In 2008, Margaret O’Leary, founder and CEO of the eponymous clothing stores, had a problem. She was making her beautiful, high-end sweaters at a knitting factory on Potrero Hill, but the dot-com boom had turned Potrero into a hot address for tech — i.e., unaffordable. O’Leary knew she had to make a move, but wanted to keep creating clothing worthy of her label. Luckily, she knew people to ask for advice: the “Mill Valley Quad.”
The “Quad,” as they call themselves, are four female entrepreneurs who have been confidantes, yoga buddies, business advisers, and hiking partners for 20-plus years. They include O’Leary; Karen Goldberg, owner of the Tamalpie restaurants in Mill Valley and Corte Madera; Susan Griffin-Black, founder and co-CEO of EO Products; and Joan Barnes, founder of Gymboree and former owner of YogaStudio (now YogaWorks.)
The Quad had ideas for O’Leary. They counseled her on how to get out of her lease. They knew people on several continents and made suggestions for factories, bankers and lawyers to consult. She relocated her knitting operations to Portugal, Hong Kong, Peru and China, and her chain grew from a few Bay Area stores to 15 nationwide. “It was a huge undertaking,” O’Leary says, “and it was great I could turn to friends who understood.”
O’Leary’s is just one example of how these high-powered women have helped one another over the years. “We’ve been supporting, encouraging and cajoling each other forward through many growth spurts and inversions in our various business cycles,” says Barnes, “and we feel so fortunate to have our local ‘sisterhood’ by our side.”
Ironically, the group first came together in part because of a man. It was New Year’s Eve 1989, and O’Leary had been at dinner with friends who then decided to go to the former San Francisco dance spot Club Townsend. They planned to meet up with friend Susan Griffin, at the time a divorced single mom. “Margaret and I started talking and have been friends ever since,” says Griffin-Black. The Irish-born O’Leary remembers it differently: “I was there with an Irish male friend who was very cute,” she says, “and Susan had a crush on him.”
Still, O’Leary and Griffin-Black did become friends and briefly even business partners in the clothing company’s earliest incarnation. Then Goldberg, Griffin-Black’s youngest sister, began hanging out with them, and about nine years later Barnes met O’Leary through a mutual friend.
They had experiences in common. They were all entrepreneurs and mothers. They lived near each other in Mill Valley. Each had opened multiple businesses or grown businesses to a large scale. Barnes had seen her company Gymboree go public. They were, and are, women at the forefront in business, a status still something of a rarity: according to the National Association of Women Business Owners, only one in five companies with $1 million or more in revenue is female-owned.
They also epitomize what a landmark UCLA study found nearly 20 years ago: when women are under stress, they are likely to “tend and befriend.” Instead of a “flight-or-fight” response, women nurture and reach out to others for support. For the Quad, one of the biggest bonding factors was that each member understood how demanding the others’ lives were. “We were very independent, very much our own people, and I think we came together easily because we really appreciated each other’s gig and autonomy,” says Griffin-Black. “I think that made for not very pressured relationships.”
Shortage of kitchen time was another draw: of the four, only Goldberg cooks, and her Mill Valley restaurant is often a Quad meeting spot. Many nights Griffin-Black sits at the Tamalpie bar, eating a salad created for her, the “Mill Valley Goddess,” with a substitution of bitter greens. O’Leary and Barnes drop by for take-out.
Other nights, the four sit down together at a restaurant to discuss their lives. “The conversations move from our children to our houses or spouses to ‘By the way, I need $100,000,’ ” says Griffin-Black. When the bill arrives, whoever currently has the best cash flow picks it up.
They are often each other’s best business leads. In 2004, Griffin- Black mentioned she was seeking an angel investor; not long after, O’Leary brought a friend to the EO warehouse/factory for a quick tour and lunch. “He said, ‘I just sold my company and the deal is closing mid-December. Do you guys need money?’ ” says Griffin- Black. “I said, ‘Yep, we need $100,000.’ To which he replied, ‘I’ll send you a check.’ ”
They’ve also helped each other through personal difficulties, notably for several years, starting in 2006, when Barnes’ second husband had a terminal illness. Barnes, who was running YogaStudio while taking care of her spouse, wondered if she should sell her business. “The Quad helped me see that selling YogaStudio to YogaWorks would not be a failure but rather a victory for me personally,” says Barnes, who’s now an adviser for Gymboree and a thought leader at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco. “They gave me the ballast and love I needed to make that decision.”
That decision reflects an approach the women value — and it’s not the proverbial sought-after “work-life balance.” “The thing with balance is it’s a setup for failure,” says Griffin-Black, a longtime practicing Buddhist. “I think it’s about presence. If you just do one thing at a time, that’s good enough. I know we all multitask. But if you’re at work, you work. If you’re at your kid’s basketball game, you’re at your kid’s basketball game.”
Goldberg concurs: “We all really try to take care of ourselves. If you don’t take care of yourself well, you’re not going to be good for your kids or your business. It’s a philosophy we all share.” To that end, they schedule several group spa days a year, in Napa or Sonoma or at Cavallo Point.
And they’re not averse to a little girl talk. O’Leary, inclined to give her friends cashmere sweaters, has also been known to nudge Goldberg, “Would you get out of those old clothes?” and, although she’s the only married woman among them at the moment, is first to want details when a Quad sister begins dating someone new.
Over the years the men have come and gone. Their businesses have grown at different paces. “But we’re always trying to learn from one another,” Barnes says. “This sisterhood and longevity is a really precious thing. It’s provided a beautiful backdrop for all of us.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “The Fantastic Four“.