WCW: Keeping Girls in Sports with MaryAnne and Dragonwing

Frankly's #WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday) series features some of our favorite female founders who are focused on providing goods and services that improve the lives of women and girls. 

Today, we have the honor of speaking with MaryAnne, founder of Dragonwing girlgear! Dragonwing sells performance base-layers for teen and tween athletic girls, with the mission of keeping more girls in sports.  

photo of MaryAnne with Dragonwing girlgear logo on a blue and yellow background.

Welcome, MaryAnne! We’re so excited to have you - you were one of the first people who we spoke to during the early days of Frankly. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? 

I am Italian American and grew up just outside of Boston. I love to travel. I’ve lived in London, Hong Kong and Italy. I am married with two grown children.

What advice do you have for young women who want to be founders?

People often start businesses to solve a problem that is unique to them, but it's not a business that can scale profitably. That’s why I recommend doing your research first and making sure you test a minimum viable product. Make sure people buy your product (literally hand you cash). I recommend founders get experience in the field they want to enter to make sure they enjoy the industry and to pick up contacts and skills. Research the fundamentals of your marketing. Don’t skip important steps in knowing your customer, telling your brand story, and analyzing pricing strategy. A great reference for starting a business is Jules Pieri’s book, How We Make Stuff Now.

Making sure that people are actually willing to pay for your solution is so important! Can you tell us about how you got started on Dragonwing girlgear? 

Dragonwing girlgear designs, manufactures and sells performance base-layers for teen and tween athletic girls. I got the idea as my daughter approached her tween years. I watched her and her teammates changing from their practice t-shirts into their game jerseys — on the field, in front of everyone. They seemed too old to be so exposed, but many of them were still uncomfortable with bras. To help ease the transition, dragonwing girlgear started with a wicking sports cami tank (1). I added items  to keep up with the team as they grew into bras. As I watched them play, I noticed the “wedgie” effect – that the girls on the field would adjust their spandex short at the butt. I realized there was an improvement needed and created compression shorts first and then leggings designed specifically for girls.

I am always mindful that I am a mom making under-garments for girls, unlike many other athletic garment businesses where men are making undergarments for women and girls. I always wonder how men understand and design for what is important to the fit and function for girls? 

Girls are everything at Dragonwing. From our sizing, to manufacturing efficiency, to fabric choices, how our athletic girl feels and plays in Dragonwing are the only things that matter.

How did you fund Dragonwing?

I raised an angel round, and the balance was self-funded with the proceeds of a previous business I sold. 

You’re a fellow business school attendee with the benefit of hindsight :) What would you say was the most important thing you gained from getting your MBA at Harvard?

  1. The ability to make a decision based on limited information.
  2. The friendships and network.
  3. The ability to quickly learn, un-learn, and relearn because of rapidly changing business models, political and economic environments, and technological, scientific and manufacturing disruptions.

We’re all about the business school friendships - Heather and I were friends before we started Frankly together. Is there any advice you would give to incoming MBAs or women interested in getting an MBA?

  1. Continually invest in yourself and in your career. 
  2. Define success for yourself. Don’t let other people define success for you. Then, go for it.
  3. Have some Teflon about everything. By Teflon, I mean, let comments about things that aren’t important to you roll off. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mother-in-law said it best: “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” (2)
  4. Take time to meet your professors and listen to the stories of all your classmates. (3) They are a wealth of information and lifelong friendships.
  5. Geek out! Use the time to immerse yourself in the functional areas of business -- manufacturing, marketing, communications, strategy, etc.  
  6. Take time to learn about yourself--what you are like,  what you are good at and what you want out of life. 
  7. My two years at HBS were two of the best years of my life.  I loved the socratic method of learning and the case method. I still refer to and quote cases -and some of my favorites in the consumer space are SmartFood Popcorn and Soho Sodas.

You worked with major donors at Stanford, on development efforts at HBS and UNC, and Dragonwing girlgear is a mission-based business. What is something you learned from working with donors that you’re applying to your business?

I learned about the importance of legacy through working with major gift donors. Legacy can be through gifts to universities and non-profit organizations, but legacies are also left through businesses, especially those that are “profit with a purpose." (https://shorebirds.com.au/) Dragonwing is a profit with a purpose business. We are advocates for girls and girl’s sports. We are a socially responsible green business. All our products are made of high-quality fabrics, many are bluesign® accredited and manufactured in factories that are also bluesign® accredited or certified by independent agencies for sustainable working conditions, paying a living wage, and not polluting in the manufacturing process. Fair labor practices are important to me because at the turn of the century, my grandmother, a widow supporting her two daughters, worked as a piece-worker in Boston’s garment district. She was always treated fairly and took great pride in her work, so it’s important to me that the factories we use treat their workers fairly and pay a sustainable, living wage. This is our business legacy. We want to positively impact girls ,workers and the environment through the business decisions we make.

What’s your daughter’s favorite Dragonwing product, and why?

The Racer Seamless Sports Bra, no question!  She loves the fit, support, softness, style and colors.

 How has the product and/or company evolved since its earliest days? 

When I started, I was making a few hundred pieces for my daughter’s team, but as I got going and I got more into the business, it just became a bigger business and a life goal to keep more girls in sports and feeling great about their strong athletic bodies. We started with two products -the Un-Tee Sports Cami Tank and the Un-Dee Compression Short with Silver infused Mesh Panels. Now, we have ten products – including many bras, three styles of compression shorts, leggings and a cold weather long-sleeve tee - all to serve a variety of sports. One thing that hasn’t changed is our focus on superior fit, superior performance functionality, high quality of fabric and fabrication, and sustainability.  We produce products that will empower girls in sports and know that confidence will serve them in all areas of their lives. 

Tell us what’s next for Dragonwing girlgear!

At Dragonwing, we are focused on girls and girl athletes. We will continue to support girls with excellent fitting sports bras, camis, compression shorts, and base-layers so they can play with confidence, without malfunctions and with the knowledge that our athletic girls are amazing – just as they are.

As a college athlete, I often had a difficult time with my own clothing and relationship with my body. What advice do you have for moms who want to ensure their daughters have a healthy relationship with sports and their own bodies?

This is so important to me – girls are bombarded from every direction on body image expectations and societal behavioral expectations starting at a young age (really at birth with the first pink onesie). It feels overwhelming at times. And this is an impossible question to answer because parents are bombarded too -and it is new territory -and every child is different so what works for one child may not work with another. An example of being in new territory, is a shopping experience with my children when they were 7 and 9. My daughter could not find a non-pink sweat suit in the girls’ department so we went over to the boys’ section and found exactly what she wanted. I was worried that shopping in the boys department sent the subliminal message to my daughter that being athletic was not feminine. The salesperson kept trying to steer us back to the girls’ selection and finally I had to comment that we were in the right place for what we needed.  It was very disheartening. My other experience was going for a bathing suit for my daughter and finding all the tops in the girls’ department padded. I had a mini freak out. Why is it necessary to add padding to a 4 to 7 year old’s suit?  Why?!

Here are a few ideas that I think are important or that our Dragonwing community has shared regarding sports:

  1. Hold up our women athletes -they are legends.  We should all know their names: Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Althea Gibson, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Mary Lou Retton, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, Naomi Osaka, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova… to name a few.
  2. Parents do so much with the gift of driving to practice, weekend tournaments and all the Subway/Panera and Firehouse meals.  Sports are expensive and time consuming – so have fun and enjoy the effort of your child -and pat yourself on the back for your support.
  3.  Enjoy sports and the outdoors as a family – it is so nice to have an active lifestyle.

To learn more about Dragonwing girlgear, visit https://dragonwinggirl.com/. Give MaryAnne and Dragonwing girlgear a follow @dragonwinggirl. 

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