Spotlight - 03/11/24

A Q&A with Inclusive Entrepreneur Marianne Weber

10 min

By Meghan Day

A Q&A with Inclusive Entrepreneur Marianne Weber

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has encountered many talented designers throughout her career, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Marianne Weber, the founder and CEO of the inclusive lingerie line Even Adaptive and a licensed occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Marianne worked with Interwoven to realize her empathetic vision, founding Even Adaptive in 2021 and launching the adaptive lingerie line in 2024. That our team contributed to Marianne’s incredible project, which won a Core77 design award in 2023, makes this a particularly special Spotlight feature for us. We asked Marianne about what inspired her to become an entrepreneur, the power of designing for a traditionally neglected audience, and what it was like to work with a design team. 

portrait of Marianne Weber
Photo courtesy of Marianne Weber.

Q: You had a career in occupational therapy when you became an entrepreneur. What inspired that transition? 

A: I’m still currently working as an occupational therapist and keeping up my license, so it’s a long, slow transition. I’m still providing people with what we do as occupational therapists: providing independence and helping them relearn how to do things for themselves. It’s definitely a career change, moving into a CEO and founder role and away from being a full-time therapist. But I feel like the change is necessary for touching more lives than I could in my occupational therapy role. When I had the idea to make this happen, I didn’t immediately think, I need to switch jobs. This has been a three-year journey so far, and I’m still doing both roles. 

The job I have is in acute care. What that means is that I come in when people are initially in the hospital or post-op day one. I’m seeing people at the most heightened and scared time of their lives, and it has to be taken very seriously every moment that I am working as an OT because one wrong step and I could seriously injure somebody. I’m not able to focus on being a CEO when I am at my job, I still have to be a hundred percent there and present. Then when I’m not there I can be 100% present as the founder of Even Adaptive. 

I think one element of the transition that changed my perspective was starting to talk to all of my patients about their engagement and their sexual health as well. As occupational therapists, we focus on making sure that everybody can complete their activities of daily life, their ADLs, and sex is one of those things that we have within our scope of practice. Before becoming the CEO and the founder of Even Adaptive, I was a bit more shy about asking those questions because my toolbox wasn’t full. But, through this process, I’ve done a lot of continuing education. I became more educated on how I can help people through the process of creating our products.

Q: You explain that confidence and sexiness are the pillars of your brand ethos, could you elaborate on that?

A: When you’re faced with these disease processes or you have a disability of some kind, a lot of society communicates that these people are not allowed to express themselves in any kind of sexual manner. They’re not allowed to date, and they’re not looked at as valuable in that way that other women can be when they have full function. The pillars of being independent and sexy go hand in hand for Even Adaptive. If we can make you feel good, and increase your confidence and your independence by providing you with something that you want to be wearing instead of something that was made for 75% of women out there, then we can help to drive change. Sexiness is not just about how someone else is perceiving you but about how you perceive yourself.

Q: Your brand focuses on a neglected target audience. Did anything about this audience surprise you? 

A: I don’t know if they’ve surprised me so much because I’ve been working with this community for many years now, but one thing that I was excited about was how willing they are to lift everybody up. In so much of the world, when you’re trying to do something new, you hear no over and over again. But this community says, Let’s make change. Let’s do this. Let me post about it. Let me share your website. Everybody is excited to be involved in the ambassador program and get their name out there and their story out there. They are used to being told no as well, so when somebody finally tells them, This is for you, they grab onto it and they’re excited to be a part of it.

I’ve got both sides of the coin. We’re looking for fundraising and venture capitalists are 98% men. You’re faced with talking to men about women’s bras and underwear but also about women with disabilities and underwear. It’s this far out concept to them. They think, Who out there would need this? No we’re not going to fund that. I don’t see how it’s going to make money. But when you give it to the people who need it, they’re extremely excited to hear about the product and want to know more and be involved.  As an entrepreneur, there’s one side that’s beating you down, but then the other side that’s lifting you up. There’s a balance.

I think my personal story into why this business came to be is a pretty powerful story and seems to resonate with a lot of people. It doesn’t resonate so much with men but whenever I can tell it to women entrepreneurs they get it right away.

Q: Could you tell that story?

A: I was in graduate school in 2018 and it was finals week. I was having trouble with my vision and I was thinking, I’m going to go to the doctor and get really cute glasses!  The doctor thought something was strange, so he sent me in for an MRI. The MRI resulted with multiple lesions in my brain and my cervical spinal cord, and a very long diagnostic process led to a diagnosis of MS [Multiple Sclerosis]. So I was diagnosed with MS during finals week of grad school to become an occupational therapist. I already had my career laid out for me. I knew what I wanted to do, and it just happened that this was happening at the same time. The whole disease diagnosis process is fairly unpredictable with MS. Being me, with well-established anxiety, I was going through all the terrible things that could come from it. It was a very taxing year for me before I got on medication and was able to deal with it. In that process, I started working at Johns Hopkins in neurology. I was watching these women, who were dealing with a more advanced disease process than I had, not be able to do basics for themselves because that’s my whole job: to help people to be able to do those things again. These women couldn’t put bras on. Those were always the first things that women with neurological conditions gave up on, their underwear and their sexuality. They would just say, What? I’m never going to leave my house again, so why do I need to do this? But that doesn’t have to be the only option.

Even Adaptive was created from my own experience of going through this diagnosis and feeling like my self-worth was down in the dumps, and then watching women have this reaction over and over and over. I wondered, What is the thing that I can do to help these people? And the answer was to create an adaptive intimate line, because it was the one thing I couldn’t solve. I can teach anybody how to put on a shirt one-handed or a pant or a sock, there are tools out there for that. But nothing existed for these women that could lay the foundation of confidence and help them to feel good again. 

Q: Could you talk about your experience working with Interwoven? What was it like to have a vision realized with a design consultancy? 

A: When first I called Rebeccah, I remember her calling me back very quickly. She was immediately interested in the concept. Hearing that, I realized, Someone is going to help me with this! It was very exciting that she was able to see the vision, wrap her head around it, and know confidently that she could come up with a functional solution. It was so exciting to have a team of experts that had this portfolio behind them, that actually listened to what the product needed to be. I think Interwoven did a great job of taking the requirements that I knew that the product needed and creating something that has never been done before; to make it the best in the market and the only one-handed functional bra product that exists. The other beautiful thing that they did for me was to think about how the product was going to survive in the world in an extremely realistic way. They thought, We’re putting this work in, has this been created before? Has this been patented before? Are we going to be able to get a patent through? They did work to find out how it’s going to be manufactured, and they thought about the pricing. Interwoven thought about every detail, so they knew that the product would be viable once it left their hands. That was one of the most important things that they gave to me besides the clasp design. They wanted to see the project succeed, so they designed it with that in mind.

Q: What is something you experienced in the Even Adaptive journey that you didn’t anticipate? 

A: It was surprising how much attention went into creating this product. The multiple iterations and all the trial and error, all of the tiny little changes that Aybuke would make along the way…the product is highly fine-tuned and functional. When you’re not on the inside, you don’t think about what it takes to really create something like this. I was surprised at how much they cared.

Q: While awareness is growing, inclusive design is not yet a universal priority. What does the landscape of the inclusive market look like from your perspective? What are your hopes for this market? 

A: Since I started, I do see more adaptive companies. They’re starting to get funding and they’re popping up more and more often. I am seeing a big shift in the normalization of it. It’s still really slow moving. In terms of taking into account the look of the products and being fashioned forward, a lot of them are stuck on function. I do think that we’re going to move into a realm—and this is part of what Even Adaptive wants to help accomplish—where you don’t have to search endlessly online to find the thing that will help you get dressed after breaking your arm. You should be able to just pop online, already have a brand in your head, and order it up. There are a ton of inclusive designs that have been normalized in our homes, like all of the door handles that are levers instead of knobs. That’s an inclusive design option and we don’t think twice about it. It’s just in houses everywhere now. 

Hopefully that’s where adaptive clothing will go. It happened with baby onesies overnight. Somebody came up with baby onesies that have magnets and moms are like, Yes!  That’s a cool normalization, and that inclusive normalization is going to move up the line as long as we can make things that people want to wear.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!


Related

Spotlight - 05/06/24

A Q&A with Public Space Design Expert Hannah Berkin-Harper

13 min

Read More

Spotlight - 04/08/24

A Q&A with Lighting Design Expert Alecia Wesner

15 min

Read More

head shot of designer Ignacio Urbina Polo

Spotlight - 02/05/24

A Q&A with Biomimicry Expert Ignacio Urbina Polo

10 min

Read More