Truth to Power
Best friends and business partners Laura Rachlin and Karen Hansen confront their past and help others carry their courage — one handbag at a time.
It’s hard to say for certain whether the confession alone redirected the future of their relationship. Whether the unburdening of one soul began to stir another.
What is clear is that everything would change for Karen Hansen and Laura Rachlin. Eight years ago, they were (and still are) successfully running a commercial interior design firm, Boca Raton-based In.design Inc. They were (and are) devoted to their children.
They also were grappling with their respective pasts.
How could either of them have known that sharing their darkest secrets would one day pave a healing road for other women to follow? That candor would be cathartic on so many levels? How could they see the empowering potential of a second business, Wren & Roch, one steeped in high fashion and an even-higher sense of purpose?
They couldn’t. Not yet.
All that anyone knew that day in 2009 was that Karen had called an impromptu office meeting. The 12 employees of In.design, who were like family to her, gathered around a long conference table; Karen sat at the far end. She explained that she needed to share something that wasn’t work-related and invited anyone to leave who wasn’t comfortable. Everyone stayed. She avoided direct eye contact as she began to verbalize what only a handful of people, including Laura, knew. Not even her mother, who was in the room, had heard the truth.
Karen’s daughter, 14 at the time, was the result of date rape.
“My skirt wasn’t too short that night, my clothes weren’t too tight and even if I were walking down the street naked, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Karen says of the incident that happened in 1994, shortly after she started college at Florida State University. “I wasn’t a willing participant. So why am I the one feeling ashamed? Why do I have to come up with an answer every time someone asks about the father of my child? Why is that on me?
“I looked up and everyone’s eyes were filled with tears. I thanked them for listening. It was the most liberating moment of my life. The sandbags had been lifted.”
Laura watched the scene unfold with great pride; her friend had faced her demons. Little did anyone in the room know just how much the two friends had in common or the demons Laura ultimately would confront.
A psychic once told Laura and Karen that they knew each other in a past life and that both were monks. This explains, Karen says, why they talk to each other so much: “We’re trying to make up for lost time.”
But, really, how could they not be friends? Both grew up in small Florida towns, Laura in Cape Coral, Karen in Leesburg. Both attended Florida State after first going to community college (although they never met at FSU). Both studied interior design. And both, after college, took jobs in Boca with small interior design firms.
They spoke for the first time over the phone; Laura’s firm was looking to hire a designer, and the owner gave her a stack of resumes to review that included Karen’s. Though that opportunity didn’t bring them together, the two finally met in person three months later during a cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway hosted by a wall covering vendor.
“We started chatting and were inseparable for like four hours,” says Karen, 44.
They studied together and passed the Council for Interior Design Qualification exam; eventually they worked together at another Boca firm. One day, after Karen felt her boss was questioning her work ethic as a single mom, she walked into Laura’s office and announced that she was ready to start her own business. “You want to come?” she asked Laura.
In 2001, with no clients and no safety net, the FSU grads launched In.design. At the time, Karen’s daughter was in kindergarten; Laura was six weeks pregnant with the first of her three children with her ex-husband.
When they received the check following their first commercial project, designing the corporate offices for Claire’s, the jewelry and accessories boutique chain with a Florida headquarters in Pembroke Pines, both Karen and Laura cried. Karen had about $200 left in her bank account, Laura says.
Today, In.design is one of the region’s most accomplished commercial interior design firms, with a client list that includes more than 50 hospitals and healthcare facilities.
“Failure was never an option,” Karen says. “It was meant to be.”
Out of body, out of Mind
Last year, Laura called her college roommate from a quarter-century ago and asked if the incident happened the way she remembered it. If she fought off her attacker, a student and co-worker, and burst into her roommate’s bedroom, completely naked. She worried that the trauma had affected her recollection, even as memories of the night began to flood back in vivid detail.
From the view on her bedroom floor, after he forced himself on her, she could see the walnut frame of her waterbed. The metal finish on her desk chair. She remembered the color of the carpet, peach with brown speckles.
“For a long time, I blocked that all out,” says Laura, 42, of the incident in the early 1990s. “Only my roommate and [her roommate’s boyfriend] knew. Her boyfriend kicked the guy out. I didn’t feel like I could call the police. What was I going to tell them? That this guy who I went on a date with had sex with me against my will?
“As the years went by, I felt like it was a part of my past. I was functioning. I was being a great mom. If I didn’t draw attention to it, I wouldn’t have to deal with it.”
When Laura finally shared the intimate details of her own attack with Karen last year, her friend and business partner had a different point of view.
“I remember sitting in her car when she told me,” Karen says. “When you don’t want to face something, it’s easier to justify it or make it logical somehow. But I told her, “Honey, that’s rape.”
Never again would Laura hide from the truth. She wasn’t a victim. She was a survivor — in more ways than one.
There’s something brazen, even defiant, about the aptly named Street Smart line of luxury clutches at Wren & Roch, the handbag and accessories business that Karen and Laura launched in October 2016. Perhaps it’s the metal finger grip, a play on brass knuckles that lends a touch of bad-ass to the Italian leather design, made in New York City.
Or maybe it’s that those same qualities are so evident in Karen, the first woman in her family to attend college. It was an opportunity that even an unexpected pregnancy wouldn’t derail. She missed only two weeks of school after giving birth to her daughter, graduating on time and making the dean’s list.
Was she panicked? Of course. Did she consider telling the man who assaulted her? Never. Did she consider aborting the baby? She did. “I was in such a state of shock that I almost regressed to childhood,” Karen says. “So when my mom said, ‘I don’t know how, but it’s going to work out,’ I just followed her lead.”
Karen describes her daughter, now 22, as an old soul. Intelligent. Mature. Nurturing. “She was always my rock.”
She also knew, from a young age, about her birth father.
“I told my daughter when she was 6, and I know that shocks some people,” says Karen, who also has a son, now 9, with an ex-husband. “But there were no handbooks on how to handle it. I did what made sense to me. I told her descriptively enough, but also in a way that I felt was appropriate. Someone made me do something I didn’t want to do. I got pregnant, and I had you, and that was good. Over time, it all pieced together for her.”
As much as the two friends always had wanted to design handbags, Wren & Roch was destined to be more than just a style indulgence. And so it was, from the beginning, that a portion of their proceeds went to organizations that support survivors of sexual assault (It’s On Us), the prevention of child sexual abuse (Lauren’s Kids, KidSafe Foundation) and victims of domestic violence (Safespace Foundation).
It’s that last connection that may be the bookend to Karen’s confession in the conference room, the window, once clear, that allowed Laura to see a complicated past with greater clarity.
For the last 10 of the 18 years that she lived with her ex-husband, Laura says, he was abusive. “It was verbal, emotional and financial abuse. And it had gotten physical. He was very intimidating — and he had like 20 guns in the house.
“I feel like he thought he made me who I was, so he owned me. It was a control thing. After the [interior design] company started having success, he would try to keep me down. ‘Really, you’re going to wear those shoes? That dress? You look like a hooker.’ He’d take my credit cards and put them down the garbage disposal when we fought.”
Still, Laura stayed. She was a mother to their children (two sons, now 16 and 12, and a daughter, now 8). And a fixer. She felt, seeing how remorseful he was in between episodes, that there was hope amid the rage.
There wasn’t. When the two traveled to Cape Coral for a wedding anniversary that coincided with Laura’s 20th high school reunion, a jealous outburst in the hotel room finally broke her spirit. She moved to Boynton Beach with the children, and in October 2013, the divorce was final.
A month later, three days before Thanksgiving, Laura’s ex-husband killed himself with one of his guns.
Striking a Chord
Fashion would provide the business hook, but advocacy would win the day. There was too much now for these warriors to share. They traveled to the White House in January for an It’s On Us campaign to end sexual assault on college campuses. They went to the United Nations to fight for gender equality as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development platform. They worked with a local lobbyist to make Florida a leader in sexual assault prevention and punishing sexual predators. They empowered and educated.
Most important, they held nothing back. It was their unspoken pact: no more secrets. They went to the darkest places with honesty and dignity.
What they didn’t expect was that so many people would do the same.
At an international men’s march in April to raise sexual assault awareness at the University of Miami, Karen and Laura shared their stories. Afterward, a pre-med student approached them. She had been raped on campus by someone she knew. She went to the police, but no charges were filed. When the young woman admitted that she was pondering her future at the university, Karen and Laura implored her to finish what she started. Their message: Don’t let him take that from you, too.
“We’ve heard stories that keep me up at night,” Karen says. “We heard about biological grandparents molesting their grandchildren. Women raped by cousins and neighbors. Girls getting pregnant by their fathers — you can’t even imagine. Half the stories, people would tell us, ‘You’re the only ones I’ve ever told, outside of family.”
“It’s bad enough that we carried the burden of what happened to us, but there are so many people not speaking out because they’re embarrassed. They still feel it’s their fault. If they’re not going to say something for themselves, we’re going to speak out for them.â€”
In.design continues to pay the bills, but the two friends understand that Wren & Roch has opened a door that can’t be closed.
“We have no doubt that this is what we’re going to be dedicating the rest of our lives to doing,” Laura says. “It’s emotionally exhausting. But it’s worth it when you know you make a difference in someone’s life.”