How I Get It Done: Sally Bergesen, CEO of Running-Apparel Company Oiselle

Photo: Rebecca Clarke

Sally Bergesen is the CEO and founder of Oiselle, a running-apparel company based in Seattle. She receives between 120 and 150 emails a day and is the boss of 25 people. She has two teenage daughters and a husband who is a teacher. She makes sure she sweats at least once a day and has learned that she has to say no even to the good things sometimes. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On a typical day in the life of an apparel-company owner:
I’m not a huge morning person, and I’m okay with saying that. I move a little slow in the morning, but I basically try to be in the office. I get up and do some emails from home. I find that being at home on my own, I can focus better. Then I try to be in the office between 9 and 10 a.m. I have a 10 a.m. meeting with my head of accounting and finance and my president. The three of us talk about overarching business issues and then we have our staff meeting at 11, where all 25 of us will spend about an hour recapping what happened the week prior or talking about what’s coming up. After the staff meeting we’ll have lunch. Usually I’ll have a couple of team meetings in the afternoon. It could be a meeting with the design team in the afternoon, talking about product, or an impromptu meeting with my marketing team.

My personal superpowers are product design and marketing, brand strategy. I look for ways to plug into those teams as best I can on Monday and then usually do a couple phone calls. I’m also very hands on with our lead athletes — we have professional athletes that we sponsor — so I might talk to one of them on the phone. On Mondays I tend to run in the afternoon: Our office is right on Green Lake, which is about three miles around, so I’ll try to get out and run around the lake around 3:30 or 4. Then it’s basically time to come back. I really try to leave the office right around 5 or 5:30 because I want to get back and have dinner with my family.

My husband is a teacher, so in the summer it’s awesome because he’s around and we’ll often have dinner. He likes to grill, and my food superpower is that I’m really good at making salads (I’m not a good cook). We’ll have dinner, the four of us. Depending on what else is happening that night, I might do another hour or hour and a half of email in the evening.

On balancing college tours for her teen daughter with interviews about her company:
I have a daughter who is getting ready to go to college, so we embarked on a trip through Oregon and California. We visited six colleges in four days and I did a dumb thing. I was hoisting a duffel bag over my shoulder walking from the car to the hotel and I felt this muscle seize. Over the next couple days, it started to get more and more intense to the point where I had this crippling, nasty super-painful shooting pain in my neck to the point where I could hardly lie down and I couldn’t turn my neck at all. So we’re in L.A., where basically all you do is drive around, and when I was changing lanes, I couldn’t turn my neck, so I was having my 17-year-old daughter basically be my seeing-eye dog.

When I got home to Seattle on Thursday night, I was in so much pain. I was so drained emotionally, so I went to the emergency room on Thursday night because I needed someone to look at it and assure me. I haven’t been to the ER since I had babies, so you know how that goes. They gave me some muscle relaxants, and it’s been a lot better after that.

The good part about the tours is that I got to sort of multitask on the start of the tour; I would step away and do an interview. I did an interview with the BBC while I was on the Loyola Marymount campus. I don’t know why I’ve been given this great luck of a teenage daughter who is kind to me, because I was a total beast with my parents. I was a nightmare. I rebelled early. I moved out of my house when I was 16. I basically did everything I wanted to do and listened to nothing they had to say. We were sitting in this one college-admissions information session and I’m working my phone and stuff and my daughter just turned to me and was like, “Mom, if you need to go work, it’s totally fine.” At first I looked at her and was like, “Is she saying that sarcastically?” She’s been very supportive.

On making exercise a mandatory part of every day:
One thing about me is that I have to sweat once a day. I just need some kind of exercise or movement of my body. One thing I’ve been really strong about over the years is that if people are committed to running as part of their lifestyle, that they make time for that and that it’s sanctioned. On Wednesdays for example, I always do a workout on Wednesday morning and so I actually have that whole first half of the day blocked out for doing my workout and then regrouping and getting ready to come into work. If I’m talking to people I don’t know, I’ll say that I have a meeting on Wednesday. That’s been a really important thing for me to be ferocious about protecting. I never feel like I have to make a rationale for it, but I think people who are committed to an athletic lifestyle, that becomes a really central part of what drives them and what motivates them and what helps them structure their lives. I think as athleisure takes a big step forward, people will stop feeling guilty about doing that and athleticism will be acknowledged as a must-have.

On the importance of trying out different jobs:
In our company, we have about 25 employees. Right before I left for the college trip, I had one of our longtime employees come to me and say that she had accepted an offer for a job at a different company. She was changing industries altogether, but it was an emotional toll because she had started working for me when she was still in college. She’s almost like my daughter. She graduated from college, came to work for us full-time, I had gone to her wedding. We just had a really close relationship. With that, there was a lot of tears. I was very happy for her. I always recommend people have multiple jobs and different things that they try in their professional life. I was also happy for her and thought it was the right decision. On Monday, when I got back, that was the day that I was basically going to announce that to the staff. Our company is very much a family. People have to mourn the loss of those primary relationships. But it’s important to be happy for her too.

On what she gives up in order to make her life work:
I love sleep and I’m really good at it. I’m basically ready to go to bed at ten each night. I don’t watch any television. I don’t watch any Netflix. I like a good movie. I usually like to be assured that it’s going to be a good movie. I don’t want to waste my time watching something that’s not good. There have definitely been times in my life when I’ve been hooked on shows before, but I haven’t been since I was watching Project Runway.

I gave up drinking a year ago. I have had other times in my life where I’ve not drank for five-year spells. Someone once told me you’re either a moderator or an abstainer, and I’m really better with that kind of thing being totally black and white. If I don’t drink at all, I don’t miss it at all. The benefits of not drinking at all have been so massive that it outweighs those few downsides. It’s just not a thing for me. My husband will occasionally have a Scotch, but he’s pretty much on my program, too. I don’t often tell people that I don’t drink, especially in social settings, because I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. But if I do end up talking about it, I often tell people, “I just want you to know that it’s not for moral or religious reasons.” It’s just my personal truth. Everybody just has to figure out what works for them. At least currently, this is working best. I’ve found it also helps with parenting, too. I found it challenging that when I was having a couple glasses of wine in the evening, I didn’t feel very present with my kids. [Laughs.] I sound pretty grim!

On how running has become her stress release:
I’m a social person, and I need things that take the weight off. Everybody does. You need that release valve somehow. Running really is the main thing for me. I think it’s become my drug of choice in a way because it delivers all of those calming, soothing benefits. I love to go dancing with girlfriends, too. I think that girlfriend dancing should be the only dancing allowed. (I’m kidding, I’m kidding.)

Stress can manifest in different ways. There is healthy stress and unhealthy stress. The stress that is just the pressure of doing what you’re doing is really healthy and you should lean in to that. We have this T-shirt that says “pressure is a privilege,” which is a Billie Jean King quote. If you’re feeling pressure, you’re doing something right. You’re probably using your skill or reaching for a big goal. That’s part and parcel with the athlete story. On the flip side, there can be stress that’s very destructive. If that comes to me, that’s a situation where something’s happening that’s out of my control or I feel that it’s the result of a mistake I made. That feeling of shame and worry when we’ve done something that has an effect that we didn’t intend or that we regret, I think that stress is the most harmful.

On Brené Brown’s advice about knowing your boundaries:
I’m very much a believer in picking and focusing, so go narrow and deep in the areas that are meaningful to you. For me, that’s my sport, my family, and my job. You have to be pretty ruthless about saying no to that other stuff. Sometimes it might even be good stuff. Sometimes people will email me, saying, “Hey can we do an informational interview? I want to pick your brain about starting a business.” And I just say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” It feels brutal at the time because you kind of have this romanticized notion in your head about how you’re going to help everybody and I’m always going to be able to make time for the newbie, and I try to when I can, but sometimes you just have to say no.

Brené Brown, when I heard her speak, she said she wears a ring on her hand called her boundaries ring. When she would get asked, as she often is, to do things, she would just pause and twist the ring and think about what it was going to cost in terms of other things she would have to give up. I think about that occasionally and do it sometimes. Otherwise, there is no end to places you could put your energy. You have to be a little bit more protective.

How the Founder of a Running-Apparel Company Gets It Done