Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they’re doing now is not what they initially set out to do. Making major professional changes—even mid- to late-career—can often lead to more fulfilling and successful outcomes. That’s what our series The Pivot is all about. Each month, we speak to founders, business leaders and entrepreneurs about how—and why—they changed course and found success in an entirely different industry. Here, we speak to Mikayla Wujec, co-founder of outdoor clothing brand, Alder Apparel.
It’s rare that a person will cite Animorphs, the children’s fantasy book series with covers depicting unsettling images of kids in varying states of human-animal transformation, as the impetus for their entire career. But Toronto-based Mikayla Wujec, who co-founded the size-inclusive outdoor activity-brand Alder Apparel, has never concerned herself much with convention.
When Wujec was seven years old, she picked up a book about children who take dolphin forms to investigate strange underwater phenomena. She was so taken by the passages describing what aquatic life was like that she became obsessed with marine mammals. “I was that kid who wore a dolphin necklace and had dolphin posters on my wall,” she says. “Any school assignment or science fair project was centred around dolphins or whales. It was maybe a little too much dolphin.”
That early obsession led her to studying geography and biology at Concordia University where she learned about National Geographic Explorers, a program where researchers receive funding to go on scientific expeditions. By then, Wujec had moved on from dolphins to other marine species, so she put together a proposal to monitor population levels of bumphead parrotfish in the Solomon Islands for three months. Within a year, she was on a plane to go count fish.
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Her love of the outdoors and marine life had naturally ingrained in her a deep concern towards all natural environments and an interest in sustainability. Wujec’s first job out of school was running Concordia University’s Sustainability Fund, allocating money to various environment projects on campus and in the community.
After six years in Montreal, she moved home to Toronto and began honing some of the visual storytelling skills she gained on her National Geographic expedition to freelance as a nature photographer and videographer. She also joined the clean energy team at non-profit Environmental Defence, advising the Ontario government on methods of improving legislation to greenify the economy.
In 2017, she was hiking in New Zealand when a lightbulb went off in her head. She realized that as far back as she could recall, she had never been happy with the clothing she wore on outdoor excursions. “I remember being a teen going on camping trips thinking, ‘Why is this stuff so ugly? It’s so swishy, it’s low rise, it’s not made for my body—and why is it pink?’”
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Even while preparing for her National Geographic expeditions, she preferred to scour the men’s section of outdoor retailers to gather the gear she needed. Wujec longed to see herself reflected in the world of outdoor apparel and realized she could play a part in creating it.
“Most outdoor brands are focused on endurance, intensity and hyper-performance. They use pictures of some guy climbing a cliff. There are not a lot of brands that speak to women about the joy of the outdoors, or the social aspect of it,” she says. “There are many ways to be outdoorsy; you don’t have to climb a freakin’ mountain.”
Starting a Canadian business
When she got home from New Zealand, she shared her idea with childhood friend Naomi Blackman—they met in Grade 7 while attending public school in Toronto—who had a background in fashion marketing. Blackman agreed that women’s outdoor apparel was ripe for a rebrand. The seed for Alder Apparel was born.
Before launching the brand, Wujec and Blackman surveyed more than a thousand women on Reddit forums and Facebook groups, and by asking every friend and acquaintance to figure out what they wanted more—or less of—when it came to outdoor clothing. “We learned about the exact problem we should be trying to solve,” she says.
“There are many ways to be outdoorsy; you don’t have to climb a freakin’ mountain”
A solid 92 per cent of the women surveyed expressed having difficulties finding pants that fit properly. The pair launched a Kickstarter campaign in September 2019 to secure $20,000, the initial funding they determined they’d need to launch their business. By the time the campaign was over, they had reached $191,000. They named the brand Alder Apparel after a type of tree that improves the fertility of the soil where it grows, a nod to their desire to create a truly sustainable, ethical and size-inclusive brand.
The birth of Alder Apparel
Alder Apparel officially launched in 2020. Positive reaction was swift: Customers were drawn to the brand’s outdoor garments that didn’t look too, well, outdoorsy. The Open Air Pants feature a high-rise waist and slim fit that wouldn’t look out of place on a sojourn to the grocery store. The Get Dirty dress, a mini tank dress with a flirty side slit, is just as good for grabbing brunch as it is for a round of tennis or golf.
The Canadian company carries products that range in size from XS to 6X. Wujec says she heard from many larger-bodied people that this is the first time they’ve been able to find something as simple as a raincoat that properly fits. Other customers have reached out to share that they are grateful for a brand that sells hiking gear that doesn’t make them feel like they’re cosplaying as Crocodile Dundee.
Since launching, the brand has generated more than $5 million in revenue. Last year, Alder Apparel managed to secure $2 million in seed funding, led by firms Bridge Investments and Consumer Ventures. The brand primarily sells its goods online, but recently expanded to several MEC locations in Canada.
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Wujec says that her training as a scientist prepared her well for a career as an entrepreneur. “I can’t tell you how many times on a research expedition the boat doesn’t come, your gear gets lost, or the weather doesn’t cooperate,” she says. “Shit happens, and that’s been a really helpful mindset to come into business with because shit happens here, too.”
Next steps for the brand include getting into advocacy through donations to outdoor organizations who share Alder Apparel’s mission, and launching a new line of swimwear that’s structured, supportive and made of Econyl, an eco-friendly fabric made from recycled nylon.
But, Wujec’s biggest goal is simply to get more women outside. “The outdoors have a demonstrated effect to make people feel more joy,” she says, referencing several recent studies that suggest spending time in nature reduces stress and increases creativity. “I think we could all use a bit more of that.”