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Driven by Design

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When she was just 20 weeks pregnant, Darbie Angell was put on bed rest. Instead of twiddling her thumbs, she chose to see this time off from work as a gift, brainstormed a business idea and started her own company, Cru Dinnerware. In the process, she started living and modeling a life she wanted for herself and her future daughters, one fueled by purpose and flamed by passion. It’s a life that, to this day, inspires women near and far, and impacts those living in the almost-forgotten, far-reaching corners of the globe.

By Shelley Seale, Photoshoot on location at Mattie’s, Photos by Keith Trigaci

Darbie Angell didn’t set out to be the founder and CEO of a successful luxury dinnerware company that empowers women and supports communities throughout the world. In fact, in her own words, she failed time and again throughout her life, pursuing other careers and paths that weren’t fulfilling her passions or the missing purpose in her life.

Growing up in the small town of Sherman, Texas, Angell attended a country school, where she raised sheep and ran cross-country. A multitalented young lady, she also played piano and was a powerlifter. After high-school graduation, she left town to attend Abilene Christian University and study interior design, a field she later abandoned to become a paralegal. Hindsight is 20/20, yes, but Angell says she knew even then what she was doing was not what she was meant to do.

All the same, Angell detests the word “failure.”

“I wish we could strike it from the dictionary and insert ‘speed bump’ or ‘bruise’ instead,” she says. “It just sounds so fatal to me, and I think the anticipation of failure stops most from even starting to live out their lives to the fullest. Failure is inevitable. Success is getting your booty back up after you’ve hit that speed bump and you adapt.”

Adapting is something Angell has done many times, and it is this, in fact, that has made her the person she is today: strong, creative, a woman who is doing what she loves.

In a way, she has come full circle. Her company, Cru Designs, echoes back to her original dreams of interior design. Her dinnerware and glassware pieces are each uniquely crafted, many hand-painted and personally inspired by subject matter ranging from fashion trends to global travels to the memory a young girl who lost her battle with leukemia.

Flash back to her college days, though, and you’ll find an Angell who wasn’t at all confident in her designs.

“We were encouraged to only offer designs that fit into a certain box, and mine didn’t,” Angell says. “Thankfully, that is what makes me successful now; it just didn’t work in my favor back then.”

She also had an even bigger problem to contend with in Abilene, Texas. A stalker targeted her relentlessly, banging on friends’ doors looking for her. Angell tried to hide from him for more than a year before making the difficult decision to leave the university. Even though it was a traumatic experience, today, Angell says it taught her about persistence and how tenacious she could be.

“There isn’t anyone to hold my hand on hard days to pull me along,” she says. “It is having the mindset that we will make it and you get back up with a smile and do it again, no matter what arises. Getting back up has always been because I have insisted on powering through and not letting other women down that need my voice to continue.”

When she left college, Angell needed a job. So, she turned to something she knew: paralegal work. She had worked as a paralegal for her father, and her experience allowed her to obtain a good position. A year later, she moved up to a position at the Jackson Walker law firm in Austin, working for the head partner.

While at Jackson Walker, Angell and her husband learned they were expecting their first baby, a girl. But at just 20 weeks into her pregnancy, something unexpected happened: She went into labor while at work.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Angell recalls. “I was in the bathroom and one of the paralegals came in and I told her, ‘I think I just went into labor.’ But I felt so guilty about leaving the office because our days were so hectic, and if it turned out that I wasn’t really in labor, I would be terribly embarrassed.”

She was, in fact, going into labor, a shocking occurrence that, thankfully, the doctors were able to stop. Angell was put on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy, and that very first day she spent at home, she took stock of her life and thought about her unborn child.

“I realized how I was living day to day wasn’t anything that I wanted for my daughter,” she says. “I knew that I had to live my life the way I wanted her to live hers someday.”

After re-evaluating her career choices and the path she was on, Angell immediately knew the answer to rekindling her passion would come in starting her own company. Her love for both home design and entertaining led her straight to her business idea: luxurious and artistically handcrafted yet affordable dinnerware. She began brainstorming design ideas for her first sample pieces of plates and bowls, drinking glasses, flatware and various accoutrements. Simultaneously, she started compiling a list of the dream retail stores where she wanted her merchandise displayed. She let herself think big and be bold. Getting into Macy’s was at the top of that list.

To get the ball rolling, Angell needed two things immediately: capital to create her samples and provide seed money for the business, and contacts for the right retail buyers. The clock was ticking. She had approximately five months before her bed rest and post-childbirth maternity leave would end and she would have to go back to her job. To expedite the process, she came up with an inventive scheme to raise the nest-egg money she needed: flipping diamonds for profit.

“I knew that a partner at the law firm had four diamonds,” she says. “And I went to her and said that if she told me what she wanted for them, and let me keep whatever I sold them for on top of [that,] I’ll flip them for you.”

With a bit of side help from her brother, Angell did just that. In fact, she found it so easy to do that she started searching the internet for other sources from which to buy diamonds at wholesale and resell them. She found and began working with two men in Israel on the diamond sales. At the same time, she continued researching factory options to help produce her first products and never stopped hunting for the right contact for her dream client, Macy’s.

With just her telephone and a yellow legal pad, Angell began calling until she found the right department buyer at Macy’s, who, incredibly, agreed to a meeting. At the same time, a source tracking down factories in Asia found the perfect solution with a factory that also produced Ralph Lauren products.

One month after her daughter, Gianna, was born, Angell traveled to New York City and met with the Macy’s contact. The buyer said since Ralph Lauren wasn’t currently shipping the department store dinnerware, there was an opportunity available.

“She said, ‘If you listen to me and I don’t have to hold your hand, I’ll pull Ralph Lauren and test you in their spot,’ ” Angell recalls. “I couldn’t tell her that we were using the same factory because we would have failed before we even started.”

Instead, Angell made the deal. She then did what she says any sane person in her position would have done. She flew to the factory in Bangladesh to oversee the manufacturing of her first pieces. Once her feet touched the ground, though, the harsh reality of life many people in that country face on a daily basis nearly overwhelmed her.

“I saw sights that no one should have to endure,” Angell says. “As we were sitting in traffic on a dirt road, I saw a 10-year-old little girl that was laying over her dead mother. This precious little girl was yelling for someone to help her. It was like I was in a movie spinning in slow motion. I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing this, and there wasn’t a single person that gave her a second glance, among hundreds of people. I am still haunted with this picture, and many more like that that I saw when I was there.”

Those images and the harsh life so many Bangladeshi people were having to endure filled Angell with not only heartache, but also a determination to run her company with a driving mission to embrace and respect the culture in that country, to employ and empower women and make a positive impact with her business.

“My soul was impacted and rewritten that first time I went to Bangladesh,” Angell says, adding that she fell in love with the country and its people. “They have my heart to help their culture and, for that reason, I won’t fail because they push me forward every day. Their faces, their texts and their messages on social media remind me of what I am here for. The places I go aren’t luxurious and, in fact, they are quite terrifying at times, but these sites have molded me and made my character even stronger. Every obstacle I am thrown is faced and conquered so that I can help provide for them.”

Angell made a commitment that she would hire women workers in her factory, supporting them not only through employment, but also by giving them a voice about their work and providing them with benefits such as onsite doctors and three hot meals per day.

“All of our pieces are handcrafted by women, and when you purchase a piece, you are impacting the world, one plate at a time,” Angell says. “When a piece of dinnerware is produced, it ensures that we are giving [these women]a voice in their family and a chance for their daughters to see them living a full life and to dare to dream.”

Her dreams, dedication and hard work paid off big time. Not only did Angell get her pieces produced and sold through Macy’s, but she soon found her dinnerware line being featured in other big-name retail stores, including Bed Bath & Beyond and Dillard’s, as well as smaller home stores and boutiques.

“I love that each day, I am pushed to think outside of the box and be creative in so many different ways,” Angell says. “As I work harder and push forward, I become stronger, not only in business, but in my personal life as well. Most of all, I love that I have been given the chance to be able to make an impact through this company as a voice for women in underdeveloped countries.”

Her interactions with the people she has met traveling the world are what inspire her to give back.

“I look at every moment as an opportunity to create, inspire and explore. And the culture of my company embraces each opportunity,” she says. “It drives me to go the extra mile to not only make luxurious pieces, but to promote change. I don’t go a single day without thinking about the sights I have seen and cultures I have been immersed in.”

But Angell doesn’t have to fly halfway across the world to find females who inspire her. One day when when she was leaving a meeting in Dallas, she heard a woman in the building crying uncontrollably. Angell soon learned the woman had just lost her daughter, Madison, to leukemia. Angell couldn’t shake the heartwarming stories and memories this stranger shared with her, and the two continued to stay in touch.

“I told her that I would love to design a piece in Madison’s name,” Angell says of one of their conversations. “I always sit in Madison Square Park in New York and could picture Madison as a 14-year-old girl sitting under the cherry blossom trees in April.”

That image led to the creation of the Cru line Madison’s April in NY, from which a portion of all sales proceeds go toward finding a cure for pediatric cancer.

“I feel beyond blessed to have been given a voice to help others and try to run towards them instead of away,” Angell says. “I think, for the most part, people want to help in life, but they either think there is no way they can actually make an impact or they feel like they are too busy to try.”

She compares philanthropy and altruism to the first use of a muscle.

“At first, it is hard to exercise, but once you start, it gets easier and easier,” she says. “It’s the same with making a difference in the world. I love that I have been given the chance to dare, to be able to make an impact through this company.”

One of her greatest hopes now, as a role model to not one, but two daughters, is that they will see what kind of impact they can have by simply using their voices to help others.

“As a mother of two girls, my first priority is showing them they can do anything they dream of and to always be passionate about what they are doing in life,” Angell says. “Seeing my girls be fearless and hearing them tell others how we are impacting a culture through the company is so rewarding. I tell them constantly that I will always be behind them in whatever they choose in life.”

Angell adds that she also wants to teach them about the power of resiliency and strength.

“It is so great getting to show them how to fall and get right back up, and seeing them emulate this in their own lives,” she says. “They build each other up and encourage each other not to give up, and that is one of the greatest things I can give them, that, and showing them how to be confident.”

She remembers a cocktail event she took her daughter Gianna to when she was about 5 years old. As the mother-and-daughter duo entered the room, Gianna tugged on Angell’s hand and said, “Mom, everyone is staring at us!”

Angell told her daughter, “That is when you smile even bigger and hold your head high.” “It’s important to learn how to have confidence at a young age,” Angell says, “because that in itself will take you far.”

As confident as a mother and role model as Angell can be, she confides she still faces challenges and struggles, much like the rest of us. She just chooses not to allow doubts to get the best of her as an entrepreneur, a woman or a mother.

“I started this company to show my girls that they could do anything that they dreamt of, and to be able to show them how to be strong women. That was always my No. 1 goal as a mother,” Angell says. “Now they are seeing firsthand how to be fearless and to be a voice in the world through whatever their passion leads them to. It has been an amazing journey of living boldly, pushing myself through obstacles and passionately working to make an impact in the world.”

Quick Q&A with Darbie Angell

Austin Woman: What does being a boss lady mean to you?

Darbie Angell: Being a boss lady does not necessarily mean that you’re the CEO of “The Big Company.” Anyone can be a boss lady, whether you’re at work or at home. A boss lady is respected. She is naturally strong, poised and holds her presence in a crowded room. She is emotionally intelligent, confident, energetic, communicates well and isn’t afraid of making a statement. 

AW: What book has helped you the most throughout your career?

DA: Hands down, Onward by Howard Schultz. I carried that thing around for a solid three years because he is so vulnerable in it. He only speaks of failure and how he got back up. In one word, Howard tells of how to be magical, and that is what I have mimicked throughout my career, just bringing something different to the table and doing it with passion.

AW: What piece of business advice can you share with young women? 

DA: You have to recognize that this is your dream and not anyone else’s, and you can’t expect anyone else to be excited to hold your hand as you are building your dream. People may laugh and ask who you think you are, or say you aren’t capable of competing with big brands. When you conquer that, they will continue to say there is no way you can keep holding it all together. After that, they start calling to ask to be a part of what you are doing. Refuse to take a number. Refuse to sit still in your own life and be a follower. I was just a young girl who dared to dream of bigger things, and was willing to leave my old life behind. There was absolutely nothing to lose. You must only rely on yourself to gain your own confidence in your own dreams. If you do that, you will find that you have peace in being the driver, and you won’t ever feel comfortable in the backseat again.

AW: In your opinion, what is the best way women can support and empower other women?

DA: Just being there and ready to listen. I try to make myself open and vulnerable to that. I am approachable so that I can help with real issues that are occurring. It would be so easy for me to say, ‘Oh, my life is perfect and starting this company was so easy that I didn’t run into any issues.’ But that wouldn’t be true or helpful. Being open to talking about failure—and telling them how you came back from it—is vital.”

 

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