Mixing hobbies with business. All it takes is passion – and a lot of fearlessness

FWBP 08-19-19 cover 

Sterling McDavid in a Burnett New York design she wore for the Fort Worth Business Press Forty under Forty event.


Glenn Ellman, photo 

Sterling McDavid comes from an entrepreneurial family, so it’s perhaps not surprising that she followed that model.

But she didn’t start just anywhere.

She started in New York, and you know what the song says: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

She’s co-CEO and president of Burnett New York, a luxury women’s wear label. Prior to that she started the Starling Project, a luxury fragrance brand where for every item sold the company gives a portion to UNICEF specifically for solar energy projects.

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And she’s just 30 years old.

Her partner in the women’s wear company is Emily Burnett, 35, who she met while she was shopping for a wedding gown.

McDavid graduated from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas and her first job out of school was as an analyst for Goldman Sachs.

“I actually grew up being pretty good at math, which is why one thing led to another and I ended up getting a degree in finance,” McDavid said.

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“And to be totally honest with you, I just don’t think I ever realized because I’m not a drawer or painter that I could actually have a role in a creative industry that suited my skill set,” she said.

Sterling is the daughter of Stacey and David McDavid and has been able to watch up close what being an entrepreneur meant.

“Sterling has an empathetic heart, whether an injured bird or disadvantaged human being. We are so very proud of her work ethic and her impact on humanity,” the McDavids said. “In addition, Sterling has no apparent fear of failure.”

Sterling McDavid is married to Carey Dorman, CFO of Element Solutions, a public specialty chemicals company, and her search for the right person to help her create a custom wedding gown would be significant in her business life.

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She wanted to be deeply involved in the process.

“I thought this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m not a creative in the sense of drawing these things, but I wanted to work with someone on my vision,” McDavid said.

She checked the usual New York places – Chanel, Oscar de la Renta and others.

“I’m one of those people who needs to feel a personal connection when I walk in the door, especially for something as important as my wedding gown,” McDavid said. “My business partner was actually one of the last creative directors I met with on my journey.”

Burnett was the creative director of New York luxury design house Dennis Basso and wasn’t specializing in bridal gowns, so there was some concern that even though McDavid loved her evening wear designs, she wasn’t sure it would be the right bride/designer fit.

“I walked in, and it was right off the bat she was drawing right there. It’s very rare to see that,” McDavid said. “I’ve learned the creative director isn’t always the one actually drawing.”

Not the case with Burnett, who is “in the weeds on everything.”

“She’s one of these, like, old-school talents who draws it, and then you’ll see her in there sewing it, literally to make it perfect,” McDavid said.

During the final fitting of that wedding gown, McDavid asked Burnett why she wasn’t in business for herself, telling her that “you’re an unbelievable talent.”

Burnett had been in her current position for 10 years and was on the creative team at Ralph Lauren before that, and she had dreamed about having her own brand someday.

McDavid quotes her like this:

“But I also know what I don’t know and my weaknesses. I need a business partner. I need somebody who understands how to start a business, how to run a business, how to do the finance side of things, how to fundraise.”

Burnett had talked to a couple of potential partners in the past, but they didn’t pass the gut-check for a long-term relationship.

“And I said, ‘Well, if you’re interested, I might be the right partner for you.’ ” McDavid said.

So they agreed to get through the wedding first and then discuss the business possibility later.

But it was sooner rather than later.

The wedding was in August 2017 and McDavid and Burnett had their first meeting in September.

“We started to build a business plan. And I built a financial model, and then we went out to fundraise. We had our first meeting in April 2018, and we actually had the full money raised, verbal commitments, by June 1,” McDavid said.

“Sterling’s ambition, passion and inventiveness in business is an inspiration to all women pursuing their goals and pushing to reach past boundaries of what one might think impossible. Meeting her, I immediately knew we would create something great together,” said Burnett, Co-CEO and Creative Director of Burnett New York.

And here is where their company diverges – deliberately – from other luxury fashion labels.

First, they approached only female investors.

“By the way, we have nine amazing female investors,” she says.

McDavid says the luxury industry for women’s fashion specifically is male dominated with the majority of creative directors and more than 90% of CEOs being men.

“It makes literally no sense,” she said. “I think they’re great people, but I think it’s a shame that what women wear is still dominated by the male viewpoint. We have a female on the business side and female on the creative director side. That’s pretty rare.”

McDavid says the only company she can think of in New York that has that is DVF – Diane von Furstenberg – “and she’s not even really our luxury price point. She’s considered more like just luxury. We’re ultra-luxury.”

McDavid had been attending Fashion Week in New York with her mom over the years but didn’t realize that perhaps she could be in that business. She considers it more of a hobby.

But that changed.

She and Burnett were determined to make their line a “brand for all women.”

And not just inclusion in terms of ethnicity but also inclusion in size and age.

“We actually had a 70-year-old model on our runway this past February. We were only one of two brands out of the whole New York fashion week to have an older woman represented on the runway,” McDavid said.

“I think what’s an issue with fashion has always been that you see very young models typically representing brands, but your consumer might be 50 or 60 years old. How are they supposed to envision themselves in that outfit if an 18-year-old is wearing it?” she said.

McDavid also notes that many large brands are limited in their size and can’t go above a size 18, but since Burnett New York manufactures in-house it can make fashion in any size.

“That’s been huge for some of our clientele,” she said. “They can actually come to us and we’ll actually dress them. And same thing with celebrity dressing.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard, quite a few celebrities say, ‘Well, no one wanted to dress me even though I’m up for an award and simply because of my size.’ And we’re like, ‘We’re here for you.’

“We want to support all women, and we don’t just want to be about the smallest subsector,” McDavid said.

One client told them that she thought she’d never be able to shop for luxury fashion, saying she had worked very hard her whole career and had the money to spend but could not find the clothes.

“ ‘It’s been my dream to wear like a ballgown that actually fits me,’ ” she told them. “And she was literally tearing up, and we were, like, that’s what this is about. It’s crazy that in 2019, other brands aren’t able to do what we’re doing,” McDavid said.

The concept resonated with the women they approached for funding.

“We went to women of all ages, ethnicities, and sizes because we wanted to form a board with diverse opinions to help us really make this brand stay true to what we were shooting for,” she said.

Is there a token guy?

“We do have a token guy, actually, and he is the CEO of a big private equity firm,” McDavid said.

The third piece of what they are doing after women-founded and inclusivity is that they want to stand for something in the fashion industry.

They joke – kind of – that they began at two of the hardest companies to start at in New York City – Goldman Sachs and Ralph Lauren – because they’re so cutthroat.

“We’re both appreciative of our experiences in those respective places, but at the same time, we don’t believe that you need abuse in the workplace of any sort. You should have a very positive culture and uplifted team, and it’s all about teamwork or it wouldn’t happen,” McDavid said.

And, she said, they want to give back to causes that are important to them.

“Specifically, Emily and I are passionate about girls’ education because we were fortunate enough to have parents who could help us get our education,” she said. “We both agree that if you would have asked us at 15 or probably even 18 if we could start our own fashion label one day, we probably both would have said no. But we were able to do that because of the support we had and the education we have.”

They support UNICEF’s girls’ and education programs, but they have expanded it to their own network as well.

An example.

“New York supermodel Flaviana Matata has a foundation that benefits girls’ education in her home country of Tanzania.

“We teamed up with her after our show at New York Fashion Week to have our after party with her. We were able to bring in our network and the people who attended our show and help to raise $30,000 for the Flaviana Matata Foundation,” McDavid said.

Back to the fashion line.

McDavid says she hates to use the work “empowering” because it’s thrown around so much, but what she and Burnett want to do is design clothing that compliments rather than overshadows the woman wearing it and make her feel confident.

The company has evening wear and outer wear but also ready to wear.

She was in Fort Worth during this interview for the Fort Worth Business Press’ Forty under Forty recognition, and, of course, she was dressed in the company’s clothing.

“It’s a little extra, it’s a bold color, but at the same time, I’m wearing it. It’s not meant to wear me, and that’s the idea,” she said. “We think women should embrace their femininity, and it’s OK to be effeminate. Sometimes I think society will tell you it’s not, you shouldn’t have emotion …

“We disagree, and we call it our ‘aesthetic feminine fierce.’ You can still be effeminate, but have a fierce strong side as well,” McDavid said.

She says she was asked at an event what she thinks success is.

“I personally think everybody has a different definition of success, and I actually think that’s a great thing,” she said, “but for me success is showing other women that you really can be tough, but you can show this effeminate side as well. You can be kind and sweet and generous and emotional even, but it’s also OK to turn around and stand up for what you believe in and stand strong when you need to.”

Entrepreneurship is addictive.

She already had a successful business before the fashion industry in the Starling Project, but she wanted to do it all over.

She talks about her father, who is known for his auto sales industry career, but has been in different careers and industries.

“Anything he sets his mind to, he kind of does it. And it gets addicting once you’ve started a business. You want to start more,” McDavid said.

The Starling Project was a fit because she’s a self-described fragrance junkie with candles and perfume. She also is a UNICEF junkie – she sits on the UNICEF board in New York City – and those two passions came together in her mind.

McDavid was looking for a way to convince millennials to donate to UNICEF.

“It became clear to me that it was very hard to get millennials comfortable with this idea of giving back,” she said. “They desperately want to do it, but they’re intimidated because they think to make a difference you have to give $10,000, $1,000, whatever. They don’t realize that actually a little bit can go a long way.”

Five dollars, she said, can be very helpful and goes a lot further than you might think in, say, Africa.

“So even $5 can help somebody get access to a life-saving vaccine, as an example, and most people just don’t know that,” McDavid said.

But what if you could take something that millennials are already buying and give it a charitable component that teaches them something but also makes them feel good about their purchase?

The idea actually came to her while she was doing a job in France and saw candles selling for around $100.

“When you live in New York, you’ll find that people are in the tiniest studio apartment, they’re struggling every day to even pay their rent off, yet there’s a $75 candle sitting on their table,” McDavid said.

She started asking people why they would do that. They told her that it made them feel like their space was nice and more luxurious than it actually was.

“And I started looking into candles,” McDavid said.

Even many of the most expensive candles are made with chemical fragrance, meaning there are no aroma therapy benefits from essential oils, she said.

“So I started looking into this idea of creating an all-natural candle that’s actually good for you and can help you kick back and relax at the end of the day with aroma therapy benefits, but also at the same time for every candle sold, a person in need gets access to life-saving solar energy,” McDavid said. (PLEAE INCLUDE CANDLE PHOTO NEAR THIS SECTION)

She worked with UNICEF and developed a candle priced at $55. She wanted it to cost less, but the product was an all-natural, hand-poured product in sustainably made handmade glass containers entirely made in the United States to benefit U.S. small business.

McDavid was nervous about the price point but the concept resonated with customers who could help save a life and get something good for them as well.

She had two goals in mind.

“It was meant to obviously raise money for UNICEF and help give back to the cause directly. But it was also meant to give people a little bit of awareness, make it feel approachable and develop a product many millennials are already consuming.

“And that was really where it started. And again, I had had a passion for fragrance for a long time, but I didn’t realize that I could actually do something with my career in something that was my hobby and I figured out a way to do it. It really started as a passion project,” McDavid said.

McDavid retired in June as chair of UNICEF’s Next Generation in New York but remains on the organization’s New York Board of Directors. She’s been involved for more than a decade.

Werner Orellana, Major Gifts Officer at UNICEF USA New York, says that throughout her more than 10 years of involvement, McDavid has served in many capacities.

“Her commitment, energy and generosity has helped UNICEF save and protect children’s lives around the world and we are so thankful for her involvement,” said Werner Orellana,

deputy director of the New York Regional Office of UNICEF USA.

“Aside from her unrestricted support to the organization, which is crucial and a lifeline for our commitment to children, she has also championed projects in Chad, investing in solar water pumps for rural communities and in Rwanda where she has helped procure solar powered refrigerators helping to keep vaccines and other medicines active and impacting the lives of 72,000 people,” Orellana said.

McDavid received UNICEF’s Champion for Children Award and the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Obama for her efforts.

She was flipping houses on the side for actual income at the time she started the project in 2015, but Starling became popular with corporations and became a big gifting brand during the holiday season.

That turned passion professional.