As a young lawyer climbing the ranks of Skadden, LLP, one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, any outsider would have thought Catalina Girald was living the American dream.
But the Colombian native always felt something was lacking. Since she was a child, Girald had been an entrepreneur, selling her homemade T-shirts and jewelry. Recognizing the endless hours she was putting in at the firm were leaving her unfulfilled, Girald enrolled in classes at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, sneaking in lectures between meetings at Skadden.
Dreaming of a career in the fashion industry, but unsure if she could truly succeed as a fashion designer, she left Skadden after four-and-a-half years to pursue an MBA at Stanford University. She then founded one of the first venture-funded fashion sites, Moxsie.com, an online marketplace for independent designers.
Although Moxsie is a fashion company—an industry Girald says she loves—she says she still found herself unfulfilled by the daily work. "One of the things that I’ve learned is I would never start a company again where [I couldn’t] actually do 80% of the work required for the company," she says. Software is the core of Moxie’s business. "I wasn’t a software engineer so I wasn’t able to do every part of the business," says Girald.
Looking back, Girald says her start at Moxsie was a result of following the trends—similar to her earlier career path as an attorney. "It seemed like everyone was getting into software, so I was still following the path of what everyone wanted me to do instead of what I really wanted to do," she says.
Girald’s problems with Moxsie didn’t end there. Anxious to get her company off the ground, she had accepted money from anyone who offered it and ended up in a partnership with a venture capitalist who saw a different direction for the company than she did. "Choosing your investor is kind of like choosing your husband or wife without being able to divorce them," she says jokingly. A company eventually acquired Moxsie, and Girald took an 18-month escape to travel.
It was upon her return that she decided to start Naja (pronounced "na-ya"), an affordable luxury lingerie line. This time, Girald was following her heart, and she decided to start the company on a limited budget to avoid the conflicts she faced with venture capitalists in her previous company. "With Naja, I’ve actually refused money from people because I didn’t think they shared my point of view," she says.
But Girald’s passion didn’t just end with designing her own lingerie line. Her time off traveling had opened her eyes to an opportunity to use her company to help others. "I knew after traveling that the next time I started a company I wanted it to be something meaningful that wasn’t just a win from a financial point of view but that was really meaningful to someone else and could change someone’s life," she says.
Girald launched the Underwear for Hope program in which a percentage of Naja proceeds goes to training and employing women sewers in the poorest and most violent areas of the world. All Naja panties are made by single mothers, while all Naja bras come packaged in lingerie wash-bags made by women employed by the Underwear for Hope program, who sew them from their homes.
Girald’s credits Naja’s success with the fact that the company is her true passion. "It’s a much richer company because it comes from the heart and soul of the founder," she says. Girald’s first collection caught the attention of Vanity Fair who asked to shoot the line with actress Paula Patton. Although the line didn’t make the final cut for the ad, Girald says even being in the running for the ad is a huge victory for her and her company. She says she can’t wait to see what happens with her next collection.
Although Girald admits she would probably be "a really amazing designer right now" if she had ditched law school for fashion design in her youth, she credits her experience in law with teaching her the value of persistence and hard work. "To be a lingerie designer and a CEO at the same time is something really unusual," she says. "I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t [gone to law school or business school]."
Girald still thinks of one particularly tough time at Skadden when faced with an overwhelming workload. "I once pulled three all-nighters in a row without going home," she says. "I was wearing a pair of red pants, so my secretary would come in every day and obviously see I was still wearing that same pair of red pants," she says with a laugh.
While being overworked—or outwearing your red pants—may not be something to aspire to, Girald says the experience showed her anything is possible with hard work. "[Being a lawyer taught me] I can push myself to do things that I didn’t know were possible," she says.
Having been through three career changes, Girald now advises young entrepreneurs to follow their true passions. Although her career as a lawyer and her foray into the online commercial space were largely guided by pressures from outsiders to follow the path most likely to lead to financial success, Naja was a company born from Girald’s heart.
"[When I started Naja] I didn’t care what anyone thought," she says. "Once you find something that you’re truly passionate about, it drives you in a way that nothing else will."