In this crazy and confusing coronavirus economy, every CEO has felt the pressure to keep operations going, and Sophie Snowdon Hiland is no different. Too easy, the company she runs, makes a wearable accessory called HoodE — a puffy, faux-fur scarf that can stretch like a cobra over your hat or ski helmet to provide extra warmth. Sales were strong, but the company lost a huge marketing opportunity during the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup at Killington Resort in November when high winds wiped out the first day’s race.
If you live by the time…
Hiland had little time to dwell on lost sales and exposure – the demands of her other expected work. She is a junior at Middlebury Collegeand those 10-page American Studies papers have to be written, even when she’s also juggling calls from her production manager at Herkimer Industries in upstate New York.
“Few college kids have adults calling them about shipping times,” Hiland acknowledged.
A bifurcated life requires weighing “which deadlines are hard and which are flexible… It’s a constant cost-benefit analysis,” she continued. “Which isn’t to say that schoolwork comes last just because it doesn’t have the financial benefits of business.”
True that. But professors are more likely to excuse a late paper for “I had to meet my company’s shipping deadlines” than for “my ferret ate the homework.”
Overeasy is headquartered in the Old Stone Mill annex on the Middlebury campus, a five-minute walk from Hiland’s Atwater Hall dormitory. Just as Apple guru Steve Jobs had his garage, future start-up entrepreneurs such as Hiland and company founder/owner Eva Shaw have space in the annex to work on business plans and seek advice from Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.
Vermont is not awash with venture capital compared to states like California and Massachusetts. But VCET is an incubator with benefits including coaching, coworking, and mentoring.
Skida – Swedish for “ski” – is a well-known VCET success story. The company was founded by Corinne Prevot, a Burke Mountain Academy Nordic racer who developed stretchy ski hats for her teammates and later started a business in Middlebury.
Another success story is SheFly, a garment designed by a group of Middlebury College women seeking urinary parity with flyboys. SheFly pants are a nifty zip away from any access.
Vermont entrepreneurs have long relied on a reliable natural resource: the cold. And snow. It was the latter who played a major role in Hiland’s unlikely rise to CEO. That and a willingness to put yourself on the path to good fortune.
Eva Shaw, from the famous Shaw family of Vermont skiers, had a promising career ahead of her when injuries forced her off the slopes. With free time and sewing skills learned in a seventh-grade home economics class, teenage Shaw came up with a stylish solution to the quirky brain freeze: a hybrid scarf/headgear she named the HoodE . Shaw sewed – and sold – the first 200 HoodEs herself in 2016.
“I wanted something fuzzy and warm that also looked good for going skiing,” Shaw said in a 2019 interview on WCAX-TV. “I couldn’t buy it, so I made it myself.”
She received advice from members of her family, which has more Olympic athletes than some countries. Father Gale “Tiger” Shaw, a two-time Olympian who just completed an eight-year stint at the helm of US Ski & Snowboard, urged his daughter to take the plunge. Uncle Andrew “Beach” Shaw, a marketing guru, introduced her to Vermont retailers. Her cousin Linley Shaw, Beach’s daughter, provided the company name as she and Eva rode the popular Over Easy Gondola to Spruce Peak at Stowe Mountain Resort. His logic, according to Beach: “It easily overwhelms you, so why not call it that?”
Eva Shaw borrowed money, introduced benefactors to Middlebury, and contracted Vermont Teddy Bear in Shelburne to sew raw HoodEs. But Shaw is no teddy bear when it comes to finances.
“I’ve never donated shares in the company, so I still own 100%,” she said. Seven days. Maybe that business acumen is why she now works at Goldman Sachs.
One thing Shaw couldn’t borrow or buy, however, was extra time to run Overeasy. In the summer of 2020, she was working remotely on an investment banking internship and needed someone to help her with her business. Enter Hiland.
The then sophomore approached Shaw at a party at the start of the fall semester, praising the HoodE and inquiring about working for her. After a few bike rides to get to know each other, the two women began discussing a working relationship.
In September 2020, Shaw hired Hiland conditionally to handle social media and marketing. “Two weeks later, Eva was like, ‘OK, what about the surgeries, are you ready for that?'” Hiland said. This is followed by wholesale account management, followed by finance.
“Eva was kind of showing me the ropes,” Hiland said. “And in early November, she said, ‘OK, I’ve got a big job to do…How about you take it on?’ “”
Hiland wasn’t shocked; she expected on-the-job training to lead somewhere. Confident in her responsibilities and expectations within the company, and not overly worried about…er…university, she took over the day-to-day operations of Overeasy in January 2021. Champagne was in order – she would become drink-legal four months earlier.
“Sophie did such a great job as an intern, so I asked her to run the company, and she was super excited,” Shaw said. “I’m here as an advisor. We reach out on weekends, but she runs the business.”
And Overeasy is picking up speed. Hiland estimates that 20,000 HoodE sold for $65 a piece, generating “six-figure” total revenue. The product is now sold online and in over 30 local and national outlets.
Overeasy was an easy sell to Mysa in Shelburne, a shop specializing in local crafts and luxury goods, almost all produced by women or women-run businesses.
“People come to us looking for soft, comfy things,” said mysa co-owner Jen Whalen. “And I think with COVID, people want to be outdoors more. Everyone feels very locked up. So being able to have something fun and warm is not a bad thing.”
Whalen said sales of the HoodE are “exploding”, adding that she has ordered 60 for 2022, twice as many as last year.
Like Shaw, Hiland has Vermont roots. Her father, Chris, went to Middlebury and met her mother when they were both graduate students at Bread Loaf School of English. His aunt Becky Dayton owns the Vermont Bookstore in Middlebury; his grandfather is a management consultant in Cornwall.
Hiland’s twin brother, Owen, was the one with an early penchant for entrepreneurship, Chris said. As a boy, he collected Lego sets, exhausted their permutations, then repackaged and sold them. He used the profits to buy a guitar. In contrast, Sophie was a relationship builder. “His ability as a child to connect with adults was amazing,” Chris said.
Prior to taking Overeasy, Hiland interned with Lisa Lynn, whose Addison Press company publishes Vermont Sports and VT Skiing + Stroll. Lynn said Hiland showed a maturity and confidence that belied her youth.
“She likes to learn,” Lynn said. “Not only does she take on projects, but she looks beyond and always thinks about what the next step should be.”
At Lynn’s urging, Hiland joined the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance, a trade association consisting mainly of large leisure companies in the state. Lynn said: “I told Bruce Hiland – Sophie’s grandfather – that whatever she did I would invest in it.”
Yet what prepares you to be a CEO at 21? Hiland freely admitted that there were days when she’d rather only have to worry about an essay assignment in her inbox.
“We have by no means moved beyond being a startup or a small company,” she said. Recently, while working on a spreadsheet, she almost cried “because I couldn’t match all the cells correctly.
“We’ve had a lot of growth in the last two years,” Hiland added. “But at the end of the day, I do a lot of Google searches.”
The thrill of receiving compliments when she wears a HoodE and is asked where she got it is a big psychic reward, though. Without forgetting to see its products in TikTok videos.
Hiland still has two semesters until graduation, which begs the question of how long she will stay with the company.
“I think we’re taking it one step at a time, with a lot of dreaming and goal setting,” she said of her discussions with Shaw about the future. “At this point, I can’t bring myself not to be involved with Overeasy.
“It’s been such an amazing and exciting experience growing up and being a part of it,” Hiland continued. “I am immensely grateful to Eva for seeing promise in a random child who offered to help out one afternoon.”