Hannah Kay Herdlinger has an enviable resume.
She’s worked on Capitol Hill, at Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization as the director of operations, on the advance staff for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and on the launch team for Arianna Huffington’s latest venture, Thrive Global.
She’s a powerful woman long surrounded by powerful women — and one of the last people you’d expect to be a victim of domestic violence.
And yet, she was — because that’s how domestic violence works, explains Herdlinger, founder of Thread Talk, a for-profit, for-purpose company that sells blankets to support domestic violence shelters across the country.
“One in three women and one in four men have been affected by domestic violence in their lifetime. It truly is all around us,” she explains. “[A life] could look picture perfect on the outside, but you never know. That’s definitely what happened with mine.”
Herdlinger met her husband in college at the University of Georgia. They lived together in Washington, D.C., before moving back to Georgia and buying her dream house in his hometown. She was working for Facebook, teaching small businesses how to use the social network at roadshows across the country. Life was supposed to be good.
“My ex-husband and I both had great jobs. We were both really involved in the community. We were both just out there, looking like the perfect couple,” Herdlinger says. “Behind closed doors, it was not so perfect.”
And it reached a breaking point on Super Bowl Sunday in 2014, when an argument with her then-husband turned violent.
It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it was certainly the worst. Her doctor told her if the hit had been a little harder, or struck a little to the right, she could have landed in a coma — or died.
The support network that rallied around her — friends, family and neighbors — gave her the strength to leave her husband. Even Sandberg called to offer her a job out in California at Facebook headquarters — an opportunity she accepted immediately. The day her divorce was final, she packed up a few relics from her old life and donated pretty much everything else to a local domestic violence shelter. Then, she moved out West.
But what she saw at that shelter stuck with her while she worked as Sandberg’s assistant and, later, as director of operations for Lean In just as the women’s mentorship organization was gaining momentum.
“That was my first introduction to shelters. And then I started researching and understanding that it’s not only providing a bed for them, but these shelters provide safety, security, programs to get them back on their feet,” Herdlinger explains. “And every shelter’s different.”
Then, in May of 2016, Sandberg gave the commencement address at UC Berkeley. She closed her remarks by challenging the graduates to live as if they had just 11 days left, to “live with the understanding of how precious every single day would be.” In that moment, Herdlinger knew what she wanted: She wanted to be back on the East Coast, and she wanted to help domestic violence victims find their way to better lives.
She put in her resignation at Lean In and moved to Charlotte, N.C. But she didn’t stay long. Herdlinger got an opportunity to join the Clinton campaign, traveling around the country and vetting event locations on behalf of the candidate and her family. It was an intimate role on the wild ride that was the 2016 election.
When it ended and Clinton lost, Herdlinger joined Huffington’s team in New York for the launch of Thrive Global. She returned to Charlotte a few months later with no network to draw on, no idea what she would do next — until she began crafting the business plan for Thread Talk.
Herdlinger has helped people run their businesses but never launched one of her own. And retail and ecommerce are unique in their challenges.
“So every corner that I take, from finding the manufacturer to social media engagement to just getting out there, has been a learning process for me,” she says.
She started by asking everyone she met for coffee or a phone call, and then after that, for an introduction to someone else who might be able to help.
“I would call random manufacturers and I would be as vulnerable as possible: ‘Teach me,’” she recalls.
Thread Talk was ready for launch in October, and Herdlinger brought it to market with a social media campaign — the #ISpyPurple challenge. Purple is the official color of domestic violence awareness, and the campaign challenged people to take note whenever they saw purple. The concept was, when you pay attention, you’ll see that purple is all around us. The same is true with domestic violence.
The campaign launched, and Herdlinger’s phone blew up. People thanked her for bringing awareness, for allowing them to use social media to share their story. A few women reached out to say the campaign had inspired them to leave their abusive relationships.
“That’s when I knew [we were on to something],” Herdlinger says. “Those stories still roll in.”
And they keep her going as she builds Thread Talk, which she has bootstrapped from day one, and expand the ways in which her business supports victims of domestic violence. The Thread Talk blog has become a platform to share stories from survivors, and Herdlinger has enlisted two survivors to help with the business on a project basis.
Going forward, her goal is for Thread Talk to provide more resume-building opportunities for victims through an ambassador program, the details of which she has yet to hash out.
“It’s really about empowerment,” she says, “and spreading opportunity with comfort.”
*Photo by Julia Fay Photography.
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