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The Pursuit of Purpose

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By Sarah E. Ashlock , Photos by Dustin Meyer , Styled by Ashley Hargrove , Hair and makeup by Laura Martinez

When Melissa Hinnant became pregnant with her first child, she didn’t know she’d lose the baby. She also didn’t know that six years later, she’d be the founder of the multimillion-dollar company, Grace and Lace. Life can be bittersweet like that.

As you walk through the headquarters of her company, Grace and Lace, in Cedar Park, Texas, you’re welcomed by fresh lilies and roses, and chatter among employees. One woman mentions her child’s recent accomplishment and the group responds with a supportive, “Yea!”

Hinnant sits down at the rustic table in her conference room, several little containers filled with succulents and others filled with colored pencils sitting on top. One of the walls displays three canvases of photos of orphans and orphanages, and on the other side are three published articles in black frames about Grace and Lace’s success.

It’s homey, inviting, a lot like Hinnant, who opens up about what it was like to strike a deal with Barbara Corcoran on Shark Tank a few years ago, coping with tragedy, where the company is headed and how she manages her time as a momtrepreneur.

A recognizable chalkboard—seen on television a month prior—hangs on the wall. Hinnant explains when Shark Tank called with a request to film an update on her company’s success, Hinnant and her team only had a few days to prepare. They had just moved into their new digs, and a Grace and Lace employee created an inspirational manifesto to be displayed behind Hinnant while on camera. In chalky script, the word “success” is surrounded by a circle made of arrows and the words “think,” “idea,” “try,” “do,” “do again,” “and again,” “keep doing.” These simple words mirror Hinnant’s career and personal life.

For Hinnant, family comes first. “I’ve always wanted to be a mom,” she says. “So when we did [get pregnant], I was over-the-moon excited. Finally, it happened.”

About halfway through Hinnant’s pregnancy, her joy faded as the doctors determined she had an insufficient cervix, which was causing her to dilate too early. Following an emergency surgery to save the baby, whom she and her husband named Halle Jane, Hinnant spent the rest of her pregnancy on bed rest. Her options were to watch TV for the next 100-plus days or do something with her hands. As a self-proclaimed do-it-yourselfer, Hinnant chose the latter. Since she had learned how to knit and crochet when she was younger, it was natural for her to take it back up.

“Really, when we talk about Grace and Lace starting, those are the foundational stages, those times when I was on bed rest in the hospital. For me, laying in that hospital bed, I felt like I was creating something. While I had the pain of my body not developing this baby right, I felt like I could do something with my hands,” she says. “I was trying to find a purpose in the middle of my pain. It brightened the conditions. I really felt purpose, intentionality to see a creation come about out of two spools of yarn. It gave me something to look forward to, a goal.”

Hinnant was giving. She would make blankets for the other mothers in the hospital’s critical unit, even though she never met them. She started making a quilt for her daughter.

“Never once did we doubt that she [was]going to make it. We just thought I was going to have a really hard pregnancy laying on my back,” she says. Then the doctors gave her the grave news. “[Being] told that I’m going to give birth to my daughter and she’s not going to survive was just truly earth-shattering. Something you’ve waited so long for your whole life to [then]be told that,” Hinnant says.

That profound loss caused Hinnant to feel a deep sense of guilt.

“I went through a real blaming-myself stage. It was my body’s fault. She was perfect; nothing was wrong with her. Her heartbeat was great. It was my body that couldn’t keep her in,” Hinnant says.

After the loss of her daughter, Hinnant continued to make her quilt.

“That was where grief was probably the strongest because when I was making that quilt on bed rest, I just saw myself wrapping her in it,” she says. “To now make that at home and know that I wouldn’t have her, there were a lot of tears shed on that blanket.”

Six years and three healthy children later, Hinnant, like many moms who’ve lost children, still experiences the pangs of grief.

“I went through a lot of grief stages,” she says. “I still, here and there, suffer through some of that, wondering what it would’ve been like if we did know about my condition in advance.”

While creating pieces with yarn helped Hinnant deal with devastation, it would soon become a skill that would launch her career. One day, she had an idea for a cute little pair of lacy socks. Simple enough, right? Well, nine hours later, she promised she’d never make them again. But she did.

After investing so much time in her new creation, Hinnant posted a photo on Facebook. She did this with a lot of her do-it-yourself projects, using social feedback to guide her efforts. Everyone loved them. Not only that; they wanted to know where they could buy them.

“That’s really how the business exploded,” Hinnant says. “That’s how I grew it from nothing, just starting out.”

Her husband, Rick, was an entrepreneur and suggested she list the socks in her small Etsy shop, where she dabbled in selling baby clothes and blankets.

After 400 purchase requests in a mere three days, Hinnant was overjoyed. But then she got practical. It took her hours to make one pair, so how was she going to make 400 pairs? After sewing the first 30 pairs, exhaustion set in. She decided to use the pattern and teach others how to do it.

“Right away, we had the challenge of scaling the business to meet the demand,” she says.

Hinnant calls Grace and Lace her accidental business. Within the first three months, the business made $80,000 in sales. That’s a whole lot of socks. As if that weren’t encouraging enough, one of the biggest women’s designers in the Southwest wanted to hire Hinnant as a designer. She realized she must be doing something right.

Unbeknownst to Hinnant, her husband had been applying to entrepreneur-focused reality show Shark Tank. His friend suggested Grace and Lace to one of the show’s producers and 10 minutes later, Hinnant was asked to pitch on national television. But here’s the thing: They just wanted Hinnant to pitch, sans hubby. She refused. After all, every time her husband had suggested they give Shark Tank a go, she’d declined.

“Because I’m so stressed for them, the last person I want to be is the person onstage,” Hinnant explains.

The show accepted her terms and the duo hit the Shark Tank floor in Los Angeles, but not before a week of training and practice runs. Even with that kind of preparation, Hinnant kept forgetting the lines of the pitch.

“I was so nervous, shaking in my boots the whole time,” Hinnant says.

They could hear every word of [other entrepreneurs’ pitches]going on before it was their time to present.

“They are getting butchered, and I am sweating down my back, stressed out,” Hinnant says.

The time had come. As Hinnant approached the “sharks” in her brown suede boots with her frilly socks peeking out, you would never guess she was panicky. She nailed it.

After an hour and a half of back-and-forth discussion with the sharks, the Hinnants accepted a deal with Corcoran for $175,000, half of which was credit, for a 10 percent stake. The deal wouldn’t come to fruition until they passed a grueling 16-week period of due diligence.

“They turn your finances, your business’ finances, your personal history upside down. A team of lawyers, team of banks, everything, makes sure that what you said on TV is true,” Hinnant says. “What you don’t see is that two-thirds of the businesses that do a deal on TV don’t actually do a deal in real life.”

Five days after their Shark Tank episode aired in 2013, Grace and Lace saw $1 million in sales.

After conducting her own little bit of due diligence on the sharks, Hinnant knew she wanted Corcoran on her side all along.

“What’s great about her is she brings such a wealth of experience, but she’s not pushy,” Hinnant says. “She lets us run our own business, and she’s there for us if we need her.”

When Hinnant has an idea or needs advice, she simply texts Corcoran and receives a prompt reply.

“She’s always been someone who’s a friend,” Hinnant says.

While the Hinnants were traveling to India, they had a long layover in New York and asked if Corcoran wanted to grab lunch. She was out of town, but opened up her home to them anyway.

“She’s like, ‘There’s food and ice cream in the fridge. Help yourself,’ ” Hinnant remembers. So the couple took a cab and hung out in Corcoran’s house, like it was no big deal.

Part of what makes Grace and Lace an accidental company is that Hinnant never expected to be in Texas very long. Since she was 12 years old, she has trekked across the world on mission trips, visiting everywhere from Asia to South America. When Hinnant graduated from high school in Minnesota, she accepted a one-year internship to continue missions, with the idea that she’d go to college after finishing. She never did.

When Hinnant traveled to Nepal for a three-month stint during her internship, what she saw stuck with her.

“I haven’t been in a third-world country [with]that level of extreme poverty,” she says. “Girls who were 8 or 10 years old looked 4 or 5 because of malnourishment. I remember working in the orphanages and walking in and seeing babies on beds with bottles strapped to their faces because there weren’t enough workers to feed them. … I just knew in that moment that I had experienced something life-changing.”

At only 18, that’s a lot to take in. Every day, she would journal. It was that doing something-with-your-hands thing that would eventually find her success. But at this time in her life, it was hard.

“I left really burdened,” she says. “I wrote in my journal that last day there that I needed to do something.”

Because of Grace and Lace’s prosperity, she was able to.

“Looking back, never in a million years would I have thought that I’d have money to build an orphanage,” Hinnant recalls.

When Grace and Lace started, Hinnant’s friend had started an extension of the nonprofit Rescue International called Angel House, providing children in India the gift of a home by constructing orphanages for as many as 50 children.

“That was the light bulb: ‘Oh my gosh, why aren’t we connecting this together?’ ” Hinnant says. “We started with the goal to build one, and Rick worked the financial side to make sure the profit margins could fund the building and sustaining of them. When Shark Tank hit, that surge in sales, we were able to build five. We opened them the following summer, [in June 2014].”

One of Grace and Lace’s newest projects is in Nepal, where the company funds the operation of rescuing girls and women from the sex-trade industry. They are brought to a “freedom home,” where they are provided with counseling and are taught a skill, like making jewelry or sewing, which can never be taken away from them. Hinnant says giving girls the ability to create is “the very thing that took me out of my painful experience.”

Her goal is to build 100 orphanages, and to just keep giving. “It seems like a really, really huge goal, and then I think about how, in three years, we have been able to do seven [orphanages], including the school. To me, that’s the most fulfilling part,” she says. “I keep it in perspective that this is why I do it, because I kno w it’s making a difference for people. … It’s what keeps me going through trying times, the nitty-gritty of the day to day. It gives me a reason to do what I do.”

“What’s so awesome is this business started with a pair of boot socks. I have no formal design training. I’ve never sold retail. I’ve never been a merchandiser,” Hinnant says.

She would sketch an idea and then figure out on her own how to make it happen. The initial boot-sock design grew into scarves and sweaters and more.

“I’ve always had a desire, and passion with my design is driven by wanting every woman to feel great in what they’re wearing,” she says. “I know every woman loves to be complimented, so I want to design things that when they’re walking in the airport or on the street, someone stops them and says, ‘Oh my gosh, what is that? Where’d you get that?’ ”

Now that business keeps climbing toward success and then some, Hinnant has a rockin’ design team, making the possibilities endless.

“A lot of my designs come from a need out of my own closet. Now we have a professional design team,” she says. “It’s amazing that now I can create whatever my heart desires. We’ve moved into being full women’s apparel, so sweaters and extenders and tops and leggings— you name it.”

Hinnant considers herself a true momtrepreneur.

“I’m a mom first and then an entrepreneur,” she says. Hinnant worked from the hospital during her fivemonth periods of bed rest during her pregnancies with now 5-year-old Sienna and 4-year-old Jett.

After rolling out of bed in the mornings in a messy top knot, she wrangles Sienna and little brother Jett, gathering lunches and backpacks to get them out the door for school. Then the sitter comes to her house to take care of 9-month-old Lyvia, while Hinnant opts for the coziest chair, the baby rocker, and gets to work answering emails and texts from the design team and finalizing decisions from the factory. She’ll move throughout the house, often to her formal dining room turned office, measuring and sizing products, even trying things on.

“Half the time, if I haven’t come into the office yet, I’ll look up and be like, oh my gosh, I’m still in my leggings and robe. You know what? I don’t care!” Hinnant says.

She spends a couple hours in the office to attend design meetings before heading back in time to catch her kids walking through the door.

Family, business and philanthropy: That’s what it’s all about.

“For me,” Hinnant says, “this is my why.”


STRAIGHT FROM THE SHARK

Melissa Hinnant fills us in on what she’s learned during her three years partnered with real-estate mogul and business expert Barbara Corcoran of Shark Tank.

1. “She’s taught me that mistakes are no big deal. Learn from them and move on quickly. Successful leaders have the ability to bounce back when adversity comes.”
2. “She’s taught me that I’m my own best salesman. Never stop pushing your creations.”
3. “I’ve learned to negotiate with power. He who cares less in negotiations wins!”
4. “She’s encouraged me to hire people smarter than myself. True success is who I have on my team.”
5. “When struggling with the decision to hire a design team to support me, she encouraged me to push the qualifications aside and hone in on looking for people that are most like me, think like me to help stay true to my interests and tastes.”


 MELISSA HINNANT’S TWO TIPS FOR MOMTREPRENEURS

1. Know your why
“Why are you doing the business? Why are you being an entrepreneur? Why is it that you’re doing what you do? … Being a mom and a wife and having kids, we’re constantly pulled in all sorts of directions. I feel like unless you know your why, know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you won’t be able to drive very far for very long unless you’re driven by that why. [My why] is to rescue orphans overseas. It’s also to be able to stay at home and work. It doesn’t have to be that big. It can be just to pay for their son or daughter’s school, have extra income or be able to afford Christmas presents, or whatever. But what is your why? To know that will bring you identity and purpose to be able to drive your business.”

2. Lean with it
“We have spinning plates all the time. I would encourage [momtrepreneurs]not to stress themselves about feeling like they have this perfect balance. It’s OK if you’re not balanced. It’s OK if sometimes you have to lean into different areas. Some seasons, I have to lean more into business. Sometimes, I have to lean more into my daughter. It’s like riding a bike. You don’t learn to soar on a bike without learning how to lean: Oh, a corner’s coming, I have to lean. You can strive for a perfect balance, but I am here to say accept the fact that not everything’s going to be perfect. … I strived so long for perfect balance. That striving stressed me out. … I learned to accept the fact that—you know what?—I’m a business owner with a multimillion-dollar business. I’m a wife. I have three kids, including a baby. It’s not all going to be perfect; it’s going to look a little crazy. That’s OK.”

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