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Fem Founder: Aubri Steele

Aubri Steele is the Founder, CEO, and “Il Capo” at Civile. As CEO and Founder, Steele wears many hats, managing day-to-day operations, brand strategy, and sales as well as overseeing product design, development, and retailing. During the COVID-19 pandemic when the world was experiencing unparalleled loss, division, and isolation, Steele was revitalized by the way that pickleball brought her community together. Recognizing an opportunity in the marketplace for similar active women who loved the sport, Steele set out to create a brand that was equally as stylish and versatile as it was inclusive, all while spreading a message of bringing civility back to the world in how we treat each other.

Can you tell our readers about your background? Oh boy. Well, as it relates to business, I am a career educator. I taught at the junior high, high school, and university levels for over ten years. I am a fifth-generation Southern Californian and an athlete at heart. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own fashion drum, and Civile has allowed me to flex that creative fashion muscle, in the world of athletics, in a way I never imagined possible.

What inspired you to start your business? After years of working across a variety of vocations from teaching to commercial real estate, I, like many others, departed the corporate world amidst the pandemic. When I lost my father and mentor, it sparked my entrepreneurial journey. I was inspired by his entrepreneurial spirit and benevolence and saw an opportunity to create a meaningful legacy brand through which I could “build a boat” that would carry families and friends alike through a shared purpose, just as my father had once done. Born out of the isolation and loss of the pandemic, I saw how the sport of Pickleball united my family and our community in a time of division across the world.

The smaller court and dink-style play allowed for varying levels of exertion and therefore was accessible for people of all ages. We quickly became well-versed in the game and began inviting neighbors and friends to play, all while maintaining social distance and excessively sanitizing equipment. This was the sport we could play with our parents AND our children. Simply put, Pickleball brought us together. Upon diving further into the fashion behind the sport, I noticed that there was no urban-facing apparel brand that married my active lifestyle with who I am as a woman, and definitely nothing out there that felt as multifaceted as I do. And so, Civile was born to address that void and to remind us all, no matter which side of the line you play on, "be civil, play nicely.”   

Where is your business based?

Our business is based in Solana Beach, CA.

How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?

In the very beginning, I came up with the name, securing something that would allow me to truly embrace the messaging of civility I was so desperate to spread. It's pronounced, "chi-vee-lay" which translates to "civil" in Italian. With the brand having been born out of the darkness and divisiveness of 2020, I wanted a name that represented the respect among humans I felt was absent in the world. From there, I had apparel printed with the logo I had created plus several that spoke to the fun puns of pickleball. That’s when our classic “don’t be a dink” shirt was born.

What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?

While we have put considerable money into digital marketing and advertising, our business has really thrived in the grassroots approaches of tournament presence and small pickleball-focused communities, like our own here in San Diego.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Like many other brands, the past year presented us with several challenges in terms of production and supply chain. While we’ve found incredible vendors, we’ve also struggled with a multitude of contractors who don’t always follow through with their commitments. With that said, we understand the challenges that individuals are facing during these unprecedented times. Ultimately, we have found that fostering meaningful and intentional relationships with the people we choose to work with garners the most success, so we have worked to find vendors that align with our vision and goals.

How do you stay focused?

One of the main – SQUIRREL! All kidding aside, staying focused as the CEO of a startup business is no easy task. I tend to be an obsessive notetaker and a sucker for a full calendar, which enables me to jot things down on the fly and come back to them at the appropriately scheduled time. I block out hours of the day with certain categories I need to address and then, at the designated time, I pull up that note and start checking things off.

How do you differentiate your business from the competition?

I’m a firm believer in the phrase, “people begin how they intend to continue.” I started this business with very specific and dedicated values at the core. I understand the effects some of that has on our margins, etc., but I firmly believe that if you build the foundation using the materials on which you plan to live, you don’t have to ever go back and rebuild the castle. Along those lines, we began the company with goals to utilize sustainable/recycled materials whenever possible, to manufacture 100% here in the U.S. and ultimately to put community and civility at the focal point of our efforts to grow the sport and define the emerging culture of pickleball.

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?

Customer satisfaction and care. We are constantly striving to treat others the way we want to be treated. From easy, no-hassle returns, to utilizing models every person can relate to, we want to be inclusive and accessible in a way that makes everyone feel like they are part of the family. This success is reflected in our return customer rate which hovers around 40%.

What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?

The same advice my father gave me before he passed: “knowing what you’re good at is important but knowing what you’re not good at is more important.” He built a business by hiring (and listening to) people who knew about the things he didn’t know or who could do the things he couldn’t do. It’s critical to own your shortcomings – you can’t be all things to all people. Remember to honor others in their crafts; I lean on my team every single day for that reason.

What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?

The NOTES app on iPhone. As an entrepreneur and mother, I’m often pulled in so many directions and as a result, I have become an obsessive note-taker. I am constantly jotting down little pieces of information to refer to and address later. The notes app is the most convenient and heavily relied upon app on my phone.

What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?

The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman. Business concepts are like creativity; if you don’t have the license to do it, you often steer clear. This book was helpful and insightful to me as it exposed me to vernacular and concepts that I hadn’t dealt with much in my prior career. The book covers many concepts, from marketing to finance and is a comprehensive overview of everything you should consider when starting a business.

Who is your business role model? Why?

Well, I would say my father. 43 years ago, as a college dropout, he took a chance to start his own business when he opened the doors to a manufacturing company in Burbank, CA. His plan was a simple and humble one. If the business was a success, he would use his profits to feed his young family and, when we were no longer in need, he would sell off the equipment and close the doors. Twenty-eight years later, my father sold his business and retired comfortably. Over those twenty-eight years, I watched, in awe and admiration, as he built his metaphorical boat, loaded us all inside and led us to a brighter future. He lived and breathed by the quote, “a rising tide lifts all ships.” Of all my goals with Civile Apparel, the biggest of these is to “build the boat.” A boat which will carry people to a better place. A boat that will rise with the tide. A boat that will house families, teach them to sail, and bring us all to a better and brighter destination. So, with dad as my honorary captain, Civile Apparel has become my boat.

How do you balance work and life?

I’m a high-functioning workaholic. In addition to starting and running Civile Apparel, I am a mother and stepmother to five teenagers. In addition to all of this, I have recently volunteered to teach high school at the kids' school right now because our schools are in need, and that’s just what you do when they say they’re desperate. There is no balance or imbalance, it’s just life, and you just do it…and stop to smell the roses when the moment presents itself.

What’s your favorite way to decompress?

I’ve always been a voracious reader. I can’t sit down with electronic books, but an old-fashioned, hard, or soft-bound book, is still the happiest place on earth for me. Other than this, I love being at the beach, photographing my husband surfing. It allows me to “take my head off” for an hour or so.

What do you have planned for the next six months?

We’re planning to really round out our collection of products to offer something for everyone, to push the fashion envelope when we can, and to continue defining that pickleball culture we love being a part of.

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