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Woman to Watch: Dear Survivor’s Christine Howell

When we first spotted the brand Dear Survivor, we loved the quality and design of their handmade bags and earrings. When we learned their mission—to support victims of sex-trafficking—we were all in. Since launching in 2015, the brand has added new products, established sustainable manufacturing processes, and donated more than $20,000 to GenerateHope, a San Diego-based nonprofit that provides survivors a safe place to heal and find restoration in long-term housing and trauma-informed therapy, education, and vocational support.

Today, we’re talking to Dear Survivor founder Christine Howell about how she started, why she decided to rebrand this year, and the major lessons she’s learned from her entrepreneur experiences.

Name: Christine Howell

Job title: Designer

Hometown: Redlands, CA

Current neighborhood: North Park, San Diego

Tell us the backstory of Dear Survivor—how did it begin and what was it like in those early days?

I started Dear Survivor in Spring 2015. I was living in Los Angeles after college working as a seamstress for another brand, but I had been making things for myself and friends for years, and a friend who was a fashion buyer told me I’d likely do well if I started my own line. I was hesitant because I didn’t feel qualified, but she challenged me to come up with a business name and sample out a product line. I was really broke at the time, but I got my $800 tax return that week. So I decided to go for it. I bought material and a Squarespace website and about six weeks later launched Dear Survivor.

Once I landed on the brand name, the ethos, mission, and cause all fell into place. I was making everything out of my shared apartment in L.A. Thankfully I had amazing roommates who were so supportive of my creative endeavors. It was a lot of work the first six months to get it off the ground, but I loved everything about it, so working long hours was a pleasure.

How did you grow your business? Dear Survivor is sold in San Diego, Portland, North Dakota, New Jersey, and everywhere in between!

It’s all been social media. I still have a relatively small following compared to other brands on Instagram, but for the past 4.5 years, that’s been the source for all my business.

What’s it like working with your husband? In what ways does he balance you?

It’s great! Our skills are very complementary. He’s a photographer/producer on commercial shoots, so most days of the week he’s on set somewhere else. His days off though, he’s with me in the studio, cleaning up my inbox, reaching out to new stores, and updating my website. We do big photoshoots twice a year (spring and fall), and those are really fun weeks. I art direct and build out sets, and Cody organizes the models, hair and makeup, wardrobe, and then he photographs it all, too. He’s definitely the reason my brand looks as professional as it does.

Dear Survivor just went through a rebrand. What was the motivation?

Since I started Dear Survivor on such a whim and with no money I never really branded myself. I had a friend design a quick logo back in 2015, but I never had anyone do full brand development with colors, graphics, fonts, etc. I’ve been saving up to do this for a while, and this summer I had one really large order come in that made me feel confident in taking this next step.

What was the most challenging thing about the re-brand?

I worked with an amazing graphic design team that took my ideas and ran with them. The challenge was in trying to not create a “trending now” brand identity. We wanted the new look to both stand out and look classic, and above all stand the test of time.

Beyond Dear Survivor, you’re an artist. How do you find time to balance Dear Survivor with your other pursuits?

It’s very hard. Since Dear Survivor is what pays the bills, it’s difficult for me to prioritize time to make visual art. But this summer Cody and I actually slipped away to Mexico City for a six-week art residency. We were living and working with other international artists and had a big show in the city at the end of our time there. And it was encouraging because I was able to keep Dear Survivor running while we were there. Hoping to do more of this in the future.

How do you stay organized and motivated? What apps, podcasts, books, or other tools do you use?

My personality type is very goal-orientated, and once my mind is set to achieve something I have to see it through and do the best I can. Failure is not an option for me. I start every day sitting on my porch and watching the sunrise with a large pot of Earl Grey tea. I think through my day and write down what needs to get done. Then once I’m at work I listen to a lot of business podcasts. My favorites are How I Built This and Business Wars.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to fellow female entrepreneurs?

Don’t let fear hold you back! I see so many talented women who are stunted by their fear of inadequacy. I was there, too and would’ve stayed there if it hadn’t been for the friend who told me to just go for it.

And obviously be wise with finances—but also don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. I spent $800 on leather and jewelry supplies almost five years ago and here I am today, still making paying the bills and helping make the world look a little brighter because of my little business.

Photo of Howell by Stephanie Vinsel Johnson; product photos by Cody Howell