Behind The Ink: Tattoos & Startups, Beautiful Acts of Defiance

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Slate sits down with Rachael Feuerborn, former start-up founder/Director of Techstars and current VP of 1871, to talk about her tattoo journey.

You don’t see many tattoos in business school, let alone a full sleeve of colorful, elaborate traditional artwork. Then again, you also don’t see a lot of women who start their own companies while in school. Or teach themselves how to code. Or pick up a law degree along the way for that matter.

Rachael Feuerborn (Kellogg/Pritzker JD-MBA ’17) has the quintessential non-traditional background. Hailing from a small town in Missouri, working for an import/export company, and helping manage her uncle’s bar – she wasn’t exactly a Deloitte consultant with a 3-year plan to business school. But she came from a family of entrepreneurs and knew that she wanted to start her own business.

Fast forward to her first year in law school. Everyone knows that 1L is the crusher of souls and it’s not exactly the best place to make friends. “I thought that going to grad school would solve all my problems, but it didn’t. I didn’t really make close friends in law school”, says Rachael. This is when she got a realistic lion head with a mane made out of ornate, circus-like framing; it’s a beautiful mix of masculine and feminine imagery.

 

“A male lion represents loners trying to find their tribe but it also represents strong leaders – something I knew I wanted to become”.

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Rachael recounts for me the stories of her growth over the past 5 years and how they are captured symbolically on her body. During her first year at Kellogg, following her full year in law school, Rachael took Troy Henikoff’s digital marketing class and became fascinated with tech start-ups. When the opportunity to work as associate at Techstars Chicago (founded by Troy) came up, Rachael raised her hand. She worked there for 6 months while in school and as an associate over the summer.

“I had never seen this start-up world before, and I was amazed by it. I’d always had ideas – when I was 12, I wanted to be a baker, own my own bakery, and build my own brand.”

Rachael’s summer internship at Techstars ignited her passion for start-ups and upon returning to Kellogg in the fall, she was accepted into the Zell Fellows accelerated entrepreneurship program as the founder of Finch, a direct-to-consumer fashion company connecting designers and customers of niche fashion categories. This is when she took another leap of faith – getting her first tattoo below the elbow, specifically on her wrist.

 
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“It’s an ampersand. I was just about to start school, I had just gotten into Zell. For me, this was a “Good job, you did it. AND, what’s next? Where I’m from, small town women turn 26 and then get married, have kids, and have a white picket fence. For me, I was pushing onto the next thing. I don’t want to stop. For me, there is no “I did it, I’m done”.

Rachael recalls what it was like toeing the line between the professional business and law environment and her love of tattoos.

“I remember doing law school interviews after getting this tattoo and having to cover it up under my suit jacket. I was sweating my ass off wearing long sleeves in the summer, nervous about covering it up”.

For many students who enter prestigious graduate schools, there’s a period of exploration and uncertainty that often leads to imposter syndrome. The “Oh shit, everyone here is so smart. Everyone here is accepting high paying jobs with big name consulting and banking firms. Should I be doing that too?”. But for some, there’s also a breakthrough in clarity where you learn to reflect, find your true passion, and quite frankly, just fucking go for it.

 
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For Rachael, it’s this transition into her 2nd year at Kellogg when she goes from working at Techstars to becoming a start-up founder. This is when she got her black and grey acrobat tattoo, filled with an elaborate paisley pattern that resembles the acrobat’s own tattoos in a way.

“The acrobat represents the girl who runs off to join the circus – she does things that others don’t do. I didn’t want to be a consultant, or an investment banker, or a lawyer. I turned down a $35k law firm internship to make $5k at Techstars that summer, which was terrifying. I got a side job writing blog posts for law firms and developing their SEO strategies just to pay my rent. But I found my tribe – start-up people.”

Not only did she take the start-up route over traditional MBA roles, she got her acrobat tattoo on her forearm to remind her that she wasn’t going to settle for a stiff corporate job. Rachael stayed true through graduation where she joined Techstars full-time as a Senior Associate and has since worked her way up to Program Director, where she ran all operations for the accelerator including reviewing and choosing applicants, recruiting mentors, and growing the program. As her ampersand tattoo indicates, she didn’t stop there. Rachael is now the VP of 1871, the epicenter of the Chicago startup scene, where she manages programming for founders all over the city with startups ranging from ideation, to acceleration, to exit.

“1871 is my start-up now. I’ve become really good at designing for growth. I often work with our teams to break down a big vision into actionable tasks. Sure, I work one-on-one with all of our teams, but part of my role is to scale myself by connecting founders to the right mentors who can help them.”

To me, Rachael’s story represents just how empowering tattoos can and should be to the wearer. Tattoos are a way for us to change our bodies – molding and decorating them to represent how we feel inside, who we are at that moment, and who we want to be moving forward. This act of defiance runs parallel to finding your true career path and following it even when society’s systems tell you that it’s wrong.

Even in 2019, some people might think you’re “running off to the circus” by getting something permanent on your skin; maybe even in the start-up world, the “circus of business”. This rings especially true for female entrepreneurs.

“There’s definitely a double standard. Men with tattoos are seen as cool – the stereotypical entrepreneur. To be a female entrepreneur, you almost have to go back 10 years to when founders had to dress up for investor meetings. I’m trying to fight that”.

Behind The Ink: Designing Your Own Tattoo

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SLATE caught up with Emma Easterlin, a graduate student at Northwestern University. Hailing from San Rafael, California, she decided to ditch the west coast for a short 15 month stint to complete her masters in Integrated Marketing Communications.

SLATE: How many tattoos have you gotten?

EASTERLIN: I have two, one of them is on my side and it’s an elephant. It’s actually very in my armpit. I got it when I was 18. It was right before I went to USC for undergrad and all my friends were getting tattoos and they all had appointments in the same two days. And I was just like I kinda wanna get a tattoo?

I had this idea in my head for a couple of months that I wanted an elephant. I like elephants, my name starts with an E, and I’ve had these 3 stuffed elephants since I was a baby. It was also pretty trendy at the time to have an elephant tattoo!

So I picked a drawing from the internet and I literally just decided in 30 minutes. Like on the way over in the car, I decided I’m going to get this. Walked in and asked can you do this on me and the tattoo artist was like yeah!

It was $60 and took 10 minutes and afterwards I was just felt like oh wow, it’s on me forever.

SLATE: So have you ever regretted it then?

EASTERLIN: Only immediately after. And my mom had always been against it.

SLATE: How did she react?

EASTERLIN: I didn’t tell her for nine months! Since I was at school, it was fine. So whenever was home and in a bathing suit or something, I’d wear a bandeau. One day, I was changing in the car on the way to the gym and she just grabbed my side and went “What is that?!” I was just like “Uhhh, an elephant?”

SLATE: Okay. So tell me about the other one then.

EASTERLIN: My friend came to visit and she wanted to get a tattoo on her finger of the letter C for her sister and she asked if I wanted to go with her. That was in the morning. So throughout the day I thought, let me get another tattoo since I don’t really love the one I already have.

Not loving the first one was a combination of my mom being like I don’t like it and the decision being impulsive. But now I love that tattoo and everyone knows I have it. I like the shape and the design but I don’t like where it is because you know…it’s in my armpit. So when I lift my arm up, it moves and it looks really fat - I wish I’d planned that out better.

I thought, Why don’t I do something that I made so it’s a bit more personal. Also, the thing is when you’re talking to someone about a tattoo, they want to know what the meaning is. And if you don’t have a good answer, they think you’re an idiot! So I wanted to make one that would make people respect me a bit more and maybe validate the other one.

SLATE: Fair point. How did you come up with the design then?

EASTERLIN: I spent the day in class drawing, I knew I wanted something with my family. My dad’s name is Dan but his real name is John, my mom is Barbara and my brother is Ryder. So I just put their initials together and kinda went through the different ways I could put the letters together, uppercase, lowercase, and cursive. And then I did the D in between the J.

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That was the moment I was like oh hey this is actually pretty cool! So I combined them all together. I thought it looked like a cool character. I almost added a little circle so that it would be a little man running but I thought that would be too much, let’s keep it simple.

SLATE: And how did you decide where to put it?

EASTERLIN: I put it on my ankle so If I wear shoes it can cover it but also what I really like is that when I wear high heels you can see it through the high heel which I think it’s really cute.

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SLATE: How do you feel about this tattoo now compared to the last one?

EASTERLIN: So instead of feeling regret this time, I was really happy because I was proud of what I’d drawn. I told my mom the next day and she thought it was really cute and so she was much less judgemental this time!

SLATE: I’m guessing you’re really close to your family?

EASTERLIN: We’ve lived together my whole life! We do lots together actually. I mean I call my parents my best friends. I never really had a moment as a teenager, maybe only when I was 15, where I fought with them. I never had huge arguments with my parents.

I would get into screaming arguments with my brother and then we got older and realized that we have really similar personalities and senses of humor. There was nothing else that I wanted to get a tattoo of besides my family… other than an elephant I guess.

SLATE: What made the elephant so special?

EASTERLIN: I’ve had three stuffed elephants since I was a baby and I’ve kept them which I feel is an accomplishment.

SLATE: Do you have them with you?

EASTERLIN: Yeah I have one. I always bring one with me, the other two are at home. And then I had a dream three days before I got it and it made me more obsessed with the idea. And then I did it.

SLATE: So how did you go about picking the artists?

EASTERLIN: I’m from Marin county right above San Francisco. I’m actually from San Rafael and there’s literally one tattoo shop in the whole town and everyone goes there.

In LA, I was a little bit more confident because the tattoo shop was on Melrose Ave in Fairfax, which is a trendy area. So yeah I didn’t pick either of them, just showed up.

SLATE: And did you look into styles or anything like that?

EASTERLIN: Nope? I literally know nothing about tattoos.

SLATE: Sounds like you just dove into it?

EASTERLIN: Yup, I’m pretty impulsive.

SLATE: Have you got anymore planned?

EASTERLIN: Nope. I quite like symmetry in terms of my body. Even if it’s not exactly symmetrical, it’s consolidated and balanced. I think it would just bother me.

SLATE: So nothing you really want that badly?

EASTERLIN: Nah, maybe a fun one with my friends? But I kinda already did that!