Angela O’Brien: Founder of Cleobella

Episode 428

Cleobella Founder and Designer, Angela O’Brien, launched her business from an idea she had while galavanting the globe. Today we hear from this incredible Founder as she shares how the globally-inspired and ethically-handmade clothing and accessories brand has scaled to success. We hear about the importance of staying true to your roots around having a company that prioritizes sustainability and employment of independent artisans around the world. This episode is filled with so many lessons and a ton of inspiration. Sit back and enjoy this incredible episode now of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Angela O’Brien, who is the founder of Cleobella. And if you have not seen the beautiful, beautiful products that come out of coil Bella, boy, are you missing something and you absolutely need to head there. We’ll have all the information in the show notes. But Cleobella is a globally inspired and ethically handmade clothing and accessories brand. And Angela launched Cleobella and a scaled the company to super hot success. Her commitment to sustainability as well as employment of independent artisans from around the world has really set her apart. And Angela stayed true to the mission as well, never wavering in her commitment to these practices and attention to high quality details. I love all the details in the products that she is sourcing to. And I can’t wait to hear a lot more about the company. Now that I’ve met Angela and dug in to everything that she’s doing. I’m just really excited to have her here. So welcome, Angela.

Angela O’Brien 1:53
Thank you, Kara. It’s such an honor to be here. My favorite part about this journey has been meeting other female entrepreneurs. So I love I love connecting today.

Kara Goldin 2:03
Totally. No, I agree. So please share with us who are who are not familiar with or anyone who’s not familiar with Cleo Bella, what is clear, Bella?

Angela O’Brien 2:14
Thank you. Yes, Cleo Bella is globally inspired, ethically handmade, and Cleobella is named after my mother, Cleobella and my great grandmother. So it’s truly a family business rooted in strong women. And it was more than a decade ago that my husband and I left our jobs and our comforts of home in Southern California to do a year trip around the world. My husband’s a big surfer. So we were chasing waves. And I’ve always been into the arts. And I knew that I wanted to start a business that would give my family the freedom to travel and allow me to really lean into my passions of creativity and connecting with other people around the world. So that Tokyo Bella was born in 2007, I was selling my designs at local farmers markets. And, and in 2008, we officially launched at LA Fashion Week. So it’s been a very long journey I I’ve learned along the way from our list of partners in Bali in India, that it’s this idea of step by step. And the journey. It’s not always about the outcome, but really focusing and leaning into the process and and then taking that opportunity to grow. And I am so grateful to Cleobella and all the lessons I’ve learned of the good ones, the bad ones, all of it. It’s been fun. So

Kara Goldin 3:50
so what were you doing prior to Cleobella.

Angela O’Brien 3:53
So I was a fashion model. I started when I was 12. And I would say I wasn’t a very good model. I was uncomfortable in front of the camera. I do. I’m grateful to modeling because it allowed me to travel. And think that the first time I was on an airplane was a modeling job. So that was very exciting. And it gave me the travel bug. And it also taught me how to be an entrepreneur because I had to step outside my comfort zone, meet people on castings and jobs, manage my own money, be responsible for getting myself to the job and the castings. Keep putting myself out there and being resilient. Getting used to rejection was a big part of that modeling. And I school was very important to me. So I went to night school I got my degree in marketing and PR and that was something I was passionate about. And then I married my husband when in my early 20s And we just had of the stream of why not now we are young, we don’t have a lot of commitments, let’s, let’s save our money and essentially backpacked around the world. So that’s what we did. And I feel like though the lessons I’ve had from modeling and, and it really led me to something that I don’t have to be the brand, but I can make the brand. And I’m grateful for modeling for teaching me that.

Kara Goldin 5:29
I love that quote, you don’t have to be the brand to make the brand. I think that’s so great. So it’s one thing to enjoy beautiful things from around the world. But it’s another to think, Gosh, I could actually bring this back and make a business out of it. I mean, was there a moment when you were traveling when you just thought, gosh, like, let’s do this? I mean, we should really do this, how did this all come to be?

Angela O’Brien 5:56
Yeah, so it was in two places. So it was in India where I found these wrap skirts that were made from recycled saris, and the beautiful vibrant patterns and the black prints. And that really spoke to me, I’ve always loved to be around beauty and color. And the global inspiration of India was so inspiring because it was so different and so foreign to what I have known in Southern California. So when I met this maker and bought back the saris, it was, it was great because they were one size fits all, and I had a really great margin in them. And I sold these at the farmers markets. And that kind of sparked it because starting a business without a investment, my husband, I own Cleo, Bella 100%, ourselves. Essentially, these wrap skirts were the investment that helped the company grow. So that was my experience in India. And then in Bali, I met it was through my driver met a family who I’m really proud to say we still work with him today, who started sewing handbags and clothing out of her home in Indonesia. And now we continue to work with her and her family and her name is Yan T. And so this there was this idea of working with our artists and partners creating sustainable income, having the ability to continue to travel and do what I love, which was always art. And I didn’t have the experience growing up of knowing that you could make a living out of doing art and valley in India really taught me that working closely with artisans and hand sketching my designs. On paper. Actually, our logo Cleo Bella, it’s my handwriting that I wrote on a napkin in a cafe. And so there’s when I look back, and I love these opportunities to tell our story because it reminds me of how far we’ve come. And just that idea of step by step. And when I see so many entrepreneurs that are, you know, it’s there, it seems like they just blow up overnight. I it was something I always admired. And I and I wanted to understand more. But having this 15 year plus journey now I can really see the value in the slow journey that we’ve had. And I love that we continue to circle back to what was important. In the beginning, it’s still very much a part of the ethos and the story of who Khalil Bella is today. And when I lean into that idea, I really get more connected with myself. And I feel like the more I connect in that space, and I think you know, as an entrepreneur, it allows the company to grow even more when they make that that time to really be centered and always focused on their Northstar. Because there’s a lot of distractions that will come in the way and we’ve had that certainly. And that’s, that’s a little bit about how we started and where we are.

Kara Goldin 9:07
I love it. Well, I think that is the company I founded as well. We were founded in 2005 Hint. And yeah, I mean it, it really the story of the ups and downs, you don’t get an opportunity to always tell those stories. Right. And I think it’s it’s, there’s definitely there. There are very few businesses that are built overnight, and especially really businesses that are here to stay. And I think that you’ve really put stakes in the ground around things that are important to you and built it the right way with beautiful quality products for sure. So you’ve made a major commitment sourcing ethically handmade clothing and accessories. What what does that term mean? Exactly if for anyone who’s kind of thinking hear about that like, and what does it mean to you? And why is it so important?

Angela O’Brien 10:03
It’s really thinking about the whole process from start to finish, the type of environment that we have in our office here in California and with our global partners. So we work with third party auditors to make sure everyone’s meeting our ethical trade agreements, we have certifications like God certified where every part of the process of making the garment is traceable, which is important in something that’s very unique about what we do at Clio Bella’s, we actually have lived for months out of the year in Indonesia prior to COVID. And spending a lot of time in Southeast Asia. So we are invested in an emotional way to our partners. It’s not these massive factories they work with the are their husband, wife, teams, like my husband and I are women on factories that we’re supporting. And we’re actually seeing exactly what kind of environment they’re in. And we’re visiting the farms and the farmers that we’re buying our organic cotton from. And we are continuing learning along the way. So we’re going through the process of becoming B Corp certified. And that’s something that we’re really proud of. And it’s all about accountability. And we you know, we don’t claim to do it perfectly, because we certainly have not and we haven’t from day one, but we’ve done the best that we can and the more the company has grown, and the more that the consumer cares, the bigger companies are carving the way allowing smaller independent designers like myself, to have more access to sustainable materials that will decompose back into the earth. Something that’s also very much on my heart is connecting with the artists and partners and preserving the heritage techniques that I’m so in love with and so inspired by. So whether it’s E cup leaving or attend woodblock printing, and using water based dyes, or natural vegetable dyes, we just had a collection that launched with indigo dye, which is all made from a plant, my daughter’s name is Indigo and said process and I’m so inspired by using excess fabric to make patchwork dresses and overdye them. So they’re really a work of art. And the goal is to design for the busy woman like ourselves who are just throwing and go. They care about they want to wear their values, which is what I say. And so everything is intentional. And I’m always thinking about them first. And a lot of that is caring about the people that are making the product and where the product is coming from. So we have a team of about 40 in our office that are very involved in making that happen and really care. And there’s always new, new things that we’re learning. And that’s the fun part. That’s what keeps it interesting. The creative part is my passion. And since a little girl, I’ve been into the arts and oil painting and creating and living in this dream world. But I also love to business part, I love new opportunities and ways. This year, we’re doing a update on our branding, we’re building a new website, we’re coming up with new marketing activations, where we’re researching new hardware that we can elevate our handbag experience and all of this is is a part of the process that keeps me excited about Clio Bella, and excited about coming into the office and, and working closely with our team of amazing creatives and really heartfelt people that I keep, I always go back to my heart because I’ve learned that, you know, as a, as a female entrepreneur really connecting to her intuition. When I don’t, it’s got me in trouble. And I’ve learned that along the way there was about maybe eight years ago when I was listening to the noise and I was really concerned about how to pay the bills and, and I was being misguided. And I made a big deal. I basically made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going to do anything outside of my integrity and what felt right to me. And when I leaned into that, the business really thrived. And so that’s where I I continue to lean in and get excited about the entrepreneurship journey because it’s such a journey of self and I feel so privileged that I get to work with so many people that also care so deeply about this process. It’s our part partners in India, we employ more than 1200 people that are making our product day to day and they are so passionate about doing a good job. They really care. I have a team of five in India that oversee the factories that we work because they’re so heart connected, and that’s what is really a part of that success and the magic of what we do. Because it’s not about having a massive business and selling everywhere. It’s how do we make something special and different that will carry in the customers journey in app Lyft? Whatever special occasion they’re celebrating, or wherever they’re going, the power of address, they say, you know,

Kara Goldin 15:27
no, I love that. So, a large percent of your business is direct. But you’re an omni channel brand. And I’d love to hear sort of how do you get to the consumers? And and how do you sell product and what’s important for you? Today,

Angela O’Brien 15:43
we started the business in wholesale, because internet wasn’t an option as much at the time. So we currently sell to more than 600 specialty stores, we’ve stayed away from department stores, we have a lot of great online retail partners. And we have seven territories with about 25 women that are out on the road selling each collection every season, we have four seasons a year. And I get to see them twice a year in New York for the trade shows, which is so much fun. It’s it’s such a learning experience to see these women in parts of the country and how they were Cleo Bella what their customers are asking for. And then last month was the first month that Cleo became 50% of the business. So prior to COVID, the business was only about I would say 15 to 20% online. And we have a really fantastic team that has worked really hard to to grow that. And when I look back, I think we never had the investment to grow into a really robust ECAM team. And putting the investment there where we’ve had to be profitable every year, because that’s the only way we can grow. So since day one, we’ve leveraged our home equity line, credit card debt, all the things you do when you bootstrap a business. And it’s been scary at times. But the business has had to be profitable in order to put the investment back into growth and the growth is always investing in good people. And, and that is what we’ve really seen the business change with a really fantastic team that that is, you know, always, always up to date on the latest and greatest and passionate about telling a very meaningful story to our customers.

Kara Goldin 17:42
I love it. So where do you get inspiration from for your designs? You are not just the founder, but you’re also the designer? And how do you think about adding new products? And and like where do you get your inspiration from giving you direction on what you should be doing next?

Angela O’Brien 18:02
I love that question. Well, I first and foremost, I’m a creator. And that’s what I love to do. And I’m very fortunate I have my husband is my partner who’s very much into big picture and sales and operations. And so as the company of I used to wear all the hats, and because I was a one woman show. And now that we have a team to lean on, I can really focus on the creative process. And the last couple of years I’ve really leaned into even more is being a creative director and understanding what that means because I’m still on all the, you know, messages back and forth to our team on a daily on this buttonhole isn’t right this color didn’t come out the way we imagined it, how can we fine tune to make the product that can best possibly be? So I’ve been working on hiring out a very healthy design team to help support me so I can still be in the creative, I can really truly lean into the creative director role. But in terms of design and inspiration, it’s never ending it is it actually drives me crazy sometimes because they think, Gosh, it would be so nice to live in a world that I just didn’t care so much. But to be around beauty, it’s a feeling and an energy exchange. That gets me excited. And sometimes I would think, gosh, is this really frivolous? And is it mean? Is it meaningful? And over the years, I really leaned into valuing it and that that’s just part of again, valuing myself and honoring myself. So I tried to put myself in in beautiful creative spaces, whether it’s architecture or inspired by other creatives or being in nature. My family and I were we we love surfing and going to the beach and hiking and we travel extensively. We’ve been living in Southeast Asia for years now. Now we have a home in Bali, Indonesia, where we’ve homeschooled our kids. So it allows us this opportunity to travel. So I, I kind of dream without consequences. So I jump into things. And I go, I plan trips, and we just do within it’s very much who we are. And we, my husband and I have gotten very comfortable with being uncomfortable and traveling can be uncomfortable. But that’s I find where the greatest inspiration comes from.

Kara Goldin 20:29
Yeah, no, I absolutely love it. I told you. I went to Bali a few months ago for the first time and on a amazing trip. That was That was terrific. And just had so much fun, but was mostly inspired by all of the beauty around not just the jungles, just outside of Abood. But we were in Chiang goo.

Angela O’Brien 20:55
where my home is Yeah. Chengdu.

Kara Goldin 20:58
Oh, nice. I loved it.

Angela O’Brien 21:01
It is so it is so hip now. But when we were living there, in the early days, there was only little warungs on the beach, and it was rice fields. And and and now it is like, you know advocating in Venice, it’s so happened. So, which is still fun. We love it. But it’s Bali, I love that you’ve experienced Bali? Yeah. The land of smiles, the people are just so beautiful and welcoming. And as a woman creating business there. I’ve been nothing but embraced and supported by our partners. And that’s it. It’s just really fun. And it’s important to let you do right, it just still feels fun.

Kara Goldin 21:43
Ya know, definitely do you feel like you had to be over there in order to kind of be around the artisans when they were you know, when especially when you were just getting off the ground? Is that do you think that that’s like a key thing?

Angela O’Brien 22:00
That was for us? That Absolutely, there’s no way I could have done it. Otherwise, it’s learned, it’s finding the right partners that you can trust that can deliver a quality product on time. And so my husband would be in the factories, queue seeing each individual product one by one. Because we’ve learned the hard way we’re product to arrive. And it’s not what what the intention was. And because of the history we’ve had in the business and the multiple partners and boutiques we work with the customer trust and Cleo Bella, we’ve been doing this long enough. We’re not working with big factories in China, where we’re making very simple product. It’s very ornate, very artisanal, very special, handmade product. And so with that there’s a more I guess preciousness and fragility to the process. So you have to really handle it with care. And so yeah, sending a wire transfer and just hoping that the product would show up was never an option. And also because I was physically designing the product in Bali, I would then come back to LA and sell it and go to the shows in New York. And I would do all that on my own, I was shipping the product myself out of my garage, in my home. And in so I worked it out seasonally, where I would do the design when I was in Indonesia, and then I would work on the sales and marketing in California. And it was a beautiful life. I mean, we’re not spending as much time there as our kids have gotten older. And we’re spending a lot more time in India and traveling to other places since COVID. But I’ll always be grateful to the Balinese people and for that time and for the time with our family and the sunsets on the beach and watching my husband surf and really building that and I know now they trust in us too. And that was the part working through COVID is we they knew that we’re family and we’ll find a way to pay you It took some time as we all did to get out of kind of that complete lockdown. But in the end, it worked out really well for everybody.

Kara Goldin 24:14
That’s awesome. I love I love everything about that. So it sounds like such a dreamy dreamy time for sure. And you’re in LA right is that when you’re back in the States? Yeah, that’s Yeah, yeah. And you have a stored there or as well or

Angela O’Brien 24:32
you have a store in Sunset Beach. So we’re we’re technically in Seal Beach. That’s the border of Long Beach in Orange County or LA in Orange County. So our store in Sunset Beach we’ve had for 10 years and it was my office in the back and it was a way I could I could sell enough handbags in the front to pay the rent because I was prior to that working out of my home with a one year old and I knew I needed that separate Shouldn’t between work and family. So I found this really cute 1920s cottage and that we’ve had that for 10 years, and it’s been a beautiful space. Retail is not, it’s a maybe 1% of our overall business. It’s not what our focus is, it will be something we would like to do in the future. But for right now, where we have it as part of that to be a part of the community, but it’s a very small part of the business.

Kara Goldin 25:28
I love it well, but I do think that it, it’s, it brings consumers into you, I bet you really enjoy going in there and hearing what consumers are saying about the product. And it’s, I think that having a store, sometimes it just helps build the brand, because there definitely are people that want to come in and experience it. But it’s it’s definitely I think it’s selfishly I feel like it’s for the founders as well to be able to kind of hear what’s going on with the consumers and having their own little focus groups.

Angela O’Brien 26:03
You’re so right care, we have that conversation all the time. And that’s the tricky part about being a self funded business is we have to make responsible decisions on how we scale. And so it’s something that we’re we’ve been looking into and getting locations with higher traffic, and it really expanding to other states. But it’s not in the cards right now to do in a big meaningful wave. So right now, it’s a little part of our story of people who come visit us and Sunset Beach, it’s a little cottage about 10 steps away from the ocean, literally. And it’s complete drive by and to destination spot. But we’ve had a lot of events there. And yes, seeing the product in its physical form, because I still love shopping in person. It’s something that I’d love to do and experiencing all the senses of the product and the design. And so it’s something I would love to come up with a game plan for the future for the brand and the bigger in a bigger way.

Kara Goldin 27:02
I’d love it. So what is one thing that that kind of keeps you up at night about the business. So what has been one of the hardest pieces, I feel like you’ve weathered tons of storms, around, you know, building the business, some of them have been things that everybody has had to deal with, including the pandemic, but you’ve done a lot, and you just keep surfacing. And you’re building just an amazing company and product and, and really lovely on many, many fronts. But what keeps you up at night, like what what is hard about the business?

Angela O’Brien 27:44
I would say the hardest part is the growth that we’ve had over the last few years is making sure everyone’s being supported, because I see how hard everyone on my team works. And there’s, you know, always marketing is such a hungry space, there’s always more content that it needs design, there’s always a new collaboration or an extension that comes into the mix, and it throws us off calendar. The hardest part is, and I’ve learned as the company has grown, this really is supporting the team. And I always want to do right by the team, because I want to create a really healthy environment. I believe that’s how you get great results. And that’s I want everyone to enjoy working for Cleo Bella the same way I do. So when there is challenges within meeting deadlines, and people working more because of this opportunity came up, it’s that that will be the hardest part because we have to be careful about how we invest. And and I’m sure you understand that too. And then we’re all working for the same goal. And I just take that responsibility on some time tonight. And that definitely, definitely keeps me up at night.

Kara Goldin 29:07
When you think about advice that you’ve received, and if you could pass on to other entrepreneurs or people thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

Angela O’Brien 29:24
Oh, I love that. Well, it’s I think it’s from my husband. He read a quote a few years ago that it’s not what happens to you. It’s what happens for you. And we all have an opportunity to take on difficult challenges with an attitude of, you know, you’re the victim or this is really hard or you can say why is this challenge happening and how is it an opportunity for me to do better and yourself and see whether it is a problem. that that’s, you know, not coming out the way you want it to it’s a return from a customer, it’s how do you take that information and push it into something good. And I, I was raised that way by a strong Irish grandmother and mother who always see, the glass is half full. And my grandmother will say, well, it could always be worse and gee. And I think about that, because you know, life is really hard. And my family has gone through a lot of loss. However, I have taken the hard things in family and life and business, and I just chosen it, because I believe it’s a choice to exercise the muscle of how you know, it’s gonna get better. How can I learn from this, I know that tomorrow’s going to be a good new day, and I tried to teach my children that just by my actions, and I don’t always get it right. Sometimes I fail, I have to pick myself back up. But I know it’s a muscle that I try to exercise and I lean into my tools. And they have a really, really sacred spiritual practice that helps me with this. And the more I’m centered, and the more I’m clear on the bigger purpose, the more I can take on every challenge with ease and grace and a more compassion to both sides and just try to do better because when you know better, you do better

Kara Goldin 31:30
that I couldn’t have said it better myself. So you are preaching to the choir, everything that you just said. So thank you so much, Angela, for coming on and sharing your wisdom and sharing all about the Cleo Bella brand as well, we’ll have all the info in the show notes where people can definitely purchase Cleo Bella, but also just learn more about you too. So thank you again, have a great rest of the week, everyone. Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening