensure the company success. A CEO must be a friend, a shoulder to cry on, a coach, an example, all the while trying to balance their work and personal life, although every day is a working day.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
A comment that I’ve been told often from friends and associates is that they wish they were as organized and understand everything that needs to be done like I do. To which I always reply that this is the result of years of mistakes and corrections, challenges that were met and some that weren’t. No CEO has the solution to every problem and there will be many mistakes made down the road. It’s how you handle and learn from those that will make you sink or swim.
For myself, many people think that I live a carefree life, traveling to island resorts to practice yoga in my spare time. If they actually knew the amount of time spent from very early mornings to deep into the night having to work with time zones all around the world, they might not want to join the bandwagon. I absolutely enjoy what I do and wouldn’t change it for the world, and yes, I like to take pictures at exotic locations, but there is also a LOT of hard work involved.
Another myth I’ve heard more than a few times is about income. Not all CEOs or Founders are taking huge paychecks regardless of the company status. At the beginning there were times when I was withdrawing from my savings to pay salaries, as the outgoing expenses far exceeded the income.
When asked if I don’t have any time for my family, I laugh as they are the first ones that I show new designs to and ask for feedback about choices, as I know I will always get honest answers from three young boys, especially. Balance is something that you simply must force yourself to create, regardless of the piles of folders building up. Don’t use the position as an excuse.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Luckily, in the fashion business there are a lot of women involved from vendors to partners and I have been very fortunate not to have to deal with the lower wages or male pressures faced by women in some other professions. However, I do have friends who are still working inside the government and at international firms in America and South East Asia who are paid less than their male colleagues, not treated as equals such as being asked by peers to “fetch us coffees”, who deal with sexism, and are told they are being too aggressive when trying to speak up as their counterparts do. With approximately only 5% of women leadership in Fortune 500 and 1000 companies, we women have a long way to go for equality.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I first started the company, it was actually more of a hobby as I was still a new mother at the time and didn’t anticipate the growth we were going to experience. So, what began as my weekend hobby eventually turned into an 80-hour a week business. The ramp up of operations, hiring, storage, distribution, manufacturing, marketing, design, and a host of other duties were initially quite a juggling act with a baby in one arm and a phone in another. My husband had just accepted the position as CEO of a company in China and was traveling frequently, forcing me to take the bull by the horns and make it work while also being a full-time mom.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are many different types of people, some who want to get to the top and others who are more comfortable getting a steady paycheck while performing their status quo. I have known many people who do not want to lead a company or be an entrepreneur for various reasons. It just takes a certain type of person to lead.
Successful executives need to be devoted to the business and passionate about it. Being an excellent communicator and a people person inside and outside the company will drive goodwill with employees and make networking more effective. Decisiveness is an important trait that will make or break the company. Decisions sometimes need to be made in real time and the executives need to be adaptable and innovative should the decision prove difficult or wrong. They must have the ability to delegate important tasks to others such as sales, even if they are the best in the company. Setting realistic goals and delivering on them is a given, but it’s still worth mentioning as well.
If you’re looking for a nine-to-five Monday through Friday, have problems taking responsibility for everything regardless of who was in charge, aren’t humble or a people-person, don’t like to make decisions, have problems taking risks, are biased or heavily opinionated, believe your way is the best, feel uncomfortable accepting criticism, or don’t like planning, researching and organizing, then an executive career is probably not the best suited position.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Put your heart, love, and passion into everything you do as it is contagious and will spill onto your team. Be honest with yourself, your team and your customers. Give your team a voice, listen to them, and plan brainstorming meetings outside of the business at a location that inspires new ideas and creativity. Use your HR or a survey company to find out if there are any hindrances within the company that are impeding business and fix them. Don’t be afraid to try something new, just jump in and make it happen. Ask for guidance or recommendations from successful advisors and mentors in your field. Don’t preach about DE&I — make it a reality in your company.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Even before starting Chandra Yoga & Active Wear, philanthropy was in my blood as my parents raised my brother and I to always give back. Growing up we were involved with many volunteer projects, such as helping out in the community with monthly food drives, giving away meals to the needy during holidays, collecting clothing for those in need, selling items and attending events for charity, and entering floats in parades to draw attention to our causes.
Our parents own a factory, and while many similar factories in their area employ illegal migrant workers as the cost is much less due to not paying higher wages, social security, taxes, etc., my parents only hire local legal employees to support the community. It is their conviction and beliefs that have shown me the need for philanthropy and giving back to others.
Charity is one of the four pillars in our company’s foundation and permanently placed in our mission statement. It’s not simply a saying on a poster, but a part of life at Chandra Yoga & Active Wear as a donation is given to World Vision from every item purchased. We sponsor children’s meals, purchase books, and help with clothing for children in need, because it’s what we should be doing. Equality should be for everyone.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
One of the first mistakes I made was underpricing our products, as I was thinking from the standpoint of this is a product for local people so pricing must be low. However, I didn’t take into consideration enough of the future costs of hiring my management team or employees, storage costs, transportation costs, import duties, exchange rates, taxes, corporation fees, and other costs that quickly added up. My thoughts were originally on sales and marketing costs, production, design and packaging, but there is a lot more that you have to consider. Hiring a good accountant that understands the business would have been good advice, that I probably received, but didn’t listen to. Get a good accountant involved no matter how small you start.
Intellectual property registration, such as trademarking the logo and icon, was another thing that I was advised to get done as soon as possible, but with everything else going on it just kept getting pushed to the side. “Who was going to want to take my small little active wear company to court for anything?”, was my thinking at that time. About a year after launching the products for sale on a couple online American marketplaces, a Chinese company that didn’t even sell active wear had a law firm from Chicago contact us to try to extort money. They had seen our products online and then afterwards went and filed a USA trademark using our name. Lesson learned: Get your IP in check once you have finalized your logo and artwork. Don’t wait!
After having made it through unscathed in dealing with the first set of unethical lawyers, we started getting contacted by other law firms the first couple of years, trying to prey on a new business for ridiculous and unwarranted extortion attempts. This was very stressful to me, but I was advised that this is unfortunately one of the obstacles that must be dealt with in business. My first reaction was to hire a good law firm to deal with these unscrupulous people, but was told by a friend who heads another clothing company that most law firms will simply negotiate back and forth to milk the clients on both ends while they get rich off it. Her advice was to be strong, firm and tell them to file a lawsuit if they truly believed their claim had any merit. After taking her advice and replying in writing very aggressively to these firms they did not contact us again, nor were any suits filed. The lesson I learned here was that sometimes it pays to be strong and deal with the predators yourself to avoid unnecessary legal fees.
Just recently we were completely caught off guard with our Instagram account, which was our primary social media utilized. One day when logging in there was an error message about the ID or password being incorrect. To make a long story short, Instagram locked our account without a reason or warning, and we had lost access to our thousands of followers along with years of images. This is something we had never expected as we simply post product pictures, sales, events, and inspirational photos. After contacting Instagram we were simply told to verify our account and send in company paperwork, etc., but nothing has materialized since and we had to start off with new accounts. The lesson here is to have backup social media accounts, such as a backup Facebook and Instagram accounts on top of your current ones, and do not put all your eggs in one social basket.
When working with online marketplaces such as Amazon, make sure you account for a large margin of error on their part and be careful about selling expensive products. In our experience, Amazon was losing or misplacing a significant amount of products and would claim that the number of products received in the container was less than we had reported. This was very disturbing and frustrating, especially with high-cost, low-profit items such as large heavy yoga mats that come six to a box, but their receiving report claims there are only five, regardless of the fact that we had video of the packing of each box. Also, there were many returns that we received that were not even our own products! Depending on your area of coverage, it may be more cost effective and much more accurate to avoid 3PLs and ship yourself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
One of my passions, my biggest soft spot, and my charitable goals all revolve around children, which is also why I have three of my own. If I could inspire a movement, it would definitely revolve around children as they are our future leaders and the ones who will shape the world. The movement would include requiring unconditional government regulation in all countries around the world mandating minimum schooling requirements for all children and guaranteeing freedom from underage work. All children should have the equal right to quality education and to be able to sustain from child labor, regardless of the income of the parents. If we could influence the world leaders to match education budgets with defense budgets, illiteracy would be a thing of the past only read about in history books.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is, “Do what makes you happy”. This is basically a quote of my life now, as I love yoga and wearing beautiful active wear while I practice it. Founding Chandra Yoga & Active Wear allowed me to do what makes me happy as a profession. It’s one of the original life lesson quotes that I heard a long time ago, and believe it to be true. If you do what makes you happy you will be more successful than if you simply plug along in a career that you do not have the passion for.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
That would have to be Melinda Gates as I love the fact that she is not only the biggest name for women in the tech world, but she is a major philanthropist with my same ideals and has been a strong supporter of women’s rights and equality. Her work to improve the lives of the impoverished through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation really touches my heart and I can feel her passion every time she speaks. The fact that she has an investment company to assist women in the tech sector shows her dedication and commitment to empowering women.
A couple of my favorite quotes from Melinda are, “I think it’s very important that we instill in our kids that it has nothing to do with their name or their situation that they’re growing up in; it has to do with who they are as an individual.”, and “Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better — that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and we don’t look away.”
Since Melinda is a philanthropist, supporter of women and children, strong, disciplined, very accomplished, made her dreams come true and shows that anyone can accomplish what they set their minds on, I think she would be an extremely interesting person to meet to talk about her life journey.