Actually, You Can!

Sally Parrish interviews She Lion Founder Kate Dillon

In this episode She Lion founder Kate Dillon joins us to share her incredible phoenix out of the ashes story. It all started one bleak morning in Melbourne in 2020, when Kate realised that her market for luxury handbags had been obliterated by the doomy COVID lockdown.  What was once a thriving brand, synonymous with female corporate success, was now just a looming pile of expensive inventory. You didn't need a handbag if you couldn't leave your house.

As a mother of 2, the youngest just a baby, she was 'technically' on Maternity Leave. This, unfortunately was just another business that had fallen victim to the pandemic and it would have been easy to 'let it go', dive into a wearable blanket and sign "ah well".

But failing has always been an opportunity for Kate and instead of giving up, she looked around at the long-deserted, depleted Australian textile manufacturing industry and she wondered what could be done to bolster the industry and overcome the change in customer needs and the non-functioning supply chains caused by border closures. 

This is Kate's story of how she 'walked fearlessly' into the unknown and has not only turned her business around, but has become a highly in-demand speaker and expert to the fashion and manufacturing industry and to any audience who want to be inspired by the question "what is possible?".

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that success truly is subjective. Success by design is ensuring that you align with your personal values and vision, which may not be the conventional version of success. It’s one that aligns with who you are, your passions and priorities, and what drives you as a unique human being.

Kate Dillon is a dual qualified lawyer (Australia, 2009, and New York, USA, 2010), holding an LLB (Hons) / BA (distinction), and an MLM Commercial Law (IP), 2012. She is also the award-winning founder of She Lion Group Pty Ltd and works .5 as the Director of Employee Strategy + Experience at Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers. Kate is an experienced and commercially focused facilitator, with 8 years of top tier legal practice experience, and 7 years of strategy and innovation consultancy experience. Previously the National Transformation Lawyer and then an Innovation Consultant with G+T Innovate.

Kate has trained with Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford, MIT Sloan School of Management, IDEO, Inventium Pty Ltd (AFR's most innovative company list analysts), and Echos School of Design Thinking. Kate is a graduate and member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and a certified DISC Advanced consultant and Agile Practitioner (DSDM). Kate was selected to complete the Executive Program in Women’s Leadership at Stanford GSB in California in 2019. She also holds an Executive Certificate in Strategy and Innovation from MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston, 2019. Kate was selected to participate in the ATTO Accelerator for women-led start-ups in 2021, and selected as a finalist in the SBE Australia Impact Awards; Women to Watch - Unsung Hero in 2022.


Meet Kate on Linkedin

She Lion on Insta @shelionbags

She Lion on Facebook @shelionbags

Check out the amazing full story here

Click Here to View the Podcast Interview Transcript with Kate Dillon

Sally Parrish (01:21):

Joining us today for this episode of the board success podcast is the incredible Kate Dillon. Kate, welcome to the show.

Kate Dillon (01:30):
Oh, thank you for having me.

Sally Parrish (01:31):
I'm really excited about telling your story because it just floats my boat for so many reasons. I mean, you're an incredible strong female leader that a lot of us can look up to, you've got this incredible towel of resilience and innovation. And I just love how you've grown as part of your story. So I'm really looking forward to unpacking this with you today. But if you could start by telling us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Kate Dillon (02:01):
Wowl, firstly, thank you very much for such a kind introduction. That's very lovely. Well, my name is Kate Dillon. And I am the founder and creative director of She Lion,, which is a for purpose retail business that has evolved a lot over the last seven years. But I'm also the director of employee strategy and experience top to your firm Gilbert and Tobin. So I'm a really strong proponent of portfolio careers, and that you can do whatever you want to do, and you should do what brings you energy. And if you're open to having conversations, and letting people know what you want, amazing doors will open and you can really do whatever you'd like to do. I'm really loving this portfolio career approach. When I grew up, if you had, you know, a five day gap on your resume, you're unemployable because you had no sticking factor, you know, it was like, you've moved career, you've changed jobs two or three times. But now the fact that we can split our workload between different types of activities, and it's just so free, especially for mums, like us that need that flexibility, but also want that stimulation of really complex and challenging work lives.

Kate Dillon 02:07
Yes, definitely. I definitely think the intellectual piece was a huge part for me. But I had honestly been doing this before I had children. So this was very much a business baby I had first rather than a child.

Gilbert & Tobin have been the most wonderful partner and incredibly progressive in their views. And very much that future of work focus from the almost nine years ago when I first started working flexibly there and started She Lion, and shortly thereafter, absolutely partnering to bolster me to be able to run my business. And to support me in a leadership role as a woman who was working flexibly right from the outset and open to evolving my role. As my seniority increased, my expertise increased, but also, as I evolved as a business owner, and my business acumen and commercial perspective evolved as well. And the two came together in such a synergistic way that I truly believe it's a superpower, because you're looking at the world from very different lenses, but then you get gifts from each space that enhance the other. And the firm. And the many leaders that I have worked with along the way, had all seen that as a benefit and enabled me to lean into it, provided I was willing to ask for what I wanted, they were willing to meet me there. And that's been amazing.

Sally Parrish 03:13
And what a great role model Gilbert and Tobin are for how to win the war on talent, right, you know, let your people grow, let your people shine. It's not difficult.

Kate Dillon 03:20
Yeah. And they've been doing that for many years. Yeah, I know, it's a hot topic now about the gig economy and this new space we're moving into, and it's about outputs rather than time. And it's about the true value you provide, rather than the number of hours that you work, or the amount of billables, per se, but they truly have been walking their talk way before COVID And the pandemic. And that is where we're going. I think multiple people are going to have different roles that come together in different flexible ways that provide incredible value for businesses, but also they shape themselves and give them energy in their lives and get them to do what they want to do and what they see as success and which reinforces my fundamental belief, but success is subjective, but it's about what sets your soul on fire and what makes you want to get up in the morning and what inspires you and you really only live once and you know, why not take control and be the designer of your life, you know, you still have to make compromises and make sure that you're definitely providing value for other people that you may work for. But there's always a way you can bring things together as if you're willing to have the conversation. And 90% of the time you can get there and the other 10% of the time, you might get something better.

Sally Parrish 04:31
That's amazing. I love how you've become a role model for the industry. Now how you're a motivational speaker that helps these businesses really tap into these opportunities. But what I love about you, I love a lot of things about you Kate, but what I love about you more than anything is you walk your talk right. There's a lot of people that get on and talk about, you know, setting goals and fear resilient and all these types of things. But you've actually walked your talk and it's such an incredible story. I'd love to to jump in and start unpacking it with us, if we go back to 2019, if I'm not mistaken, She Lion was this beautiful luxury handbag brand. And it was aimed at women like me who are sick and tired of going to work with four bags, you know, one with the handbag, one with the lunch, one with the gym kit for lunchtime, and walking around like a bag lady literally. And you created these beautiful bags that were empowering, because they looked business like but they enabled us to fit all the stuff that we needed in them. And you you had quite a strong following from the off in that beautiful bag range. How did that come about?

Kate Dillon 05:47
Originally? Well, as a lawyer, I couldn't find a handbag that I needed. You know, I was always really passionate about wearing something that made me feel powerful and have always loved fashion and felt like you know, you'd have this sensation or certain these fabulous shoes, and you'd have a really nice bag. But then you'd have a really gross massive black laptop bag. And like a Woolies bag with all your paperwork, and maybe more tech chargers back in 2015. And then a gym bag if you're lucky. And then maybe extra pair of shoes. And gosh, you really did become the bag lady very quickly and your beautiful killer outfit was now a lot less powerful. And I just got so frustrated, I would break bags unless they were usually really ugly. And then they were really strong. And I wanted options that had sequins or that were you know, appropriate. But they were kind of that fierce elegance, which is so much a part of She Lion absolutely about you know, here I am, hear me roar. But I'm really classy, but I'm going to make a statement. And I've arrived and not a really big brand. It's all about the woman and you know, having the woman be front and center. And it being a tool so that you can perform at your best and not feel like you have to pull everything out of your bag to find the one thing that you need when you need it.

Sally Parrish 07:06
I think your brand just sings to female execs, female professionals. It just resonates so strongly. Like from the naming conventions like the show stopper, you know, a show stopper? course I do. I want a bling bag. But we all things took a turn right? You had this great product line, you had this great customer base, you get all your stock in, you're ready for a big year in 2020. And then the world changed, as we all know, tell us about early 2020. And what that impact was on you.

Kate Dillon 07:42
Yeah well, I had my second child in December 19. So I was on maternity leave. And we had just purchased a whole lot of really beautiful stuff that are designed with Italian leather, it was like really bit more premium, like a really exclusive range, top end range. And they were all due to arrive in March. And they did arrive. You know, the problem that we solved as a business disappeared very quickly because people weren't commuting. Everybody was in lockdown, particularly in Victoria, there was no need to spend $800 on a really beautiful bag to make a statement to your partner that you were going to move your office materials from the kitchen to the home office. It was just not a justifiable cost any longer.

Sally Parrish 08:27
Even underwear was surplus to requirements back then let alone bags.

Kate Dillon 08:31
Yeah, well, yeah. So we, you know, it really became apparent very, very quickly that for the business to even survive, there would need to be a new strategy as locked down continued. And then also as because consumer confidence completely changed. I think people's values completely changed not only about what they want from work, but what they want from life. And that directly affects what they want to buy and what they expect from what they buy, and how much they're willing to spend. And all of those factors played into, you know, our business that had been running quite smoothly for a couple of years to this whole new environment where it would die if it didn't change and everything has a shelf life, but you kind of don't expect it to happen quite so quickly. Yeah. And yeah, so that's what March 2020 felt like

Sally Parrish 09:29
You're at home in lockdown with everybody else in Victoria. Young children, a business that's struggling. Are you also working from home for your day job at the same time as well trying to keep that running?

Kate Dillon 09:42
No, I was on maternity leave from the law firm but you don't really have mati from your own. Yeah. She Lion was ticking along or trying to at that point and I had a three year old and a newborn or three months old at that time with me and we were living in regional Victoria and Just all of the news like you would keep the news on for a lot of the day hearing all these shocking updates about COVID-19 was and what the government's reaction was going to be and which businesses were now being more affected and whether there was a stimulus available yet and how this was going to play out. And it just became increasingly more upsetting how much business was affected at a small business level at an SME level. And I was feeling that directly, and wanted to do something that was positive, that would be positive for Sheila, and from a branding perspective, aligned with what we believe around, walking fearlessly and involving others to walk fearlessly. And something that I would feel 100% confident about doing, if we were going to die, that I was going to go out in like a way where I was bringing people together, rather than, you know, digging my heels in and saying, you know, how bad and you know, this is all too hard. And so really decided that I wanted to make something that was end to end Australian. And it had never been possible to do that with the handbags, I had all of the RMIT courses in handbag construction, which are incredible, I highly recommend them, Andrew Smith used to run them in, they're absolutely wonderful. There's three or four different ones. And I did all of them and he’s terrific. So I had started creating samples myself, but everything was now made overseas. And he had worked at Oroton and Hermes himself and said, you know, there's very few people here that have the capability to do it at scale. And then the componentry that you need to actually execute like that is just not available in Australia anymore, because it's too expensive. And the labor cost is too high. And so all of that machinery has been sold. So it is very difficult unless you import the factory and import the componentry yourself or you're paying a very high premium to make the handbags here. And that was impossible as a startup. And so a product that I thought would be simple was a windcheater. And it came about because I had been having, you know, like everyone a tough time and I had a refluxy child. And we weren't sleeping and I was sort of covered in milk from it. And I had a three year old who was super active and upset that he wasn't getting enough attention. And I'd put on this jumper that said ‘superhero’ and put it on Instagram just on my personal page saying, you know, women are amazing. Look what we're doing, you know, we can get through this kind of like to myself like, and it really resonated with a lot of people and they said, Gosh, you should make a sweatshirt that says walk fearlessly that really started percolating, you know, that a sweatshirt looks simple. I could make that here. Hopefully I could bring heaps of other small businesses together, we could showcase Australian manufacturing. I want it to be something even stronger than ‘walk fearlessly’. I want it to be something that brings the other brands together. One of them needs to be support local, but I think the other thing needs to be actually I can like actually weakened, but actually I can. And that's where the idea started.

Sally Parrish 13:05
And they are such beautiful sweatshirts. I mean, they really are well made. They're lovely to wear. But they're empowering. They've got these great slogans. I remember the very first one that I bought with a gray with sparkly writing lots, yeah, bling always makes a day better, right. And it says support local. And I would just go for coffee and around the local shops. And it meant a lot to the local community to have a little tagline like that support local. It made me feel good, it made traders feel good. It made other shoppers feel good. And it was a really, really great message to promote. Because I think one of the big shocks of the pandemic was how little is actually made here in Australia, how reliant we are overseas. And yes, cost comes into it. But often, there's that, you know, it's the bulk buy in and it's easier and it's more efficient. And there's no long term thinking about what if those borders are closed, then we just can't fend for ourselves, you face all these challenges, you've got a niche business that has no use to anybody now. You've got supply chains absolutely obliterated, I mean, I can't get a delivery from Target five minutes down the road, right. So let alone overseas supply chains are obliterated. There's this sense of you know, no one was planning long term back then everyone was in a short term, day by day get through this week by week kind of in the now kind of a mindset no one was planning for the future. How do you take that and turn that around to become a sweatshirt locally produced and 22 different businesses involved in the process. So not just lifting yourself up, but lifting all these other businesses up to tell us about how you go about pulling that off.

Kate Dillon 15:12
To be fair, the majority of them were lifting us. But yes, it was 22. And I wasn't expecting it to be that many. It started with a phone call to a manufacturer I knew existed in Brunswick because I had worked for Margaret … at Feathers while I was at law school. And Mark is like an icon, or the most incredible person and powerhouse woman. And so I had cold called them and said, I used to work at Feathers a very long time ago. So I know that you're a terrific manufacturer, this is my idea. I'm a handbag designer and manufacturer, I know how to create a pattern for a handbag, I do not know how to make a pattern for a sweatshirt, I'm making an assumption that it's simple. Well, I'm very happy to be told that I'm wrong. But the purpose is to bring as many small businesses together as I can and to and to make something that is end to end zero to where Australian made, do you think this is possible? Are you willing to be involved? Will you help me and blown away Philip .. from CGT absolutely opened his heart and thought, you know, this is an amazing idea. And it's not simple, but we can do it. And we'll have to do a there'll be a lot of phone calls. And there was Zooms, and now with various different people in the supply chain. And there were text messages, and there were couriers, and then they of course, of course it went missing and so much of this stuff you would normally do in person. But yeah, it was all done remote. And yeah, each person I mean, Phillip gave me a huge list of people to contact, but then each person that I contacted, would introduce me to someone else, and also a list of people. And it was just beautiful. The energy was contagious. And it was very much that it was something positive that people wanted to be involved in, and it grew legs itself. And I am incredibly fortunate for the generosity of all the other people that stepped into bolster She Lion, and it was very much that they saved us, we were very keen to take the risk and put our money where our mouth was, and absolutely have this as an advocacy piece, which would showcase what was possible end to end. And that there really is, as you say, a need for us to be more aware of what's available here, because it won't be the last pandemic and we need to be more aware of our options and more self reliant, because it does create Australian jobs, and it does support Australians. And it might be a bit more expensive, but it's more sustainable, and it's gonna last longer, and it's better quality. And you're actually paying a responsible ethical wage to a fellow Australian, that's going to make Australia more prosperous. So there's a lot of wins in there. But it's definitely when you when you touch on that point, it's definitely a multi layered piece that will need government support and consumer education. And this was sort of a nudge about what could be done if like even a big business just put one SKU or a couple of components of other SKU through Australian manufacturing how much of an impact it could have. Because if a small business with one or two people could create a product that touches 300 hands, you know, imagine what a really big business with much more throughput would do and the impact that would have,

Sally Parrish 18:31
I've got goosebumps, I'm actually sitting here with goosebumps just thinking about how big this story gets. And every time we tell the story, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, because the potential of these learnings now you know, just taking what you've learned and getting that message out into the big, wide world. I mean, She Lion now is back selling beautiful handbags. Is she lying back to business again now? Does it still have that great following?

Kate Dillon 18:58
Yeah. But like any business, it's evolved. It's evolved. So the handbags that are now of interest are very different to what we saw beforehand, because she our consumer has changed. And what she wants is change and her working habits have changed. And there is now this whole new appetite for keynotes and consulting into that space about how you tap into that entrepreneurial mindset and how you innovate in a crisis and how you position yourself for opportunity and redirect and how you navigate uncertainty for success, which has been really wonderful too. So it's very much evolving and the advocacy piece with Australian manufacturing for the apparel is definitely still part of the business and we've since made blazers. This is a singlet I'm not wearing a bra. I am wearing a bra. This is not my bra, which says walk fearlessly underneath the 50s back to that Yeah, I mean everything. Everything has a shelf life and I think it In this time that we're living in, but like much like anytime I'm sure that anybody has ever lived in but now more rapidly than before, you have to be willing to adapt, you have to have really good situational awareness and self awareness to be able to say, is this still working? And do I need to change? And where is the opportunity? What's aligned with our values? And what's aligned with our vision? And where is our next step?

Sally Parrish 20:25
So I love this, right? So you've got it starts with this amazing law firm, Gilbert and Tobin. And they empower you as a member of their staff to be the biggest version of yourself, right? As part of that you start this luxury handbag brand that's all about empowering women so that they can be the best versions of themselves. And through the trial and hardships of COVID that empowered you, that shaped you to become the biggest version of yourself, again, the next new level. And now from there, here, we have this fantastic keynote speaker with this incredible story to tell that then goes on and empowers so many others. It's a real great story of how, you know, one small deed from that law firm has spread to such an incredible wave of making change making a difference. Does it feel like a legacy move to you Kate? It looks like one to me,

Kate Dillon 21:28
a legacy move?

Sally Parrish 21:29

Kate Dillon 21:30
Ya know, it feels like I think every person should own own their power and know that they, if they want to do something that they can, and it won't necessarily be easy, but there's huge strength in vulnerability and acknowledging that you don't know how to do someone know how to do something, but know that you can find the answer. Or know that if you're willing to ask people will step up to help. And that is incredible. And if you know where you want to go, people will come around you and bolster you to help you achieve what you're trying to achieve. And whatever that is, as long as you're willing to put in the time and persistence and the guts and determination. And to keep going. You'll get there really anything is possible. If you have guts, determination and persistence and you walk fearlessly

Sally Parrish 22:23
Kate, I love that. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Kate Dillon 22:29
Thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it.

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