Karla Stephens-Tolstoy – Co-Founder & CEO at Tokii Wearable Therapy

I’ve concluded that everything is part of a journey. You have to accept it and move on.

Karla Stephens Tolstoy spent years in the telecom industry, eventually working her way up from the ground floor to become CEO of Vodafone Czech Republic. But she wanted to help others- to bring a voice to those who had none. So, she created Wearable Therapy by Tokii, an advocacy-wear clothing company dedicated to spreading awareness about social issues through fashion.

Karla believes that the key to change in this world is action, and believes that fashion can spark the conversation that inspires change. Her online retail shop sells clothing, accessories, and home décor that feature designs that tackle issues like homelessness, human trafficking, addiction, and mental illness. These are all issues that lie close to Karla’s heart, and Wearable Therapy is a way for her to follow her true passion.

Spending most of her own free time volunteering for the St John Ambulance Pet Therapy program and running the not-for-profit Tokii Teens at Risk website (a resource for the parents of teens with addiction problems), Karla is trying to change the world through both action and fashion.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I’ve always been inspired by people who work at making the world a better place and influence positive change. I know from my business experiences in the mobile industry that initiating change requires a lot of bravery and relentless perseverance. Change comes from being aware of the status quo and a desire to improve things and to visualize a little about “what if”! Today, with all the social media accessibility there are issues that smack us right between the eyes and it’s hard to ignore the more poignant ones. This got me thinking, “How do we present these issues to encourage dialogue in the homes, in the schools and in our neighborhoods?” And so, I created a line of products that visually depict the issues through images and words. What was born was a line of home décor items and apparel that hopefully, through some provocative words and images, helps start the conversation.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’d be lying if I said that every day was productive! We have 4 dogs and so I get up and I feed them at 6 am. Because we have a senior dog who weighs 240lbs and has medical issues, I race to get him outside before he has an accident in the house! I don’t always win that race! So my day usually starts off cleaning up after him. I know, it’s crazy, but he’s family. I make my coffee and then I get my son up for school and we all fall into our daily routines. Since I have more energy in the morning, I tackle the administrative matters of my business. I’m pretty good at multitasking so in parallel, I usually watch documentaries which while in the background can often be the source of new ideas and issues. I scan at news articles that pertain to our advocacy and my other business initiatives. I have an IOS app that helps people to identify their personality traits. Plus, another online store called Lake Life, that celebrates nature and our lakes and the surrounding environment. Since Wearable Therapy can sometimes get a little bit too dark and gritty for me, I flip back and forth as I attend to the various businesses. I also volunteer with St Johns Ambulance with pet therapy, wherein I visit institutions and schools and truly enjoy these outings. I am also an advisory board member at a university here in Toronto in their entrepreneurship area. So, you can see that I am really passionate about social entrepreneurship and consequently my days a quite varied. And, I usually find time to get out and exercise with the dogs on daily walks as we all need that time to destress!

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m a very visual person. So, if I have a new idea, I usually introduce it into a Skype chat with colleagues and we discuss it at length. Then, as a next step, I try to visualise what the end product might look like whether it’s a new design or maybe a new concept for how we educate and inform people. I rely on PowerPoint and more visual applications a lot. Photographs and documentaries inspire me and I definitely do a lot of brainstorming with the different team members involved in my businesses.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The whole area of social advocacy really excites me. I’m excited to see the millennials are very much aware and care about many of the current issues. There’s a lot of good in this world but there are also a lot of things that need to get better. This requires sound stewardship and it’s going to require passion and inspiration. And this trend of social entrepreneurship really excites me.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m an obsessive compulsive. I have a lot of tenacity and perseverance and can thus overcome the low points or downers. Obviously as an entrepreneur you experience a lot of highs and lows. There are days when you feel like screaming, “I give up, this is just not working. I suck, I’m like a horrible entrepreneur, and I should just go work for a company instead of doing it all on my own!” Then I pause take a deep breath and recall that I did work successfully for large firms for 15 years and gave that up to venture out on my own. I get grounded once again and refocus on the issue at hand. I can’t lie; the lows can be low and there can be many of them but what snaps me out of the rut is when I see viable progress and the positive outcomes!

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Well I’ve had lots of unique and interesting jobs. The worst job was probably when I was in high school and answered an advert that said, “Looking for fur modelers.” I convinced 3 of my best friends to join me by informing them that “We’re going to be modeling furs. We can make up to $10 an hour, which is unbelievable.” My parents dropped off the 4 of us in a shady warehouse area in Toronto. It turned out that we were actually runners to show people fur pelts! So here we were in high heels, make up to the ‘nines’ having to run with the pelts through this huge warehouse. It was basically “Number 71 wants to see coat rack 52 fetch it!” So, if I was the agent of coat rack 52, I’d have to run to prospect buyer 71 so that they could inspect the furs before they went up for auction. I learned to be more cautious and pragmatic when it came to possibilities & expectations but also that a commitment was a commitment!

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

My God, that’s something that plays over too often in my head! The reality is you can’t simply start over again. I’ve concluded that everything is part of a journey. You have to accept it and move on. I often wonder “Why did I do an app?” Too often we hear about a simple app that met with phenomenal success, but in reality those are in a very small minority. In fact, it’s a very challenging process to develop, maintain and market an app. It’s a lot more complex than just having the idea and being able to code the idea. The marketing of it to achieve popularity and critical mass is a phenomenal challenge. The app world is like the Wild West, unstructured and inconsistent in how to proceed and how to market it successfully. It’s really a complicated industry with more misses than hits! But I guess it led me to initiate ‘wearable therapy’, which I love. I still love the personality app and we have keep it operational but it’s just hard to monetize.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Some indulge in alcohol. Others smoke weed and take drugs. Since I’m not a big drinker or drug user, my endeavours might seem more mundane! You definitely need to have down time to maintain your sanity and to recharge your batteries. So try to have a nice and healthy vice. In my case it’s relaxing with the dogs and exercising. When time permits, we travel to see more of the world and gain new experiences. I also escape into the world of entertainment. I’m a big film and TV viewer. Candidly, that’s my big escape. I stress that as an entrepreneur, you need to have a lot of self-awareness, maintain a good mental equilibrium and use a family member or friend as a sounding board. Not all of your great ideas are guaranteed home runs! Since entrepreneurs are by nature quite creative and creativity sometimes can cause mood abnormalities, especially when others do not align with your “progressive thinking” your attention to your mental wellbeing is of paramount importance.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

I think that getting community involvement in support of your business is really important whether it’s organizations or individuals. That’s why people receive a free t-shirt if they represent an advocacy or a cause and we ask that they send us a photo of themselves wearing it and a brief explanation of their cause. We have a blog site that features what interesting things that advocacy people are doing, and we also do a lot of interviews and reach-outs into the community. It’s important to maintain these activities to grow the awareness within the community and to grow your followers. On Instagram we have real active followers as we are not trying to simply get as many people as we can as followers. The same holds true for Facebook. We try to make sure that we’re bringing onboard people that are passionate about the cause(s) as we are, to help become advocates to others.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One failure? First of all, you have to be willing to deal with 100s of failures and roadblocks. It’s hard and sometimes seems futile. I’ve had a lot of success in my life and so I have to continually remind myself that I have what it takes to persevere and succeed. I’ve discovered over the years that my biggest fear is the fear of failure. That’s an awful one to have as a monkey on your back! When self-doubt materializes, I need to push it to the back burner. I try to block out the negative thinking if it’s mine and negative talk if its someone else’s! It’s really easy to get obsessed with your failures. And so, I coach myself with thoughts like “Okay, you know what? we’re doing the right thing. We’re trying to make the world a better place. And you’ve just got to keep focused. And yeah, you kind of sucked in these areas. But you need to push through.” I could probably fill pages addressing the failures because that’s what I remember. And so, sometimes I have to look at my own LinkedIn profile to remember my successes. I know, that’s pretty pathetic, but I do it so I can recall that “Okay, I have done great things. Okay!” The bottom-line is believe in yourself, your initiatives and preserver!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Well I would say my big idea is don’t do an app unless you can do code and you have lots of money. When Richard Branson was asked how to become a millionaire in the airlines business he said start off as a billionaire! So, I offer a business idea with some trepidation. If it is such a good idea, I might have already tried it! With that caveat, I think a great business right now, involves the whole area of senior citizens. We are an aging population, living longer and staying more fit and agile. How do you develop something that the seniors can use? Many have the money. They have the time. The concept of co-op living, which I kind of like, will likely grow in popularity, if done right. They’re creating these condos, where you just have a bedroom and like a small, small kitchen. And then there are shared facilities. I love that whole concept and I think, “My God, that would be such a nice way to retire.” This is not your government or independently run stogy old-age home, it’s a community, and you have independence. As real estate prices climb and people are on fixed income retirement schemes, they can no longer afford real estate in major cities where they want and need to be near hospitals and other facilities. etc.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I tend to buy Tim Horton’s gift cards. That’s Canada’s version of Dunkin’ Donuts. I do buy a lot of gift cards and then I randomly give them out to street youths or people that I see that I think need a pick me up. I actually love doing that. I always carry them in my purse and have at least 10 cards at any given time with $5 on them so that people can buy themselves a coffee and a donut.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

My Apple Mac software is the standard fare. As for web services, I’m a huge user of Skype. Google Docs, I’m obsessed about. I just love everything about Google Docs and I love Google Hangouts. I love how you can do so many great things with Google that definitely makes my business life easier. I love Shopify; it’s actually a Canadian company. This is how you can build your own personal online store. I like it, because I can do some of the workups myself. Additionally, I’m very lucky I have amazing colleagues and one who is really amazing at using Shopify. I love that it’s friendly and it doesn’t take too much to get a store up and running.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Definitely my parents have had a huge influence. They are optimistic by nature. Growing up, I never heard them criticize another ethnic race or other individuals. We lived beside two gay men and my parents acted liked that was completely normal at a time when that was not the norm. They are very, very non-judgemental people. And they continually surprise me with how they see things with respect to world issues. They are very progressive in their thinking. My husband also is an amazing influence. He is a solid anchor with amazing energy and great grounding. And optimistic as well. He is my biggest champion and fan and I can’t even begin to tell you how important that is to have, especially when the days’ kind of seem a little bit dark. You need that person that keeps you going and believes in you. Another big influence and reason why I got involved with teens at risk and street youth was because of Covenant House. I read their book, “Almost home” and it really opened my eyes. I would say that the Covenant House was a new beginning for me in gaining an awareness of the issues in our community. I also love Byron Kate She is a psychologist that looks at things differently and makes you flip around your perspective of issues. Additionally, I continually learn from multiple sources. I’m a real documentary junkie. I love podcasts. I love documentaries. I love anything that helps to explain things to me and lets me see into a world that normally I wouldn’t have accessed or perhaps thought about. When it comes to Netflix, I have my Master’s degree in Netflix if that’s possible. And my PHD in documentaries and in podcasts. So I’m a consummate learner.


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