After speaking with Janet Kraus ’84, CEO of the athleisure clothing brand Peach, you might be inclined to start a business or at the very least climb the nearest mountain peak. She’s that inspiring and dynamic. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we obsessed over the things we loved about ourselves? It’s not self-indulgent if it’s in service of you being great,” Kraus said. Whatever she’s selling, I’m buying, even though I haven’t exercised in over four years.
Peach, the brand, is a 15-piece comfy collection of mix-and-match separates for women, all priced under $100, that delivers five collections a year. But, Peach, the concept, involves a whole lot more than clothes. It’s a mindset, Kraus said, that taps into the vitality of women and stretches and invigorates who they are and want to become. Peach harnesses their entrepreneurial spirit and activates them to lead happy and healthy lives.
What started as an intimate apparel line focusing on a personalized sale of bras has grown into a thriving business that offers softer than soft tops, flattering leggings in a moisture-wicking tech fabric, and chic yet simple dresses. Currently, twenty-five percent of the Peach product line is gym wear and the balance is athleisure wear, all with an approachable feminine aesthetic targeted to the active mom.
This new strategy for Peach has paid off. The company now consists of an army of 500 entrepreneurs, whom Peach calls stylists, located in New England, the Mid Atlantic, Atlanta, Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and northern California. This number is growing every month. With an initial seed investment of $199 each stylist receives the technology, marketing materials, and three garments needed to start her own Peach business. Stylists create their own schedules and sell on their own time. A three-to-five hour weekly commitment can yield a stylist $500. Top stylists can earn $5,000 to $10,000 plus a month through her own sales and a percent of her team’s sales. Whether a Peach stylist schedules one-on-one appointments in people's homes, hosts a sip-and-shop experience at a gym or pilates studio, or offers a small parties in a friend’s home, or simply shares looks she loves by wearing the clothes (Peach calls this wear and share), she can create and define her own business on her own terms. “I draw inspiration from women who are not known,” Kraus said. “I like the little story as much as the big story. Our stylists are constantly posting things on social media about how they've parlayed taking Peach on the road and whether they’ve achieved a goal or hit a road bump. I love it when they post about how Peach has impacted their lives financially, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. We try to bring value to all parts of their lives.”
Kraus’s entrepreneurial zeal emerged early on and was always in the process of becoming. After Yale, Kraus attended Stanford Business School, and, like many business school grads, worked for a consulting firm, where her achievements left her feeling unfulfilled. Her moment of reckoning occurred while huddled over a spreadsheet at 2:00 a.m., when her computer went on the fritz, causing every cell to blink an error code. Although she was panicked and discouraged, that low point opened up a moment of clarity for her. She conjured up all the past experiences that gave her joy. In our meeting, Kraus pulls out a faded photo on her laptop of her young self, crouched next to her classic red Radio Flyer wagon filled with vegetables that she and her dad grew, which she sold to her neighbors, tossing recipes for ratatouille in order to spur sales. During a summer in college, she remarkably sold $50,000 of Cutco knives in three months. She organized talent shows in her backyard and charged the neighborhood parents tickets to watch their own children performing cartwheels. These early morning moments of business insight put Kraus on her path of entrepreneurial transformation and she hasn’t looked back. In recalling her past, Kraus said that gaining an understanding of herself has allowed her to achieve a more meaningful and fruitful life.
As a former entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School (Peach is Kraus’s third startup), Kraus readily recites the HBS definition of entrepreneurship: the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources currently controlled. But, she admits that the definition is limited because it says nothing about ideas, personality, and enthusiasm. By her own account, Kraus defines entrepreneurship as a way of being. She asks, “Do you want to relentlessly pursue an idea? Do you have the drive? There are lots of things that you can learn about being an entrepreneur, but people who are true entrepreneurs don’t see risk the way others do. You’re not afraid of failing. You think, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I guess I’ll get a job.”
Kraus continues, “In my mind, I never give up. Nothing has been an all-out failure. I always make something of it. I don’t fear failure. Entrepreneurs reframe the conversation to see a new way to think it through. You're either going to find a way to land the plane softly or find a way to put gas in the tank. Our brains find ways to reframe the storyline so that you can manage the stress. Sometimes the best ideas come out of times that are challenging because it forces you out of the box.”
While she found the teaching gig at HBS invigorating and rewarding, she wanted to take a more hands-on approach and scale up to influence more than just one classroom of entrepreneurial students, which ultimately led her to Peach. Kraus cites sobering headwinds, particularly for women in startups. Women start businesses at twice the rate of men, yet only ten percent of female-owned companies make $100,000 in revenue. Less than two percent of those companies earn a million dollars in revenue. Ninety-six percent of venture capital goes to male-founded companies with male CEOs. She says the most difficult aspect of her job is fundraising, which occupies eighty percent of her time, noting that women typically receive more “nos” from VC firms. Despite and perhaps because of these dim prospects for women in startups, Kraus wants to help other women crack the code to achieve greater success in business and transform their lives into something inspiring.
A key to Peach’s success and the loyalty of its salesforce is its commitment to its employees’ professional development. “One of the things that I got excited about at Harvard,” she said “was the study of positive psychology and the work of Martin Seligman, who wanted to make healthy brains healthier and create satisfaction and joy. I started teaching that and studying that and thought about how to integrate these ideas at Peach while building this army of stylists.”
Thus, as part of the company’s underpinning, Peach provides support and training through its Thrive program, designed to help women reach their fullest potential. Stylists are given a strengths assessment which is a personality thumbprint that helps them live into and harness their strengths, enabling them to build a better team and a better business. Monthly coaching calls are made to review performance and develop the stylists’ skill set while building their confidence. She acknowledges that women are their own worst critics, members of what Kraus calls the internal “Itty Bitty Shitty Committee,” and she asks women to be kinder to themselves. “The criticism women say to themselves,” she said, “ is something they would never say to a friend. Why are you not your best friend? You have to train your mind to be positive and focus on your strengths. We spend time in the gym. It’s worth the time to train your mind as well. It’s a muscle. It’s grooved into your brain. You have to fake it so the positive story becomes the true one.”
Kraus is a remarkable force, and you don’t have to look far into her background to see why. Her childhood was a perfect incubator for future success. Her late mother, Eileen Kraus, a stay-at-home mom who re-entered the workforce at age 40 only to become the first woman in the United States to lead a major regional bank, was and remains a positive beacon in her life and a source of Kraus’s optimistic attitude and spirit. (Eileen Kraus served on KO’s Board of Directors from 1990-1999 among other corporate boards, including Stanley Works, Kaman Corporation, Yankee Energy, Yale-New Haven Hospital and ConnectiCare Inc.) Speaking of her mother, who passed away last year, draws tears from Kraus’s bright blue eyes as she lovingly recalls her. “She was a big mama bear in every sense of the word, intimidating at first perhaps to people who didn’t know her but truly the warmest person when in her embrace...and she let a lot of people into that embrace,” she said. “She emanated strength and calm and clarity. There was no grass greener than in front of my mother’s house. Our life was amazing in her mind. It was so positive and forward-looking. I knew that my mother would support me no matter what.” Her father, Harold, was her mother’s biggest champion. He wasn’t threatened by her achievements and had the utmost respect for what she was creating during a time when women’s empowerment was in its nascent stages. And he was the parent to whom Janet attributes her entrepreneurial bent. Harold started and ran several different small businesses during Janet’s life and he always had a love for new ideas. This mutual partnership set a positive example for Kraus of how to create a rewarding and shared life.
Kraus also credits her time at KO as defining. “I got everything from KO: my service ethic, my study skills, my leadership skills. I was entirely prepared for my time at Yale and, unlike the kids who went to boarding school, I was not jaded. The KO teachers were highly supportive, and it’s so amazing to be in an environment where your freshman year teachers are still involved when you’re senior. Everyone is supportive 360°.”
Now, as a mom to twin daughters, (she eagerly shares a performance of her daughter as the Beast in her school’s production of Beauty and the Beast on her cell phone), Kraus is optimistic about the fortunes of women ahead. She believes that more female-owned companies will produce better outcomes in society and a radically different world encompassing a wholesale shift of priorities about where money is spent, how our laws are made and who achieves wealth. “I’m hoping to elevate women,” she said. “That’s why I’m doing this - not only to sell some leggings but to also have women stop bad mouthing themselves. That’s exciting and great to me. I don’t want to be Tony Robbins, but I want to have that impact. I want other people to have the empowerment of the Peach brand.” I’m sold.