What it takes to become a Successful Entrepreneur: DukeGEN sits down with Kim Cayce, CEO of Kalyx

By Trevor Scott; Published April 26, 2010

What could a fashion designer, financial services executive and professional athlete all have in common? To Duke alum Kim Cayce, whose impressive career has spanned all three of these diverse fields, the similarities are rooted in a single word: entrepreneurship. Since graduating from Duke in 1993, Kim has become an inspirational role model for all who aspire to achieve their dreams as an entrepreneur.

With high hopes of starting her career as a professional athlete, Kim lived her dream as a pro golfer who competed internationally and toured at championship courses around the world. After a serious car accident devastated her chances of a long-term career in professional sports, Kim’s career as a business entrepreneur took flight with a string of financial successes and hard earned lessons in business.

Two start-up companies later, she would find herself on the set of ABC’s Shark Tank television series battling for $250,000 in seed capital in front of a live audience of venture capital investors. Now on her third start-up, Kim currently leads a multinational enterprise orchestrating worldwide sales, and a global supply chain extending onto 5 continents. In this exclusive interview, DukeGEN caught up with Kim Cayce on location in Los Angeles for an inside perspective on how she became Founder and CEO of KALYX, a designer and manufacturer of intimate athletic apparel for women.

How did your career as an entrepreneur begin and play out?

Entrepreneurship has been in my blood since I was a little girl, long before I even knew what the word meant. Growing up, my father was an entrepreneur: he owned his own retail golf shop and later opened a sports recreation center. I grew up as a competitive athlete intent on becoming a professional golfer. Although early on my focus wasn’t business, I had the passion and boldness to challenge the status quo and strive for success as an athlete from an early age.

I arrived at Duke on a full scholarship to play golf in 1989. I was captain of the golf team, a two-time MVP, and All-ACC and an NCAA All-American. My dream was to graduate, and become a successful athlete, but all of that changed just days after I graduated.  While driving with some of my best friends from Duke, I was hit in a major vehicle accident. I shattered my shoulder socket, fractured vertebrae in my lower back, and slipped several discs in my neck. Instead of turning pro right away, I wound up spending the next nine months in physical therapy and rehab literally learning how to walk again.

Eventually, I was able to return to golf and live out my dreams of being a professional athlete. It was a dream come true and I spent the next 5 years of touring around the world as a professional golfer. I played with Annika Sörenstam, and all of the big stars of the day. However, because of the accident, I was never physically the same and my career as a athlete would be short-lived. When I retired from professional golf, it was probably the hardest day of my life because I didn’t have a backup plan. I had never really thought about it.

My journey into business entrepreneurship really began after my golf career ended. Out of persistent frustration as an athlete who disliked poorly designed, unattractive, ill-fitting women’s athletic clothes, I was convinced that I wanted to start a high-end women’s athletic apparel store. However, I knew I lacked the business skills and experience to actually make it happen, so I put this idea on hold for a few years, but deep down I kept the dream alive. I ended up starting a financial services company with my husband and within 4 years, we built our company into a successful small business with 16 employees and over $1M in annual revenues.

I also started a second mortgage brokerage firm in 2002, near the height of the housing boom. It was profitable, but I absolutely hated what I was doing. One morning I woke up and said, "if I can spend eight years doing something I really don’t like and make it successful, what could I do if I really tried something that I loved?" It was a breakthrough moment for me, and I decided then that I wanted to apply to business school and give my very best shot at achieving my longtime dream of designing high-quality, intimate apparel for women athletes.

What challenges needed to be overcome in order to take your start-up company from concept to realty?

I had been nurturing a passion for the women’s athletic apparel industry from my childhood days of working in my dad’s golf shop. Although I had some experience as a buyer and merchandiser for his company, I knew I had a long way to go before I could launch my own store – and even longer to make it profitable! In 2005, I applied to UCLA’s Anderson School of Business with the goal of learning the ins and outs of the business of retailing, manufacturing, as well as the high-performance textile industry and how to start  my own company while an MBA student. During the summer between my first and second year, I earned a Fellowship to research textile manufacturing and bra design which significantly changed the course of my dream. I decided that I didn’t just want to open a single women’s clothing store anymore— I wanted to launch an entire clothing brand.

Through writing business plans as an MBA student and digging down deep into the numbers and research, I discovered that the real opportunity to make some money, or go completely broke! was to launch a brand, not just a store filled with other people's clothes. I decided to launch my own brand focused of the intimate apparel needs of women athletes. It really was an extension of who I was, since a major part of my interest in launching the company was my own frustrations with the poor quality, terrible looking sports bras available at the time.

I made it my goal to collaborate with leading experts in reconstructive surgery, architecture, and engineering and design to create intimate athletic apparel products, which worked well, looked great, and helped the environment. As a team, we developed a proprietary fabric material called K-Force, which would be the basis for our championship sports bras – of which we now have 8 products utilizing this material. K-Force is an incredibly innovative fabric that is made from recycled polyester fibers which start their lives as reclaimed water bottles. Each sports bra takes anywhere between 3-5 water bottles away from making a permanent home in a landfill. So, the results were stylish, eco-loving athletic products, which is what I had always wanted.

Interestingly enough, a very difficult part of the process for launching my company was finding a suitable name. After hunting through countless trademark filings, we discovered that nearly every name is already taken – or already owned by someone else. The final decision was to use a name from another language – so we combined two words from Greek and Latin. We joined Kalos – which is Greek for beautiful, with Calex – which is the outermost part of the flower that protects its petals. Put together, they became Kalyx, and it became the perfect combination to express our mission to empower women to become both strong and beautiful.

How did your time at Duke set the stage for your development as a successful entrepreneur?

Duke helped set the stage for a career in entrepreneurship which would require me to have to figure things out all by myself. When I was looking at colleges, I had a hard choice - attend one of the top-tier public universities and spend 4 years focusing 100% on sports, or going to a smaller, private university that tried to strike a balance between academic and athletic excellence. Duke turned out to offer surprise advantages for my personal, professional and athletic development.

Unlike many of the top sports schools at the time, Duke students and faculty didn’t give me any preferential treatment just because I was an athlete. At Duke, I found that I had to prove my worth just like everyone else, without being able to rely on the leeway oftentimes given to athletes at other schools. It was kind of a sink or swim environment, and that’s exactly what I needed to mature into the strength I would need for the road ahead.

Another thing that Duke did for me is that my best friends throughout my entire life have been people that I met at Duke my freshman year. They have been such a great support system and network through the ups and downs of leading a company. I would not trade them for anything.

Describe a major turning point in your career; what changed and what were the drivers behind it?

A major turning point for us at Kalyx, was in January 2008 when nearly all of our seed-stage investors wanted out, in fear that the market was coming crashing down. As it turns out, the market did come crashing down, and Kalyx was nearly lost in the storm. At this point, we had lost pretty much every one of our backers and investors. We were running on absolute fumes. We had all of our prototypes developed, our designs were ready to go into production, as was our factory in Taiwan, and we had put tons of work put into the company. But, when there's no investment dollars to start manufacturing, there's no income, and no survival. I could hardly believe it. With almost a full retraction of initial investment, Kalyx was on the brink of disaster – before it even got off the ground!

With the broader economy quickly imploding, and no money anywhere in sight for investment, I was just hours away from calling my parents and asking them if I could come back home and move in again. I was 37 at the time! Just when things looked as though it was going to be game-over, the phone rang from ABC’s Shark Tank television reality series – and they wanted me to present the Kalyx concept in front of a live audience of investors and millions of viewers for a chance to get my start-up idea funded. The show was being produced by Mark Burnett - the same executive behind the popular Survivor reality TV series – and featured entrepreneurs making a 3-4 minute elevator-pitch in front of a live board of venture capitalists. I went in hoping for $250,000 in start-up investment, but left in tears with no funding whatsoever. That night, I felt as if my dream had died.

However, determined not to give up, I decided to give my former investors one last phone call – this time informing them that my company had just been featured in a filming for Shark Tank and that the upcoming primetime showing could be an incredible nation-wide advertising opportunity for the company. They followed my lead, and 45 days later, Kalyx was a fully funded start-up company!

Have there been any significant milestones along your journey as an entrepreneur or an achievement or a decision you’d like to do over?

I think an underlying theme for me has been a willingness to give all that I have to tackle great challenges that pose big risks – but offer big rewards, too. It’s doesn’t always come easy – but in the end – win or lose it’s always worth the effort to try. As an entrepreneur, failures and successes are just a part of the game, and you have to be able to stomach the inherent dangers of the marketplace if you are going to succeed.

I feel that I am at my best when I discover the courage deep down within to go out and pursue my dreams with the boldness it takes to win. There will always be uncertainty, but being willing to completely jump in—head first—even when things don’t necessarily look safe, has been a significant hallmark along my journey as an athlete and business entrepreneur.

Something I would do a little differently next time? Definitely my stint as a mortgage broker. Although I did well financially as a broker, it was probably the least favorite job that I’ve ever had. When I started out in the financial services industry, it was a very different kind of business than when I left.  Over the course of several years, as lenders began to loosen their lending guidelines and the more "exotic" mortgage products became the norm, and, as the real estate business really exploded, it became really painful to go to work everyday.  Housing prices were out of control, people were desperate to buy something, and, lenders were all too happy to help people participate in the "American Dream."  It got crazy, and it just wasn’t me:  didn’t challenge me – didn’t stir me. Adding to my previous point, to be able to take a big risk on something requires the passion to make it worthwhile, even if it doesn’t succeed. Work is still hard when you enjoy it and are passionate about it. Just imagine how much more difficult it is when you don’t like the subject matter!

Would you recommend any specific advice to aspiring entrepreneurs who are women?

Being a woman entrepreneur has its own set of challenges and rewards. In America, women raise less than 4% of all venture capital raised each year.  Could it be that gender is a preeminent factor when investors are screening for potential investments? Or, are there simply fewer women-led entrepreneurs seeking to raise professional capital? Based on the fact that women are still a minority in business schools throughout the USA, I believe it's the latter. While venture firms are undoubtedly looking at the same investment criteria for companies of either gender, convincing investors that you can stand tall and crush the competition is still a significant hurdle. I do believe that women entrepreneurs have to fight extra hard as I have personally experienced additional challenges that my male entrepreneurial friends haven't had to face. But, it definitely hasn't stopped me. In fact, I would say that it’s made me stronger and even more prepared to face the challenges of starting my own business.

Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs at Duke?

To be an entrepreneur, you have to learn how to live authentically about how you are gifted and how you are not. Know your skills, boldly use them, but make sure to fill in the gaps on your team with others who are more skilled in your weak areas. Company leadership is really critical to the potential success – and enjoyment – of work at the company.  As CEO, I need to be good at delegating, while all of us need to be prepared to work some really long, hard hours together. That said, you have to be very careful about who you hire because the people you bring in can affect so much in terms of the company’s outcome. Due to limited resources, start-up teams are usually quite small, which means that each member is imperatively important. I’ve found that working with people that you know can be a blessing or it can be curse. Hiring friends may sound like a good idea, but there is a caveat: if the business relationship goes sour, now you've lost both a business partner and a friend.

Another thing I would like to say, is to get your expectations about entrepreneurship in line with the realities of building a company. The entrepreneurial life is pretty crazy. When I was in the business plan writing and fundraising stage of all this, and everything was new and exciting, I would’ve been the first person to tell you, "Yes! I'm going to start this amazing company. And I'm going to take it public, and the sky's the limit, and we're going to buy Nike." There's endless ambition when you're starting. But it's not really a rocket ship ride to the top, you have to be ready for that reality check along the way - once you are in the thick of things as a start-up, you realize quickly it is going to be a long hard road and nothing goes according to plan. You have to be bold, assertive, and willing to fight for what you believe in. And most importantly – you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and make it happen yourself! Start-up companies are notoriously stretched for cash so hiring a fleet of staffers to do things for you isn’t always practical. At Kalyx, we hire the same people over and over again on a temporary basis, but they're not technically employees of the company. There's no point in hiring full-time if there isn’t a dedicated need for their services, and this method helps keep our costs low.

A final point here: the importance of innovation. As a start-up company CEO, once you get the process moving, there really is no turning back. You have to innovate, adapt, and succeed in the changing marketplace, or you go under. As the entire retail landscape has changed since the arrival of the Internet and most recently with the recession, we have to constantly keep an eye out for new market opportunities while staying on top of our current products and competitors. Right now, we are looking at expanding our current product line into areas where there are large and underserved needs - the plus size markets, and a luxury women's technical athletic apparel line with really affordable prices.  We also just designed a couple of swim trunk samples for the US Navy. It’s amazing where the journey can take you, isn't it?

I want the entrepreneurs of tomorrow to know that if they believe in themselves, and reach down deep to find the courage to take a big risk – they CAN achieve their dreams and succeed on their own terms. I know so many people who have dreams, but they never have the courage to pursue them. For me, building Kalyx has never been about the money. I am not trying to get rich off of this idea: success with this company is personal. From the very beginning, this company has been about making my own dreams for a women’s athletic apparel line come true. When I started into this, I didn’t have any connections to the athletic apparel manufacturing industry, nor really a solid clue about how to make this idea work. But over the past 3 years and through a ton of hard work, I am proud to say that I can look back and see that the seeds of success have been planted, and they are really starting to grow.


Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs