Empowerment – From the Bottom Up!
Published on 6 October 2019
Coca-Cola 5by20 Dundee Case Study
Ask any entrepreneur how they got to where they are today and they’ll tell you how it all began, the journey and the obstacles.
For Deborah (Debz) Breen of Dundee, poor mental and physical health, coupled with a spell of homelessness, did not dissuade her from pursuing her business goal – making colourful and ethical underwear for all genders and sizes.
As a child, a self-confessed ‘tomboy’ and ‘wild child’, Debz was extremely creative, at her happiest tinkering away with her Dad, an upholsterer, and her very own tool box.
While her sisters were busy playing with dolls, Debz was always with her Grandad, Leslie Wilde, a local Dundee Arts Society artist in the 1970-90s. He was always very interested in her own artwork and encouraged her to ‘always be creative’, no matter what. Unfortunately, he died when Debz was just 12 years old.
As she grew into a teenager and then a mother-of-two, she progressed onto sewing, specifically babies’ bibs, children’s clothes and pants, starting her own small business, ‘Bibs and Pieces’ in 2015 (selling to friends and family only).
However, as a mum to two teenage boys, both of whom have disabilities, Debz was determined to create a sustainable business and ‘not just a hobby’, so she set out to gain a qualification, business skills and premises.
Admittedly, an ambitious journey lay ahead but, determined to pursue her ‘calling’, Debz put the challenges to one side and applied to Dundee and Angus College’s Certificate in Textiles course. Due to family commitments, full-time study was not an option so, instead, she completed the portfolio module and applied for a space in Enterprise@D&A, the College’s small business hub. Shortly after, Debz won £1,000 to accelerate ‘Bibs and Pieces’ in the College’s annual Enterprise Dragons competition.
It was around that time, April 2018, that Debz also heard about the Coca-Cola 5by20 Dundee programme. Launched in 2010, Coca-Cola 5by20 is a global initiative with one purpose – to enable the economic empowerment of five million women by 2020. Run in over 60 countries around the world, Dundee was the first city in Western Europe to host the programme, founded by Angie Foreman in 2017.
In less than two years, the programme has supported over 170 women, 108 of whom have launched their own business and 28 of whom continue to grow their business. Furthermore, over 50 new jobs have been created, alongside over 30 volunteer opportunities. There are currently 40 mentors, male and female, including entrepreneurs, consultants, academics and business people from a range of sectors.
With a lack of business skills, Debz applied to do a number of short courses offered by the programme, including Planning Your Business, Exploring Your Business and Managing Your Business. Describing the experience as a ‘springboard’ and a ‘stepping stone’, her business began to develop and, by May 2018, she was showcasing her first kids’ collection on the catwalk of Dundee Fashion Week.
Debz said, “Angie is amazing, always there to help but to celebrate success too. I was in a bad place when I started the programme but the ladies were like a family to me, a real community. It’s not just about shaping a business and learning practical skills, it’s about meeting people in the same boat, making connections and friendships. Yes, we all had a business idea, and a goal, but we’re also just women, and we all have our issues. The programme helped build me up again, and helped me find my purpose in life!”
However, given her life journey to date, Debz was also determined to help others with their mental health and confidence so, in 2018, she started making ‘Pride Pants’, with the objective of ‘empowering you from the bottom up!’ ™
She applied to Elevator’s Accelerator programme in April and, after a 12 week programme over the Summer, launched Wilde Mode in Autumn 2018 (‘Wilde’ paying homage to her Grandad and ‘Mode’ meaning fashion), specialising in bespoke, handmade underwear which is both gender and size inclusive (0-38). Debz mainly sells to the LGBT community and people with chronic and mental illnesses.
Shortly after launching the business, Debz also won a free ‘maker’ space at the prestigious LondonEdge, mingling with various influencers and bloggers. Her presence at this key industry event in September 2018 also provided a catalyst for her to create her own ‘community’, the Body Confidence Cult ™.
Debz explained, “Through Coca-Cola 5by20, I was starting to appreciate the importance of community and the value of support so I started gathering brand ambassadors, basically people with confidence issues, and some with mental health challenges too. I encourage them to take photos of themselves wearing Wilde Mode underwear and post it on my social media channels. The feedback they get is amazing, makes them feel good about themselves and, ultimately changes lives. It seems an exaggeration but it’s not. Of course, they also help champion my cause which is good for business, so it’s a win-win.”
Some of the ambassador and representatives of the Cult even took part in a photoshoot and fashion show during Dundee College Fashion Week, with models of all shapes, sizes and genders, disabilities and different ages – body positivity in all of its forms! In November 2018, Debz also took part in the hugely successful Coca-Cola 5by20 Dundee Exhibition and Trade Show at the city’s Apex City Quay Hotel and Spa – a sell-out for Wilde Mode! Meanwhile, in September 2019, she also participated in Dundee Pride, with a specially commissioned, extra colourful range going down a storm.
Debz explained, “Having been on quite a journey myself, and on the brink of suicide, it feels great to have created a brand which has really made a difference to my client’s lives’, and to be helping them with their physical and emotional challenges. It’s so rewarding when I get feedback saying how much people love the underwear I’ve made and the effect it’s had on their day-to-day comfort and confidence. The underwear empowers people and symbolises who they are, and what they’re about, regardless of gender, size or sexuality.”
So what’s the future for Wilde Mode? With customers worldwide, particularly in Canada, the U.S, UK and throughout Europe, Debz is currently investing in assistants to meet the growing demand. In November, Wilde Mode will take part in Dundee’s biggest festive market and business start-up exhibition, organised by Women’s Business Station in association with Coca-Cola 5by20 Dundee.
“One day, I’d love to open a factory in Dundee, to bring manufacturing back into the city, that’s my real vision. Of course, it’s also about the day-to-day, to make people’s lives better and ‘empowering you from the bottom up!” ™
For more information, visit https://www.wildemode.com/