Kimberly Caccavo (L) and Kate Nowlan (R). (Credit: GRACEDBYGRIT)

Nearly a decade ago, scientist Kimberly Caccavo met Kate Nowlan, a professional trainer who helped her prepare for a triathlon.

During their workouts, the duo bonded over the charity for which Caccavo was running — Chelsea’s Light Foundation, an organization committed to protecting children from violence founded after a young woman named Chelsea King was killed in a San Diego park.

King was “a 17-year-old running on a trail alone, and she was unfortunately abducted, raped and murdered,” Nowlan explained. That tragedy got the duo thinking about the fact that “safety is not built into the designs of a lot of the clothing we were wearing.”

Caccavo’s race came and went, but the pair remained friends long after she crossed the finish line. Over the years, they continued to watch the women’s activewear marketplace together — agreeing, all the while, that a satisfactory solution to women’s safety needs was not emerging.

They decided to fill that void themselves, and GRACEDBYGRIT was born. As co-owners, Nowlan says they are driven by their shared dream of creating safety-focused athletic clothing for busy women. “There’s an elegance factor, but women really feel protected,” Nowlan says.

By Women, For Women

Nowlan says all of the company’s gear is “designed for safety.” For example, each garment comes with a discreet, flat whistle, often sewn into pockets or inseams. That small adjustment has made a big difference for customers, they say. Women have shared stories of being stuck on trails or in water and using the whistles to signal distress and get help.

The company has also incorporated pockets into its leggings that can accommodate smartphones or other small necessities. To ensure a streamlined fit and proper function, Caccavo and Nowlan test the garments themselves. In addition, its fabric is designed to guard against the sun’s rays, and the GRACEDBYGRIT logo is added to each item using reflective stitching.

The company’s commitment to safety and empowerment doesn’t stop at clothing design. It has an initiative called Gritty Girls, that teaches leadership skills to young women and seeks to enhance their self-confidence during a series of workshops and presentations.

And in continued fealty to the organization that first inspired them, they give the proceeds from select items to Chelsea’s Light Foundation. As of today, the company has generated over $10,000 for the cause.

Building a Lasting Brand

Throughout, GRACEDBYGRIT has been a team effort. The pair got the business up and running by pooling personal savings and friends-and-family contributions. They incorporated their Solana Beach, Calif., company in January 2013, then began hosting trunk shows to showcase their first garments in November of that year. They launched their e-commerce website in May of 2014, and one year later, a brick-and-mortar location followed.

Though they declined to disclose annual revenue figures, they say the company has done over $2.5 million in sales since its founding. From the start, the pair was focused on retaining repeat customers, and their attention to loyal fans has paid off. Their first five shoppers have now spent over $10,000 in all, they told us, with clients plunking down over $100 on an average order.

Of course, getting to that point came with learning valuable lessons along the way, including best practices for manufacturing their clothes (products are made in America from Italian fabrics) and how to best manage their inventory. Nowlan says that “it’s also hard to know at any one time which product will appeal to the market. Trying to game that has been one of our most difficult challenges.”

Word-of-mouth recommendations, high-profile press coverage and some key product placements — for example, Ladies Professional Golf Association event staffers once commissioned vests with the LPGA logo embroidered on them — have helped stoke growth. As such, in 2016, they sold 18,000 articles of clothing, compared to 11,500 in 2015.

The Chelsea legging. (Credit: GRACEDBYGRIT)

They have also engaged about 350 brand ambassadors around the nation, including the first violinist in the San Francisco Symphony and several Olympic athletes. “We’re not just choosing these women because they look hot in our clothes. We choose them because they have a sphere of influence and people who listen to them,” Caccavo says.

From Grit to Grace

And the more women they reach, the more women they and their 11 employees can help. In fact, the company’s name, GRACEDBYGRIT, is borne of the duo’s shared philosophy that good can emerge from hardship — and, indeed, Caccavo and Nowlan have seen their fair share of challenges in their lives.

Nowlan became unexpectedly pregnant at age 20. Now, she has a 16-year-old daughter whom she cherishes, “but to be young and go from one day going to classes to 9 months later having a baby, that’s definitely gritty.”

Caccavo, meanwhile, has weathered numerous storms. “My mother was a single mom, and needed someone to run the household. It was certainly gritty to be 8 years old and balancing a checkbook.” She also was widowed in her 30s. “I thought my life was over,” Caccavo recalls, but she eventually married again, and she and her second husband have two kids.

Their personal tales of second chances resonate with their customers. “We’re designing for the active, vibrant woman who may be in the second or third iteration of herself — who wants to perform better in all aspects of her life,” Caccavo says.

Caccavo and Nowlan also want to soar to new heights. They aim to make GRACEDBYGRIT a household name and are pursuing multiple avenues for growth capital, including a planned crowdfunding effort and meetings with potential investors. But no matter what, Nowlan says, they will stay true to their mission to lift up and protect women and to help them feel “powerful and strong.”