Women in Business: Lauren Thierry, President, Independence Day Clothing

04/01/2015 08:49 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Lauren Thierry founded Independence Day Clothing to address safety and dressing issues for the special needs population, only to have focus groups tell her everybody wants stuff that's easy to wear.

As a ballerina growing up, her wardrobe was dominated by stretchy leotards and satin costumes with secret stretch panels that keep Sugar Plum Fairies from popping out of their tutus. That served as ID's inspiration for performance wear fabrics.

A TV news anchor for over a decade, Lauren left her job at CNN to care for her autistic son, Liam. Her documentary, Autism Every Day, was described as "the shot heard 'round the world for autism" when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Shooting the film, she saw that wandering was a major issue for autism families. And the simple act of getting dressed was a grueling obstacle course of "fronts and backs," "insides and outs," zippers, buttons and tags. Independence Day/ID Clothing was started to address those challenges.

She is an American Express Passion Project winner for 2013.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was perfectly fine pursuing my career dream in TV journalism for CNN Financial News. It's what I set my sights on as an undergraduate English major at Sarah Lawrence, and as a grad student at Columbia Journalism School. I'd paid my dues, working in the small markets. It was an arduous, though linear career flow. Taking a 3-month maternity leave was the closest thing I'd had to a vacation since college.

I went back to work after my son Liam was born, put in the early -- then late night hours, and expected my husband and I to easily, competently, raise our kid around a crazy work schedule. Nothing special there.

Then when my son was 2, he was diagnosed with autism. We got the diagnoses at 9am on a Thursday. At 11am, I was back on the air. Only on the subway home 8 hours later did it hit me: Things were gonna change. Not just the dreams of him playing football and dating a cheerleader. Those dreams would have to be the first go. But the dream of what passes for a normal life. My son's life -- and Jim's and my life -- were never going to be normal again.

When wasn't on the air, i was back at my desk at CNN. Furtive phone calls to doctors. Educators. Physical therapists. Occupational therapists. And one lady who told she could cure my son by "feeling his vibrations" and then chanting accordingly. For $5,000.

There were tears cried in CNN toilet stalls. And then it was time to go back on the air. CNN being a 24-news channel, there were plenty of days where anchor down the fort for 5-6 hours, pausing only for bathroom breaks.

Something was gonna have to give. So I left my job as a CNN Financial anchor to take care of my son and advocate for autism causes. I shot a documentary, "Autism Every Day," which premiered at Sundance. Shooting that doc, I spent 24 hours in the homes of 8 "autism families." I saw that, like my son, these kids. But due to simple design obstacles like "fronts and backs," there was a wide margin for error. That was my first "focus group" on the dressing issue, all down on film.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as President of Independence Day Clothing?
TV news is touted as glamorous, but it's a gritty business. But it teaches you not to "lose it" when times get tough. It teaches you to never let 'em see you sweat. Or cry. Someone is always watching.

Covering financial news is largely unscripted; you can't be a deer in the headlights, just reading off prompter. You get data and digest it on the fly. Attention to detail. Precision. Constantly changing. No margin for error.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your time as President of Independence Day Clothing?
Highlights: Seeing kids try on my clothes and get free in 30 seconds when it used to take them 30 minutes.

Challenges: Hearing potential investors say, "I don't know anything about special needs so how should I know if this helps?"

Tell us about any new projects that you are working on.
More clothing going into production! Fisherman's sweaters. Socks that have no heel, no toe seam, so that putting them on will be foolproof. Unisex boyfriend shorts that'll be the most comfortable, reversible underwear ever!

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Surround yourself with people smarter than you; always be grateful to those who share their expertise with you. Be a little bit humble and little bit out there. Take rejection gracefully. Take direction gracefully as well. But don't go against your gut.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I keep my office at home -- in my dining room, actually. So when my kids come home I greet them at the door. It also lets them see what I'm working on, so that mom's work is not a mystery to them. After all, my 3 kids are what inspired me: Liam, because of his autism, and my twins. In his baggy sweats and T-shirt on backwards, indeed he did. Made me realize that they were embarrassed. ID clothes are for the dignity not just of those with special needs, but those around them.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Being taken seriously in the venture capital community. The numbers show very clearly men still control the bulk of the VC cash.

Time and again, I came out with the and a plug for the dignity of those we're trying to help. But it didn't move the needle.

Probably no accident that the majority of my investors are women from outside the VC space.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Joan Fallon, president of Curemark is the best mentor I've ever had. One of a handful of women running a biotech firm. Her neurological drugs spend years in pipelines and clinical trials. And she never gives up. Never gets antsy. Every time I get antsy about something, I remember that Joan takes the long view, and so should I. She just sticks to her game plan, clears every hurdle, and the investment community now has her back.

Joan "has my back." I sat in her office 2 years ago and she hacked up my business plan. Neither one of us could be called a "fashionista," but she was full of common sense about my line ("Your rugby shirt needs to fall lower to cover up the faux fly. Longtail it!") And she had me redo my traunches. Then poof - more money came in.

Most importantly she has said, "Just go do your thing. Call me when you need to come up for air."

Since my staff is small, I'm already a micro-manager. So I appreciate a mentor who chooses NOT to micro-manage me. It's good to know she's there, and that with me; she's "paying it forward."

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Sara Blakely of Spanx: Blakely launched Spanx by the seat of her pants, literally. Like me, with my samples in the trunk of my car, Sara Blakely inspires me to just keep driving, keep taking that meeting. And to hope for a parking space -- my sample case is heavy!

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
My professional goals this next year are:
1) Sell out the beta launch line.
2) Put at least 3 more designs out there (underwear, socks, fisherman's sweater, etc).
3) Keep searching for the most cutting edge, precise, accurate and small GPS devices
4) Getting all this stuff into the hands of the families who need them.
5) Make a difference.

My personal goals in the next year are:
1) Plan a group home setting for my son with autism, Liam. He won't be 21 and "out of the house" for 4 years, but I have to logistically -- and emotionally -- prepare for that eventuality.

2) Sit through my son Jamie's tennis matches without looking at my iPhone once.

3) Sit through my son Luke's lacrosse games without looking at my iPhone once.