These Two 20-Somethings are Empowering Women One Ring at A Time
I met Shilpa Yarlagadda and Jennifer Wang this winter at a launch party for their jewelry brand startup Shiffon Co. during fashion week. Shiffon is a fine jewelry brand with a social purpose. Half the profits from the pinky ring collection and 10% of profits from all of their other products directly fund seed grants for female entrepreneurs and companies that promote the wellbeing of women through a non-profit called the Startup Girl Foundation. They also partner with One Young World and through this have been able to reach a growing group of young innovators across the globe. One of the best ways to empower women is by surrounding yourself with uplifting women and that’s exactly what Jenn and Shilpa did as the searched for mentors to help them with their project. Most of the people they work with are female and care tirelessly about making the world a better place. And who better to start a startup foundation than two twenty-somethings on a mission?
I was invited to the event by my friend Shane who, through mutual connections, knew Shilpa and Jenn and thought I would be interested in their venture. It was one of those serendipitous networking situations that leads to truly awesome relationships. At the point in the event when the founders thank everyone for coming and talk a little more about the brand, I was shocked to discover that the duo was so young, both of them just undergraduates at Harvard. Surely being an entrepreneur is a difficult path full of sacrifices, let alone when you’re young and just starting out. Since getting to know them, though, I have seen that dedication and hard work can overweigh something as trivial as age and the power duo has been making strides to launch Shiffon to the next level. Celebrities have already picked up on the brand–Anna Baryshnikov wore the rings to the Oscars and more recently Emma Watson wore a set of their rings for her Press Tour which features sustainable and ethical designers. I was excited to interview them and learn more.
Can you both give some background about yourselves (i.e. where you’re from, what you studied, your interests, etc.)? How did you both meet?
Shilpa: Growing up in Silicon Valley I’ve been surrounded by entrepreneurial people and startups for what seems to be my whole life. It’s always been a dream of mine to have a startup of my own that combines so many of my life passions. A few of my interests are sustainable nonprofits, social entrepreneurship, jewelry and fashion design, computer science, and global giving. This is why working on Shiffon is a dream come true! In many ways Shiffon has combined many of my interests into a single project/startup that I can see myself working on forever. I met Jennifer freshman year of college through a mutual friend who knew her from ballet. Little did we know that soon we’d be borrowing each other’s jewelry for formal season and that this would eventually lead to the founding of Shiffon.
Jenn: I grew up in Palo Alto, California. I spent most of my life doing ballet seriously, and once high school ended, faced the dilemma of going to college or taking time off to dance professionally. I went to Harvard studying economics for a semester, and then spent the rest of the year dancing with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. I learned so much and really grew as a person while dancing professionally. While I loved it, I also wanted to explore what else was out there, and so I decided to go back to school. I met Shilpa when I returned to school over Thanksgiving break. We had gone to rival high schools and had a mutual good friend, but for some reason had never crossed paths until then. That summer we met up for coffee and unintentionally started to talk about jewelry and tech. Before I knew it, we were working on a social enterprise idea full time, bringing us to where we are now!
When did you come up with the idea for Shiffon and why did you decide to start the brand?
Shilpa was working in venture capital last summer, during which she began creating a startup venture fund. She came up with a few startup ideas she was passionate about that were in industries that lacked top notch innovation. Out of all the ideas she thought of, there was one for a socially conscious and charitable e-commerce jewelry brand. After reconnecting with Jennifer later that summer to exchange jewelry they borrowed from each other for formal, the idea for Shiffon further developed. Soon Jenn and Shilpa would spend pretty much every day with each other so they could refine their startup idea. Their goal with Shiffon was to make “giving back the new luxury.”
We set out to create a modern luxury jewelry brand that prioritized giving back to support the entrepreneurial dreams and ambitions of others. Creating a startup is so tough and it’s really important to get as much support as you can. That’s why Jenn and I created the Startup Girl Foundation, Shiffon’s nonprofit arm, that provides mentorship and funding for young female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs with startups that support women. The mentorship aspect in particular is really important for us since it’s hard to imagine how we got to where we are right now without the support of al the other women who mentored and taught us the ins and outs of this industry we’re in.
What were the steps you took to bring the brand from an idea to a reality?
The main thing was we made Shiffon our number one priority and to not give up because we didn’t have experience in the industry we wanted to be in. Regardless of everything happening in our lives, Jenn and I would always spend most of the day thinking about Shiffon and then doing things for Shiffon.
At the beginning, we didn’t know anything about jewelry design or about making jewelry. It was a life long passion and ambition that we didn’t envision ourselves executing because we felt we lacked the experience. We started by creating Pinterest boards of everything we loved and digging through our mother’s jewelry boxes as well as our owns and taking photos of all the pieces that spoke the most to us. This is how we found our aesthetic. From this, we started drawing up designs and would show them to professors and people we knew who might know of someone who could advise us. We even signed up for jewelry making classes to learn about the process behind how jewelry is created. Jennifer would take the bus up to New York at the end of the week to talk to manufacturers and learn about their process and see if they were a good fit to work with. We also turned to LinkedIn as a network and a way of meeting inspiring women who were kind enough to believe in us and guide us in the right direction. Some of our biggest supporters and role models are people we met through online networking.
Why did you feel it was important to include women’s empowerment as a cornerstone of your company?
As two women with a startup, we’ve always been looking for inspiration and role models who have done it before. For startups in particular, it seemed that there were far less female founders. This is why we wanted to create a strong community of support for young women who have ambitions they’d like to follow. Usually the two things that stop women from starting their companies are access to capital and a strong support system of people with experience in their field. Through the Startup Girl Foundation, we area able to provide both mentorship and capital as forms of support for entrepreneurs. We also want entrepreneurs to think about how they can make their businesses socially conscious and empowering for women from the very beginning. The founders we support aren’t necessarily always female as long as they can explain how their company supports, empowers, and positively impacts women.
What is the future of Shiffon? What are your goals for the company?
Society doesn’t fully recognize the role women can play in business. We not only want to prove women are a powerful force ourselves, but want to provide other women opportunities to reach their own potential. The way we support the passions of others is through our seed grants from a portion of profits through our jewelry line. Jenn and I followed our passion of designing fine jewelry and we feel it’s important to support the dreams others have too. Our goal with Shiffon is to make woman empowerment as timeless as our jewelry.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently since starting? What things have you learned from the experience of launching the brand?
We’ve messed up plenty of times but I think it’s important to fail and to fail fast and learn from it. I think one of the biggest hindrances to any startup is fear of failure. People are so afraid of not knowing or messing up that they are afraid to try. This is why we feel it’s important to embrace failure in order to move forward in a startup. One example of something we are glad we didn’t go through with was doing complete looks and dresses along with the jewelry for our NYFW launch event. Through that experience, we found out our truest passion and strength is jewelry. Ever since, we’ve been able to focus and cultivate our skills to create products we’re truly proud of rather than diversifying before the time was right.
Who are your role models and why?
Jenn: My first role model was my ballet teacher throughout high school, Galina Alexandrova. She really helped me realize my love for ballet and always pushed me to go for what I wanted. Having her believe in me, and having her encouragement to always follow my passions plays a huge role in why I started working on Shiffon. I also view Emma Watson as a role model. I love everything that she stands for, and really admire that she always finds time to devote to the causes and people that she is passionate about. I also love that she is not afraid to speak out for what she believes in. She is the ultimate embodiment of Shiffon values.
Shilpa: I’ve never met anyone as genuine as my father. He’s driven, innovative and incredibly humble. He always told me “don’t do what everyone else is doing, do what they’re not doing.” It gave me the freedom to reflect and work on the things I’m passionate about, just like he does. I’m so grateful to have such a supportive, empowering father.
How would you describe each other?
Jenn: I would describe Shilpa as the dreamer who makes the impossible possible. She’s has so much creative energy and enthusiasm, and you can really tell how much she cares about other people and Shiffon.
Shilpa: Jennifer has the kindest heart. She always has your back and can bring dreams to reality. She’s a fast learner and there’s nothing she can’t do when she sets her mind to it! She’s very stylish, has great taste in jewelry and is also one of the best food sharers (meaning she always me eat her food).
Do you see Shiffon being your final career move? If not, what would you like to do in the long run once you graduate?
Jenn: I have always loved jewelry, but never considered it as a potential career option until Shilpa and I started working on Shiffon. I absolutely want for Shiffon to grow to the next level, and definitely see Shiffon as a final career move. One the side, I would love to pursue my other hobbies and ideas once Shiffon is brought to a more sustainable level.
Shilpa: Yes, I love working on Shiffon. Every day feels like a new day and the learning curve is incredible. It perfectly combines my long run dream of running a fashion/accessories brand in addition to a startup fund to support other companies in the process. I don’t think I ever saw myself doing this exactly until it happened but now that it has there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
So there you have it–you can look forward to seeing a lot more from Shiffon Co. as they make the world a better place one ring at a time!