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Meet Barbara Clarke Ruiz, the First Black Woman Designer to Partner with Kohl’s

Barbara Clarke Ruiz is making history and inspiring every Black girl along the way. I had the pleasure of talking with her about her historic partnership with Kohl’s. She is the first person of color to partner with the company and has created a phenomenal activewear line TekGear x BCR that is made with diversity and inclusion in mind. 

Her story is the perfect example of delayed does not mean denied and the power of divine connections. Barbara is breaking down barriers and making history in her own right. Before partnering with Kohl’s, Barbara’s design skills have taken her across the Globe and back.

We started the interview by discussing the beginning of her career. From a very early age, she knew she loved fashion and design but wasn’t sure what her career path would be. She attended a vocational high school where she took up sewing, and she thanks Mrs. Wiggins for seeing the greatness in her and taking her under her wing.

Fast forward to college, where she attended Pratt; after being denied admittance the first time, she applied. She ended up attending Tidewater Community College and took liberal arts classes. The initial denial by Pratt turned out to be a blessing because it gave her a leg up when she was finally accepted at Pratt and had her senior design project in front of big names like Ralph Lauren. This is also where her love for activewear began. 

She was offered a job right out of college with Ralph Lauren but opted to work with a global brand where she could start as a designer. She attributed the majority of her success to divine intervention and networking with the right people.

 

Khadijah: Venus Williams actually sought you out to help develop her brand. What was that experience like?

Barbara: I love it when you meet celebrities, and they’re exactly how you envision them. She is really funny. I mean, like she’s comically funny. She has a great sense of humor and is an incredibly hard-working woman. Her work ethic always left me in awe because, you know, sometimes we would finish designing at nine o’clock at night, and she’s up at like six playing tennis for three hours. Then I’m just showering, coming downstairs to work, and she’s already played 3 hours of tennis, and I’m just waking up. I had a premonition while watching them play tennis. I told myself, you know what, one day I’m going to design for them, and I just put it out there 15 years later it happened. I still get excited about what I do. 

Khadijah: Let’s talk about this historic partnership with Kohl’s. Was it important to you that the clothes look and feel good for people of all shapes and sizes?

Barbara: I knew they wanted me to design for the DE&I customer, and they also gave me free reign to design whatever I wanted. That was the first time I’ve had a company do that. I knew this was a historic opportunity because they had never done any co-partnership or collaboration with a designer of color. I was more worried about my culture and community loving the products more than anything. People can be brutal on social media. I put so much love and effort into this collection and wanted to design something that, you know, any woman could wear to dress up or dress down to go to the gym or just to have something wonderful, something cute that she could put on. 

I wanted her to be able to have a cute little tracksuit that she could wear on a date if she wanted to, with a pair of heels. I know I’ve got curvy sisters; I’m a size 14. I wanted to make sure that my clothes were fitting a little looser. A lot of sisters are getting these BBLs now; they’re very curvy, and I wanted to ensure that I can accommodate that.

I’m really happy with how everything turned out, and it was important that the community love this as much as I enjoy creating. 

Khadijah: How did you get connected with Kohl’s? 

Barbara: My relationships in creating my business have been a very integral piece to it. I forged those relationships when I was working in France, and then people left, and they saw my work ethic and that I’m good at design. They were already familiar with me. I understood activewear and how to design great products, whether it’s for men, women, or boys. I do it all. A gentleman hired me at Walmart about ten years ago. He hired me purely based on the companies that I had worked for and my portfolio resume and that sort of thing. But I went into Walmart and made a difference in their business. We were doing like $700 million a season, and that’s a lot of money.

He left, and shortly after, I left because my mother went into hospice care. I needed to spend time with her. He and I stayed in contact with one another. He had an anniversary on LinkedIn, and we started talking, and he just said, “Hey, would you be interested in working with Kohl’s?” And I’m like, “Heck yeah, I’d love to work with Kohl’s.” So it happened just like that; I just happened to be on LinkedIn at the right time. It was all divine. I am so certain.

Khadijah: What do you think has helped you? What qualities or skills have you developed that have helped you gain so much success?

Barbara: I pray every morning. I pray every night and always ask for those spiritual surprises. I’m like, God, your surprises are so much better than anything I could think of. The thing that has helped me over the course of the years is that I think about the product I designed. It’s about evolving what they’ve done in the past but still aligning what works for that particular brand. You have to bring that sense of freshness. I’m really committed to the project, and it’s very important to me that whatever has my name on it has a level of excellence. I have given it my absolute all. When I turn in a project, I’m very proud of the work, the body of work I have done.

Khadijah: How do you manage your consulting business? I read that you started a new brand Lick You Silly pet products.

Barbara: Because I love what I do, it doesn’t feel like work. We’ve had this company now for four years, so we have it down to a science at this point. I’m trying to figure out how to scale our business because we sell primarily on Amazon. Sometimes we have packing parties where we invite friends over, everybody puts masks & gloves on, and we pack products. It really is about time management and working from home. I work a lot of long hours, but I don’t even think about it because I love what I do.

Khadijah: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in your career? 

Barbara: My biggest lesson has been not starting another brand like my dog treat brand, which is season less, not starting it sooner, and not having passive income opportunities in place. When COVID happened, I was in discussions with QVC or HSN, and we were down the road with the buyer, and she asked me if I could provide her with a product line. It was a tote bag with dog treats. I went out, and I sourced it all. I ordered 300 pounds of dog treats, and when COVID happened, and she got COVID, someone came in to take her place. They were like, sorry, we’re not going to do dog treats, and I was like, What? But God is good because we ended up being an essential product for Amazon. Amazon stopped all the companies from shipping products, and they said these six categories are the only categories that can ship. Dog food and dog treats were of them. And that is how our business completely blew up, like overnight. We sold out in 10 days.

Khadijah: Do you have any tips for people that want to market their business?

Barbara: It depends on the business and understanding what tools you need. Come up with creative ideas, right? Regarding the marketing for my dog treats, I always come up with fun and creative initiatives that resonate with people. For instance, I have this little card like Willie Wonker in the Chocolate Factory. I put it randomly in a bag, and it’s called Lick Silly with Kindness. When you get one of these, there’s a number on the back. You go to the website, you tell us the number, and then you have to do a random act of kindness. Tag us on social, and your dog wins free dog treats.

So it’s like a way for your dogs to get their humans to do some kind of thing. My dog treat brand is built on loving kindness, and I try to implement that as much as possible. I put a heart inside all of my orders. You know, I give back my love to people who support me. I love creative marketing because the market is saturated when you think about dog treats. A lot of people make dog treats, but you know, you have to really think about the big picture. I designed my packaging, and my daughter designed my dog graphics because she’s a graphic design artist. But I wanted something that was going to stand out on the shelves. I wanted the bag to be taller bag isn’t. It is only half full, and I pay the extra because I wanted it to have some stature when it’s on a shelf, right?

I would just say to someone, just get creative. I watch a lot of YouTube to get ideas from other entrepreneurs. I love TikTok in terms of great ideas.

Khadijah: What does the future look like for you? Is there anything else you want to do or you plan on doing in the future? 

Barbara: Well, you know what I really love to do? I love to create brands. I love to create something and then bring it to life. I love going through that process, which interests me about being a consultant because when I go into a company, it’s a brand new project. It is a project that I have yet to do. So I come to it with very fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. I’ve done that with Kohl’s, just coming in and stepping into this with a fresh perspective. I was not really thinking about what’s been done in the past but talking about how we move forward, how we get this customer that we want to shop in our stores and ensure that we’re servicing that customer. I would love to continue my journey with Kohl’s because I love working for this company.

I love the product. I love that people are coming to shop there because they love the product. I’ve also written a children’s book. It’s just a matter of time before I publish it. I’m writing a marketing book that will come somewhere later down the road. I want to scale my dog treat brand, and I also want to start purchasing some Airbnbs.  

Thank you so much. So I want to remind people if they want to see the collection, it’s under Kohl’s TEK gear. I’d love to invite them if they want information, if they want to have a conversation with me, certainly about their business, about their marketing and branding, they can go to my website at barbaraclarkeruiz.com  or follow me on social media, on Instagram and TikTok @barbaraclarkeruiz and Facebook @barbara.c.ruiz.3

 

Interview Done by: Khadijah Phillips | Khadijah Phillips is a highly driven woman who was born to break barriers. She proves that when powered by purpose, women are unstoppable. She’s built her storied life and career brick by brick, fighting fears, failures, and setbacks to have the success she’s always known was hers to claim. Today, she personifies what it means to ascend above adversity while inspiring countless others to do the same through her media company and strategic partnerships. You can follow her on instagram @bestiesmedia and check out her website www.bestiesmedia.com.

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