Leaving a career on Wall Street to start an ethical fashion brand is a story you don’t hear every day, but Tommy Flaim is a man on a mission. With his activewear brand called Fox & Robin, Tommy is putting his mark on the world and creating his own job – one that he loves.
Read our interview with Tommy to see why he started the brand, how the company makes a positive social impact, and his vision for the future.
Introduce us to Tommy as a kid.
I grew up in upstate New York. I was a very curious kid. I really did love school, and I played soccer and tennis most of my life. I was outgoing – loved being around people.
I have what I’ll call an “all or nothing” attention span. If I’m not interested in the subject, I have a very difficult time motivating myself to learn about it (like many of the books we had to read in English class). Conversely, if I am curious about something, I get fascinated/obsessed with the subject and really dive into it. As a kid, I loved nature and animals. I used to read books on animals and do research reports on them for fun. I wanted to be a vet my whole life, actually. In 2008, the financial crisis caused me to start learning about the economy and how it all happened. That’s how I became interested in wall street and pivoted from wanting to be a vet to wanting to work on Wall Street.
So you went off to Notre Dame for college, then started your career on Wall Street as an Investment Banker.
I chose Notre Dame for their great business school, and because I’m Irish-Catholic and love sports, so it checked all the boxes. I majored in Finance and Education, Schooling, and Society. Education is another topic I’m super passionate about.
After 4 years in corporate America, you decide to leave and start a new activewear brand called Fox & Robin. Why?
I think I was interested in potentially starting my own thing since High School. I always liked doing my own thing, which my mom can attest to.
During an internship, I got introduced to impact investing, which lead me to get involved in a social entrepreneurship club at Notre Dame. Through that, I went to a conference in Colorado where I watched the founders of Nisolo, an ethical fashion brand, pitch to investors. In their pitch, they outlined the social and environmental ailments typically associated with fashion brands’ supply chains. That piqued my initial interest in fashion. Although my friends would definitely not consider me fashionable, the room for impact in fashion is enormous – 1 in 6 people in the world works in a fashion-related job, and 80 percent of the labor force throughout the supply chain are women.
I started researching supply chain issues in fashion and knew I wanted to create a clothing business that addressed these issues. I also saw a lack of ethical brands in activewear. I’m into sports and being active, so an ethical activewear brand really aligns with my interests.
Leaving a job and taking a leap to start a company can be really scary. How did you feel about doing it?
I was working through this idea for years while I kept my corporate job. It just got to a point where I had plenty to do for Fox & Robin and was overwhelmed with balancing both. Honestly, one morning I woke up to a billion work emails and decided then and there that I would give my full attention to Fox & Robin. It didn’t feel too risky because I’m confident in the success of Fox & Robin.
You didn’t just create any old activewear brand, you created an ethical brand. You make public the wages of all your factory workers, something you say no other activewear brand does, and your goal is to ensure 100% of your factory workers are paid a livable wage. Talk about what inspired you to be conscious of your company’s effect on workers.
At the end of the day, I’m trying to create a job that I love and build something that I’m proud of. I’m aware of the issues in the fashion industry, so turning a blind eye to it would make my work less fulfilling. Also, I’m just empathetic towards the people in other countries who are working hard to produce our clothes and play such an important part in the success of the company. I just want to do the right thing, and I want customers to trust that this brand will do the right thing behind closed doors. Some companies do good because it’s a market opportunity. Others do good just because it’s the right thing to do. I want Fox & Robin to belong to the latter group. I think it’s an important distinction.
Fox & Robin donates 2% of sales to causes you’re passionate about: education and the environment.
Yep. We will give money directly to individual teachers in low-income districts. Awarded teachers will be able to choose how to spend the money, whether that’s on school supplies, winter coats for their students, or whatever else is deemed most necessary. For the environment, we give money to a rotating list of NGOs to help replace the resources we have spent and to help preserve the environment. As I mentioned, these causes are important to me.
You had a successful Kickstarter and you’re now selling men’s athletic shorts in multiple different styles. What do you look forward to in the coming months?
We’re launching publicly this February! We’ll launch with our men’s shorts, joggers, hoodies, and athletic shirts. In the background, we’re also developing 12 women’s products and 8 new men’s products. I very much want to be a brand for both men and women. Look for our launch in February and a Kickstarter for the women’s line around March!
What’s your ultimate vision for Fox & Robin?
I want to be the first apparel benefit corporation to IPO. I want to show people that you can have a triple bottom line. Profitability is very important, but I also want to prove that a business can maximize for more than just profits.
I want to be an advocate for those on the outskirts of society and empower them in any way I can. I’d love to have some factory workers and teachers on our Board of Directors. Just to give a voice to those who typically don’t get represented in the room.
Finally, reflecting on your pretty big change, from working in banking to taking on ethical business practices, how do you feel about your day-to-day work now?
I learned some useful skillsets in banking – making pitch decks, building financial projections, staying organized – that help me with Fox & Robin. For many reasons, I’m grateful for my banking experience. However, this is just much more fulfilling. Even when I’m working late on Fox & Robin, it doesn’t feel like work. The feeling of the work is drastically different, and I’m excited about the future of this company!