From a small mango farm to revolutionizing women's workwear: Kym O'Leary's journey
What's your backstory?
It took me a long time to figure out who I really was and what I wanted in life.
I grew up on a small mango and tomato farm in Bowen, North Queensland. At 15, I left school as I was offered a full-time role as an administrative assistant at a law firm.
I have a vivid memory of a turning point that happened when I was 17, driving to work in my green Ford Laser. A question popped into my head: “Will this be my life for the rest of my life?”
Even at that young age, I knew instinctively that I wanted something more. I didn’t know yet what it was, but at that moment I realised that I didn’t want to carry on driving that same route to work for decades to come.
That internal conversation sparked a life-changing decision. With my family's unwavering support, my mother assisted me in enrolling at TAFE because, at 17, I was too young to commence the course. The eligibility requirement was a minimum age of 18 for enrolment. Through this, Mum showed me that sometimes rules are just guidelines and not the only way.
I moved from my hometown, commencing a journey of profound self-discovery and fostering self-reliance. Although I often felt unsure of myself during that time – money was tight and I didn’t yet have a sense of where I truly belonged – I look back and am so glad that I trusted my instincts and had the courage to veer off onto a different path.
Over the next decade, I graduated from university with a Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting) and worked in financial roles in mining for a number of years.
Since then, I’ve gone on to found women’s workwear brand COgear and invent hemming solution HMZ (patent pending). Inspiration for these ideas came about because of my time spent on mine sites – but I also know that my question to myself as a 17-year-old was the catalyst that led me to where I am today.
Tell us what your company does?
At COgear, we specialise in women's hi-vis workwear, firmly believing that women should never be uncomfortable at work.
Inspiration came while I was working on a mine site in the Bowen Basin and saw my pregnant manager having no choice but to wear ill-fitted men’s clothing. That was the day I decided women should never be uncomfortable at work.
Women’s bodies change daily, whether it's our menstrual cycle, menopause, gynaecological troubles, fertility treatment or pregnancy, no two days are the same. COgear garments are designed with women’s fluctuating bodies front of mind and that’s why we incorporate smart design features into our garments to allow women to be the best they can be every day.
COgear women's work cargo pants feature added stretch fabric and adjustable features, such as elastic waistbands and HMZ (tear-away hems for adjustable leg length), so women can customise them to perfectly fit their size and shape. We also created Australia’s first-ever range of high-visibility maternity workwear.
How did you come up with the idea (and the name)?
It all started when I was working on a mine site in Central Queensland, wearing hi-vis gear every day. I noticed women struggling with ill-fitting workwear and improvising makeshift solutions, like sewing tape onto their jeans so they didn’t have to wear the supplied work pants. I also overheard women on the bus to work frequently complaining about their pants digging in or their shirts gaping.
But what really struck me was seeing my pregnant manager wearing an open hi-vis shirt with a singlet underneath because there were no maternity hi-vis options available worldwide. This inspired me to take action.
The name COgear is formed by combining the initials of my maiden name and my married name (Clark & O’Leary). We appended "Gear" because "CO" alone didn't resonate well.
How did you go about building and launching the business?
We collaborated closely with women employed in heavy industry and partnered with mining industry leader BHP to craft garments that seamlessly blended comfort and functionality. At the age of 28, I introduced COgear (formerly recognised as She's Empowered) to the world. The advantage of launching at such a young age was my natural naivety. However, the flip side of launching so early was also tied to that same naivety. What I'm getting at is that I lacked awareness about the extent of my own ignorance. I was oblivious to the immense challenges that could arise.
In reality, I embarked on a journey of learning the hard way. I made the decision to refinance my investment property, liberating $30K to procure stock, which unfortunately remained unsold. This experience taught me a pivotal lesson: the necessity of engaging with customers prior to launching a new product.
This realisation demanded introspection, and I had to concede that my initial stock investment didn't align with women's preferences. Accepting this truth was a crucial step in my journey, enabling me to move forward and make a fresh attempt.
While persistently knocking on doors and making cold calls, a representative from BHP generously agreed to meet me for coffee. Little did I know, that coffee conversation marked the start of a new chapter for me.
How have you grown the business?
We have experienced slow growth. Initially, the sluggish pace was a source of frustration for me. However, upon reflection, I am grateful for how it has unfolded. This appreciation stems from the realisation that my initial designs fell short of perfection. Nonetheless, these early designs brought to light a significant gap in the hi-vis uniform market.
As a result, we captured the attention of BHP. While they recognised the shortcomings of our initial products, I am fortunate that one of their contract officers believed in my vision and capabilities, and offered their support. They provided me with an opportunity, and I rose to the occasion by delivering an exceptional product. (This product, our Lucille 4-in-1 jacket, is detailed in the Forbes story.)
Presently, our continued growth is a direct result of our commitment to delivery. COgear excels in problem-solving, and I take great pride in being recognised for that.
What's your biggest selling product or service?
Our best-selling garment is the Alison Hi Vis cargo pants for women. The popularity of the Alison (CO903 style) stems from its focus on accommodating the fluctuations of a woman's body.
The Alison cargos are constructed to adapt to the contours of a woman's body, prioritising her comfort. The waistband is meticulously designed to resemble a tailored waistband, yet it incorporates stretch for exceptional comfort whether you're active all day or stationed at a desk.
Recognising the unique challenges faced by women in remote areas, particularly mining towns, we acknowledged the difficulties they encounter when attempting to alter the length of their work pants. Finding a skilled person for hemming was often unfeasible, and ill-fitting pants could potentially jeopardise safety.
This challenge inspired the creation of HMZ (patent pending), a revolutionary solution that empowers individuals to effortlessly achieve the perfect fit through tear-away hems. This innovation was born out of the necessity to address these issues faced by women working in diverse environments.
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way? What lessons did you learn from these failures?
When reflecting on my journey, some of the most valuable insights I've gained have come from the challenges and stumbles I've encountered. For me, these moments include:
One unforgettable learning came when I lost $30K due to a lack of wear trials before committing to stock purchases. I realised the immense importance of thoroughly testing products before making such investments.
An essential truth I've embraced is that embarking on an entrepreneurial path inevitably involves making mistakes. It's not about avoiding them but about persisting through them. As long as you remain steadfast, failure is never the final outcome.
One of the most eye-opening experiences was discovering the concept of "you don't know what you don't know." A prime example was when my initial stock arrived sans swing tags. Assuming the factory would take care of it, I was in for a surprise. This hiccup led me to sell the items as "sustainable" to work around the situation. Desperation fuels innovation, indeed.
What's next for you and your business?
As mentioned previously, I have recently invented and unveiled a new innovation: HMZ. Following thorough research, planning, and testing, HMZ (pronounced “hems”) enables individuals to easily adjust the length of their workwear using a patented pull-tab mechanism.
My business COgear had received requests to offer women's pants in multiple lengths. However, as a small business, we couldn't afford to hold additional stock due to cash-flow constraints. This prompted me to explore an alternative approach – could we meet the demand for different leg lengths more intelligently?
After brainstorming with my husband one evening over dinner, I began experimenting with the notion of an adjustable hem, inspired by a bag of chook feed, a memory from our upbringing on farms. I had to think outside the box and this is how HMZ was born.
By adding HMZ to COgear's range, we are excited about what it signifies for workplace comfort, efficiency, and safety. HMZ offers a convenient and cost-effective means for people to seamlessly tailor their workwear, aligning perfectly with COgear's mission to ensure that women are always comfortable at work.
As featured in FOUNDEROO > https://www.founderoo.co/posts/cogear