Lessons from a creative entrepreneur: To fail is to know the measure of our greatness


When Sarah Van Aken decided to shutter her contemporary, socially conscious fashion brand SA VA in 2013 after four years, she did so with a transparency, candor and even celebration perhaps unheard of in the industry. There were press releases to the media in which she spoke frankly of her challenges raising capital and equally forthcoming interviews where she acknowledged the personal sacrifices made in pursuit of success. She invited customers new and old to an impressive blow-out sale and cleared the way for fresh energy in her life with a  farewell party in honor of all she’d achieved. 

grid_2009-11_cc_240x321If Van Aken was going to make her exit, she was going to do it on her own terms. sarah

The fashion designer, speaker and social entrepreneur, who has a fine arts degree from the University of Delaware, had launched her career in the apparel industry in 2005, designing custom shirts. Less than 10 years later, she had become one of Philadelphia’s most prominent entrepreneurs, celebrated for her commitment to sustainable business practices, philanthropic investment in the local community and the kind of spirited flair that made her annual fashion shows — giant block parties that shut down a segment of the city’s Sansom Street — an anticipated event. Two years before she very publicly called it quits, Van Aken won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

Today, she is the chief operating officer and president of Kathy Davis Studios, a lifestyle and social expressions brand. But she has never bemoaned her defeat at the helm of SA VA.

Here, Van Aken shares what she’s learned from failure, as a gift and transformational agent:

So often as a leader I am asked to speak about accomplishments and successes. I am fortunate that there have been many, but it’s much more interesting to me to talk about what didn’t work: the “F” word – “Failure.”

To be a leader, especially to be an entrepreneur, you have to live full-out.  There is no half-way about it.  You have to take risks, face fears and face failure.

Many of us go through life afraid to fail.  As a young entrepreneur, it seemed a fate worse than death. Inevitably, you will fail at something, likely many things. Sometimes you fail at the little things and sometimes they are big things.

But I assure you, if you dare to lead, dare to follow your passion, you will at some point fail.  And it’s a beautiful thing. There have been many times that I have stood on the precipice of epic failure. Each and every time I persevered, I found a way through. It wasn’t always easy. But, if you can get over the agony, the upset, the anxiety, the fear — if you can get over your ego — you can find your greatness in failure.

Here are some things I know to be true about failure:

6-sava-2Failure is just a change of plans: Things simply don’t ever go as planned.  It’s not unique to me or to you. What you write in a business plan is not how it is going to happen. You have to stand clear in your principles and integrity but remain agile and adaptable. When things don’t work the way you expected, take the high road, face what’s hard and change course to achieve your objectives.

Failure is possibility: When you stand on the precipice of epic failure, there is just as much of a chance of success. That’s the nature of a precipice. So in the moment, if you act from a place of authenticity, if you do what’s right and don’t get attached to the outcome you create possibility. And if you were to fail, there will be learning in that. What you learn from that failure ultimately makes it possible to be successful.

Failure creates opportunity: There is great opportunity in failure. So often our definition of success is directly linked to an expected outcome. Our self-judgment is based on this achievement — on something external. If you can shift away from the outcome and measure your success in terms of who you show up as in every situation, it can open up opportunities for personal growth. You can develop relationships that last through hard times, and in keeping things in perspective and keeping your eye on what matters most, you may achieve your ultimate goal.

A model on the Sansom Street catwalk for the debut of SA VA's 2011 spring collection

A model on the Sansom Street catwalk for the debut of SA VA’s 2011 spring collection

When I started my fashion business, I wanted to be great. I used to identify my greatness by achieving the ultimate in success — positive reviews in the best fashion magazines, a high valuation for my business. When that wasn’t enough, it transitioned to having a positive impact on the community and the environment. As I grew with my business, that also changed. If you can begin to judge yourself on your integrity in every situation — and I don’t just mean the definition of integrity that is about being honest and fair, but the full definition that says integrity is the state of being whole or complete — greatness is reached by always acting with integrity

To feel authentic, to feel good about yourself, like you did the right thing — there is a matter of being “complete” with something. It’s doing everything that you could or should do to honor yourself and others in any situation, keeping relationships, facing what’s hard and knowing that there is a way to maintain your values and self-worth through difficult situations.

Your failures will be what helps you along that road to success.

Join Van Aken as part of a very special panel discussion and presentation, “How Not to be a Starving Artist,” sponsored by the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts, on Oct. 29. She will be joined by Kathy Davis, founder and chief visionary officer of Kathy Davis Studios; author and illustrator Lisa Papp; fine artist and illustrator Robert Papp; and Amy Voloshin, founder and creative director of Printfresh.

The event takes places at the Horsham Library, 435 Babylon Road, Horsham, Pa., from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Admission is $25, with proceeds going to donate art supplies to children in need ($10 for high school and college students).