11 Jul #StandTall: Aisha Hillary – Entrepreneur and founder of Hills & West
It takes guts to quit your stable job and use the money you were saving for a house to launch your own bags and accessories label, but that’s exactly what Aisha did… and she hasn’t looked back since.
Name: Aisha Hillary
Occupation: Founder of Hills & West bags and accessories and Digital & Agile Consulting
Home city: Sydney
Social media: @hillsandwest @digitalandagile
You worked in the communication technology industry for many years. How did you get into fashion?
Each year, outside work, I challenged myself to achieve 12 new goals. I’ve learnt to DJ, speak French, meditate and even dragon boat racing! In 2014, at the top of my list was to learn the craft of handbag design and manufacturing firsthand. I’d always had a passion for fashion (I even worked as a fitting model in London for a few years), with an absolute love of bags and accessories. I flew to Milan, and after being immersed in the teachings of traditional artisans, my mind was bursting with so many ideas and I just knew in my gut I had to take this path.
I returned from Italy and told my CEO that I was leaving my communications and business strategy job to make handbags. I handed in my resignation and gave myself three months to figure out what I was going to do.
It’s quite a job swap! How did you get started?
Before I left for my travels I established relationships with a few suppliers and artisans in Sydney who hand-make bags. I designed a prototype for my Morgan 3 in 1 backpack (which also happens to be my favourite piece in the collection) and tested it while I was away for functionality and durability.
My husband and I had savings for a house that I used to bootstrap my first collection, the development of my brand, website and marketing materials. I’m incredibly lucky that my better half believed in my dream and didn’t mind deferring the house purchase for a couple of years.
Then, using my experience in building brands, digital marketing, operations, PR and writing, I just went for it. Launched and learned. Ignored my fear and my own perfectionism to just get it out there and see what people thought.
I was also fortuitous in that, as I was developing Hills & West and growing the business, people started approaching me to help them with their business’ branding, digital strategy, marketing and content creation. I love working with businesses, helping them to grow and connect with their customers, so I set up my agency, Digital & Agile Consulting, which now helps me fuel the growth of Hills & West.
What are your priorities for Hills & West as a brand?
I value using traditional leather techniques and premium quality materials. We’re all about minimalist, versatile and smart design, focusing on practical and durable accessories that are the cornerstone of your wardrobe. It’s an attainable luxury because we can remove the mark-ups so often applied by the middlemen by harnessing the power of online, making our bags instantly more affordable. Giving back is also important to me – as the Dalai Lama says, “If we are lucky enough to be living a good life then we should recognise that gift and do something for those people who have less.” Each year, through fundraising and donating 10 per cent of our profits, we hope to help children around the world gain an education and get that little bit closer to their dreams.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Cash flow. Everyone talks about the challenges of managing cash flow, and it’s so true. I’ve worked in businesses where I needed to be creative with my budgets and do a lot with less, however, creating Hills & West was doing a lot with nothing. I have big ambitions and a stream of new accessories and products I would love to create, however, having the funds to do it as quickly as I would like to is challenging.
What’s the best hack you’ve learnt?
Meditation, meditation, meditation. It helps in so many ways. When I’m in a creative rut, when I’m tired, when I need to clear my head and make a decision… it has really been my most important hack for the last five years.
Collaborating is my other hack. Two is always better than one. If you can find people to collaborate with from a content, shoot, contra perspective, this cuts down costs, amplifies noise and gives you a whole lot more impact.
What’s something you wish men understood about women?
Empathy is not a weakness.
Lastly, who is the woman in the public eye you most admire
That’s so hard. I’m inspired by so many women who are passionate about their cause and are not afraid to speak out. In tech, Mary Meeker from Yahoo and Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook. Also, while on my journey to rediscover my passions, I fortuitously read Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive, which really resonated.
In fashion, Natalie Massenet from Net-a-Porter, Mr Porter and The Outnet, is an amazing businesswoman. Stella McCartney – besides being absolutely obsessed by her collections – she is a passionate businesswoman and animal rights activist. I’m also a big admirer of Victoria Beckham, both as a businesswoman, designer and mother. She really persevered despite so much initial criticism.
I also have to tip my hat to bloggers such as Nicole Warne from Gary Pepper Girl, who have achieved international success out of digital content. So impressive.