How do you break boundaries?
For serial entrepreneur and CEO and Founder Marci Zaroff, breaking boundaries means moving beyond the socially constructed structures of how we “should” go about business and instead, trusting your gut & thinking outside of the box. Throughout a nearly 30-year career at the intersection of environmentalism, fashion, business and social impact, it is apparent that Zaroff has mastered the art of breaking boundaries
She has founded multiple fashion brands, including Under the Canopy and Metawear, coined the term ECOfashion, co-founded the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, recently launched the book ECOrenaissance: Cocreating a Stylish, Sexy and Sustainable World, and has raised two children.
The list of credentials, though, does not include what is likely one of her most meaningful accomplishments to date: acting as a business mentor to female entrepreneurs pursuing impactful work that serves both people and the planet.
I sat down with Zaroff at The Assemblage to learn about the personal experiences that shaped more than just a successful career, but also a fulfilling life.
Genevieve Kim: Congratulations on your book launch, Marci. Why write about the eco-renaissance now?
Marci Zaroff: If you look at the original Renaissance, it came out of the Dark Ages. There was a lot of disillusionment economically, politically and socially, and a real drive and desire for positivity and light. The shift in humanity has been driven by creativity, collaboration, consciousness, community and connection: the five pillars of the ECOrenaissance.
To me, we are in a modern-day Star Wars, where the dark forces are out there trying to hang on. It’s time to shine the light and reactivate who we really are.
We can now pull the curtain back and unveil the human and environmental impacts of the systems and decisions we’ve been building and making. We can now vote with our dollars. We can move things forward, wake up and join forces. We can now hold hands and design a new collective reality. That is fundamentally the ECOrenaissance mantra.
GK: Did you always know that entrepreneurship was going to be your path?
MZ: I was an artist at a very young age and loved to paint. My first job was as a calligrapher. Then I worked in a clothing store. I loved fashion. I was also the kid with the lemonade stand.
GK: An actual lemonade stand?
MZ: Yes! I had business cards when I was 11 years old. I am the quintessential entrepreneur. When I was 15, a girlfriend gave me the book Living in the Light, which struck a chord in me with its message that there’s more than what we see. When you look at what I do today, it’s the convergence of my interests in art and fashion, and also business, design, sustainability and environmental consciousness. Combining all of these interests resonates with me intuitively. Getting into my teens, I wondered how I could use the power of business to change the world.
GK: You started your first eco-fashion brand Under the Canopy in 1995. What did you learn from that experience?
MZ: When I coined the term eco-fashion in 1995, the concept didn’t exist; now it’s a ubiquitous term used for this movement. Most people were naysayers and thought I was crazy. There were two dichotomous worlds: people who were into fashion and people who cared about the environment. There were the stigmas of being an environmentalist—that you lacked style and were crunchy and frumpy, and of being a fashionista—that you were materialistic and superficial, caring about nothing but appearance. But I thought, wait, I like to look good but I’m also a conscious being and an environmentalist. I think about what I do and the choices I make. I can’t be the only one like that, right? I wanted to bridge the fashionista with the tree hugger…bridge the tribe and the boardroom. Eco-fashion bridges worlds that are perceived as dichotomous and demonstrates that they can co-exist. And I pinch myself every day now when I look at the traction in this space.
GK: What do you think it is that made you distinctively successful as an entrepreneur?
MZ: I think for me it comes down to my belief in leadership, my vision and my creative execution. I don’t like to be told what I’m supposed to do. I create what I think should be, and not how others believe things are. When someone says “I can’t”, I tell people in my companies to say “how can I?” So my belief system is one that says “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Everything happens for a reason. You know what doesn’t kill you makes you smarter and stronger.” Every challenge is actually an opportunity.
In business I’ve actually heard: “We’re not going to fund you because you’re a single mom. How can you possibly be the equivalent of the guy next to you who is going to be uber successful?”
GK: Did you experience challenges being a female entrepreneur?
MZ: Oh, yes. It’s much harder to get funding as a woman. There’s a huge gap between the number of men and women who receive funding. Finding women role models was also a challenge, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book.
Take my mother’s generation, only one generation before me, who is the epitome of a product of her generation. She was a superstar—she went to Penn, worked for NASA straight out of school, had a math and physics degree, then gave it up to have kids because that’s what you did in her generation. In my life, there was a lot of prejudice from neighborhood moms who would ask, “You’re going away, again?” with raised eyebrows. In business I’ve actually heard: “We’re not going to fund you because you’re a single mom. How can you possibly be the equivalent of the guy next to you who is going to be uber successful?” Literally, prejudice in both of those buckets.
I want to act as a role model for the next generation of women who have to face the balance of wanting to have a family and a career.
GK: Can you share a difficult moments when you questioned your path, and also how you got through that?
MZ: Leaving my company that I birthed, loved and believed in, Under the Canopy. I had a different vision than someone who became a top executive at my company. I was about the collective team vision, forward-thinking ideas and innovation, whereas she worked in a more traditional fashion industry model. For lack of a better term, she was like The Devil Wears Prada. Making strategic decisions that were in complete contrast with my vision and belief system, which started to put me in this place where the culture of the company became divisive. We just hit heads all the time. It got to a place where it was untenable for me, and I started to plan my exit. It really tested me to the core on who I was and what I wanted. Ultimately, it wasn’t easy. I walked out with no security with two little kids to raise.
GK: What did you learn about yourself from that?
MZ: That I’ll never sell my soul. It’s the concept of no compromise which I describe in my book. When your professional and personal values are in resonance, you know you’re in the right place. When your professional and personal values are at odds, the imbalance of energy creates friction and your energy won’t be able to flow. You won’t be able to manifest your potential. If you are hitting emotional, physical, mind-body-spirit blocks, you have to figure out how to get back into alignment in order to love again. I wasn’t flowing, so I had to let go.
So letting go is another lesson. It’s about surrender. Surrender is the ultimate lesson. You have to trust and surrender. That’s how you manifest. Don’t be attached to a certain outcome and trust that everything happens exactly the way it is supposed to. That’s how we learn and grow.
GK: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs starting out?
MZ: My advice—which I think I’ve lived—is to follow your heart and trust your gut. Follow that and don’t ever get stuck in the muck. As an entrepreneur, personally and professionally, that’s always been a mantra of mine. Being an entrepreneur takes persistence, tenacity, conviction and passion.
GK: How can we start tapping back into our gut?
MZ: Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems with the same consciousness that created those problems.” We have to change our consciousness, create things that serve us and then recognize that serving others is serving ourselves. As we tap into that wavelength and that greater-good mentality, we can all thrive. And how we define thriving is very relative, but it is what we all really want. Love, happiness and peace.
Later that day, I see Zaroff and her daughter, Jade. Jade hands Zaroff her phone and asks, “What do you think?” to which Zaroff replies, “That came out great!” Jade turns to me, “Genevieve you should come to this.” She hands me her phone to show off an invitation she designed for a non-profit fundraiser. Jade’s organization,Entertainment for Change, engages artists to create work around the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. At 23, Jade is more than just her mother’s daughter, she is an example of the connection, creative spirit, love and social impact that the ECOrenaissance embodies. And Zaroff is right beside her, in full support as one female entrepreneur helping to guide the next generation of female entrepreneurs into the future.