In college, Oakes majored in natural resources and entymology. As a research assistant with Ellen Harrison at Cornell University, she coauthored a report on environmental health impacts of sewage sludge that in 2002 appeared in New Solutions, a journal focused on policy and activism around labor and environmental issues. But Oakes also added to her list of activities an unusual extracurricular: modeling for StockinGirl, a high-end lingerie company.
“I had great legs,” Oakes says. “The owner of the company came across me on campus, and I originally came into the company as a model. I ended up developing a relationship with them in a greater capacity and working on a whole series of things.”
That series of things eventually included branding, image and positioning, as well as design, sales and market research, Oakes says.
“I was kind of the face of that label … consulting on what’s next, what are the new trends that women want to see, and on how to become more sustainable,” Oakes says. “They ... asked me to look out for certain fibers that would engender a more sustainable product.”
Oakes began modeling for other companies as well, and she took an interest in companies with an environmental or social component. She’s used her image to promote organic cotton, bamboo fiber, certified wood and recycled materials, not to mention conflict-free diamonds, fairly traded fibers and low- or non-toxic manufacturing.
“I started building up good relationships with clients,” she says. “I would model for them, but then I would say, … Why don’t you give me the price points for these pieces, and what they’re about, and I’ll start selling them, too, at trade shows? Then that stemmed into helping brand the companies and working on the marketing side.”
Despite her growing involvement in the fashion industry, when Oakes was awarded a federal Morris K. Udall Scholarship in 2003, the Cornell Chronicle reported that “after graduation from Cornell she hopes to become an ecosystem manager and work to improve conservation programs, she said, ‘by successfully integrating dimension aspects, scientific research and the intrinsic value of nature into comprehensive management plans.’”
But Oakes steers clear of technical work in her career. “My expertise is not coming into a company and saying here’s how you can increase the efficiency,” she says.
Instead, Oakes has made a career out of connecting companies and consumers, as well as manufacturers and suppliers. “I think that just from my background, I’ve really honed in on a lot of broad skill sets,” she says. “I was also asking in my own life, how can I get my environmental and social issues that I feel most passionate about out to a mainstream audience? How can I get this brand or this product or this company out into the mainstream?”
After graduation, she headed to New York City and signed with Boss Models, an international agency. “It was kind of weird then, working in the confines of the agency,” she says. “I had these certain clients that would call up and want to use me as more than a model, you know, helping with trade shows and sales. And as an agency, they don’t normally do those kinds of things.”
So in April 2005, Oakes founded SRO, her own hybrid agency, strategic consulting firm and media company. “We leverage our expertise to consult and build authentic brands, programs and communication strategies aligned with sustainable business practices,” she describes.
Over the last year, SRO has taken a youthful leap into the industry. In collaboration with Lime.com, a venture of Steve Case’s Revolution investment group [see “Revolution will not be televised,” Sustainable Industries, Oct. 2006], SRO hosted a networking event for the young, hip environmental crowd. Under the aegis of SRO, Oakes authors “Behind the Label,” an environmentally minded column for New Zealand fashion magazine Lucire, and the company is pursuing a handful of television projects aimed at educating consumers about environmental lifestyle issues. As one of her latest ventures, Oakes also publishes S-4, a soon-to-be-quarterly publication on sustainability and fashion “tailored to decision-makers within the industry,” she says.
Oakes says she’s often asked why she’s qualified to talk about marketing, “‘You didn’t go to business school,’” she mimics. But her answer betrays no doubts on her part that she’s right for the job. “I was always the kind of person that likes to be involved in the entire process,” she says.
Although her career began in modeling, Oakes says she was quickly drawn into other parts of the business. “I was developing relationships with senior execs and CEOs and coming in and learning about the company from the inside out,” she says. “It was a natural transition.”
But that doesn’t mean entrepreneurship has been easy. “There is always some limitation in growing your own business in the way that you want,” she reflects.
In November 2005, Oakes connected with two interrelated New York consulting firms — Group SJR and Hemispheric Partners — to collaborate on specific projects.
Alexander Jutkowitz, a founding partner of both firms, has worked most closely with Oakes through Group SJR. “When we were starting this consulting firm, I wanted to call it Horse to Water,” he says. The name — although it didn’t stick — refers to a problem in the business: companies that work with consulting firms often struggle to take the next step and implement consultants’ recommendations.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And she’s very helpful in getting the horse to drink,” Jutkowitz says of Oakes. “She’s not a wonk. And she doesn’t have that kind of feel.”
Oakes says that’s one of her strengths: knowing how to market sustainability to mainstream audiences. “You have to be multilingual in this industry,” she says. “Talking to a fashion client or a socially oriented client are two different languages.”
The common language, she says, is focusing on the positive.
“There are so many companies that are doing good and do have a good message, and they’re not getting the limelight and they should be.” Oakes says. “I could be the storyteller for their products because I believe in their product and that it should be out there. I think that’s why people gravitate to my work a lot.”
“She really brings a kind of energy and charisma,” he says. “She is young and up there and a bit of a whirling dervish. A large part of her ability is to get people excited.”