Nimble Activewear’s Katia Santilli on Going Into Business With Your Best Friend, and Giving Birth in a Pandemic - The Grace Tales

Nimble Activewear’s Katia Santilli on Going Into Business With Your Best Friend, and Giving Birth in a Pandemic

We’ve all heard of the seven year itch. Katia Santilli co-founded Nimble Activewear with her best friend Vera Yan six years ago, in 2014. But for this fashion, fitness, and friendship success story, year six has brought its fair share of bumps – in more ways than one…

The first bump involves the coronavirus pandemic hitting the entirely self-funded Nimble at a time when they were really hitting their stride. Two retail stores, a growing team, and big growth plans have had to be put on ice while lockdown plays out. Then factor into the mix an actual bump – Katia is weeks away from giving birth to her first child – and you start to see that Nimble is very aptly named. If there’s one thing businesses have needed to survive this moment in history, it’s the ability to be light on their feet and willing to pivot. It’s something Katia is well aware of.

“Nimble was my first baby”, Katia tells us. “In a way I’ve been fortunate because I had set up a home office pre COVID–19, to use on maternity leave, so I transitioned into this way of working earlier. Once the baby arrives I will go on maternity leave, while still being across work as much as I can and as much as my baby allows. Given how busy the business is currently, I do worry about how well I will manage this juggle!”

But with her track record, we’re not too worried for her. Katia’s story proves her ability to beat the odds. She left a dream job at Burberry in London to found an activewear line with her high school best friend. The two managed not to only to disrupt the market, but to do it consciously – their commitment to sustainability goes beyond lip service and every pair of their MoveLite leggings uses an average of 6 recycled plastic bottles in its fabrication. So far, they’ve saved over a million bottles from going to landfill. When we ask her about challenges, Katia tells us that the biggest one has been “how fast we’ve grown, which sounds like a humblebrag, but I promise it’s not!”

We spoke to the founder about how she’s managing pregnancy during a pandemic, how she found the confidence to launch her own business, and her plans for maternity leave. If the first six years are anything to go by, that seven year itch won’t hold a candle to this unstoppable woman.

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Congratulations on your pregnancy! How has it treated you so far?

Thank you! So far so good. As with everyone, pregnancy comes with its challenges and while I was fortunate not to get bad morning sickness, I’m trying to listen to my body and rest where I need to. I’m in my third trimester now and have particularly noticed that nights are starting to get more restless. I think it’s time to invest in that pregnancy pillow. 

You co-founded Nimble with your best friend Vera. How will you approach juggling motherhood and the business?

Vera and I are really lucky to have the partnership that we do. When we started Nimble Activewear in 2014 I had left my job at Burberry in London to invest in the business full time while Vera worked to support us, spending weekends and any time she had on Nimble. It’s a fairly unique dynamic and it works. Recently Vera got married and shortly I will have my baby and take on the juggle of balancing parenthood and work! It’s definitely a new adventure for me and I’ll be closely watching how other mums manage, with the support of an amazing husband, family and our all-female team!

How has your work life changed given the current state of the world? This must have been such a stressful time to be both a business owner and an expecting mama!

Like most, our business has needed to react quickly and adapt to the new norm and our team has been working from home with many Zoom meetings.  Work is definitely busy, and while I want to nurture this, I need to remind myself to slow down ahead of the baby’s arrival in a few weeks.

What has your life in lockdown looked like? Are you managing to work from home, or are you on maternity leave now?

In a way I’ve been fortunate because I had set up a home office pre COVID–19, to use on maternity leave, so I transitioned into this way of working earlier. Once the baby arrives I will go on maternity leave, while still being across work as much as I can and as much as my baby allows. Given how busy the business is currently, I do worry about how well I will manage this juggle!


Speaking of maternity leave, it’s notoriously difficult when you run your own business! What’s your plan?

Nimble was my first baby and I need to ensure I continue to nurture it as we constantly grow, however I’m fortunate to have the flexibility that Vera and our team can provide so that I can take this time off work.

My plan is to take 12 weeks off, while touching base with the team for a few hours each week. After 12 weeks I will come back to the business 4 days a week with the support of a nanny, and my partner at home. Eventually I will make the transition back to full time but I want to see how home life is tracking before I jump back into 5 days a week. 

Activewear is a pretty saturated market. What gave you the confidence to launch Nimble?

Vera and I launched Nimble 6 years ago because we saw the need for stylish yet high performing activewear for Australian women. From the start it was important to us to be part of our community, and do more than dress women, which is why we partner with Change to give $1 from every sale to fund projects that are dedicated to protecting our reefs and restoring our lands and design using sustainable materials.

In terms of sustainability, Nimble is doing good things. Can you talk us through your sustainable features, and was this a part of the business plan from the very beginning?

Nimble’s singular goal is to create activewear that empowers women to run their own race and celebrate individuality. This has always been the cornerstone of our brand and underpins all that we do. As the business has grown and we have seen the impact that the fashion industry can have on our environment, we have shifted our manufacturing process to ensure that our business makes considered decisions, and reduces unnecessary wastage wherever we can.  

We have saved almost 1 million plastic bottles from going into landfill (and our oceans) through our core MoveLite range. On average, six recycled plastic bottles are used in each pair of MoveLite leggings, and two to four recycled plastic bottles are used in our sports bras. We’re really committed to finding ways to lessen our environmental impact and as such, we’ve also turned our focus to our packaging. All products are now packaged in compostable poly bags and we have just launched compostable mailing bags with our online orders to further reduce our eco footprint.

You and Vera have been friends since high school - how have you navigated all the transitions? Any tips for maintaining a solid friendship when going into business together?

Vera and I became instant best friends at 14 when we attended high school together in Melbourne. Inseparable, we bonded over our love of R ‘n’ B and aerobics. 

Communication and being open is a necessity. We’ve learnt over the last 6 years of being in business together that it’s best to address anything as they come up rather than assume the other person may know what you’re thinking. The beauty of going into business with your BFF is that with the long history and friendship, the awkwardness is minimal. 

What’s been the most challenging part of your journey with Nimble?

One of the biggest challenges has been how fast we’ve grown, which sounds like a humblebrag, but I promise it’s not! It’s been incredible to see the brand up to the point where we now have 2 retail stores – which will shortly become three, a global online and wholesale business, as well as a growing team, but with that rapid growth comes big growing pains.

We’re a completely self-funded business so we’ve had to be really strategic and calculated with our funds, but it’s helped us to become better business owners and that can only be a great thing. 

You lead an active lifestyle. Have you been able to keep that up during pregnancy?

Provided there were no complications it was really important to me to ensure I kept active throughout my pregnancy.  At the moment I am sticking to my normal weekly routine of yoga, reformer Pilates and HIIT – however modifying as I’ve been progressing in my pregnancy. Danica from Lagree in Double Bay has been an absolute dream to work with throughout my pregnancy. She is trained in prenatal, is a mum herself and has been guiding me with modifications.

Are you still wearing your Nimble tights or have you had to switch to maternity leggings?

Yes, I am, and they are the best! I live in our High-Rise leggings as they have no elastic reinforcement at the top of the waistband and our fabric is super soft and stretchy. 

What kind of mother do you aspire to be?

A firm but fair mother. Someone my children can come to me when they need support, guidance and someone they can laugh and cry with.

And what are you nervous about?

The juggle and bringing up a baby in this contemporary world – 2020 has been an interesting year!

Has your birth plan had to change given the restrictions in hospitals for support people and visitors?

My plan hasn’t changed too much as my husband will be with me as my support person, although our birth classes at the hospital were cancelled so we have spent a lot of time reading books and listening to podcasts to educate ourselves. My mum is based in Melbourne so as soon as interstate travel is allowed she will be on a flight to Sydney so that she can stay with us to help out in the first couple of weeks.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Loving what you do! I am also big on routine and need to exercise in the mornings so I always pre book in my classes (when not in lockdown obviously) as it holds me accountable to showing up. 

What’s your favourite piece of advice?

The importance of self-motivation and showing commitment to what you want to achieve. I’m a big believer in setting goals – both personally and professionally. 

What are you loving at the moment - from books, to podcasts, tv shows, food, anything?

  • Fruit! I’ve had a fruit obsession while being pregnant 
  • Podcast – How I Built This 
  • TV shows – my guilty pleasure is Real Housewives and I love NYC and Beverly Hills. I watch this when my partner plays basketball on Wednesday evenings.
  • Yoga – I loved yoga before my pregnancy and it is something I’m loving while being pregnant. I feel so great afterwards, however I’m modifying a lot and really slowing things down. 
  • Swimming – I live in Bondi and there is nothing better than going for a “float” in the ocean, especially in the morning before I need to head into work.
  • Nimble high waisted leggings – the best for the growing belly!
  • LMND | Lemonade: shirts and shirt dresses. They have been the best to accommodate the growing bump and will also be great when I have to breastfeed as they have buttons at the front.