Bojana Sentaler has been passionate about fashion since she was a little girl, but it took her a long time – and a corporate career – to understand that she needed to follow her instincts and invest big in what she loved.
Starting with nothing over seven coats made from alpaca fabric, Bojana Sentaler launched her own luxury outerwear brand, Sentaler, now known for the quality, sustainability and elegance of its designs.
Below, you can learn more about her story and her deep belief in following her passion and never taking no for an answer.
When you were growing up, what did you think you’d be doing later in life? What kind of career were you envisioning for yourself?
I didn’t have a career as much as I had a passion. I’m very artistic and this is something that I’ve been doing since I was very young. I do recall in grade four I created a book for my school project. And in the back of the book, there was an “about the author” and one of the most interesting parts was… I listed, Bojana Sentaler is a girl in grade four, and one day she wants to be a fashion designer. I didn’t really know that I would be in fashion growing up, but I did always have that creative side of me that I have continued to develop over the years.
What did you study in school, and where did that lead you?
I was very creative, but I also had a great passion for maths. When I was choosing my profession for school and going to university, I ended up deciding to go to a business school. So I studied at Schulich School of Business and I have two majors in marketing and finance. Marketing because there was so much creativity, but finance because I was very good at maths, and it really interested me as well.
Business in general was quite intriguing to me even growing up. I’m a very people person. I love people, I love relationships, and I just really had a passion for always finding out how products are made, how services are done…
I grew up in Eastern Europe – I was born in Serbia, in Belgrade – and my mother was always instilling these values in me growing up. She would always mention, “When it comes to fashion, you should always look for quality over quantity”.
She was like teaching me about materials and natural materials and natural fibres and about cuts and fits of clothing. So I think that this has really stirred me in this direction of having an appreciation for well-made clothing out of luxury fabrics.
And what happened after school for you?
I was hired by a beauty corporation. One of the Top Fortune 500. And I loved the industry, but I was constrained by the corporate world and the corporate ladder. And obviously, out of university, you’re hired into a junior position.
I realized that I was too creative and too free minded, and I had a different way of thinking that was not suited for my job. I was very good at my job, but I just felt like I had so much more to offer than what I was doing.
I actually ended up leaving that position. And I moved to Dubai in 2008. And at the time, Dubai was full of opportunities. There was a lot of real estate development happening, and it was booming. I was very intrigued by the economic growth.
While I was living in Dubai, I was working on economic investment reports on emerging markets, specializing in the MENA [Middle East / North Africa] region. Focusing on mostly Dubai and Abu Dhabi. And I loved it because it was the best of all worlds.
I had the daily interaction with C-suite executives and leaders in that part of the world at the time, who I was interviewing for the report. But at the same time I was learning a lot about how these very successful people were running their businesses. And I was always asking myself, “What do they have that I don’t have? How did they get to where they are today? What do I need to develop to also be able to have a chance to get there?”
And what I have learned is that the very successful people have access to more resources and more information. This is when this light turned on in my head, where I gave myself wings to fly as high as I wanted. I really became free to truly think that I can do anything I want. That I would just have to work very hard and continue to learn.
Out of university, you don’t stop learning. Throughout life, you’re always continuing to improve and be better. So then in Dubai, at the end of 2008, the economic downturn happened, and before I left, I had the chance to interview the now late fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, who at the time was designing villas in Dubai.
I did not know that I was going to have my fashion line when I had this conversation with him. But I bluntly told him I would love to have my own fashion line one day, but I’m not a formally trained designer, I went to business school, and then he told me, “Well, you either have it or you don’t, and if you have it, go for it”.
And these words really inspired me to start thinking differently because I think even though I had this artistic and creative side of me, I was always putting it aside because I thought, “I went to business school, I’m destined to do marketing”, or “I’m destined to do finance”.
But fashion is business, fashion is marketing, fashion is finance, fashion is creativity. It’s all of it combined. So I left Dubai and in 2009 at the beginning of the year, I was travelling in South America and I ended up living in Lima, Peru for about half a year.
This is where I discovered this amazing alpaca fabric, which is the main fabric that I used in my Sentaler collection. And I really fell in love with its textures and qualities. It’s very lightweight, but it’s very warm at the same time. And this is hypoallergenic also, cruelty-free, animal friendly, sustainable… Everything that I have ever dreamed of in a fabric. I ended up creating my first collection in Lima. That was the first ever Sentaler collection and I brought it back to Canada and I launched it in 2009.
What was the first experience of trying to market the product, and what kind of feedback were you getting?
I went into this telling myself, “You’re gonna make it”. There’s no other option. It’s happening. And what actually kept going was the passion and my true love for what I was doing. As I mentioned earlier, my first collection was seven coats that I personally wanted to own.
The brand was created out of passion and love. And when I brought it back to Toronto I remember my father’s friends were like, “Oh, your daughter went to Schulich School of Business, and now she’s sketching”. And he would proudly say, “She is building an empire”.
Obviously people doubt you, this is very normal, but I had very good support from my family, which has been very important throughout my entire journey. They have been my backbone since day one. Also, Sentaler was launched in a recession, very similar to the times that we’re experiencing now.
But I was very confident because I remember studying in university that luxury does very well in a recession. And it was really my passion and my love for what I was doing. And obviously with the combination of a really high quality, well-made, detail oriented, product that you know has made Sentaler loved by so many women.
The first time I launched the brand to a group of women, it was a small private party and I ended up getting orders by every single woman that evening from a little collection of seven coats. This really gave me the courage to keep going because I noticed not only do I love this product, other women love it too.
And then word of mouth happened, and the key was making sure that every detail was perfect before launching it, including the packaging, the label. You only have one chance to prove yourself to consumers, and everything had to be perfect.
How did you go about sustaining the business without a high volume of sales? Did you rely on investments from friends and family, or was it your own money that you were investing? And how did you go about finding retail partners?
Sentaler has been basically self-made, so I didn’t have any foreign, or outside investment. I invested everything I had into the brand.
I would get orders, and then I would put that back into production, and then I would get orders, put it back into production… Slowly growing the company step by step and I think the hardest part was convincing my manufacturers on low volume production because, at the time when you first start a business, it’s very difficult to find manufacturers who would allow you to produce such low volumes.
But if you produce very high volumes, you create a great risk for overproduction. And I think that was the biggest challenge. I have developed great negotiation skills over the years, and I was genuinely letting manufacturers know that if you believe in me now and start with me now, you are going to be very successful because you’re going to grow with me.
That’s how that partnership has been formed, and we’re still working together. They’re very happy they took that leap of faith. Maybe a lot of women in business think, “Well, this is how it is and there’s no way I can do that”.
I don’t think that way. I think, “What do I need?”. I know that it’s not typical, but let me see how I can make it work for me. That’s the mentality that I have. You can be creative and as long as you provide value or some kind of hope for future growth in the relationship, the doors can open for you regardless.
What’s something that you didn’t expect to face, or something that you learned getting through those first few years of running your own business?
I think having perseverance, never giving up. Obviously business is going up, and it’s going down, and sometimes you’re hoping for a partnership, and it doesn’t happen. But what has kept me through those times was thinking, “Maybe it’s just not the right timing”.
A “no” now doesn’t mean “no” forever because I don’t take no for an answer. We have it written on our wall in our office. No is never an answer. If you can’t figure it out now, then find another way, but it’s going to happen. And because I have this mentality, instead of getting discouraged, I would motivate myself to keep going until I get what we have planned for.
Was there something you learned about business, something that surprised you or was something that you couldn’t have predicted, basically?
As in any business, we’ve had ups, we’ve had downs, but I think the biggest lesson for me was when you’re up you have to continue to not just stay up, you have to create more innovation.
You have to provide more, better collections. You have to have better campaigns. You have to continue to have better relationships and partnerships. Not just to stay up, but to keep going up. So being up doesn’t guarantee that you stay up. I think that’s the biggest lesson. It’s adapting to that cycle.
Also being humble about it, because life can turn around within a day. Obviously, being proud of your accomplishments and your achievements, and then being very humble about it because there’s something about staying humble that makes you strive for more.
Sometimes if you’re overly confident and overly excited about what’s happening, you forget to keep going.
What does your network, your support system, look like?
My father has always been my advisor since I launched Sentaler. He’s in income consulting. So he has always been such a great backbone for me if I have to bounce ideas or make very important business decisions.
I also have a very large network of women and men in different industries. Obviously, my business background has enabled me to have this network. They’re not necessarily in fashion. They’re maybe in consulting and banking in many different types of industries.
So it’s not really industry focused where I choose my network of advisors. It’s more who is successful and who is doing what I want to be doing, and that’s who I take advice from. There are women and men who I really admire for what they have accomplished and achieved.
And I’m always interested in asking, “How did you do that? How did you overcome those obstacles?” A lot of times, they’re very open to sharing. Especially, I have noticed in the last couple of years, women are very open to supporting women.
They’re unselfishly giving advice and unselfishly wanting you to succeed. And I think I have a few mentors who are older than me and who are in very different industries, but they see them in me. So maybe they’re advising me, but at the same time, they’re also admiring the work that I’m doing because they remember how they started.
Sometimes I don’t even reach out to my network. I’ll just get a random text message from a female entrepreneur who would say, “Oh, I just did this, and I thought of you. I think this will be very useful for you”. And I reciprocate. I do the same thing. Thinking about how you can also support your network is crucial because it’s a give and take relationship. And I always say the best way to build a relationship is to give with zero expectations.
Be of value to people. Share your network, share your resources. Share your brain. Tell them what you think. If you can help them, give them some advice. And don’t expect anything in return. And honestly, for me, it has come back so much bigger and so much stronger.
What kind of human qualities do you think you bring to your role as a leader at the helm of your company?
My role as a leader is to inspire people. This is something that I have heard from a lot of people, that after spending time with me, they feel inspired to do anything.And this, I think, is probably what I want to be known for. One day when people talk about me, yes, I was a designer of Sentaler, but I really want to be known as the person who inspired people to be better, to dream more, to do more, to do what they love.
So this is what I bring to the table in my circles, and I genuinely do it. I don’t think about it, it just comes out naturally. When I have conversations with people, I listen to what they have to say, and then I automatically start to think, “Well, how can I be resourceful to them?”.
I think just my mentality of you can do anything, you can be anything, inspires people to also, think that they can do anything, and they can be anything because it’s truly a mindset.
What would be your top two pieces of advice to a woman considering a career in any business?
You really have to choose to do something you love and this is why: businesses go up and down, so it’s easy to start a business, but it’s not easy to preserve a business. And the reason why most businesses don’t succeed is people give up in hard times.
Now, the only way that you’re not going to give up is if you truly love what you do. That’s why you have to choose to do what you love, because in those really difficult times when you’re asking, “What am I doing? Why am I even doing this?”, that’s when you remind yourself, “I love this. I’m breathing this, I’m living this”.
The second piece of advice is staying true to your values. My vision was Sentaler is going to be an internationally recognized luxury outerwear brand. And we’re a sustainable brand, so these are all values that were instilled from day one.
There are opportunities that come along the way, and you always have to go back to your values and what the company stands for. If that opportunity goes against your values, no matter how good the short-term benefit is or how good the financial short-term benefit is, the answer is no. You always have to stick to your values – this is how you make it as a brand, because you’re showing your customer consistency, and they can rely on you and know you’re not going to sway.
They have a certain expectation of you, and they know they can expect that next year and the year after and in 10 years.
Listen to our full podcast interview with Bojana Sentaler, CEO of SENTALER, HERE.