Always keep improving — you are never done. It’s never perfect. Learn to improve on whatever thing is holding you back, but don’t let trying to get it to perfect keep you from getting it to significantly better. Move to the next thing that needs fixing.

For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Zuklie. Jennifer Zuklie is an entrepreneur, mother, and the founder and CEO of The Swoondle Society, an online member marketplace for trading children’s clothing and accessories. A veteran of the ecommerce industry, Jennifer realized the need for The Swoondle Society between having her daughter and her son. With an abundance of girls’ clothes, Jennifer couldn’t find a practical way to ensure they went to a good home — and began a children’s clothing swap in 2016 with 50 of her Brooklyn-based friends. The idea took off on a larger scale in 2017 when those friends began telling their friends. By 2018, The Swoondle Society was handling thousands of swaps per week.

Thank you for joining us Jen! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I used to work in the corporate world as the global head of eCommerce for a vacation exchange company. In an era when online was just starting to boom — and online travel had yet to hit its stride. We transformed a call center-dominated business to one where 70%+ of transactions were being done online.

In 2013, following the birth of my daughter, I decided to take some time off of work. Excited to welcome a girl into the world I did what any new mom does, went straight out to buy trendiest and cutest girls clothes at my neighborhood boutique stores, sample sales, and Century 21 in addition to all of the hand me downs I was given. Two years later, I welcomed a baby boy. Unfortunately, all of the storage bins filled with girls clothing hogging all the storage space we had in Brooklyn would not be put to good use.

When faced with what to do with all of the girls clothing I was disappointed with the options. I knew I had acquired a number of nice pieces over the years, but how could I parlay those assets into either larger sized clothing for my daughter, or comparable items for my son?

In my former career, I had learned all about trading models, swapping and membership-based businesses. I was inspired to apply those lessons to a new market and turn that size 2T Pink Chicken romper into a size 3T Egg Baby Sweater!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

As new parents, my husband and I resided by Brooklyn Bridge Park and would push our stroller daily past the volleyball courts saying to one another, that looks like so much fun. After about 2 years of this we finally joined a volleyball league. We made it a date night, and weekly would get a sitter, play volleyball and grab some pizza and beer at Il Fornino with our teammates. Aside from just playing, we never really “talked shop,” but got to talking and one teammate mentioned he worked in VC. Well, he loved the Swoondle idea and introduced me to about five different firms and personal contacts. While we weren’t in a capital raise at the time, to this day I still have those connections as my personal sounding board to talk to about the growth of my business. I just couldn’t believe how someone who barely knew us — beyond my volleyball serve — would be willing to make those types of personal introductions. This story always reminds me that when in doubt you need to take the plunge — join the league, meet people, be yourself and appreciate the kindness of others.

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 we first started piloting the program there we’re a lot of incoming items, but I didn’t have any employees. After the kids went to bed I convinced my husband to help me catalog incoming items (in an Excel sheet, before we had our own tools). The deal was, I would read off the information “Boden, Girls, 5T, sweater, good condition…” and he could have the Mets game on muted in the background as he entered them. Well, let’s just say this set up didn’t last more than one night… I had to fix EVERY. SINGLE. ENTRY. For the sake of our marriage and the business, I posted an ad for help in Craigslist the next day!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Swoondle Society lets our customers keep the value of their clothing. We don’t take a cut like traditional consignment stores or even many of the peer-to-peer marketplaces. This model incentivizes people who purchase quality items because they know they can trade them in and get something comparable for ~$2. The better the item — the better the deal since we don’t take more for trading the “good stuff”.

Before The Swoondle Society, I looked into many of the different options that were available for what to do with these clothes. I couldn’t believe that places were taking 90% commission for selling kids clothing. Yes, it was easy, but I would have to give them the equivalent of 10 dresses just to “earn” enough to get 1 back, no way! That might make sense if you just need to get rid of stuff, but when it comes to the kids stuff I not only have to get rid of it, but I need to replace it with the next size or season. Then there were the places where I sell it myself, however I was doing all the work AND giving a cut to the platform. I didn’t feel my time and the return was worth it. I then looked into donating, but even that was fraught with complexity — were people who actually needed clothing receiving it? Was someone else making money off these clothes? And those Hunter baby boots — Is there a way to make that 1 pair help more than 1 person? It was all just disappointing and I didn’t feel “good” about it. None helped both halves of the 1) get the outgrown out and 2) replace it with the right size & season.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are in talks with several kids clothing brands and retailers about developing custom trade-in and resale programs. The Swoondle Society would provide custom functionality designed just for the kids clothing market so they could have sustainable ways of re-selling items they’ve already produced.

This can make it considerably easier for consumers to make good, socially responsible decisions about their kids’ clothing. Easier to buy quality upfront knowing there will be residual value in those items — they will be worn more which is ultimately one of the biggest things we can do to be sustainable with our fashion. It’s estimated that if we doubled our number of “wears” we could reduce greenhouse gases by a whopping 44%!!!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

For us, flexibility has been key to getting amazing talent. We have over-qualified folks working in our intake center. How & Why? Because we have no set hours or schedule. They all know exactly what needs to get done. They do work remotely. They pop in after soccer practice to send out welcome kits for an hour, or after school drop off. They are part of the solution. This isn’t advice for female leaders, it’s for all leaders — be flexible where you can. Hire people you can trust. My team always says, this job allows them to still be a mom and have a job.

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 may sound trite, but my husband. I come up with a lot of *crazy* ideas. Many I do — like learn how to make cheese… some I don’t — like starting an ice machine company (don’t steal this idea). When I popped out of the shower with this “brilliant idea” — he immediately was on board. He would ask me almost daily — so what has to be done with that trading idea? He’s been on board from a financial perspective since we were self-funded for quite awhile before taking on investors. He tells everyone about The Swoondle Society — from potential investors to people he meets in restaurants or hopping out of taxis. When I hit a low, he’s the first one to say — “no, keep going. This is something — look what’s happening already.” I am grateful.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of the key pieces of The Swoondle Society is giving folks peace of mind that 100% of the items they send will be used in the most responsible way. Anything that cannot be traded due to damage is domestically textile recycled by a non-profit partner — to-date we have recycled approximately five Tons of textiles. Where we have excess inventory we donate to Room to Grow. In 2020, alone we’ve donated approximately 15,000 items!

During the shelter-in-place ordinances they brought with them significant challenges for the Room to Grow program. They couldn’t collect donations, they couldn’t sort and distribute the items they did have because families, volunteers and employees needed to stay at home. We donated trading balances as well as asked our members to donate balances. Room to Grow has been able to order the clothing needed for approx 250 families for this season so far — across NYC and Boston — from to be delivered directly to the families homes.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Ask for help and keep asking — It’s hard to get people’s attention. What’s important to you and your business may not be top of mind for that consumer, other brand, service provider or investor. Remembering that just because they didn’t respond or said “not now” or ghosted you — doesn’t mean that they won’t be around down the line.

Network — I don’t think I was terribly good at this and I’m probably only mediocre at it now. Not necessarily because I couldn’t be good at it, but prior to starting The Swoondle Society I was working for a corporation — networking skills just weren’t a priority. I probably still don’t do this enough, but I have learned how much people will help you and want to help, and the seven degrees begins to feel more like two to three degrees of separation.

Flexibility — Nowhere in our company is this more relevant than in our employees. We’ve found a niche of workers — all formerly stay-at-home-moms, that before that held “big girl jobs”. These women are amazing! They have no set hours or schedules so they are able to still show up at the bus stop, do lunch duty at the school, stay home with a sick kid, etc… They are all trained on the entire process so they can jump in and accomplish whatever is needed. I feel they truly believe in The Swoondle Society and want to see it succeed. This also extends to others we’ve hired — our graphic designer, who is a mom in Austin, TX, and our marketing head, who is mom in Maryland.

Always keep improving — you are never done. It’s never perfect. Learn to improve on whatever thing is holding you back, but don’t let trying to get it to perfect keep you from getting it to significantly better. Move to the next thing that needs fixing.

Thick skin — I am a 6’2” former NCAA basketball player. I’ve been coached, yelled at, taunted, etc. but being able to read negative commentary online about your company, and absorb the useful and reject the rest is tough and can definitely wear on your psyche. I live for the “love notes” we often get from our members!!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement. that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For the Earth, I would love to see people thinking more about reuse. I’m not suggesting we all stop buying everything. I’m as guilty as the next, but The Swoondle Society has taught me how much we really waste — financially and practically. Try and move to only buying new clothing that you will wear at least 50x. If not, buy it used or rent or borrow. Swoondle can help, on the kid clothes side, get those wears from 1 season up dramatically. The Ellen MacArthur foundation estimates we lose $460 BILLION by tossing clothes we could still wear.

Can you please give us your favorite. “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote I actually have on my personal FB header is “the most effective way to do it, is to do it” — Amelia Earhart.

It’s really easy to talk about doing things and why it “could” be great or why “it won’t work” but until you actually do something you won’t know. The revelations about what works well and not so well are often not the obvious things. I think this is true in business, but also in personal life. If you admire someone’s garden — plant one. Who cares if it’s not perfect or some tomatoes get a blight — I bet you learned a lot and the tomatoes you did get were the best tomatoes you ever tasted!!

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

Jennifer Hyman, CEO Rent the Runway

She transformed how many women both in and out of the workforce choose to shop & dress

It’s reuse/getting more “wears” out of each garment produced — aligning beautifully with sustainability

She’s developed a subscription-based business with women between the ages of 23–50 at the core

She’s a mom + founder + fashion disrupter

How can we connect with you on social media?