‘Uncaged Innovations’ with Stephanie Downs
Join us for a peek inside the empowering world of Stephanie Downs, a NY-based entrepreneur with a passion for heartfelt work. As CEO & Co-founder of the fashion and accessories biomaterials company, Uncaged Innovations, Stephanie is meeting the demands of the most luxurious brands with her exquisite and innovative products.
When we learned of Stephanie Downs and Uncaged Innovations’ creations, we couldn’t wait for Stephanie to tell us more and share it in this edition of the Lh Empowered Women Empower series, so here you have it!
Be Inspired by Stephanie Downs, CEO& Co-founder of Uncaged Innovations
Love Happens: As our name and the tagline of our publisher, KOKET, denotes, at Love Happens, we are firm believers that you cannot achieve any level of success without love. When did you first fall in love with animal welfare activism?
Stephanie Downs: Thank you for this interview opportunity. I developed a passion for animal welfare over two decades ago, but the story starts in 1999 when I began my first company. Those first two years of my entrepreneurial journey were interesting and exciting. But then, in 2001, when the dot-com industry crashed, things became chaotic, and my entrepreneurial career became very stressful. So, I wanted to do something to give back and to help me manage my stress. I wanted to pursue something different from work, so I decided to volunteer at an animal shelter. I fell in love with animals, and then I just fell in love with this feeling of giving back and being able to just see what a difference I could make by getting involved and doing something that mattered.
Then the lightbulb went off in my head while I was eating a pork sandwich at a barbeque restaurant. I spent all this time helping animals but was eating this other type of animal which led me to watch some videos online, and I ended up going vegetarian in 2002. A couple of years later, I went vegan.
That started me down a path to find a way to apply my business skills to help animals, and I started helping animal welfare groups with outreach to global brands. I would advise them on animals and the supply chain, specifically how such companies could remove them from the supply chain. Combining my passion and love for animals and business enabled me to learn about social enterprises. This is how I ended up launching Uncaged Innovations.
Lh: Tell us a bit about your past and what led up to your current role as CEO and co-founder of Uncaged Innovation.
Stephanie: As we discussed earlier, I started my first venture in 1999, an internet marketing company, and then I sold it about eight years ago. About a year after selling my first company, I was part of starting the largest plant-based meat company in India. I later sold my interest in that venture, and I decided to focus on launching the biomaterials company Uncaged Innovations in 2020. I wanted to pursue this business because, through the work I’d done helping animal welfare groups, I’d seen tremendous demand in the fashion and automotive industries for leather alternatives. But the innovations available in the market had issues, such as being unable to scale quickly or being too expensive. And these materials were not hitting the mark of what fashion and automotive brands needed. So, this is how Uncaged emerged.
Lh: What is behind the name of your company?
Stephanie: I enjoyed the dual meaning of the name. When you think of innovation, strategic planning, or other business-related topics, you’re uncaged. You’re thinking out of the box and in an unchained manner. But then there’s the animal side—opening the cage doors and releasing animals from captivity. So, it just has a dual meaning for me.
Lh: Do you think there is skepticism against sustainability? How do you play a role in advocating for it?
Stephanie: Yes, there is skepticism against sustainability. The most considerable skepticism is within the industry and fashion within the overall sustainability movement. And there have been bad actors who have positioned their products to be more sustainable than they are. But as an industry, we must stop criticizing and beating each other up. We should focus on progress, not perfection. I’m hoping that as a movement, we can start to be a little kinder to each other and help everybody move forward.
Additionally, we need to put guidelines on what is plastic-free, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable. What does it mean to be plastic-free? Does that mean it biodegrades or breaks down within five years under certain conditions? Or what does it mean for something to be sustainable? There need to be guidelines that define all of these meanings.
So, supporting others who are doing their best is how we advocate for the industry. And in that way, as an industry, the rising tide lifts all boats; we can win if we work together.
Lh: What are alternative materials, and how can we use them more often in our day-to-day lives?
Stephanie: If we look at how animals are used in fashion, automotive, and home goods, we can pinpoint how to remove them from the supply chain while helping improve the planet.
But to date, most alternative materials to animal materials have been synthetic-based—having their slew of issues. So that’s where the next-gen material segment is evolving innovation to a higher level. We are working on developing sustainable solutions while also being cruelty-free.
Lh: What is the most exciting project you have been a part of so far?
Stephanie: I think that would have to be when I was working for animal welfare groups to educate companies on how important it is to remove animals from the supply chain. Encouraging one of the leading car companies to change its interiors to vegan was one of the most interesting, exciting, and defining moments of my later career. I will always be proud of that work.
Lh: What advice would you give to the younger you starting out?
Stephanie: I have two –
- I would strive for better work and life balance.
- I think the lesson that I would tell myself is sometimes the smartest business decision is knowing when to walk away. Not all paths are the right path. Walking away will give you the mental energy to focus on the next project.
Lh: Who is Stephanie Downs the Woman?
Stephanie: I’ve done things like going to South Africa to volunteer at a monkey sanctuary. I’ve gone to Thailand and volunteered with elephants, and I love doing things with street animal programs. So, traveling and volunteering are the things that I love and that make me who I am today.
Lh: What empowers you most?
Stephanie: Doing things that make a difference empowers me. I worked on a project that got the first humane slaughter system installed in the United States. I’ve worked on projects with wildlife crossings where bridges were installed that have saved thousands of turtles from getting killed. I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of how much impact I felt that I had made because I needed that to keep driving me forward during hard times. I think that feeling can really make a difference and decrease suffering. I believe that really motivates me.
Lh: What’s next for Stephanie Downs?
Stephanie: What’s next for me is just 100% focus on Uncaged and growing the company. I’ve launched three startups now. And I’ve started two charities, but this is the last one for me. I’m going to give this everything I’ve got. And then, when it’s time, I’m going to go volunteer at a monkey sanctuary. And then lay on a beach.
Learn more about Stephanie Downs & Uncaged Innovations at uncagedinnovations.com.
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