True Story: I dropped out of my PhD program to sell lingerie

dropped out of PhDHow far is it from academia to lacy underthings? Maybe not as far as you’d think! Four years into her PhD in English Literature, Jeanna walked away from the academic world to sell pretty underwear (though, of course, it’s not quite that simple or straightforward).

Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Jeanna Kadlec, and I’m a 28-year-old ex-academic turned entrepreneur. I also consult, freelance, and write on the side. Multi-passionate? Check.

My partner and I recently moved to New York City from Boston. Before that, I was a lifelong Midwesterner — Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota. I love to write, read tarot, hunt for cheese curds in New York City, and spend time with our adorable new rescue pitbull.
How did you find yourself in a PhD program for English Lit?
Some of y’all can probably relate to this: you’re a super-driven, super-involved student, know exactly what you want to major in, know exactly what you love… but have no idea what you want to do with it. That was me.

Then one day after I gave a presentation during my junior year of undergrad, the professor asked if I’d ever thought about being a professor. Suddenly, everything clicked: the love for writing and teaching and research. A Ph.D. program seemed like the perfect fit. A few years later, I moved out to Boston to start grad school.
When did you start becoming interested in lingerie? When did that interest eclipse your interest in your PhD program?
My mom started taking me to Victoria’s Secret when I was young, so I had positive associations with lingerie to start with as a fun piece of clothing that had self-care purposes.
My interest in lingerie was rekindled when I started coming out in my early twenties. It was a safe space to experiment with self-expression, a really intimate way that I could love and nurture myself and really feel like my sense of style was cohesive.

I wouldn’t say that lingerie itself eclipsed my interest in literature. Rather, it was seeing an opportunity to serve my community in a way no one else was doing — no one in the lingerie industry was explicitly focused on serving LGBTQIA+ folks. I felt like if I didn’t do anything, no one would.
You see this time and time again in business: folks from underrepresented communities are the ones who speak up and say “Hey, this is for me, too.” In lingerie, it’s happening right now with Bluestockings, with Ade Hassan of Nubian Skin (nude lingerie for women of color), with indie designers like RavenDreams choosing to exclusively focus on their plus size customers.
lingerie for trans
I imagine a lot of people would have thought “Oh, I’ll just do this lingerie thing on the side” or “Maybe that will be my second career when I retire from academia.”
Where’d you find the guts to make the leap?
To be honest, I was pretty effing miserable in my graduate program! When I got the idea for Bluestockings, I was already looking for other projects to sink my teeth into that would offer a reprieve from graduate school. And Bluestockings came together as a concept so cohesively, I couldn’t let it go.

I started Bluestockings during my fourth year of the Ph.D. program. The careful, Capricorn part of myself said, “Let’s start this while you’re still in grad school, while you still have health insurance while you still have a (bit of a) safety net.” I’d already checked out of my program so hard, but I didn’t want to leave it unless I was absolutely sure. (It didn’t take very long to be sure.)
How did the people in your life react to your decision?
They were really supportive of the business idea, especially once I explained how conservative the lingerie industry was and how literally no one was doing this.
How did you prepare to launch a business?
Being a completely obsessive graduate student used to throwing myself into research 24/7 definitely helped. Inevitably, I always meet someone at a party or a meetup who wants to start a business and end up talking them through how to get your stuff together legally, how to start researching services/products you can offer. Academia was great training for understanding how to start building a business.
How has your business been doing so far?
To get a little nitty gritty for all the other entrepreneurs out there, my #1 priority in Year One has been to successfully manage my cash flow. That, more than anything, is what I see as essential for beating the odds. We all know how many small businesses go under. I don’t want Bluestockings to be a statistic. And right now, I feel really good about our chances.
What hasn’t worked? Oh, so much. I bought way too much inventory to start with, before I really knew what my customers wanted, and consequently I’m trying to get rid of a lot of stagnant stock right now. Live and learn.
What’s your most popular product? What do you like the best?
Most popular? The Lace Boxers by Foxers. My customers really love the boxers’ androgynous appeal. They also have a pretty inclusive size range (XS-2X).
One of my favorites, in that I personally wear it, is Claudette – any of their bras, all of their bras, everything. I usually wear a 34G (UK), and Claudette does some of the best full bust bras on the market in these amazing, rich colors that so many brands won’t even go near.
You’re about a year into your business. How do you feel about your decision now?
I’m really proud of everything Bluestockings stands for and what the business has accomplished. The small difference we are making in the lingerie industry is really encouraging to see.
Five years from now? I want Bluestockings to be thriving and serving ethically made, gender-inclusive, body-affirming undies to tons of people. Tons.
I also want to be in a position where I can help other business owners with their brand strategy, whether through full-time employment at an agency, consulting, or a mix of the two. (Job hunting right now – we’ll see how that goes!) I love helping folks connect their purpose with their business. That’s when you make a difference.
What are three things you’ve learned from this that ANY of us could apply to our lives?
YOU HAVE A BRAND. Everyone has a personal brand. Have you taken the time to think about what your message is?
GOOD WRITING IS ALL YOU NEED. Seriously, half the time I feel like I tricked brands into working with me, cause I was this upstart with no industry background. But I had taken the time to produce solid content: I started a kickass blog prior to launching the business, and I knew how to write a professional email. You would be amazed how far a good email will get you.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF. It’s cliche but it’s so true: talk to yourself like you’d talk to someone you love.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Jeanna! Do you guys have any questions for her? Have any of you made a similar professional leap?

2 Comments

Kelly Edmonds

Great story and I completely understand about academia – I did finish but never became a professor or research scholar. I’m a teacher at heart and like you found what I am passionate about – creativeness and entrepreneurship (I create online courses for clients worldwide).

Thanks for sharing your story – I’m seriously checking out your goods!

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Heidi

I love the advice at the end, especially, “BE KIND TO YOURSELF. It’s cliche but it’s so true: talk to yourself like you’d talk to someone you love.”

Oodles of voices are saying to me, “You have something to offer that no one else does. Figure out what it is!” This post exemplifies that advice, because Jeanna started a business that provided something no one else was providing.

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