Whether you’re into fashion or not, every woman needs something to haul her stuff in, and Stephanie Sarka is making it way more fun and personal to find the right bag for you. As founder and CEO of 1 Atelier, a company that allows you to create your own custom bag starting at $295 — from the silhouette and size to the color and material — Sarka’s one motivated woman, and it was fascinating to find out more about her path to success.
Sarka let us pick her brain about what inspired her to start 1 Atelier, how she manages to juggle CEO life with being a single mom to a 3-year-old and why she’s 100 percent OK with not worrying about politics right now. Find out more — including the hardest business lesson she’s learned — below.
SheKnows: In a few sentences, what were you doing before 1 Atelier, and what motivated you to start the business?
Stephanie Sarka: Having spent four years founding and building GoTo.com, where we pioneered paid search, I returned to New York City eager to do something where I was giving back. The internet startup community was just burgeoning here, so I started working with startups as an investor and adviser. At the same time, I was doing a gut renovation and building my apartment here in New York with a wonderful architect, and I was loving the opportunity to express myself through the design of my new home. It was a very free and creative time in my life, and it was empowering to create something solely around my taste, lifestyle, unique needs and budget. To this day, I love walking into my apartment, which is a total expression of who I am and how I live.
It dawned on me that this opportunity for creativity and self-expression would be very compelling in other products that are a part of my everyday life. I like the idea of a making a personal statement, and how better to do it than the handbags we carry! In a marketplace flush with logos and high markups, no one was exploring a platform that would not only allow for complete customization, but also empower the consumer to become the tastemaker — 1 Atelier represents the intersection of aspiration and inspiration, and they reflect the individuality of the women who create them, hence the mantra “luxury inspired by my life.”
SK: Can you describe an average workday?
SS: I love walking into our atelier each morning. It’s a sun-drenched space in New York’s Garment District where we run the business and manufacture our handbags. I have the incredible privilege of working with very special people who all bring unique talents to our mission. Every day starts with a visit to Luis, our head craftsman, usually over Cuban coffee, and a quick touch-base with the other leads on our team. Then I’m focused on refining and communicating our strategy and priorities, recruiting and speaking to potential partners and investors.
SK: How do you balance your personal life/family and career?
SS: For starters, as a later-stage mom, I had an amazing career and traveled the world before I had a family, so I’m comfortable with the fact that my life at the moment is fully dedicated to raising my daughter and building 1 Atelier. I’m doing what I love and living life on my terms. But it’s a choice not to have an active social life outside of work, for example, and to spend my evenings and weekends hanging out with my 3-year old rather than with friends or taking exotic trips.
That said, it’s about priorities and focus. I have a bifurcated workday. I spend my mornings with my daughter and then get to work around 8:30 or 9 a.m. — I have never been more productive in my life in eight hours — and then I spend the evenings with my daughter. Once she’s in bed, I work well into the wee hours of the morning, which I find to be a great time to think quietly.
SK: What are your biggest challenges as a single working mom?
SS: I have no time to myself. We have a wonderful nanny during the week, which enables me to work — so I’ve made the decision not to have help in the evenings and weekends because I want to be fully present with my daughter when we’re together. But that means personal time for a visit to the gym or the spa, outings with friends or a walk by myself doesn’t happen since there isn’t another parent at home to trade off with.
SK: Being an entrepreneur yourself, what values do you plan to instill in your daughter?
SS: I went through life initially saying the world is black and white, things are good or bad, I’m right or wrong, or I’ve succeeded or failed. For me, there was no middle ground. But that’s a very structured and painful way to live because if you haven’t succeeded, you’ve failed! That’s an awful thing to live with.
I’ve since learned that everything you do in life is a test or experiment. I’ve embraced a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.” You try something and you learn. It did work or didn’t work. If it didn’t work, it is just a pause. You take stock and iterate. There is no one right answer.
Now I live more fluidly, and my new mindset contributes enormously to my happiness. And it’s something I’m actively teaching my daughter — that if something doesn’t work out, try again a different way. She already often says, “Let’s do this again,” or “Let’s try this.” I love that. And of course, “Have Courage and Be Kind” (for those of you familiar with Cinderella!) — I actually think that sums it up pretty well.
SK: What do you wish you’d known before starting your own business?
SS: Every time I’m starting a company or involved in a startup, I’m reminded that getting the right people on board quickly is the best and fastest path to success.
SK: What was the hardest lesson you learned during the process of launching and growing 1 Atelier?
SS: You can never go too fast.
SK: Are you doing anything to contribute to positive political causes right now?
SS: The most important thing I can do to make a positive contribution is raise a strong young lady with her own good values.
SK: What are your personal/professional goals in the next several years?
SS: 2017 is all about scaling the business and building the brand. We have had a successful beta where we demonstrated that we are meeting an unmet need — we’ve had a strong response to our product and the entire customization experience. Now, we’re forging ahead with distribution partnerships, tapping into relevant influencer networks and will be raising additional funds to drive growth.
Personally, I’m focused on raising a joyful little girl who has spirit and courage, a wide berth to fully express herself and become the person she is meant to be, and who knows how very much she is loved so she can grow wings to soar wherever life takes her. And taking great adventures with this very special little person.