ND Founders Profile #71: Under Pandemic Pressure, this FouNDer Learned Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Nd Founders Nicole Ragains


Company Founded: Varsity Hues Year Graduated: 2001
Title: Co-Founder Degree: B.B.A., Finance
Location: New York, NY Residence Hall: Pasquerilla West

Nicole Ragains arrived at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1997 not really ready to take on the world. “I was 700 miles from home, very shy and timid,” she recounts. “There were no cell phones or FaceTime. If I wanted to talk to my parents, I had to go to my dorm room and call from a landline.”

She laughs and confides, ”My kids find that hard to believe. No FaceTime?”

Four years later, Ragains graduated with a degree in finance and something equally important. “I knew how to stand on my own two feet and think for myself. I also had this great support system of friends across the country. I credit Notre Dame with forcing me to cut the cord,” she says.

Ragains joined Arthur Anderson as a consultant in New York City. While rewarding, the job was very structured and required lots of travel. Looking for something different, she joined a wedding planning dotcom startup called The Knot.

“When I got the job offer, something inside me said to take a chance. If I didn’t like it, I could do something else,” she recalls. “As a startup, there was no training, no user manual. I just rolled up my sleeves and got to work.”

It was, Ragains says, baptism by fire and also a great confidence builder. She had daily conversations with the CEO and COO, who were very collaborative and all too happy to assign her projects. “There was no red tape. I was encouraged to be innovative and not to worry about stepping on toes. No idea was too small or too silly. I loved my job.”

She ended up staying with the company, which eventually became a half-billion-dollar lifestyle brand called XO, for ten years. As the company grew, it rolled out new business units, including The Bump for pregnancy and The Nest for young marrieds. Ragain’s own life mirrored the company’s evolution. She got married, got pregnant, got pregnant again, and while planning a move to the suburbs and a home renovation with her husband and young family, she decided to take on a new role, stay-at-home mother.

“When your children are young, you face so many changes. I decided to step back and be with my children for now,” she says. Not long after, Ragains became pregnant with baby number three.

At this point, most women, if given the choice, would concentrate on full-time “mom-ing.” Not Ragains. Realizing she was much happier when busy, she started a consulting business helping companies with business plans, strategic analysis and revenue models.

Still, her plate wasn’t quite full enough so in 2017, Ragains volunteered to run her children’s school’s annual spiritwear fundraiser. For those without children, nieces and nephews or grandchildren, spiritwear is anything with a school or team logo on it: tee shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, shorts and sweats. Spiritwear fundraisers are formulaic; the same cheaply made clothing, designs, overworked parent volunteers and paper-based processes that have been in place for years. Ragains saw an opportunity for disruption.

The first thing she did was assemble a volunteer dream team. Ragains recruited three women friends with expertise in fashion, marketing and law. One of the volunteers drafted her husband, a graphic designer, to the team.

“We had a lot of questions. How can we get more fashionable clothes that are also more comfortable? What are parents willing to pay for spiritwear? What options can we give them? How do we streamline the process so we can sell more without creating more work? We approached it as business professionals but also as consumers who want to support their kids’ school,” Ragains says.

The dream team did not hold back. All of the school’s graphics, including a tired leopard mascot, were redesigned with a distinctive vintage look. They researched, and ultimately selected, clothing made with softer, more comfortable fabrics. They were conscious about offering a wide range of price points so there was something for every budget. The only offered spiritwear they would buy for themselves and their kids.

The biggest change, however, was replacing hands-on sales with an online store. “That was huge,” Ragains says. “People loved it.”

The results of the fundraiser spoke for itself: The school doubled what it made the previous year. “

What happened next was totally unexpected. The school’s principal was so excited, she spread the word around Ridgewood, New Jersey, about the fundraiser’s success. Parents told other parents in the community about it. Word spread fast. Soon, other schools were calling Ragains asking for presentations. There was so much interest, the volunteers decided to formalize their partnership and business model as a true startup company called Varsity Hues, incorporating in 2018.

“Our message was we can do this for your school. We preserve your spiritwear fundraiser, decrease the amount of work required of volunteers, increase the quality of the apparel, and you make more money. Your school gets its own unique online storefront that you market to your community while we handle the backend of products, printing, embroidery, and logistics. The turnkey approach resonated with the other schools,” Ragains says.

The Varsity Hues’ pricing model was attractive, too. Typically schools make a set 15 percent of every item sold. Varsity Hues provides a base price on merchandise and lets schools set their own pricing, a flexible pricing model that allows for greater profits.

Getting the company off the ground required each of the partners to put money into the company. For the first year as a business, 2018-2019, they partners drew minimal salaries. Marketing was primarily word of mouth. Their efforts and frugality were rewarded when sales grew by 75 percent and they finally took a bigger distribution.

Varsity Hues was anticipating a strong 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown forced schools to send kids home and adopt virtual learning. The spring fundraising season was canceled. Rather than fold under the pandemic’s pressure and walk away, Ragains and the Varsity Hues team leaned into their digital business model and focused on improvements for fall 2020.

“Out of necessity, we pivoted to a complete contactless fundraiser. We added more loungewear, hoodies and face masks. We revamped our backend and hired a third-party shipping station so we could ship directly to customers. Now, schools could put on their fundraisers without contact and with students still doing virtual learning. And they did! They held their fall 2020 spiritwear fundraisers,” Ragains says.

The pandemic turned into a blessing in disguise as it also forced Varsity Hues to look beyond seasonal school fundraisers and add other markets such as sports teams and corporate clients that purchase logo items year-round. Despite, the abbreviated selling season, Varsity Hues’ sales were up in 2020.

Ragains is proud of the fact that her co-founders were friends before Varsity Hues and despite last year’s ups and downs weathered the storm. She also enjoys being somewhere random and someone walks in wearing a Varsity Hues shirt. “Our kids get super excited. They feel like they’re part of the company.”

Meanwhile, Ragains and her husband now have four kids and while she does her best to balance home and work life, she offers this advice to other company founders.

“Being a parent, homeschooling during a pandemic, and growing a business all at the same time is definitely a challenge but it can be done. Don’t be afraid to rely on your support system of family and friends. Ask for help and be open to accepting it. You’re not in it alone.”