Susan Clayton is the founder of WhitePaws RunMitts, and is one of two Black outdoor winter gear company owners in the U.S. Susan was a running coach for several years with Back on My Feet, which organizes runs and supports the homeless community in the city of Baltimore. During harsh winters, her hands became extremely cold. One day she saw a friend running with socks on their hands, which sparked the idea for WhitePaws RunMitts: a patented glove designed to be convertible, thumbless mittens with inside pockets for hand warmers. Now, her running mitts can be found in 80+ REI stores.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
Susan Clayton: Entrepreneurship means more than just starting a business. It means supporting and inspiring others to chase their dreams too. Through my business, I want to continue to give back to the homeless community and people in shelters by not only donating my mittens but inspiring others with the idea that you don’t need a big, world-changing idea to start a company; it can simply be about building a better future for yourself and others.
Tell us about your first experience with entrepreneurship.
SC: It’s not my first experience as an entrepreneur, but one of the most impactful experiences was when I participated in the Baltimore Homecoming’s Crab Tank pitch competition for a chance to win $25,000 to fulfill my biggest order to date. There was so much riding on this competition; it would change my life. I would be able to gain financing for manufacturing and scale my business to new heights. Despite nerves, I remained my authentic self throughout the entire pitch process. That shone through, and when I was awarded the funding, I truly didn’t believe they picked me. It was a turning point for me and felt like the beginning of the next phase of my entrepreneurship journey.
What is your company’s origin story? What is the biggest reason you started your business? What did those early days look like and teach you?
SC: I am an avid runner and I coached with Back on My Feet, a non-profit that organizes runs and supports the homeless community in the city of Baltimore. During harsh winters, my hands became extremely cold on runs, and nothing I tried kept them warm, so I invented WhitePaws RunMitts: a patented glove designed to be convertible, thumbless mittens with inside pockets for hand warmers.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
SC: I wish that while waiting for the patent to go through, I had done more research on areas like manufacturing. At the start, I thought “Oh, I’m just going to sell some mittens,” but it is so much more than that. I was so narrowly focused on securing the patent that I didn’t even start to think about all the other steps I needed to take to launch the company and product.
What does “success” look like for you? We’d love to hear your biggest, boldest dream? What do you think will help you achieve it?
SC: Instinctively when we hear the word “success” we associate it with something big and bold, but we don’t need to. Success can be lots of small wins that turn into something bigger. For me, success was finding something I was passionate about and being able to turn my dream into a reality. That’s success.
What is your superpower as an entrepreneur? What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
SC: Just 1% of Black business owners obtain business loans in their first year. 61% of Black women self-fund their total startup capital. My superpower has been fighting for the capital needed to start and grow my business. One of my proudest moments was competing in and winning the Baltimore Homecoming’s Crab Tank pitch competition taking home $25K. The money allowed me to scale my operations and begin local manufacturing in Baltimore. Winning the competition showed me that a small business like mine is scalable and has viability in Charm City.
What are your personal driving principles, your top values?
SC: Nobody runs alone. I learned that as a running coach with Back on My Feet and I think it’s applicable in every facet of life. We’re all equal. If we lift each other up along our own personal journeys, we can find collective success and happiness.
How have your personal principles and values shaped your company’s values and principles?
SC: When I was in high school Title IX was being introduced. That opened a whole new world for women. Before Title IX, girls were limited to extracurricular activities like Girl Scouts, dance, and cheerleading. My brother ran track and encouraged me to try it (I never imagined myself being able to participate in sports like track). During my first race, he coached me to take my time, run slow, and go at my own pace, but at the last quarter mile, he cheered me on telling me it was time to sprint. I passed somebody. And it felt good. I liked the feeling of competing and pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
What’s it like to work alone or with your partners?
SC: I participated in an entrepreneurship training and networking program in Baltimore created by Empower by GoDaddy – GoDaddy’s global social impact program partnering in local communities to address the needs of small business owners – and Impact Hub Baltimore. The program helped accelerate the way I use technology for my business. GoDaddy has been extremely vital in guiding the development of my small business website and e-commerce platform. GoDaddy even featured me and my business in season 4 of their YouTube docuseries, Made in America, which explores my journey as a founder and the challenges and successes I encountered along the way.
Do you have a mentor? Tell us about what makes them valuable to you and your business?
SC: Yes, of course. Everyone should have a mentor, whether or not you’re an entrepreneur. Mentors help you to raise your confidence, help grow skills and gain new perspectives. I’m thankful to have mentors from Empower by GoDaddy, Impact Hub Baltimore, and more. In fact, it was Empower by GoDaddy that helped me create a website for my business that accentuated the product, highlighted what makes the running mitts unique, and built an online store that makes it easy for people to purchase the product.
What role does mentorship play in your world (as a mentor or mentee)?
SC: Leaning in on mentors and asking for help is a large reason WhitePaws RunMitts experienced the success we’ve had to date. Through Empower by GoDaddy and Impact Hub, I’ built an online presence for my company and navigated the ups and downs of a growing business. I’m thankful to have so many people cheering for me and offering a helping hand when needed.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day?
SC: Unsurprisingly, I try to start every morning with a run. Sometimes I run solo. Sometimes I run with Back on My Feet. Moving my body allows me to clear my head and start each day with a refreshed appreciation and take on whatever challenge lies ahead.
What are you reading or have read?
SC: I prefer to listen to books rather than read physical copies. My day-to-day life is extremely busy and I find it cathartic to listen to books that are light, like romantic comedies.
Where do you go for inspiration?
SC: My Baltimore community. The running trails around the city. The urban hiking trails. I find inspiration from nature and people.
Do you have a favorite quote, mantra, or words of wisdom to get through the tough days?
SC: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
What is a problem that keeps you up at night?
SC: Manufacturing. One of the scariest things that can happen to a company is running to the finish line, and you run out of money. And this happens all the time. Wonderful companies with brilliant ideas and revenue completely crumble because they come to an inflection point, need capital, product, and support, and cannot find any.
How do you think about helping others through your work?
SC: WhitePaws RunMitts allows people to keep their bodies moving, even in the midst of Baltimore’s frosty winters. Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety and depression and improving self-esteem. I’m giving people the opportunity to stay healthy – both physically and mentally.
What advice do you have for fellow (and aspiring) entrepreneurs building and leading teams?
SC: Ask for what you need. Ask questions when you’re aren’t sure. People are more friendly than we give them credit for and often want to help.
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as – as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
SC: I want my legacy to be one of inspiration. To inspire others to create. To have the courage to start small. To take on the challenge of creating something. And to inspire people to prioritize their health and find ways to keep moving.
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