1-on-1 Chat with CEO of a Mission-Driven Luxury Shoe Brand, Stacey Chang
My final semester of my senior year at NYU, I interned at a startup sustainable shoe company called VEERAH. The stylish heels are produced from vegan leather, recycled plastics, and other sustainably sourced materials. In addition to responsible sourcing, VEERAH also donates a portion of their proceeds to women’s empowerment organizations through a partnership with She’s the First. It’s one of the few examples of a responsible shoe company that is seeking to make a positive difference with everything they sell. Their motto says it all: Do Good, Look Incredible.
I was connected with Stacey Chang, the founder of VEERAH, last year and as she told me more about her company I knew we would get along well. She was working at Coach and knew she wanted to start her own brand at some point. She traveled a lot for work and going back and forth to her home in Taiwan and in her travels, she realized the frustration of having to pack multiple pairs of heels. She wanted to create something more versatile so she began researching and designing and came up with the various accessories you will see on the site today. She is also passionate about the environment and wanted to make her product as sustainable as it could be. It took two years of hard work flying around to factories and sampling types of vegan leathers and researching every part of the shoe before she launched her line. Let me tell you, it was worth the effort.
I recently sat down with Stacey to learn a little more about her path to starting her own company and to ask her more about the advice she would give to anyone considering the same. She shares some great experience about the importance of networking and the importance of knowing yourself before you embark on the difficult path towards entrepreneurship (you’d better be sure you’re ready to make that leap).
Emily: Tell me about your career path and what drove you to launch your own business.
Stacey: After college I started a rotational program at Coach, so the first year I actually had three different jobs starting with fabric development production, and then I did US wholesale, and then after that I did corporate merchandising. That was a year-long program, then I joined the retail business as a pricing analyst for factory stores. In the outlet business there are a lot of promotions every week so I was responsible to figure out what was the right pricing strategy for the stores and there are a lot of different attributes that had different discounts. So I did that for a year and it was not the most exciting job but I learned so much in terms of being more analytical and how to use all the functions and shortcuts with Excel.
I was always really interested in International Business so I got a role in sales at Coach and I was responsible both for domestic and international retail for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. At the time Coach did not own the operation directly in those countries so we managed through distributors. It was really great because you have to do everything — as a salesperson you are responsible for the distributors, for the sales numbers, merchandising, branding, operations, etc. so it was a really great experience to see how you manage a business, a brand, and overall, but not really responsible for the bottom line because at the time I was really thinking about what was the top line growth.
After that I went to business school at Wharton — I just really felt that I had much to learn and needed a break too — and it was really great. After graduation I was not sure what I wanted to do, but I spent some time in Asia because my parents are in Taiwan… I moved back to Asia not really sure what I wanted to do. I moved to Shanghai and ended up joining the Estee Lauder company in their Asia-Pacific office and again it was a rotational program. I always love rotational programs because you get to see so many roles, you meet people, and you usually get a very direct interaction with the senior management. I did three rotations, the first on retail, the second on corporate strategy, the last was on communications for Origins (the brand). On my third rotation I went to a Wharton event and I was so inspired by the speakers, they were all doing amazing things, and the shoe idea came back to me from in college, but I did not know how to make shoes back then. Fast forward and I still did not know how to make shoes but I just felt that I am more resourceful and that I can figure it out now… At the time, it really felt so right, so I resigned right away (from Estee Lauder) and started VEERAH… I definitely underestimated how much work is required and how hard it is to bring shoes to market when you have such a little order quantity.
How did you support yourself when you were getting VEERAH off the ground?
Most of the money came from my own savings and also my parents helping me out as well. My parents are my biggest investors at this point–they are being really supportive. I am being really careful about spending, too…I moved back home…and I am very frugal in how I spend money… I have also been thinking about fundraising and trying to find the right investors…
What appealed to you about the fashion industry?
My favorite part of this is seeing people wearing it. Even when I was at Coach, too, it feels so great that you can think about it, talk about it, give a merchant ideas, your feedback, etc. then six months later you see the initial prototypes and fast forward eight months and you’ll see it in the store and then you see people wearing it and it feels really good that something that you worked on, you actually see people wearing it. For me, it’s very very tangible. I really enjoy that part of fashion. And I just like to look at it. What you wear can make a huge difference in how you feel about yourself and I think that’s really powerful. Everyone’s different…but there is something in fashion that can change a person’s mindset.
What was the process you went through to start VEERAH?
It was really great when I was thinking about the idea and talking to everyone possible, I made a list of anyone I could possibly talk to. And one of my professors — I had a supply chain class with him — used to work at Payless so I asked him how do I get this started. He mentioned to me that there is a school in Italy, in Milan, where you can learn about shoemaking and they have a lot of short-term courses. So I went there and took a few classes and that was really helpful to get some basic ideas, basic terminology, and processes down. I also can’t really draw so that helped me. They teach you everything. Understanding the whole shoemaking process gave me a really good overview, and that’s how I started. During that time I also tried to do prototypes in Italy as well so that helped me to understand a bit of the shoemaking process. Then I tried in Taiwan and China as well, I just kept trying. It was difficult to find the manufacturers who would work with me and a lot of times people tell you “oh, it’s impossible,” so I did not pitch to investors but I did pitch to every single factory owner that I met. And I explained to them that I am not just making shoes; I have a vision, this is how I see this growing, this is how I see this in year 1, in year 2, five years down the road. So I got really good feedback and I think people really appreciate that as someone new to the business, I was really thinking through how I want to grow.
How did you find the factory owners to get in contact with?
All kinds of ways. Of course, my professor helped me, and then a lot of friends of friends. Someone would say “oh you should talk to this person,” and I’d talk to the person and even if they might not be helpful they’d point me to another person. In the end all the contacts wound up being people I didn’t know, just someone told me “you should talk to this person.”
So once you had the prototypes and you started to launch the shoes, what was your marketing push behind that?
Really, we started out with influencers, and it’s a little better now. In the beginning we had maybe 100 followers on Instagram and I didn’t want to ask all my friends to follow us, right? I still remember it was so hard for us to get the first 100 followers. By now, we don’t have a lot, but everyone of them are real followers… It helps the brand is becoming more credible after we got some press releases too. We used to work with a PR agency and that didn’t work out but it at least helped us build some credibility in the beginning. We focus more on social media and we just started doing a bit of online ads like Google Ads. That’s something I want to do more of, but the challenge right now is that we just do not have the bandwidth at this point to do enough analysis and I feel that if we do not know what we are doing, it’s really just throwing money away. I think the next step is to find someone who can really help us focus on the analytics so we know how to invest our money better… It’s just a really long process of building the brand.
What is your favorite thing about owning your own business? Your least favorite?
My favorite part is that I get to meet a lot of incredible people. Every time I talk about my business to someone, even if he or she cannot help at the moment, they always try to say “you should talk to this other person.” It’s just really amazing the stories I have learned and you’re constantly getting inspired, versus in a corporate world you’re kind of doing your own thing. Second favorite thing is seeing the product, I really love that.
I think the most challenging part is…Before I was working with big companies, right–Estee Lauder, Coach, they are huge brands. So it’s much easier when you want to work with other people, from suppliers to agencies, and they know you have budgets. Versus now when they know I have no budget, they don’t know who I am, there’s no trust behind it. It’s really difficult to build that trust from scratch. So I think you’re more constantly proving yourself all the time… It’s about having the right people want to work with you. I think it’s just hard in the beginning.
Do you think it lends you credibility that you have that experience from Coach and Estee Lauder so they know that you at least kind of understand how the process works?
Yes and no… It’s not something I talk about all the time with them, either. I think it helps a certain degree. But I think really you just have to keep hustling, be persistent, and don’t take things personally.
What does a typical day or week look like for you?
I don’t have a typical day or week, it’s really difficult to think about that. I try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every day… Even if I go to bed really late I’ll add 7 hours up. I try to exercise every day or every other day… That’s why I keep in shape for races… It is something to at least push me to the gym if I have a triathlon coming up. Someone was saying to me recently that you should go to the gym every day because throughout the day something bad is going to happen, there are a lot of challenges, but if you have this workout at least you can say, “I had a great workout today,” something positive is in your life today. So I think that has really put me in the mindset to prioritize my health first, go to the gym, because no matter how hard it is today, no matter how many setbacks, how many bad emails I receive, at least one thing is great for myself and that really helps a lot.
Why did you choose to make VEERAH sustainable and why does ethical and sustainable production matter to you?
The first step was that I wanted to be vegan. I am vegetarian and I just felt like, if I could, I wanted something non-leather. It’s really hard because I wanted something nice that I couldn’t find in the marketplace. Then I think that when we decided to go vegan, we started to think about what other ways can we make our product differentiated for other people. Then we thought with the current trends and after being in the fashion industry, you know how much waste it creates to make something beautiful. I just think there are definitely better ways to produce and I am in a very fortunate place, building a brand from scratch, that I can actually establish that. For bigger brands it’s not that they don’t want to do it, but it’s also very hard when they have previous years of numbers that they have to beat, it’s really difficult. It’s about growth…You are responsible for stakeholders and growth… So I think I am very fortunate that I can build a business that I believe in from scratch.
What advice would you give to someone that is looking to start their own business?
Understand why you want to start a business. I think especially nowadays it sounds really glamorous and then there’s a lot of great, successful examples of people starting their own business, they always seem to have a glamorous lifestyle, a very flexible lifestyle, etc. Which is true but think about when people say they have flexible lifestyles, it also means they are always working all the time. You really need to know the reason behind it is because you really believe in what you are doing, not because you want to live in the life that someone else has. It’s very different, right? I think it’s very important that you believe in what you want to do and that you are creating a lifestyle that you want. You have to be really honest with yourself about what you want.
Is there one thing you wish you had done differently when you started and why?
Something I am still working on today is to figure out how do I communicate differently. I try to be as open minded as possible, try to communicate with people, but I realize that not everyone wants to be treated the way that you want to be treated. So the golden rule doesn’t really apply. Because everyone wants different things, you know. It’s hard for me sometimes because I feel that it is so clear to me but it’s completely not clear to other people, so don’t ever assume people get it. I find that I spend a lot of time going back and forth and feeling frustrated and needing to redo things because it was never really communicated clearly in the first place. I thought I was clear but the other person did not feel the same way and for whatever reason, it was not explained, so we just keep going and then realized we were totally not on the same page. I think that’s just something I am still working on today: how can I be as clear as possible, how can I understand the other person better, and how can I communicate in a way that the other person can receive?
As someone looking to start my own business and also very passionate about sustainable fashion, I loved interacting with a boss lady like Stacey. It makes such a difference, I think, to work for a company whose values you can truly believe in and if I can create something like that, I will be truly proud. That’s the wonderful thing about the globally connected world we live in today–if you can dream it, and you put in the hard work and time, you really can do it. Do you have any similar stories of entrepreneurial success? I would love to hear them in the comments below!