Laura McQuade of The White Gown: Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself



Even though I always thought of myself as a risk taker, and I really am, the idea of starting my own business really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Owning your own business is really doing life without a net — and without extensive support staff.


 

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50's. How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura McQuade. Laura McQuade is a multi-level C-Suite visionary leader holding positions as CEO, COO, and CFO. She is the Former President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York (PPGNY), a merged Planned Parenthood affiliate comprised of five legacy New York State affiliates that includes Planned Parenthood of New York City for which Laura was President and CEO since June 2017. In her newest venture, Laura is the owner of The White Gown; a boutique bridal salon based in New York City.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Cranford, New Jersey, the youngest of three children. I have an older brother and sister. I would say that I had a fairly typical suburban upbringing — went to my local elementary, middle, and high schools — played sports, was in the marching band, and I was a Mathlete! Although my father passed away when I was 16, I was so fortunate to have a stable home life with a family invested in my success and friends that have stayed with me all my life. People find it odd when I tell them that my closest friends are those I’ve carried since elementary school. No matter where our lives have taken us, we have prioritized staying connected. With that group of people, no matter what my job is or what my public profile is, I can always just be myself without fear of judgment and alienation. That’s a gift I feel so lucky to have received. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I never really had a favorite “life lesson quote” until the last year and I stumbled upon it accidentally. The actor, Alan Alda, was being given an honorary university degree and he was asked to provide some comments. However, he was only given three minutes to speak, so he told the audience because he only had three minutes to speak, he was going to share the secret to life in the short time he had. “It’s three words — adapt, adjust, and revise.” He went on to say that it would be the advice he gave his 50-year-old self and that it was what allowed him to have a successful and fulfilling life.

“We have to respond to changes that make life difficult. And we have to keep revising the way we think about these things. If you can’t be agile physically, you hope you can be agile from your thinking.” “The challenges that come our way as we get older are just reality, and reality isn’t fixed by wishing it away or hoping it won’t continue. Reality is just what it is. And I find it more fun to cope with reality than to wish it wasn’t.”

I read this article just at the perfect time in my own life transition and those three words — adapt, adjust, revise — have become my mantra and fueled my passion to reinvent myself and find new and fulfilling opportunities. You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each. Passion, vision, and tenacity combined with a healthy comfort with risk and change. I also just love an adventure.

I decided early on — like when I was 6! — that I was passionate about politics and social change. I went to college and was a political science major and then on to graduate school and studied international relations. I built my career around social justice both in the United States and globally. I have deep passion for the issues and challenges to which I dedicated my entire career from voting rights in Albania to sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Midwest of the United States. Starting with that passion and commitment made doing the work so fulfilling and I guess that led to success in my chosen fields. For example, I was an election monitor in 1994 in South Africa in the election that brought Nelson Mandela to power and ended the hideous apartheid period in that country. Witnessing black and brown South Africans wait in line, sometimes for days, to cast their very first ballots in an election impacted me deeply and shaped much of the work I would do in the ensuing years.

Passion is just a starting point, though. I believed I needed to combine that passion with my vision for the type of change I wanted to be part of bringing about and unflagging tenacity to keep going in the face of what sometimes felt like insurmountable obstacles.

When I became CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, I knew the job and the environment in which I was working was going to be tough. Every time we would make an advancement in our ability to provide care to our patients, e.g. providing medication abortion at all of our health centers, the legislatures in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas would introduce and enact legislation targeted directly at shutting down our services or they would send in their health inspectors on fabricated charges again, to limit access to sexual and reproductive health services for our patients. Each time, our team had to regroup and re-envision how we could continue to provide care while adhering to the bogus legislation enacted simply to deny patients access to fundamental healthcare. And we fought back in the courts, the legislatures, and in the court of public opinion to ensure Planned Parenthood’s ability to continue to provide care.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

As I mentioned, until now, I have committed almost the entirety of my professional life to social justice issues. For the first half of my career, I worked for global organizations focused on a range of issues from election monitoring and building democratic institutions to global financial sector reform in support of economic opportunity and sustainability. In this period in my life, I was given the gift of extensive global travel and the ability to spend long periods living outside of the US, particularly in the global south. I then went on to become a hedge fund credit officer at Bank of America. I was on the desk the days that Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers went down, the days that career bankers left the building carrying their personal items in a cardboard box. I witnessed firsthand the fragility of the all-powerful US financial sector. It was in those months that I learned that my life’s work would focus on social justice and I needed to return to a position for which I had deep passion.

I moved my professional life into an area that had always had strong personal importance for me — sexual and reproductive health and rights. I consider the ability to make your own decisions about your own body to be at the core of all humanity and personal autonomy. Throughout my life I believed the ability to decide if and when you have children was core to people’s ability to lead full and fulfilled lives. And by extension, families, companies, and countries thrive when people are able to make their own reproductive decisions. I joined the Center for Reproductive Rights as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Office at a time when the organization was looking to expand the reach of its global work and ultimately its global footprint, which matched well with my earlier work experience. I am so proud of my partnership with CRR’s President and CEO, Board, and our shared team that greatly expanded the organization’s legal and advocacy work in the US and built four international offices to support increased global presence and programming. It was the backdrop of sexual and reproductive health and rights domestically at that time, though, that would frame the last six years of my career. Despite strong legal underpinning through court decisions like Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the right to safe and legal abortion in the United States has come under threat almost from the moment of legalization. Starting in the late oughts and early teens, states began introducing exponentially more anti-choice legislation than at anytime since Roe v. Wade was decided. The goal was to get a bill to the Supreme Court that would limit abortion rights or overturn legal abortion in the US entirely. Types of bills introduced were also expanding to include bans on birth control and hideous restrictions against the trans and gender nonconforming communities.

It was in 2013 that I received a call from a recruiter looking for a new President and CEO for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. Was I interested? On the first call, the answer was a firm NO! I was living with my husband and two children in NYC and had an incredibly exciting position at the Center for Reproductive Rights, not to mention the fact that I’d never been to the Midwest and had frankly spent more time in West Africa than in the parts of the US outside the Northeast. I had always strived to become a CEO, but this didn’t seem like the right fit at the right time. The recruiter asked me to think about it, so I did. This would mean an enormous change for my family. At the time, my son was in 6th grade and my daughter was 4. My husband is a consultant and can do his work from anywhere but how would we manage the change and disruption as a family? I then began thinking about all the cases CRR was taking on around the country challenging these destructive and hateful bills and I thought, “what would it be like if I could be part of ensuring that sexual and reproductive healthcare was available in Missouri and Kansas and if I could be part of trying to stem the tide of bad legislation at two of its sources?” I had always approached my work in sexual and reproductive rights from a global and policy perspective. This would be an enormous change to the grassroots level and to being part of the team actually delivering care to the communities where there is such limited access. I can assure you that access to sexual and reproductive healthcare in Kansas City looks very different than access in New York City. That became the deciding factor and I told my husband that I wanted to throw my hat in the ring for the job. We moved to Kansas City several months later. Over the next three years, as CEO first of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri and subsequently Planned Parenthood Great Plains, I worked with my Board and team to stabilize and expand care in Kansas and Missouri. We took Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri through two mergers with neighboring Planned Parenthood affiliates in Oklahoma and Arkansas to ensure continued availability of abortion and other sexual and reproductive healthcare in those four states, despite unrelenting attacks from state and local governments.

The plan was to stay in the Midwest longer than we did. In late 2016, though, I learned that the CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC) was retiring. To have the opportunity to return home and continue to do the critical work of expanding sexual and reproductive healthcare access in New York City was an opportunity I had to go for. I was deeply fortunate to be selected for the position and we moved back to NYC in the summer of 2017. The next three years at PPNYC and then Planned Parenthood of Greater New York were devoted to advancing sexual and reproductive health policy in New York State, strengthening Planned Parenthood’s care delivery model, and to expanding access to care across the state. Upon my return from the Midwest, I learned very quickly that the state of sexual and reproductive health care policy and access in New York wasn’t what I believed it to be. I immediately coined a phase — New York needs to BE the state it thinks it IS! The Reproductive Health Act, which finally passed in 2019, had stalled in Albany for years under the weight of an anti-choice Senate and neighborhoods across the state with the greatest need for sexual and reproductive healthcare — from wellness visits to birth control to TGNC care to abortion access — were going without. With the support of my team, my tenure at PPGNY focused on expanding bricks and mortar health centers, developing and expanding mobile health centers, introducing telehealth and leading a merger of five New York Planned Parenthood affiliates in order to create a sustainable patient-centered delivery model. All of this work, while on the surface seeming somewhat disparate, all centered around working to build policies and institutions that would support people to have opportunities and be able to make the decisions that would enable them to live the best versions of their lives.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

I made the decision that I wanted to become more of a master of my own destiny and launch or buy my own business, but what would that be? Consulting seemed like a rational approach — I had some experience I thought could be of value to others — so I Iaunched my own consulting firm. That didn’t seem to scratch the itch of my increasing entrepreneurial fervor, so I began to look at retail businesses to purchase. Like so many others, the experience of Covid had changed some of my thinking about how I wanted to spend my time moving forward. Would I allow myself to think both in terms of challenge and of fun? Anyone who knows me even a little knows about my unflagging love and passion for fashion. Could this new business venture engage my heretofore professionally untapped love? Once I started looking solely in fashion retail, almost immediately, I came upon a bridal salon that was for sale in Soho — The White Gown. I had never really thought about bridal when I thought about fashion, but it instantly resonated. Throughout my career, I had been drawn to work that revolved around critical and highly emotional moments in people’s lives. There seemed to be a real connection for me in supporting people to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives and supporting them in choosing how to be the best version of themselves on their wedding days. From a business perspective, the time seemed right to take advantage of this opportunity. In 2019, the wedding industry in the United States was valued at $72 billion, with bridal gowns and accessories constituting over $17 billions of that figure. That figure was projected to continue to grow annually through 2027 at 3% annually. Then Covid hit. Weddings scheduled for 2020 were being postponed, while rates of engagement were increasing during quarantine. What did that mean for 2021 and 2022? My business mind said “major pent up demand for wedding gowns!” And the idea that I could build a successful wedding gown business, inclusive of and welcoming to all people getting married, was a real energizer.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

It’s trite, I know, but Covid has been a wake up call about the fragility of life and making meaningful decisions about how I want to spend my time. While I had an enormously successful and fulfilling career, deeper analysis really led me to conclude that my career was driving me and not the other way around. I had fear of what it meant to run my own business — could I be successful without a corporate structure around me? Would I have sufficient money to fund the start up and could I handle the risk of needing to support my family on a small business? I undertook extensive financial analysis to get comfortable with the business side. I looked closely at the work I had been doing throughout my career and realized that I had been running small, medium, and large businesses for years and already had many of the skillsets needed to be successful at The White Gown. Then I confronted the fear head on and concluded like so many others before me that with risk comes the potential for a return both emotionally and financially that I had not achieved before.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers? I learned a lot about myself as we were moving through the steps needed to purchase a business. I learned even more about what it takes to purchase and run even a small business. For the five months leading up to closing, I was immersed in financial, legal, industry, inventory, operations, real estate, and social media analysis. A shortfall in looking at any of these areas of the business could have jeopardized the success of the business. “Being in the weeds” is often said pejoratively, but all I can say is that when you’re running your own business, the devil is indeed in the details.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories. We are just getting started. We are beginning to engage with our designers, stylists, and customers to build the profile of just who is The White Gown bride. We are expanding and revamping our social media presence to focus on our brides — their lives, their experiences, and their ideas on the perfect wedding. Like at Planned Parenthood, our goal is to build an individual, bride-centered experience for every person who comes through our doors to ensure that we are doing our part to give them the wedding day of their dreams. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As I’ve mentioned throughout the interview, for the past 20 years, I’ve had the support of my husband John, both on a daily basis and in a broader way as I have thought about career shifts and opportunities. Every person should have a partner that believes in their inherent value and ability. When it came to “taking the plunge” on this new business, his answer was “of course, you can do this!”

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

If you are fortunate enough to be part of a family, you know that career decisions don’t involve you alone and certainly buying a new business is somewhat of a family affair. My first go-to person was my husband. He has had a much more entrepreneurial career path than I have until this time and has launched companies in the past, so I had a built-in wealth of knowledge at home. This was critical in the due diligence stage of both understanding the industry and in asking all of the right questions to understand the current state of the business. Once we went to contract, I went out to other resources in my network, e.g. my sister is an experienced small business owner, to get advice about setting up all of my systems and also about pitfalls she experienced and guided me to watch out for.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

Even though I always thought of myself as a risk taker, and I really am, the idea of starting my own business really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Owning your own business is really doing life without a net — and without extensive support staff. It’s not just all of the vision that needs to come from you — it’s all of the infrastructure and operations management that you have to build and maintain on your own. While we were analyzing different aspects of the business in order to decide whether to buy, I had to re-teach myself how to make pivot tables in Excel! This may seem like a small point, but as a CEO of a $100M organization with 900 staff, I had teams of people to support me in that work. Starting your own business means that you must not only understand all aspects of your business, you have to be able to do all the work — at least in the beginning — to make it successful and be comfortable asking others for help. At first it was daunting and then I realized that I had a lot of skill sets buried in my brain that I could tap into to make this step and that I had a strong support network who brought their own skills and also wanted to see me be successful. That’s what got me over the hurdle!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I don’t need to inspire a movement, but I am committed to support and be an ally in profound movements already underway in the US today fighting for racial and gender equity and working to combat deep inequities in education, healthcare, housing, and employment in this country that result from systemic racism and misogyny. We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

While my career has moved in a different direction in recent years, I still have a deep commitment to global development and sustainability. I would love to meet with Samantha Power — our former UN Ambassador and current head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Going back to my favorite quote above, I respect Power for her ability to adapt, adjust, and revise throughout her enormous and impressive career. How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me through my personal website. Please also follow The White Gown on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. We would love to be a part of your bridal journey and hope to see you soon! Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!