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”.