Laugh, and Keep It Light: Trunkettes CEO Hilary Genga on the Challenges of Entrepreneurship

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The Southern California pool party is a staple of the American imagination, a nationwide symbol of glamorous, playfully indulgent living. The mere mention of SoCal evokes an image of beautiful people lounging around an incomprehensibly grand courtyard, champagne flutes in hand and bathing suit-clad.

As is often the case, my New England daydream version of the West Coast isn’t exactly flush with reality. Turns out that people in Southern California have problems. Sometimes, those problems are even directly related to pools.

“Living in Southern California, we’re invited to swim parties all the time,” says Hilary Genga, the self-described “mother, wife, and entrepreneur ” who founded swimwear company Trunkettes, of which she currently serves as CEO. “And I noticed that all the moms would be sitting around the pool, being hot and miserable, while the dads were in the pool with the kids.”

Genga realized that the dads and kids were having all the fun because, for the most part, they weren’t uncomfortable in their swimsuits. “Most of the moms just did not feel comfortable putting on a swim suit in front of everybody, because there was nothing out there that was cute, and hip, and sexy, but had a little more coverage,” she says. “You could buy things that looked a little frumpy and ‘old lady,’ but there was really nothing out there.”

For years, Genga herself was dissatisfied with women’s swimwear options. She had taken to wearing her husband’s swim trunks and matching them with bikini tops, but this was more of a temporary jury-rigging, not a permanent solution. “I wanted something a little more feminine, made for a woman’s body,” she explains. “I just couldn’t find it. I had looked every year at department stores and so forth, and could find nothing.”

Existing swimwear companies simply were not meeting the needs of Genga and the women in her life. “So I just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it myself,’” Genga tells me. It’s not bravado in her voice; it’s that peculiar brand of optimism that that comes when we’re exasperated with the world around us but still determined to win.

It’s More Than Swimwear; It’s a Mission

Genga didn’t start Trunkettes just so she could make swimwear — though, that’s exactly what the company does, producing both “swim trunks for women with mix-and-match tops” and more traditional swimsuits. Genga knew at the start that she was willingly walking into unknown territory: “I had no knowledge of the fashion industry or the swimwear industry,” she says.

What Genga did have was a mission, and Trunkettes was founded to complete that mission: “Why do men get to wear all the cute swim trunks, and there’s nothing really like that for women?”

That’s the elevator-pitch version of the Trunkettes mission, and it glosses over the very powerful reasons Genga wanted to produce women’s swim trunks in the first place: she wanted to help the women in her life be comfortable with themselves. Women’s bodies are, unfortunately, loaded issues. All the cultural baggage surrounding what a woman is supposed to look like in a swimsuit makes it hard for women to just jump into the pool and have fun with their kids the way men were at Genga’s SoCal pool parties. In a way, there’s something feminist about Trunkettes’ mission, in that it rejects the socially-sanctioned, currently existing options and forges a new space.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Trunkettes’ new space is full of swimsuits that people want to wear — the company has received plenty of buzz, including featured suits in the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. 

But how did Genga, who “didn’t know anything about fashion or the garment industry,” turn her ideas into very fashionable realities? With a little help from the babysitter.

“I happened to have a babysitter at the time who had recently graduated from fashion school. She was just one of these really smart, amazing, creative people,” Genga says. “And so I brought the idea to her, and she loved it.”

The babysitter — Trunkettes’ chief design officer Kristen Evenson — came back with sketches the very next day. “We went to the fabric store with only, like, $50 in our pockets, got some fabric, made some prototypes, and it was off and running,” Genga says.

Running seems to be the right term: Trunkettes received national exposure in its very first year. “It got some big publicity early on, just because it was so different and it really spoke to women,” Genga says.

It’s Challenging, But You Don’t Have to Go It Alone 

Starting a business is hard. That’s just a given. Genga’s decision to seek help when she needed to solve a problem — i.e., turning to Evenson — is indicative of her overall outlook on entrepreneurship: you should never go it alone.

Sometimes, not going it alone can mean getting the help of people around you, but other times, it’s a little more subtle than that — like researching the examples set by other entrepreneurs. “The best advice I can give [potential entrepreneurs] is to look to the entrepreneurs that have been successful that came before them, because you can learn so much,” Genga says. “You can avoid mistakes by reading books, by reading blogs, by reading articles about how they made it and about the mistakes that they made. It’s so easy. There’s so many great entrepreneurs out there.”

Genga also suggests researching the people you plan on doing business with. She says that the hardest part of starting a business is “finding people.” “Hiring people, finding manufacturers or finding pattern makers, whoever it is you want on board — the hardest part is finding the right people, because you have to put your trust in these people,” she explains. “I was still the new kid on the block. Sometimes it’s really easy to get taken advantage of. You want something done so quickly and so badly that it’s easy to say, ‘Oh yeah, this person is great. I trust them,’ but you really need to do your research. You really need to find out who you’re getting on board, and you need to put everything in writing.”

“The more information you have, the fewer mistakes you’ll make,” Genga says.

While Trunkettes itself was born of Genga’s determination, she cautions against being so determined that you become a monomaniac blind to the input of others. “It’s one thing to have a great idea. If you think you have a great idea, that’s terrific,” Genga says. “But it’s really important that everyone else thinks it’s a good idea, too.”

Again, it comes down to research. Target your market, Genga says. Pound the pavement and find out whether or not people even want your product — whether or not you’re actually meeting anyone’s needs. “If you’re getting more ‘no’ than ‘yes,’ go back to the drawing board. Make adjustments. Take the advice to heart,” she says. “Sometimes, you can be so stuck in your ways. ‘This is my idea. I’m going to make it no matter what.’ I don’t think that’s a good way to be. You have to be flexible.”

Because business isn’t about you. It’s about the customers and their needs. It’s about the people around you.

Bring Your Kids to the Office?

When I asked Genga to give me a short bio, she told me she was “a mother, and a wife, and an entrepreneur who’s learning every day how to make a business work and balance all the other things in her life.”

“It is so challenging,” Genga says of juggling motherhood and entrepreneurship. “Every day is challenging.” With that, she rattles off a list of her every-day duties: shuttling kids around, attending school functions, supporting her family’s activities, “and, of course, doing all the work with [her] business.”

Genga doesn’t say this with any bitterness or frustration, however. No, she’s absolutely sunny about it, taking the obstacles in stride. “More often than not, I’ll forget about a field trip permission slip, or we’ll miss a birthday party we’re invited to,” she banters. “We joke about it and just kind of laugh it off and say, ‘Yep, the lame Mrs. Genga did it again!’”

“If you can laugh about it and keep it light, I find things work out,” Genga says, and it shows in her utter equanimity.

Another way Genga handles the balancing act is by forgoing it for the work/life integration path instead. “I try to make my kids as much a part of my business as I can. I’ll take them to my office sometimes after school. They really enjoy going there,” Genga says. “My son is a math whiz, so he helps me with the books. My daughter has really gotten into the fashion part.”

“When I make them a part of it, instead of leaving them out, I’ve found that helps me balance the whole thing,” Genga says.

As for Trunkettes’ future, Genga says the company is always adding new things. “We would love to start a kids’ line. We’d like to expand to a high-fashion line … We’re hoping this year to get into a couple different department stores. We’re in specialty stores and boutiques across the country. We’re in some big stores, but we’d really like to be in the Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s of the world.”

By Matthew Kosinski