Brooklyn Industries CEO Lexy Funk: 'Stay Hungry and Keep Learning'

<b class="credit">Josh Franer</b>Lexy Bell, CEO of Brooklyn Industries.
Josh FranerLexy Bell, CEO of Brooklyn Industries.

Lexy Funk was only 26 when she founded apparel retailer Brooklyn Industries. She sold messenger bags made out of a bunch of vinyl billboards she found in a dumpster. Since then, she's grown the business to 16 stores across three states, with 170 employees. And while she no longer goes dumpster-diving for materials, her company is still dedicated to sourcing American-made materials.

We caught up with Funk (who was previously featured in This Built America) for a few questions about career, hiring, and the most important qualities in a Brooklyn Industries employee.

What's your best piece of career advice?
I think somebody's career is sort of like a piece of software. You have to know when to go to version two. I think if you fall in love with a job you need to stay and you need to pursue that, but I think people become too staid. I think they should become more idiosyncratic, and they should be learning in all kinds of different jobs.

Especially early on, they should try different disciplines; I think they should try to work in different areas so that you kind of get a vast understanding of what it is that you want to be doing, and also you can learn from those different experiences. And then the last thing I would say is that, if you're able to, either through work or for pleasure, the more that you travel and the more that you kind of see the world, the better an employee you become.

That being said, my sister has only worked in two companies in her entire life, and she grew really rapidly in the first one. And I've worked for myself for the last 18 years, so I haven't exactly followed that piece of advice. But I do think, sometimes people come and if they've sort of been stuck somewhere and they're disheartened, you always think, "Well, why didn't you move, why didn't you try something else?" I think people who are really agile thinkers are very useful for companies, and I think you become an agile thinker when you're constantly pursuing things.

I think the other thing I would say for career advice is to stay hungry and to keep learning. I think to keep learning is very important. It's great when somebody knows something new or when they're very curious. And when you can do that within your career, that's probably the best advice I can give.

Is Brooklyn Industries currently hiring? What positions are open?
We're constantly hiring in the stores, so we have store manager and sales associate positions open. And then right now we also have a designer position open. So yes, we are hiring, and we are almost always hiring. We have 170 employees and there's always turnover and there's always movement.

What do you look for in an employee?
When I hire somebody I really need to understand the position that I'm hiring for, so if I've hired for that position many times before, it's much easier for me to spot what I'm looking for in the person. Versus, say, sometimes it's a new position, that becomes more difficult. But I think what I'm usually looking for is intelligence, and I don't mean kind of book-smart intelligence. I don't mean "I have a PhD." I'm looking for both social intelligence and then awareness of what's around you, and that ability to problem-solve is very, very important--especially in our company, because we're very small and often we're wearing lots of different hats. So sort of intelligence followed by curiosity, but more problem-solving curiosity is terrific.

It could be that you've never even been in apparel or you've never even been in manufacturing or you've never ever been in a store. But if you have exhibited similar traits in other disciplines, we know that we can then translate those traits into our discipline. So intelligence, problem-solving, and then lastly, being able to work on a team and being naturally humble. I think of being naturally humble as being able to look to your peers for answers and work well with your peers.

Again, because we're a small company we always work in teams, and how well you work in that team really defines how well you do at your job. And I think we've had some people who are pretty amazing at what they do, but then if they don't want to work with other people they don't last so long. So I think that's really critical. But I love people who are just smart and curious and kind of open to new delusions are really just critical thinkers. My best employees have those traits.

Are there any other skills you suggest job seekers develop?
It's also about creativity. But for us, it could be that you're coming up with an amazing product and an amazing bag, but it's often about creativity as it comes to problem-solving. I think it's because we're in retail and we're so constantly confronted with different issues and sales going up and down, different problems, and it changes all the time. So there's not ever going to be a stock answer, and if you have a really facile mind you're able to adapt to different situations.

What was your biggest career mistake? How did you recover from it?
Whenever I made a mistake it was actually something that helped me find something better going forward, but I would say that I didn't started my first company until I was 26, and I wish I'd started more companies before that. So my biggest career mistake was going and working as a freelancer for an advertising company, and I worked selling flood insurance. And it wasn't a mistake because it didn't go anywhere and I quit after eight months, but I knew as soon as I walked in that it was just the worst thing, it wasn't for me at all.

It was a super corporate environment and we had these cubicles, there was no light. And it was a very structured day, everyone was really bored around me. And I was just like: wow, if this is corporate America, this is bad, and I have to get out of here. So I wouldn't say that it was a mistake, because it helped me make the leap to then be entrepreneurial, which I did when I was 26. So it was sort of a year of like, "Oh my God, what am I doing? This is really not for me." So it was actually a mistake, but then it helped my career.

> Read more about Brooklyn Industries at This Built America