Sarah Jordan is a recognised industry leader in the ‘tech for good’ space. She’s held several high-profile client-side roles, including as Head of Digital Strategy at Oxfam and Digital Director at the MS Society.
She never expected to end up running her own underwear business! Sarah was inspired to start Y.O.U Underwear on a trip to Uganda in 2016, where she came face-to-face with the problems associated with not having underwear. Instead of getting her knickers in a twist about these problems, she set up Y.O.U Underwear on a buy-one-give-two model with the charity Smalls for All.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
Hi, I’m Sarah, the founder and CEO of Y.O.U Underwear. Y.O.U underwear makes soft, stylish, organic cotton underwear for men and women that lets you look good, feel good and do good.
We’re a sustainable fashion brand with a difference. Our mission is to improve access to education for women and girls by donating underwear. We have a buy-one-give-two promise in partnership with Smalls for All, a Scottish charity that collects and distributes underwear to vulnerable women and children in Africa and the UK.
Our underwear is Fairtrade, PETA-approved vegan and made from 100% GOTS Certified Organic Cotton, and we work with one of India’s leading ethical and sustainable manufacturers. We’ve also embraced ethical marketing, and actively promote body positivity through our brand imagery and marketing strategies.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I originally trained in Geography (meteorology and IT) wanting to be a weather forecaster, but after building a website to teach kids about the weather I moved into technology and worked for many years in the ‘tech for good’ space. Following several high-profile client-side roles, including as Head of Digital Strategy at Oxfam and Digital Director at the MS Society, I set up my own strategic consultancy focusing on business transformation, strategy and organisational change
I certainly never expected to end up running an underwear business!
Everything changed in 2016 when I took part in the Uganda Marathon. Here, I came face-to-face with the problems associated with not having underwear. I saw the number of women and children who were being excluded from school, work and even their communities – especially during their periods – all because they didn’t have underwear.
So instead of getting my knickers in a twist about it, I returned and founded Y.O.U Underwear on a buy-one-give-one model with the charity Smalls for All. This has since become buy-one-give-two.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Yes, I have faced some considerable challenges along the way.
Earlier this year, the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, causing our sales and income to drop significantly in March. We immediately implemented a range of hygiene measures, such as wearing medical gloves and distancing at all times when processing orders, and minimising trips to the post office; safety was our utmost priority. We moved 100% of the business online (including attending virtual markets) and shifted to take advantage of a broader industry move towards loungewear, aiming our products at this niche. Our bralettes have since become our best-selling item. We didn’t qualify for any support so focused our energy on staying creative and finding organic ways to connect with customers. We prioritised outreach, marketing and PR work, an effort which paid off with a listing in The Guardian alongside Stella McCartney, and coverage in London’s Metro and locally on Jack FM. Our sales have subsequently increased significantly and in fact hit new highs!
More recently, our greatest challenge has been dwindling stock levels, with the closure of our manufacturer in India due to Covid-19.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I set up Y.O.U Underwear with the purpose of donating underwear. I’m so proud that the business has now donated over 10,000 pairs of underwear! We’re well on our way to reaching our goal of 23,000 pairs by 2023.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Over the last few months, PR wins (such as being featured in the Guardian twice) have made a massive difference and allowed us to bounce back from a difficult couple of months. Since then, our customer base has continued to grow steadily, and I would put this down to two things: our business ethos, and our amazing products!
As a sustainable brand, we operate in all the ways you would expect – using sustainable materials, working with an ethical manufacturer, and reducing our waste where possible. But we know that this alone isn’t enough to make people buy from us. They have to love our products! We get so many amazing testimonials from customers, as well as a high percentage of repeat orders, so we know we’ve struck the right balance between comfort and style, as well as superior quality and excellent value for money.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I am very enthusiastic about mentoring, as I think it’s so important to share expertise with other people. For the past few years, I have run a ‘positive change agency’ called BOLD that helps women achieve success in all areas of their lives. I run monthly events in Oxford and London and manage the delivery of group sessions in 5 UK cities, as well as Hong Kong.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Equal access to opportunities is central for there to be progress in gender equality. I would say the place to start is my improving school attendance for girls across the world! This is one thing that underwear can play a part in – in some communities it is estimated that 1 in 10 girls miss school on their periods due to a lack of underwear and sanitary products. Without proper period protection, they’re left with no choice but to miss school – up to 12 weeks a year!
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Just do it! Sometimes, once you have an idea, it’s easy to sit on it and perfect it in your mind before giving it a go in the real world. So my advice would be to just get out there and begin!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I’ve got a lot of goals for the future direction of the business. We’re hoping to achieve B Corp status next year, and we’re also working towards implementing a number of exciting initiatives. For instance, we signed up to the 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge and will be introducing a take-back scheme for our underwear in the next year. We also have some exciting new products on the way and hope to branch out into new garments. Socks are next on the list!
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