Berry Necessary

Words by Jenny Walton 

At 17 years old, Pinedale, Wyoming, native, Megan Grassell was a studious high school junior whose ambition trumped her teachers’ lectures. While sitting in class, she sketched out a crazy idea inspired by a shopping experience with one of her sisters. And to her busy high school plate, she added the small task of launching a retail e-commerce company in a niche market—beginner bras. no one expected that this ripple in the bra market would turn into a wave. But it has. 2014 Saw Megan in Time magazine, fortune, and the huffington post. by 2015, her line was selling out and her dream was taking flight.

She named her start-up Yellowberry, for the “yellow stage in a girl’s life, as in not quite ripe.” But, ripe was the audience for Megan’s product, her story, and her entrepreneurial voice in the overly ripe intimate apparel industry, and before her high school graduation she would become Yellowberry’s CEO, transitioning from doodler to multi-tasking businesswoman, and merging her competitiveness and compassion into a veritable company.

In contrast to the beginning of this undergarment adventure, Megan had moved from her postage stamp-sized town of Pinedale, Wyoming, to Jackson Hole during middle school to continue her devotion to ski racing. In 2014, as a high school senior with an Olympic dream, she was Wyoming’s state champion in slalom and giant slalom, beating both boys and girls in her season’s last ski race. “I loved ski racing so much, I didn’t want to stop,” but a life collision in a dressing room changed everything. In her junior year, she visited a local mall to help her then 13-year-old sister find a bra. Shocked and less enthused by the mass appeal of gaining two cup sizes and revealing blossoming cleavage, Megan realized there was nothing remotely appropriate or cute for Mary Margaret. So, she did a crazy thing. “I came home and told my parents I wanted to start a bra company!” And, she did.

I first met Megan at Silicon Couloir’s Pitch Day in the summer of 2014. Silicon Couloir is a non-profit organization that “fosters entrepreneurship in the Tetons.” Several local entrepreneurs are selected and coached prior to this annual event, and then they pitch their businesses to a squad of experienced investors acting as judges.

I watched a polished, gracious, and focused Megan present her company’s mission and vision with passion and ease in front of a SRO crowd of intimidating tech types at Jackson’s Center for the Arts. Supplemented by a successful Kickstarter campaign ($42K) and money she saved from summer jobs, Yellowberry had produced a line of just four bras with names like Tiny Tetons and Sugar Cookie. Made from super-soft fabrics in sherbet shades with the highly identifiable embroidered yellow berry and tags with “loving-life mantras” honoring the memory of her little sister Caroline (who at age five died tragically when she fell off a parade float), these intuitively designed bras were receiving attention, and Megan was already recognized as a teen who could potentially transform the undergarment industry. She navigated her business the same way she skied—fast, with precision, and on her own course.

During this auspicious time, Megan worked 18-hour days with her mom, Lynn, as her partner, managed college applications, chose fabrics and color swatches, built a website, negotiated manufacturing in Los Angeles, and began the process of developing her brand in a very crowded marketplace. And yet, she still endured “a tumultuous couple of years, alienated by mean girls in high school. Anytime you rock the boat, people are going to target you.” But, once Yellowberry became more established, “those girls had nothing to say.” Fielding the sporadic, yet patronizing remarks from older and more experienced businessmen, Megan strove to identify herself as the company owner and founder, who despite her age had insight into the very specific, and sometimes fickle, demographic of teenage girls. “Girls are finicky. They like it one day, and then not the next.” But Megan always found the most efficient way through the variable terrain, which gave her an advantage, and the commitment necessary to embrace her community of “Berry girls.”

Not one to dismiss hard work, once accepted to Middlebury, Megan doubled-down and deferred for the first time because Yellowberry had taken off. Garnering the reputation as a ‘tween niche market and gathering substantial press from The New York Times, Fortune Magazine, and The Huffington Post (one of The 14 Most Fearless Teens of 2014), she had made an appearance on the Today Show and had sold out her line in record time. By October, Megan had made TIME Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014. She was beating her own split and gaining speed.

In a scant two-plus years, Megan and her Yellowberry team succeeded in ways that go against the business courses taken by her fellow twenty-somethings. She deliberately chose to identify with her Berries by putting her story first. In short order, her bras represent a lifestyle of growing girls whose comfort and confidence Megan has tapped into. “We do things differently than most other bra companies. We are a super scrappy start-up because we have a very lean team, and I love being our scrappy selves, and I mean that in a good way, because there’s a lot you can do with a little.”

Although she appreciates a larger company’s decision-making process, she had her share of feeling cramped by an emblematic and imposed corporate mindset while attempting growth in her sector. “If we want to do something, we just do it. We talk to our moms, and the girls who wear our brand. There’s no layers, there’s no need to wait for approval.”

Girls related and their moms voiced their approval with purchasing power. How about this email for confirmation:
“After many purchases and returns of other brands of training bras for my 12-year-old daughter, I searched Google and much to my delight, I found Yellowberry. Your products and philosophy, as depicted on your website, were all I needed to give Yellowberry a try. Since then I, on my daughter’s behalf, am a loyal customer and am willing to support your products and the growth of your company. Though we are new to the brand, we are devoted. Thank you for being there when we needed you!”

Megan says that her team is committed to quality and making every customer feel special. “Every package we ship out is wrapped like a present. When our Berry girl receives it, it’s special, memorable, positive, and uplifting. It’s just a bra and so often sexualized. And, I think removing that connotation takes away any power it holds. It can just be a piece of wardrobe that makes you feel good.”

Yes, it can.

With her oft-anxious parents, the incalculable hours invested, and the inherent risk of her fledging start-up, the college deferment ended and the decision about whether or not to take the college step needed to be addressed. Her father had correctly forecasted that she would forego college. “My mom, though, is very much a realist. When I was racing, she would talk about what the chances were of me becoming an Olympic skier and she wanted me to have a back-up plan. But now, with the company and college, my mom realized doing both would be too much.” She listened to her parents’ counsel, but says, “It was my decision; I made it, and I stuck with it, and my parents supported it.” With her course ahead, she went into a tuck.

In March 2015, she partnered with American Eagle’s intimates line, Aerie, and received coverage from Teen Vogue. She was living in Connecticut at the time and as a small-town girl, she had never been on a train until the Metro North, or sported the essential all-black New York wardrobe. By August Megan had moved to Brooklyn to run the company from there; she had shot her first catalogue with family friend and photographer, Kristina Loggia, using friends as models. Choosing to shoot all of her girls from the back, “I feel like it’s the best way to photograph and portray a young girl in a conscientious and age-appropriate way that’s not exploitive.” Yellowberry is, at its heart, focused on doing right by its customers—by changing the dialogue when it comes to young girls and bras. Megan emphasizes the Yellowberry message—“It’s really about where you’re going to go, and what you’re going to do in your life.” Yes, it is.

Later that month, when her new website went live, Megan remembers, “Sitting in my tiny, teacup apartment in Brooklyn with my roommate. No kitchen. No hot plate. I flipped the switch to Shopify at 1:00 in the morning and immediately called Kristina and started screaming over the phone. It was exactly what I had envisioned and what I wanted. It breathed Yellowberry!” Bras, underwear, and activewear garments worn by ‘tweens who felt empowered perfectly illustrated the brand’s message of celebrating their youth and “not rushing through milestones.” And Forbes Magazine agreed. Megan was included in their 30-Under-30 in Retail and Commerce for 2016. As the youngest member of this millennial group that is changing how we shop, I was reminded of one of Megan’s first questions, “Do you remember your first bra?”
Yes, I do. Can I go back? I want a Yellowberry.