Originally published at key.com. KeyBank ranked No. 23 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.
Women-Made Products and Women-Supplied Services Offered Exclusively to Women
When you read the story of TheWMarketplace, you’re going to ask yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because that’s what we do when we learn about a brilliant startup. Check out the talent, tenacity and daring of the two women behind this successful-out-of-the-gate eCommerce company.
It started with an unremarkable question posed by a friend who had just moved to the States from Europe: “Why doesn’t the U.S. celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) like many other countries do?”
“Great question,” thought Kate Isler, who had recently left a post at Microsoft and was wrestling with the many challenges of her digital health startup business. “Why don’t we celebrate? We should do that.”
IWD has been observed on March 8 since the early 1900s and is an official holiday in more than 25 countries. But, until Isler came along, it’s gone by mostly unnoticed in the United States for decades.
With six weeks to plan, Kate decided to host an event. “We had 80 people. It was fun. Then the next summer and fall, people started saying, ‘Well, what are you going to do this year?’” So Isler and her team found themselves in the IWD event business, interacting with crowds of more than 500 women at Seattle Symphony Hall.
That is until the global pandemic stopped gatherings and celebrations altogether. Then came the stark realization that there was so much more to do to acknowledge, support and celebrate women.
“Everyone was shopping online. We needed to figure out a way to put money directly into women’s pockets,” Isler said. “We need to create an eCommerce site for women.” The first thing she did was share the idea with a friend in hopes of recruiting a business partner.
“I told Kate I would love something positive to work on,” said Susan Gates, co-founder of TheWMarketplace. “It was clear that my job was about to come to an end due to the impact of COVID-19 on the coffee industry. I’ve always been a gender equality advocate and I was ready to do something different. What better time to start a business than during a pandemic? Let’s go for it.”
With that, TheWMarketplace was born.
Isler and Gates both work in Seattle, but remote from each other. Team members also work remotely. “With eCommerce, you can work anywhere. Our tech partner is a woman-owned firm in Jacksonville, Florida,” Isler commented.
In addition to TheWMarketplace, Isler remains the leader of Be Bold Now, a nonprofit organization that supports International Women’s Day.
If Women Build It, Women Will Come
“We opened up TheWMarketplace to women-owned brands on September 29, 2020,” said Isler. “And by July of 2021, we had 425 sellers offering more than 2,800 products and services.” The company is proud of its focus on diversity, already tracking and building its Black, Asian, Latina, veteran and LGBTQIA+ sellers and consumers.
Products range from artwork, clothing and jewelry to custom invitations, cake toppers and tea. Services include tax advice, logo development, website overhauls, tutoring, stationery design, estate planning, yoga and every kind of coach imaginable.
Isler brings more than 20 years of international executive leadership experience with Fortune 100 companies to TheWMarketplace. Gates adds two decades of global sales and sponsorship experience. Both have a passion for helping women and working toward a more gender-balanced economy. Isler’s new book, Breaking Borders, tells the story of her journey from launching her career, to global executive, to entrepreneur of her dream company. She also discusses the many hurdles she jumped along the way.
One of Isler and Gate’s secrets to success is developing partnerships. “We partner with organizations like LeadHERship Global, Take the Lead Women, many Small Business Administration offices, the Washington Center for Women in Business, Association of Women Accountants and, of course, Key4Women,” Gates said. “We are proactive in our outreach.”
Isler and Gates specialize in connecting women to other women, so women can buy, sell and research products and services they need. “We’ve created an ecosystem of support that is growing businesses. The amazing organizations we partner with do a lot of mentoring and networking.”
With respect to how they reach shoppers, Gates acknowledged that social media gets the lion’s share of their marketing resources.
“Women are shopping their values,” Isler noted. “Women doing business with women will change the world.” This — changing the world — is what Kate calls her “latest strategy.”
Bold Is Putting It Mildly
“In celebrating International Women’s Day, we learned what the gaps were in the U.S. and the developed world. We think we are very far along in closing the gender gap, but we are not,” Isler said. “When we shine a light on that — and then take action to change it — it will be powerful. That’s where our heart is as a company.”
“One of the things we’re clear on is that we want to continue to create a space that is accommodating to women and redefines ‘normal.'”
“Many women who have engaged with TheWMarketplace have (or had) brick and mortar stores. Many have dreams and are making them come alive through a side hustle. We can help women in both these situations.”
Gates added, “Rarely do you meet a woman whose career is single-dimensional. We are listening and evolving our business to accommodate that. Our business model today is vastly different than it was nine months ago when we started.”
An example of this was a deliberate recasting of their target market. Initially they thought they would focus on the millennial demographic and a specific income level, but they learned quickly they needed to go broader.
“We have such a variety of sellers ranging in age from 13 to early 70s,” Susan said. Teen and senior entrepreneurs are key segments TheWMarketplace has expanded to accommodate.
“We also thought our goal was 300 products in 12 months,” said Isler. “We thought that would give us a viable product.” Instead, the two savvy business owners secured 2,800 products in nine months. “We like to laugh about that,” said Isler.
TheWMarketplace owners raised a round of seed capital in three days last winter and intend to do more fundraising in the fall.
“We see the need to provide business support and skill development on the platform. That is a focus area for us,” Isler explained. “We also see a huge push for digital-first transformation in B2B businesses, and we want to help our sellers with fulfillment, supply chain, creative — whatever they need.”
“Kate and I make a great team,” Gates said. “Kate has the vision and drive and is admittedly a little impatient. I like to plan. Neither of us is new to business,” Gates added. “When people say, ‘Oh my gosh, how did you do that,’ we remind them of all of our combined experiences. We made mistakes in the past, and we now know how to avoid them.”
Both women say they “show up every day excited to do this work” — which almost feels like an understatement after you meet them. Their smiles and enthusiasm alone will change the world.