MOORHEAD, Minn. — Leah Kay Krabbenhoft never really envisioned herself as an entrepreneur, the head of a trend-forward fashion business or a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs.
But somehow, at not quite 30, she's become all three.
Krabbenhoft, a 2009 Moorhead High graduate, actually started out on a completely different path: She was studying to become a food scientist and professor at North Dakota State University.
But she had a small problem: She couldn't find a comfortable, good-looking headband to keep her hair out of her eyes while she pursued a demanding course of classes, labs and studying.
Finally, she decided to make her own headband, so she lugged mom Yvonne's old Kenmore sewing machine out of storage and made a trip to a local fabric store.
After some experimentation, Krabbenhoft stitched up a headband that checked all the boxes. It was comfortable, it stayed put and it was fashion-forward with a jaunty knot on top.
Friends and acquaintances so liked Krabbenhoft's headbands that they asked if she could make some for them. She gave the first ones away, but as the requests increased, she realized she could parlay her hobby into a side hustle.
That was five years ago. Today, Krabbenhoft's Soulvation Society brand has blossomed into a 100% self-funded, woman-owned brand with over $2 million in sales and zero debt.
And Krabbenhoft may be one of the few fashion mavens out there who could also give a dissertation on carbohydrate chemistry.
"Food science was a great field to be in," she says. "I had a great professor, it was a great program and I loved it. But I just had an itch just to make a brand, or just to make something for myself."
She certainly succeeded. Articles on Soulvation's story and products have been featured in Forbes, Cosmopolitan, NBC, CBS, the Chicago Weekly and Oxygen magazine. Her product is sold through retail sites like FreePeople, which reflects her boho-chic vibe.
And her product has received thousands of glowing Instagram mentions ranging from millennial social-media influencers to nurses who rave about the headbands ultra-soft feel.
In fact, Soulvation Society's website champions itself as the "Home of the butter-soft headbands.”
The Denver-based company has expanded its product line to scrunchies, bandanas, turbands (a turban-headband hybrid) and their bestselling hair-ties, which double as boho-style bracelets (that's another Krabbenhoft innovation.)
The last year's success hit so suddenly that Krabbenhoft admits it hasn't fully registered yet. "It doesn't feel like it, even to this day," she says. "It still feels like I'm at home, sewing headbands, trying to make it work."
Krabbenhoft settled in the Mile-High City because her best friend from high school, Ashley Stalboerger, had already moved there, it had a centralized location and she loved the area's beauty and four-season weather.
Not that she had a lot of time to enjoy it. She worked out of her own apartment, diligently sewing headbands, mailing out orders, and reinvesting profits into the business to help it grow.
And then .... COVID. Krabbenhoft was in the midst of looking for new manufacturers and a better fabric when the world seemed to screech to a halt. The supply chain dried up, as did her inventory. "We were actually out of inventory four months because of the pandemic," she says. "We had hardly any sales."
Amid all this, Krabbenhoft found the fabric that changed everything: a kitten-soft bamboo-spandex. When these "butter-soft" pieces hit the website, customers clamored for them. People eagerly snatched up the headbands, retailing at $15.20 per headband or $54.20 for a five-pack. Sales skyrocketed from $120,000 in 2019 to last year's $2 million mark.
Even at this point, Krabbenhoft remained a one-person operation.
"I was hand-sewing everything," she says. "My entire room was all fabric and a sewing machine and my bed. That was it."
Krabbenhoft quickly realized she needed help — even if it meant giving up some control. "I was such a perfectionist," she says. "The sewing had to be perfect, the shipping had to be perfect. So slowly transitioning and hiring help was scary because it was my brand. I wanted to do it how I wanted it. But then I was like, 'If I want to grow this, I need help.'"
Today, Krabbenhoft's Soulvation Society employs eight people, has moved manufacturing to China and includes a 3,000-square-foot warehouse for inventory.
One gets the feeling that Krabbenhoft is just getting started. Bolstered by her recent success and the energy of youth, she is also designing a line of boutique clothing, patterned after her trademark boho aesthetic. In fact, she wears one item from the clothing line during her interview: a relaxed, button-down, white-and-black windowpane-plaid shirt in a soft, cozy fabric.
"Still to this day, I hate wearing high heels," she says. "If it's uncomfortable, I don't want to wear it. The clothing line is very similar: very comfortable, but you still look very cute."
She's also ready to contribute to her community, and plans to donate headbands to the nurses at Sanford Health.
Krabbenhoft's generosity extends to a willingness to share what she's learned. She is developing an e-commerce course, which will demonstrate how to build a successful start-up, including insight on how to "snowball" growth to minimize debt.
"In a very weird way, I guess I still did become a professor," she says, smiling.
Find Krabbenhoft's products at www.soulvationsociety.com.