Leah Kay Krabbenhoft never really envisioned herself as an entrepreneur, the head of a trend-forward fashion business or a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs.
But somehow, at not quite 30, she's become all three.
But she had a small problem: She couldn't find a comfortable, good-looking headband to keep her hair out of her eyes while she pursued a demanding schedule of classes, labs and studying.
Finally, she decided to make her own headband, so she lugged mom Yvonne's old Kenmore sewing machine out of storage and made a trip to a local fabric store.
After some experimentation, Leah stitched up a headband that checked all the boxes. It was comfortable, it stayed put and it was fashion-forward - with a jaunty knot on top.
Friends and acquaintances so liked Leah's headbands that they asked if she could make some for them. She gave the first ones away, but as the requests increased, she realized she could parlay her hobby into a side hustle.
That was five years ago. Today, Leah's Soulvation Society brand has blossomed into a 100% self-funded, woman-owned brand with over $2 million in sales and zero debt.
And Leah may be one of the few fashion mavens out there who could also give a lecture on carbohydrate chemistry. "Food science was a great field to be in," she says. "I had a great professor, it was a great program and I loved it. But I just had an itch just to make a brand, or just to make something for myself."
She certainly succeeded. Articles on Soulvation's story and products have been featured in Forbes, Cosmopolitan, NBC, CBS, the Chicago Weekly and Oxygen magazine. Her product is sold through retail sites like FreePeople, which reflects her boho-chic vibe.
And her product has received thousands of glowing Instagram mentions ranging from millennial social-media influencers to nurses who rave about the headbands ultra-soft feel.
In fact, Soulvation Society's website champions itself as the "Home of the butter-soft headbands.”
The Denver-based company has expanded its product line to scrunchies, bandanas, turbands (a turban-headband hybrid) and their bestselling hair-ties, which double as boho-style bracelets (that's another Leah innovation.)
The last year's success hit so suddenly that Leah admits it hasn't fully registered yet. "It doesn't feel like it, even to this day," she says. "It still feels like I'm at home, sewing headbands, trying to make it work."
'I want to be a shark'
Yvonne and Jon Krabbenhoft, a technical communicator at Butler Machinery, Fargo, had always instilled values of persistence, resourcefulness and high achievement in their three children.
"If you want something, you go out and earn it," says Yvonne, who was a stay-at-home mom. "Nothing was handed to them."
Even so, they didn't expect Leah to become a fashion entrepreneur. Their middle child was bright and conscientious - but also quite shy. Early on, Yvonne enrolled her in the Bonnie Haney School of Dance, which helped her develop more confidence and discipline.
This would come in handy during graduate school, when the naturally introverted Leah found herself expected to give presentations and constantly push outside her comfort zone. The demands of the program instilled her with qualities that would prove invaluable for an entrepreneur, including resiliency, consistency and the need to research every detail relentlessly.
"It gave me the mindset that I can do hard things," she says.
Long before she realized it, a seed of entrepreneurial spirit was stirring deep inside of her. Years before she started her own business, one of Leah's favorite shows was "Shark Tank." Whenever people asked her if she would ever appear on the program as a contestant, Leah responded: "I don't want to go on there asking for money. If I'm going to go on there, I want to be a shark."
Once she started making headbands, she discovered a way to raise spending money during grad school. Students in the program were typically discouraged from working jobs because the coursework was so demanding. "I thought, 'OK, they tell me I can't have a job, but they didn't say anything about opening a business, so that's what I'm going to do," she says.
The first iteration of her business was launched with her mom's trusty sewing machine and a $300 investment that covered fabric costs and a build-your-own Shopify website.
But as her side hustle slowly grew, Leah sensed that she could make it work as a full-time gig. She recalls feeling scared to tell her mother, after spending all those years earning a master's and then being accepted into the doctoral program.
"I took my mom to Atomic Coffee and I remember sitting down and saying: 'Mom, I'm going to leave school and I'm going to move to Denver and I'm going to make something of myself."
Yvonne was surprised, but she also believed in her daughter. If it didn't work, Yvonne thought, Leah still had her education and potential for a food-science career. "She said that she knew she could build this brand and when she said that, I thought, 'If you don't do it, you'll regret it,'" Yvonne recalls. "So my advice was: 'You'd better go for your dream.'"
'Keep moving forward ... no matter what'
It wasn't easy to leave her family and academic life behind, but Leah pushed through the fear. She settled in the Mile-High City because her best friend from high school, Ashley Stalboerger, had already moved there, it had a centralized location and she loved the area's beauty and four-season weather.
In the beginning, Leah worked out of her own apartment, diligently sewing headbands, mailing out orders, and reinvesting profits into the business to help it grow.
And then .... COVID. Leah was in the midst of looking for new manufacturers and a better fabric when the world seemed to screech to a halt. The supply chain dried up, as did her inventory. "We were actually out of inventory four months because of the pandemic," she says. "We had hardly any sales."
Amid all this, Leah found the fabric that changed everything: a kitten-soft bamboo-spandex. When these "butter-soft" pieces hit the website, customers clamored for them. People eagerly snatched up the headbands, retailing at $15.20 per headband or $54.20 for a five-pack. Sales skyrocketed from $120,000 in 2019 to last year's $2 million mark.
Even at this point, Leah remained a one-person operation.
"I was hand-sewing everything," she says. "My entire room was all fabric and a sewing machine and my bed. That was it."
Leah quickly realized she needed help - even if it meant giving up some control. "I was such a perfectionist," she says. "The sewing had to be perfect, the shipping had to be perfect. So slowly transitioning and hiring help was scary because it was my brand. I wanted to do it how I wanted it. But then I was like, 'If I want to grow this, I need help.'"
Today, Leah's Soulvation Society employs eight people, has moved manufacturing to China and includes a 3,000-square-foot warehouse for inventory.
As Soulvation's marketing grew, Leah and her team knew they needed a great logo. Something simple, but also distinctive, memorable and representative of the company. It turned out that Leah already had one at her fingers - literally. Before she moved to Denver, she had gotten a small tattoo on her finger to remind her to keep moving forward, no matter what: two arrows - pointing straight up. That same symbol now graces every Soulvation product.
Clothing line, classes, good works ahead
Despite Leah's talk of sharks, she remains charmingly down to earth even after her newfound success. "I'm definitely more of a Barbara," she laughs, referring to Barbara Corcoran, one of the less vicious "Shark Tank" judges. The 29-year-old has moved from a workroom/apartment to a townhouse with Mercedes, a personable French bulldog, and her boyfriend, Matt Hyder, another entrepreneur who launched the Recoup Cryosphere, an ice-cold massage roller for muscle injuries.
One gets the feeling that Leah is just getting started. Bolstered by her recent achievements and the energy of youth, she is also designing a line of boutique clothing, patterned after her trademark boho aesthetic. In fact, she wears one item from the clothing line during her interview: a relaxed, button-down, white-and-black windowpane-plaid shirt in a soft, cozy fabric.
"Still to this day, I hate wearing high heels," she says. "If it's uncomfortable, I don't want to wear it. The clothing line is very similar: very comfortable, but you still look very cute."
She's also ready to contribute to her community, and plans to donate headbands to the nurses at Sanford Health. The generous act aligns with lessons learned from her parents on the importance of staying humble, giving back and treating people right, no matter what. "You still have to have that humble attitude and be grateful," Yvonne says.
Leah's generosity extends to a willingness to share what she's learned. She is developing an e-commerce course, which will demonstrate how to build a successful start-up, including insight on how to "snowball" growth to minimize debt.
"In a very weird way, I guess I still did becme a professor," she says, smiling.
Find Leah's products at https://soulvationsociety.com/