12/13/2014 07:15 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Koren Ray, Hobo

Koren Ray, an American leather goods designer, mother, philanthropist, and business woman was born in Maryland in 1966. Koren and her future husband David Brewer, along with her mother Toni Ray, founded Hobo, a handbag and small leather goods company in 1991. Over twenty years later, Hobo has grown into an internationally acclaimed women's accessories brand, sold to more than 3,000 retailers worldwide. Koren's design philosophy combines creativity, quality, function and style into every Hobo product. Stirred by the sublime and unexpected, influenced by both the old and the new, Koren finds much of her design inspiration while exploring the rich cultural heritage of Americana. Her motto, "cool is when vintage meets modern," permeates all of her hard work, positioning Hobo as America's foremost fun and funky accessories brand.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Ever since I was very young, I've watched my mother, Toni Ray, as she faced the challenges of running a business, as a woman and as a single mother. When I was little I spent a lot of weekends at her leather retail store, watching as she ran her business with passion and conviction and treated those who worked for her with respect, honesty, humility and humor.

Once we started Hobo, and I had the opportunity to work along side her every day, I understood much better what it takes to begin a business from nothing and how to sustain the growth. In particular, building a strong company has everything to do with the people you bring on board; how you encourage them to work to their greatest potential and how you get them to stay. I believe strongly in the culture that my mother created in the early years of Hobo. She lead by example, demonstrating that she wasn't afraid to roll up her sleeves and take risks, even when we were a small company with everything to loose. Today, my husband, David Brewer, and I run the business with the same principles. We encourage our staff to take risks and challenge the expected. Our confidence in their efforts breeds a collective passion that is great for the brand. After years of admiring my mother's leadership, I can only hope to follow with the same integrity, grace and grit,

How has your previous employment experience aided your positions at Hobo?
The truth is, I grew up at Hobo. In 1990, I had just graduated from Northwestern University when my mother was fired from the her job. At 50, she knew no one would hire her. She had to start out on her own. So she called me to help out for awhile. In 23 years, I have held nearly every position at Hobo; from sales calls, to packing and shipping orders, from laying out ads to designing handbags, my career at Hobo has been rich and diverse and has provided me with the global perspective I need to help guide the company's growth.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenures at Hobo?
We started Hobo on the dining table with the last of my mother's IRA money. So in the beginning the challenges were many; how to pay the bills, how to save the business when our first shipment of handbags came in discolored. But through hard work and lots of luck, we turned those challenges into highlights. Our first big order from Nordstrom gave us the boost we needed. And setting up our corporate showrooms in New York, LA and Atlanta gave us the exposure we needed to see more growth.

More recently, the challenges we face, like so many companies today, is how to stay relevant, competitive and important to consumers in this new economy. We overcome these challenges by creating buzz about the brand with highlights like our Hobo flagship store in downtown Annapolis, a newly updated Hobo retail website and our innovative Mobile Hobo fashion truck, all of which allow us great opportunities to reach customers with our brand message.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Be willing to make sacrifices and be ready to switch gears quickly when your first ideas don't work.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's not always easy, but I believe it's about understanding and accepting that you can't do it alone. I am very fortunate to be married to my best friend and business partner, David Brewer. It helps to have someone who is working towards the same goals. Hobo is our passion, but family always comes first. Even my mother, who is the most driven person I've ever known, once said to me, when I was letting work get the better of me, "Honey, they're only handbags". It's good to have people in your life who can help you keep it all in perspective.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Being raised by a single mother who started her own business from nothing, twice, I saw how women pressure themselves to do it all, and often carry a great deal of guilt while doing it. Today I think it's important that women know it's OK to want it all; career, family, friends, goals, but at the same time, it's OK to admit you can't do it all alone.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
All of my life, my mother has been my greatest mentor. Even before I was old enough to truly appreciate her, she was a source of strength for me. As a single mom, running her own business, before women even did that, she always gave 150% to whatever she did. I learned from her that you get out of life exactly what you put in. As I got older and began to appreciate her more, I saw that she ran her businesses the same way she led her life; be honest, work hard, be real and fair and follow your heart. Her lessons serve me well in every aspect of my life, running Hobo and raising my own family.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are a great many women I admire, from all professions, for their strength of conviction and their selfless efforts. They are setting powerful examples for us all. But honestly, my true heroes, are the real women I meet everyday. They are raising children, caring for family and friends, working their jobs and with every contribution, big or small, they are shaping the world.

What do you want Hobo to accomplish in the next year?
One of our big goals for the next year is the successful relaunch of our e-commerce website. We have brought a whole new lifestyle experience to the site and we are thrilled to be moving all of the order fulfillment and customer service from a third party contractor to our own corporate distribution center in-house. We are continually looking for ways to better communicate with our direct consumer and we think the new website will be a great tool.

We are also excited to be getting our new Mobile Hobo fashion truck out on the road. We've taken an old delivery truck and refitted the inside to showcase our products. A mobile truck is perfect for Hobo. It's a reflection of our adventurous spirit and great way for us to take our brand message on the road.