SOAR MENTEE: Building the Sportswear Brand of Tween Athletes Everywhere - 1

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SOAR MENTEE: Building the Sportswear Brand of Tween Athletes Everywhere - 1
This is the second in a series of profiles on the first four women to be mentored by SOAR, a new Triangle area organization to help female entrepreneurs raise capital and grow their companies. SOAR is funded by Google for Entrepreneurs as part of its #40Forward initiative to support women in startups.

MaryAnne Gucciardi carries a special bag with her wherever she goes.

When the right moment comes along in a conversation, she begins to pull out its contents. The first looks like a typical girl's camisole but Gucciardi is quick to point out its wider straps, longer torso, elastic that doesn't ride up and its wicking shelf bra. It's made of sustainable fabric, she says, and it blocks the sun with its UV 50 rating. Perfect for tweens on the soccer field, basketball court or in a dance studio.

Next comes a similar garment from a name-brand department store. She'll have you feel the difference.

And then she'll tell the story behind the former, the first creation of her line of Dragonwing Girlgear sportswear, what she envisions will become the leading brand for girls aged 8 to 17 who play sports.

With the help of SOAR, the Cary entrepreneur hopes to build a business worthy of outside investment, and with sports bras, camis, compression shorts and other garments sold online and in athletic stores around the nation. So far, she's selling in about 10 retail stores, including Omega Sports in the Triangle and online through the Hillsborough-based operator of and (Sports Endeavors, Inc.).

"My whole mission in this business is to give girls an advantage on the field and in life," she says. "If something fits, it can be empowering, a change agent."

The story goes back five years, when Gucciardi's 10-year-old daughter made an elite soccer team. Gucciardi found it inappropriate for the girls, some of whom wore bras and some who didn't, to be changing from practice shirts to uniforms on the field. When she went in search of a base layer - or athletic camisole - for her daughter, she found only cheap cotton options from department stores.

It was equally hard to find underwear and sports bras that didn't ride up and provided an acceptable amount of coverage.

"I started getting all upset. Why are they selling my child things that are sub-standard?" she says. "If she were an athletic boy, she'd get everything - high-quality, fit and performance"

Lucky enough, Gucciardi had a background in cutting and sewing. She hired a silhouette specialist to help her study girls' figures and where the changes occurred over time.

SOAR MENTEE: Building the Sportswear Brand of Tween Athletes Everywhere - 2
And she set to work sourcing materials that provided odor control, wicking and the right amount of elasticity. And she mocked up a design that accounted for athletic girls' A-line shape, rounder butts and broader shoulders.

Gucciardi began to provide her creations to the girls on her daughter's soccer team. Soon, word spread. More and more parents wanted her camisoles for their tweens.

It all started in Hong Kong.

Though Gucciardi spent several recent years as a fundraiser at Stanford University and then at the UNC School of Medicine, earlier in her career, she completed a Harvard MBA, worked in investment banking, and perhaps most importantly, founded and operated a textile business.

From 1989 to 2001, while living in Hong Kong, she imported cotton polyesters and manufactured fine table linens, towels, fabric headboards, sofas and bedspreads that she then sold to four-and five-star hotels across Asia.

Her company, Pacific Rim Trading Partners Ltd., was acquired in 2001, and she left Hong Kong in 2003. But her years of sourcing and manufacturing quality textile products left her with extensive experience to navigate the industry again in 2009.

Because she was a mom, she also understood her market and research affirmed the opportunity. Of the 22.5 million girls in Dragonwing's target demographic, 52 percent of them play a sport and 3 million play an elite sport, requiring frequent practices and intense competition.

Though the major brands sell generally to adults and children, two competitors had discovered the opportunity too. A Canadian brand called Limeapple already had 10 years of experience selling in high-end department stores and boutiques.

And Lululemon in 2009 launched its Ivivva girls activewear brand, opening 33 stores by early 2014. Analysts have expected it to be a bright spot for a company battered with negative publicity around its see-through women's yoga pants.

Those companies validate Gucciardi's efforts, she says. But she also sees room for another player focused on quality and function over fashion.

And SOAR's mentors see Dragonwing as a natural acquisition target for major brands looking to compete in a still young market.

"MaryAnne has found a place where there is actually space and a need to fill," says Lauren Whitehurst, a SOAR co-founder and mentor.

Gucciardi launched the company a year ago through The Grommet, a woman-owned e-commerce startup that promotes new innovative products (and does a lot to help female entrepreneurs.) The Dragonwing site went live in November 2013, and sales have accelerated since then (She declined to share specific sales figures.)

Help along the way.

Gucciardi sought out SOAR for help raising money - its promise is to help at least one of its four mentees raise a round by June 2015. Whitehurst believes SOAR can help accelerate sales through new marketing efforts, and introduce her to potential investors.

Gucciardi's biggest challenge, says local angel investor and Dragonwing advisor Jan Davis, will be to break through a lot of noise in the sportswear industry and to build a true brand around the products. That will require, "enormous energy, creativity, and/or money," Davis says, because Gucciardi hasn't built a national consumer brand before.

"Like any entrepreneur, she and her team will have to be incredibly focused and work harder than they ever did for a corporate boss," she says.

But part of Gucciardi's mission all along has been to take in help and reosurces wherever she can find them.

Late last year, she was selected by Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence as one of 33 Raleigh-Durham women to participate in a nine-month accelerator program designed to turn their $50,000 to $150,0000 revenue businesses into $250,000 businesses within two years.

She's also part of the Triangle chapter of Woman's Advantage, a networking group for women business owners, and Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, which she credits with helping her develop public speaking and presentation skills required for meeting with investors.

Other strategic advisors include a former dELiA's executive now based in Wilmington and a senior executive of JogBra and Thorlo Socks.

She has two female angel investors helping to fund the early operations of the company. She's bootstrapped the rest.

"She's bright and tenacious and has a compelling product vision," Davis says. "She's invested her own time and money to get the business to its current level, which we investors always like to see."

The future of Dragonwing

Dragonwing today includes 10 different products. Its newest are a long sleeve compression top with a long neck, thumb holes and (now patent-pending) absorbent bands on the sleeves for girls to wipe their sweat.

Compression shorts and leggings are made out of a four-way stretch fabric, for girls with one thigh larger than the other.

No detail is ignored when Gucciardi is involved.

But now, she's got to figure out how to sell consumer and investors on those details.

"She's got fundamentals in place: a really interesting product that she can manufacture, a patent application, a great designer and people on her team and she's hitting a niche that isn't being served well by really big brands," Whitehurst says. "Now she's got to find a way to really spark growth."

Read about SOAR mentee Mati Energy here.