Kathleen Burke admits it might be her Irish roots, but she just isn’t crazy about the sun.
The 36-year-old Burke resident is founder and owner of SunStuff, a company that sells sun-protective headgear for women with an obvious eye toward fashion.
Burke founded the company in 2001, after spending her early years battling the sun and realizing that few companies catered to fashionable women with their sun-protective hats.
"There was only one company, and it was definitely men who created hats and were trying to sell them to women. You can’t explain the difference, but you can tell, if you’re a woman," said Burke.
NOW IN its third year, SunStuff’s products are in boutiques nationwide, have been worn by celebrities like Portia de Rossi and Allison Janney, and have wound up on the pages of fashion magazines like Self.
Recently, the Oxygen Network stepped in to add a different kind of support. Burke was one of three woman entrepreneurs nationwide selected as a grand prize winner by Oxygen — a cable television network aimed at women — in its "Oh! Get The Money: Build Your Own Business With Oxygen" contest. Burke will receive $25,000 for her company, as well as a trip to New York City to attend a small-business workshop with Rosalind Resnick, an expert in the field.
"We definitely felt her company was an interesting mix of fashion-meets-technology and health concerns. It had a really interesting profile," said Sherri Rifkin, vice president for consumer marketing for Oxygen, who said Burke's profile was chosen from nearly 16,000 applicants. To be eligible, Burke had to submit an application that contained 10 essay questions, which amounted to a complete business plan.
"She had already paved the way for herself, and she seemed really 'Oxygen' in that proactive spirit," said Rifkin.
Winning the contest was just the shot in the arm for her fledgling business, Burke said after offering her product first in October 2002.
"We’re really on the cusp," said Burke. "There’s the startup phase of the business, and now I’m in the growth phase, and you always need more money to fuel more growth."
Born in Burke and a Lake Braddock Secondary School grad, Burke said it was at a family reunion after college that she first became aware of the acute need for sun protection.
"There was a big difference between those who had partied in the sun and the ones who had shunned the sun. There was probably a 20-year visible age difference between them and they were only one year apart," she said. "I had a quick look into my future."
Burke designed a "contraption" herself, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt wrapped around her face and shoulders for nearly a year before she hit upon the idea of designing her own headwear.
Now, SunStuff offers UPF50+ headwear that looks like typical wide-brimmed fare but is made of a space-age NASA fabric that doesn’t allow the sun’s rays through.
"Sun protective clothing, like SunStuff … products, used in conjunction with sunblock, helps prevent many signs of aging before they occur," said Dr. Laurie Polis, a dermatologist who has endorsed the SunStuff line.
BURKE'S PRODUCT gained visibility in 2003 when the SunStuff hats were featured as part of a "beauty buffet" for celebrities in conjunction with the annual Emmy Awards in Hollywood. Still, Burke is a one-woman show. With a background in corporate sales and marketing, Burke returned to Burke after several years in Texas and started the company with capital from several loan companies geared toward female entrepreneurs.
"One of the big problems women have is getting capital for their business. Usually they’re either young and haven’t established a track record or haven’t purchased a home yet," Burke said. "You kind of fall between the cracks."
Burke still handles all the ordering, and her inventory is scattered among relatives’ homes in Northern Virginia. She still packs the hats herself for customers’ mail orders, and she jets off to California for trade shows regularly.