Cofounder and CEO of UncagedInnovations.com, Stephanie Downs has over 20 years of experience creating, building, and selling businesses in a variety of industries. She also spent over a decade serving as a Corporate Social Responsibility Consultant advising companies on alternatives to animal materials. She founded her first venture in 1999, an internet marketing company, that she sold in 2014 to a VC firm.
Then in 2016, Stephanie founded the venture, Good Dot, an organization that grew into the largest plant-based meat company in India. She sold her interests in that organization to embark on helping build more innovative material companies. Now, Stephanie serves as the CEO of the emerging next-generation leather company, Uncaged Innovations.
Stephanie has also been featured as an expert in countless media. She received various awards, including the “40 Under 40” Award in two states, the Dewey DoGooder Award from SXSW, and has been a TEDx speaker. She also holds a BA in marketing from Illinois State University.
Stephanie loves traveling and volunteering, has been to over 45 countries and volunteered in Greece, Brazil, Costa Rica, Malaysia, South Africa, India and Tobago. Currently, Stephanie lives in New York City with her partner and two rescue dogs.
Thank you for making time to be part of this interview series. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today? Can you share your professional background
I’ve been in business and marketing for most of my professional career. And for nearly 23 years, I’ve been an entrepreneur.
To give you some background, I started my first venture in 1999, which was an internet marketing company, and then I sold it about eight years ago. Then, about a year after I sold that company, I was part of starting the largest plant-based meat company in India. I later sold my interests in that venture and decided to focus on launching the biomaterials company Uncaged Innovations in 2020.
I wanted to pursue this path because, through the work that I’d done helping animal welfare groups, I’d seen that there was a tremendous demand in fashion for leather alternatives. Yet, the innovations that were available in the market had issues such as not being able to scale quickly, or they were too expensive. And these materials were not hitting the mark of what fashion brands needed.
We all have myths and misconceptions about success. What are some myths or misconceptions that you used to believe? How has your definition changed over time?
As a teenager, I equated money with success. I had posters hanging in my bedroom of sports cars and mansions. That’s what I cared about the most then. I wanted to be able to buy whatever I wanted when I wanted. But by the time I reached my upper twenties and had started my first company, my view started to change. At that point, I had attained all the financial success I had envisioned as a teenager, but something was missing; I wasn’t happy. As a result, I evaluated my life plan to see where things went wrong and why I wasn’t happy.
After some introspection, I decided I needed to do something to give back. I needed to help make the world a better place in some way. I started to volunteer at homeless shelters and then volunteered in other ways, but those weren’t the right fits, so then I decided to try volunteering at an animal shelter, and it seemed to be a natural fit. Then, I joined an organization on the board of directors, oversaw strategic initiatives, and held fundraisers. I finally found the right place for my values and personality. But I wanted to take it one step further. I wanted to create some type of social enterprise — combining the nonprofit with for-profit models, which ultimately led to starting the plant-based meat company. Now, my definition of success is about being happy and making a positive impact in the world.
The pandemic, in many ways, was a time of collective self-reflection. What changes do you believe we need to make as a society to access success post-pandemic?
The changes we need to make as a society are to start caring more about the planet and each other; we must start going out of our way to do the right thing, even if it’s not the most convenient or the cheapest.
What do you see as the unexpected positives in the pandemic? We would love to hear a few of your stories or examples.
When the pandemic started, which was when we started Uncaged, I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow, this is the worst time to start this company’ because I thought fashion brands were struggling due to the lack of consumers purchasing products. I worried that those brands were going to say, ‘We’re barely generating enough revenue to stay in business. How can you expect us to spend five or 10 percent more on better materials?’ I worried that this momentum that had been growing toward better innovations was going to come to a screeching halt. Yet, the exact opposite happened.
The fashion industry, among other sectors, is experiencing pressure to be more sustainable because of all the discussions on global warming. People started to absorb the atrocities of the effects of climate change. So, I think that was an unexpected positive that is beneficial to companies like Uncaged. Now, there’s more demand than ever for these types of materials from both consumers and brands.
We’re all looking for answers about how to be successful now. Could you please share ways to redefine success now?
This is a great question. My first one would be that it shouldn’t be just about the money when it comes to starting a company, but rather be about doing something substantive, that matters, and leaves a positive legacy.
The second thing that I’ve learned over the years is to surround yourself with great people. I think that it makes the whole entrepreneurial journey better. If you enjoy the people you work with and share the same mission and core values, working is going to be much more pleasurable.
The third is (how much it ended up benefiting me without me realizing it was going to) that if you help others, they will help you. Be the type of person that is willing to take those calls, give advice, or help somebody who’s in a bind on a project. It will pay you back.
The fourth thing is being kind to yourself. This is where I struggle, but I started doing things like booking a weekly massage or taking time to myself because being an entrepreneur is hard. I always tell people to think of the hardest thing that they’ve ever done and then multiply it by 20. You’re always on call and your schedule is always going to be packed.
And finally, I would suggest that any entrepreneur set both short-term and long-term goals, what they want the company to look like, and what they ultimately want to accomplish. I think that small milestones help you achieve those larger goals. For instance, we have goals for our material. And we break those goals into buckets, and then further break down those buckets into quarterly objectives. Both short-range and long-term goals help us to stay focused and on track.
How would our lives improve if we changed our definition of success?
I think that the whole planet would improve if we changed our definition of success.
For instance, Instagram breaks my heart because most people only post about their ‘perfect lives’ and it’s so easy for us to get caught in this trap. We need to learn how to see past the glossy packaging and rose-colored glasses to assess what is important in life. I think that if we did this, people would be a lot happier.
What’s the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of our redefined success? And what advice would you offer about overcoming those obstacles?
Unfortunately, I think everyone can fall victim to being sucked into social media. There’s just so much pressure to live this perfect life and to have the perfect marriage, the perfect house, the perfect career, and the perfect kids. It’s a trap and we must stop falling for it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
As someone who grew up in the Midwest and lived in St. Louis and had the opportunity to have a private breakfast or lunch with anyone, it would be with Harriet Tubman. She was so brave; she went on many dangerous journeys helping enslaved people escape. I would want to ask her two questions:
1) What was the scariest moment when you helped people escape?
2) Did you ever think of quitting?
I can’t imagine what she went through to make this world a better and fair place. I can’t imagine that intensity. It makes me feel like what I do every week to help make the world a better place is nothing compared to what somebody like her had to endure.
How can our readers get in touch with you?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.
Thank you for having me! It was a pleasure to share my thoughts and I hope whoever is reading has found something beneficial in these pages!