Designing Functional Workwear for Women, with Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants

Red Ants Pants is the pioneer in manufacturing functional women’s workwear that fits and flatters.

Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants

Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants

In 2000, Sarah Calhoun was leading trail crews in the backcountry of Montana when she ran into a problem. The only pants available for the kind of rugged, physical work she was doing were made for men. As Sarah points out, “Curvy women don’t fit very well into square men’s pants.” She took her idea for a line of women’s workwear to several companies, but no one was interested.

Undaunted by a lack experience in business, textiles or manufacturing, Sarah bought a copy of Small Business for Dummies and set out to create the line on her own, thinking, “Start a business? How hard could that be?”

In a moment of synchronicity, a former designer for Patagonia noticed Sarah reading the Small Business for Dummies book in a Bozeman coffee shop. He offered her access to his contacts in the industry and invaluable advice, suggesting that she learn the ropes on the production floor. Sarah sewed backpacks to gain an understanding of how sewn goods come together. She took advantage of available resources, using US Small Business Administration tools to develop a business plan. She found a way to fund the venture through private loans.

At the end of a busy two years spent in a “tricky flow of research and homework,” Red Ants Pants was born. Sarah had a quality product that was made in the USA, a website, and a storefront in White Sulfur Springs, Montana (population 900). To support the direct business model she had chosen, Sarah now needed a way to get the word out.

In a stroke of brilliance, Sarah conceived of the Tour de Pants, a road trip across the country to introduce female farmers, ranchers, landscapers, and tradeswomen to Red Ants. Along with a friend from the trail crew, Sarah packed an inventory of pants and beer donated by Big Sky Brewing into an Airstream trailer and hit the road. Sarah led house parties in barns and backyards to tell the Red Ants Pants story and introduce potential customers to the brand.

The tour’s grassroots marketing effort was wildly successful, and the word spread. The brand has since expanded to include complementary apparel like shorts, hats, work shirts, wool vests, and aprons. The culture and values of Red Ants Pants have created a loyal customer base and the brand has become more than just a product: One customer recently wore the pants into surgery for a boost of strength and confidence.

In 2011, Red Ants added a music festival to help connect its customers and continue to facilitate a personal experience with the brand. With headliners like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Lucinda Williams, the festival grew to an impressive 17,000 fans in 2017. A portion of the profits from the event goes to another of Sarah’s undertakings, the Red Ants Pants Foundation.

The foundation is a 501(c)(3) established with the purpose of fostering strength and self-reliance in women and in rural, agricultural communities. Through community grants, a women’s leadership retreat and the annual Timber Skills Workshop, the organization is on a mission to recognize and cultivate a strong work ethic and provide opportunities for people with different perspectives to connect and discover common ground.

Sarah encourages the Social Entrepreneur audience to spread the word about small businesses making an impact and to invest on a local level. Her advice for early-stage social entrepreneurs is to plan for both failure and success, reach out for help and get clear about purpose: “[Businesses] that come out of necessity, or when there’s a problem that has to be solved, those are the ones that end up working.”

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Sarah Calhoun

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I was not looking to start a company, but it really came out of necessity.” @RedAntsPants”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I naively thought to myself, ‘Start a business? How hard could that be?’” @RedAntsPants”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“When the perfect mentor falls in your lap, you know you’re heading in the right direction.” @RedAntsPants”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“We got to know our customers face to face.” @RedAntsPants”]

“[The Tour de Pants] was a really personal experience with these new customers … and from there the word spread like wildfire.” @RedAntsPants

[spp-tweet tweet=”“A customer wore her Red Ants Pants into surgery because they made her feel stronger.” @RedAntsPants”]

[spp-tweet tweet=””It’s becoming so much more than just a product.” @RedAntsPants”]

“Music is such an invaluable tool in connecting people … Especially these days, we need more things that are bringing us all together.” @RAPFestival

“[Businesses] that come out of necessity, or when there’s a problem that has to be solved, those are the ones that end up working.” @RedAntsPants

[spp-tweet tweet=”“People are honored to be asked for help because their expertise is valued.” @RedAntsPants”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“Spread the word about small businesses making an impact.” @RedAntsPants”]

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

 

About the Author
Tony Loyd is a TEDx speaker, podcast host and the author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, talent management, and leadership development. Tony is the host of the podcast Social Entrepreneur where you can hear the stories of changemakers who are making an impact on the world.

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