Designing her future
While business graduate Katherine Gracey was building a prestigious career in marketing, her passion for fashion never left her. She now runs a small clothing business built on an ethos of inclusivity and staying true to her non-negotiables.
A business degree at ACU’s Melbourne Campus wasn’t Katherine’s original plan. “It was always nursing. I’d based all of my Year 11 and 12 subjects on this idea, but halfway through I realised I just wasn’t particularly passionate about biology. At the time, my dad was working in sales and I’d overhear him talking on the phone. It really appealed to me. Majoring in marketing was the new plan.
“But I admit, I did freak out a bit once I got to ACU and was suddenly having to study things like micro- and macro-economics when I’d always tried so hard to avoid qualitative maths! Luckily, I had a great lecturer who was extremely funny and dry, and somehow he always found a way to make it enjoyable and easy to understand. I was in lectures with about 100 people, but he knew all of us and we could always ask questions. And once I got to study subjects like advertising, I knew I had chosen the right course.”
After completing her degree, Katherine got a job at a small sales company to get her career going.
“I ended up working there for 18 months and I really liked it,” she said. “And then because I had this experience under my belt, I was able to move into a sales graduate role in the IT division at Fujitsu.”
After honing her skills at Fujitsu, Katherine took some time out to travel overseas and worked briefly in London-based media agency before returning home to determine her next move.
“I was thinking about the casual jobs I’d had as a teenager and I knew I really loved retail.
"I ended up getting a job for the brand HP that serviced Harvey Norman stores. It was a much better fit for me. Then I was headhunted by Harvey Norman itself.
“I ended up working there for six years. I started as the product and marketing manager. Of everything I’d done in my career, this was by far my favourite role. I got to do everything – I was writing radio and TV ads, buying products, putting sales events together. Doing something I loved really gave me confidence for the first time in my career.”
Out on her own
By the time she was 30, Katherine was running the marketing for Harvey Norman’s computer division, a $1.2 billion category, with 24 people reporting to her. After having kids, she moved onto another marketing role with Mercedes-Benz Australia. She was busy with two kids, but she said running her own business was never far from her mind.
“As life at home got busier, I thought there must be a smarter way for me to contribute to my career and do what I want to do on my own terms.
“My parents ran their own business for 20 years and I got to see firsthand everything that goes along with that.
“I’ve always had a passion for fashion, always, from the time I was a little girl. I’d tried to get roles in fashion before, but they always look for experience. That’s a real bugbear of mine. If you’re a marketer, you’re a marketer – you know how to market anything, whether it’s a computer, a car or a t-shirt. So, I thought ‘Why don’t I just do this myself?’”.
Soon after, Uniek was born.
“It felt like there was a gap in the market and I was a bit tired of not feeling represented by the brands I loved because of my age.
"My dad was really passionate about local manufacturing, so I knew that would be a big part of the business too, and it had be Australian made, good quality and created to last. My husband offered his support and here we are 12 months later with a clothing line!”
It takes just a glance at Uniek’s website to see diversity and inclusivity is important to Katherine, with all of the models carefully chosen to represent the brand’s values.
“This comes back to me feeling like I’m not well represented by other brands as an almost 43-year-old woman. And if I’m not, I know a lot of women probably feel the same, whether it’s age, size or ethnicity. I wanted to make sure our clothes were showing – and constantly showing – our inclusivity. Right from the start, this was our non-negotiable.”
Learning the lessons
Katherine said running a small business comes with big lessons.
“Mostly, it’s understanding the buck stops with you. You must be across everything. But knowing my strengths helped too. For me, this didn’t include bookkeeping. I’d hated accounting right from my first semester at uni! So, instead I found someone to help me understand how to make bookkeeping work for my business. Now, I like knowing that the accounting side of things doesn’t sit on my shoulders. It’s so much better to work with people who are experts in the things that you’re not.
“The other thing I learnt quickly is running your own business can be all-consuming. This means you’ve really got to find ways to take a step back.
"Sometimes, if you’re too absorbed and sort of ‘in’ your business, you can’t see what other people might see; you need to get feedback.
"So, I turned to the people I work with, as well as friends and customers to ask, ‘What do you think? What can we improve? What can we provide?’ I’m so passionate about making sure the customers feel like they’re a part of something.”
Find the gap
Katherine’s advice for others thinking about running a business? Give it a go.
“If you’re still in school or busy studying, it doesn’t matter if you begin with a small side hustle. Start now, put pen to paper or do up a mood board. Just don’t let go of your idea.
“But my advice is you have to have a very clear idea of what the gap in the market is that you’re trying to fix or fill. Think about your point of difference, how your product or service will make people feel, and how will it impact someone positively. I think anyone who runs a successful business will say they found that gap, big or small, and stayed true to themselves.
“For us, this was making sure we’re Australian made. And this comes with limitations – we pay more and the industry is very small in Australia. But that’s ok. I’m happy to pay 30 to 50 per cent more for my fabrics because I’m very invested in supporting local businesses.”
If you’re interested in a career like Katherine’s, learn where a can lead.