As a woman constantly travelling for work, Kristi Soomer struggled to find versatile clothing that would allow her to pack less on trips. So she launched Encircled. The clothing line began with just one product — a cardigan that can be worn eight different ways. Now, Kristi’s company offers over 40 different designs, employs more than 14 people, and is a Certified B Corporation. Here’s how she did it.
By Hailey Eisen
Kristi Soomer was packing for a yoga retreat to Costa Rica when two things suddenly happened. First, her suitcase snapped. Next, Kristi had an a-ha moment. Together, they led her to develop a line of clothing designed to help women pack less while still having plenty of options for any occasion.
“It was the night before my trip and I was trying to shove everything into my suitcase when it broke,” recalls Kristi. “As I moved everything into a much smaller bag, I started wondering why I didn’t have more versatile clothing that could be used for a variety of purposes.”
It was 2012, and Kristi was working as a management consultant in Toronto, travelling thousands of miles a year and living out of a suitcase. She’d seen men wear the same suit every day —swapping out only their shirt and tie for a different look. Women couldn’t do that. They had to pack many different pieces so as not to be seen wearing the same outfit twice.
Kristi’s idea — which came to her that night and percolated for weeks after — was the Chrysalis Cardi, a cardigan that can be worn eight different ways, from a tunic to a dress, poncho, scarf, and more.
Kristi began sketching her ideas and sewing fabric together by hand. She was still working full time when she launched her own clothing company, Encircled, and began selling the Chrysalis Cardi through her own website. At first, it was only available in two colours.
What she lacked in fashion experience, she made up for with business acumen. At 26, she wanted a career in consulting and decided an MBA was the ideal stepping stone. She chose the Accelerated MBA at Smith School of Business, which she could complete in one year while still working full time (she was then employed by a home security company in business development).
“I was in my thirties when I first began to realize that I wanted to feel more connected to the purpose of my work, and while I had no problem working to help top retailers grow their businesses as a consultant, what I longed for was work that would have a measurable positive impact.”
Kristi embarked on the MBA journey with excitement. She earned top marks in her courses, which she says provided her with the foundation for starting her own business. She especially loved the program’s group work and being both a team player and leader – a skill she still uses to this day. She also appreciates the alumni network she developed during her MBA, which helped her as she entered the world of entrepreneurship.
Kristi graduated in 2008, but the economic downturn made it tough to find work in management consulting. Although she eventually landed her dream job with PwC, entrepreneurship beckoned.
Starting a business required a leap of faith, but Kristi was ready. “I was in my thirties when I first began to realize that I wanted to feel more connected to the purpose of my work.”
It’s easy to see this desire in the business that Kristi has built. Today, Encircled has more than 14 employees, 40 different designs, and a commitment to creating modern, versatile essentials from earth-friendly materials, made locally in Toronto using fairly paid labour. As a Certified B Corporation, Encircled balances purpose and profit — considering the impact of all business decisions on workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. Kristi aims to make designs that never go out of style — the antidote to fast fashion — and let women do more with fewer pieces of clothing.
“We are passionate about using business as a force for good and we work constantly to balance sustainability with comfort and style,” Kristi says from her offices in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. With her focus now on growing Encircled, Kristi is also committed to helping other female entrepreneurs. She started a podcast, Brave + Boss, to help purpose-driven online entrepreneurs like her take their business to the next level.
Eventually, Kristi hopes to become an investor in minority- and women-led businesses. “I’d like to start my own fund, to be an angel investor, as a way of giving back,” she says. “There are so many great businesses out there, and capital doesn’t flow through certain populations. I’d want to invest in those purpose-driven businesses that focus on making a difference in some way.”
The Accelerated MBA at Smith School of Business is tailored to practising managers with an undergraduate business degree. Rather than relearning fundamental concepts you have already studied, the program focuses on advanced management topics that can help you take your career to the next level. Learn more here.