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Idealog's Most Creative: Freedom Kids' Rachel Hansen

Rachel Hansen was one of the People's Choice winners for Most Creative in retail for Idealog and Accenture's Most Creative People. Perplexed by the massive gender-divide in children's clothing, Hansen decided to do something about it and began offering kids an ethically-made alternative to the highly-gendered, factory-made clothes that dominate children’s clothing. So Freedom Kids was born and it’s grown up to be very popular indeed. Here, she talks finding inspiration, the ethos she works by and what success looks like. 

What does creativity mean to you?

Creativity means doing things differently. To look at the way things have always been done, the way everyone expects them to be done, and then creating an entirely different way to do it. It is about seeing a problem with the status quo and then finding a way to challenge it.

I enjoy being the director of Freedom Kids and the autonomy it allows. Because if I have an amazing idea, I can implement it immediately. Creativity to me means not having to wait for a long time to try things out – I can jump on an idea and run with it. There is a huge buzz involved in that kind of space.

What do you think it is about your nature/habits/interests that makes you creative?

I would say I am quite persistent. If I see a problem, it occupies my mind until I can figure out a solution. In the case of Freedom Kids, as a parent I could clearly see the problem: when I walked into a kids clothing store my children were immediately given messages about the types of things they should like (butterflies vs trucks), their personal worth (cuteness vs strength), sports they should enjoy (dancing vs rugby) and the colours they should like (pink and purple vs brown and blue). This to me was a big problem, and I spent a couple of years declaring that “someone needs to start up a gender neutral clothing store in NZ!” No one did, so I decided that I needed to be that someone.

I know some creatives are best when they are alone and they draw their inspiration from within.  I would say I am the opposite to this – I love talking and collaborating. If I have a problem that I can’t solve, I talk and talk about it to as many people as I can. Taking on the ideas and feedback from others is crucial in my kind of creativity. Feedback also helps keep me balanced - I am the eternal optimist, the glass is 110% full and I can get carried away with ideas.  So to ensure my creativity also has some logistical sense I am lucky to have great people in my life to point out the not-so-positive or realistic aspects of my ideas!

What first drew you to your chosen field?

As a parent I was very frustrated with the lack of choice in kids clothes: everything was highly gendered and often in muted tones of grey and brown vs bright pink and purple. I decided that parents deserved the choice to clothe their kids in clothing that didn’t limit them to gender stereotypes, and this set me on the path to creating Freedom Kids.  When researching children’s clothing I learnt more about the ethics of the fashion industry and realised that we could only stock ethically-made clothes. So, rather than a passion for children’s fashion, it was more the challenge of these two social justice issues that ignited this fire for me.

What was your upbringing like, and how do you think that led you to where you are today?

I grew up near Feilding and attended a small country school.  My parents had a tome on the bookshelf called ‘The Guide to Self Sufficiency” – we had a big vege garden, many animals and much space to roam. I feel I had a lot of autonomy from quite a young age – we were free-range kids well before there was a trendy name for it. My primary school was amazing – without the hackles of National Standards, we spent so much time in the outdoors and there was a big emphasis on performing arts. Contrast this with what I have observed in my kids’ education and I think creativity used to be far more valued in our schools. I am hoping that the change of government and the abolishment of National Standards can mean that kids can spend more time exploring and learning and less time doing tests.

Both my siblings and I have become adults with a strong sense of social justice, so I think these values were instilled in us from a young age.  Our family dinner table was – and still is – a place of robust discussion – it can get pretty noisy! This desire to live in a fairer world is the main driver behind Freedom Kids.

Where do your best ideas come from?  What does inspiration look like for you?

Lots of ideas come to me when I am in the shower and when I am walking. Although my walks end up taking a real stop/start rhythm, as I stop to write down each idea as soon as I think of it. So despite me telling myself it is a good form of exercise, it probably isn’t!

My customers give me ideas – sometimes people will contact me querying an aspect of our business, or perhaps they have an idea that we could implement that will make our business more sustainable, or support another cause.  In responding to them, I have the opportunity to thoroughly examine all the decisions I have made.

I get really inspired by reading about what other social entrepreneurs are doing both in NZ and overseas.

But my best ideas arise out of discussions I have with people – working together to create things gives me such a buzz.

Is there an ethos/motto you abide by in your work?

Kindness. At every stage of Freedom Kids, from the cotton being grown to our customer receiving their brown paper package in the mail, I think about kindness being the prevailing ethic.  I often marvel at how every single interaction I have regarding Freedom Kids is positive – and I can only conclude that it is because everyone involved in the clothing production process is valued and treated fairly. And because our customers care about the principals behind fair trade, I often say that Freedom Kids has the loveliest bunch of customers ever!

Creativity means doing things differently. To look at the way things have always been done, the way everyone expects them to be done, and then creating an entirely different way to do it. It is about seeing a problem with the status quo and then finding a way to challenge it.

If there were a secret to success, what would it be?

I think the dominant definition of ‘success’ in our culture is being wildly rich. I am definitely not even moderately rich, but if the measure of success was changed to happiness, I would say that I am very successful.  My work with Freedom Kids makes me happy because I hope that in a small way I am starting to change the status quo.  I hope that we are starting to raise awareness of the way that workers in the fashion industry are exploited and that ‘fast fashion’ is literally wrecking our world. I hope that we are playing a small part in helping kids know that they are awesome regardless of where they lie on the gender spectrum and regardless of whether they conform to gender stereotypes. So the only secret to my success (ie happiness) is that I feel I am contributing to making the world a better and kinder place.

What were some of the challenges that you faced early on? What went wrong? Any regrets?

My biggest challenge was money. The banks were not interested in my fabulous idea, so my siblings and my parents all loaned me money at different stages and I am so grateful for this hand up.  Because of the money challenge, my next challenge was learning about ecommerce, building a website and marketing as I had to do it all myself. It has been a steep learning curve! 

I made a few early errors in terms of knowing what would sell, and quantities of stock to buy. But I haven’t had any huge disasters (phew!). My only regret would be not bringing someone else into the business earlier. I did everything to get Freedom Kids to launch point, and then I just continued to do everything. Once I was pregnant with our 3rd child I realised I needed to get someone to manage the stock. This was hard as I can be a bit of a control freak! But finding Michelle was amazing – she is way better than me at this sort of thing, and it freed me up to do more marketing and research. So my only regret here is that I didn’t get Michelle on board a whole lot earlier!

Do you work a lot? Do you have an obsessive part to your personality?

Yes and yes. I love working, and find it incredibly hard to stop working. I get excited each night when finally the kids are asleep and I get to open up my laptop and start working. I never imagined feeling like this! Although juggling three kids and a husband who works (more than) full time, having the kids forces me to stop working too much. However I’d also say my work is a welcome break from the relentlessness of parenting!

What’s the secret to resilience?  

I think it is the people one is surrounded by.  I scored the jackpot here, because I have always known that my parents support me and love me unconditionally. Having this means that I have always subconsciously known that whatever the world throws at me, my parents will be there backing me. My husband is also incredibly supportive – he is great to bounce ideas off and is also good at reigning my in when the ideas get too far out of scope!  There have been many moments in my career when I have totally doubted myself, but my parents and my husband have been there to back me and tell me I can do it. I am very privileged to be surrounded by this love.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?

My career jumps all over the place, but when my eldest child was born nearly 10 years ago I started working for myself as a contractor. I have spent much of that time offering workshops in schools focusing on feminism, body positivity, gender and internet safety. Moments in these workshops where I see kids have lightbulb moments would be absolute highlights.

And of course the moment that Freedom Kids launched and suddenly this pipe dream had become a reality. I also have lots of mini-highlights every week. I particularly love it when parents email me to tell me about their boy who was so was happy buying his dress from us, or that they are grateful for giving them an option for buying ethical kids clothes.  The customer feedback is wonderful and I feel honoured that people take the time to tell us.

What do you think New Zealand is like for creativity? Is there something about ‘Kiwiness’ that helps or hinders?

I think New Zealand’s small size helps in its nurturing of creativity. In terms of business, New Zealanders are lucky in the way that it is so simple to create a company.  There is minimal bureaucracy, so it means that if you’ve got a great idea you can get things up and running really quickly.

I also think our small size means that there are lots of opportunities for New Zealander to get products to market quickly, and everyone-knows-everyone in NZ, so networking and getting the word out there quickly is easier.

What would be the advice you’d give someone who wants to turn their creative passion into a full-time gig?

I think the internet and social media has made this a whole lot easier than it was 10 years ago. With some savvy social media marketing, a creative passion can become a business without having a huge advertising spend.  I think this technology has been a huge leveller – if you genuinely have a great product, you don’t need huge money to get it to your audience.

I would advise someone to focus on their strengths – if they are a sculptor, and sculpting is what they do best, then focus their energy on that. It makes no sense for the sculptor to be spending their energy on marketing and accounts if they don’t like it and are not good at it. And I also think it is important to remember that sometimes creative passions are OK to remain as passions and not ‘jobs’.

What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

The biggest lesson I have learned this year is that outsourcing things that I am not very good at or that I don’t enjoy leaves more time for creativity.  And in turn, this makes financial sense too.  I am also getting better of letting go of stuff and saying ‘no’ to opportunities that are not taking me in the right direction.

Where to next? Do you have a goal you’re working towards?

I want to be a part of making New Zealanders more aware of the repercussions of their consumer choices. I want Freedom Kids to continue to grow and to become a household name. My big goal for 2018 to develop the social enterprise side of the business more. 

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