#35 Shilpa Shah, Founder of Cuyana
On her fewer, better philosophy in fashion and in life
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Hot off the Pod🎙️ Founder and Chief Experience Officer at Cuyana, Shilpa Shah
In this episode, I catch up with Shilpa Shah, Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Cuyana.
Founded in 2011, Cuyana is a direct-to-consumer luxury fashion brand founded on the philosophy of “fewer, better” to encourage customers to invest in fewer, but higher-quality essentials. Over the past decade, the brand has become a favorite among celebrities like Jessica Alba, Ayesha Curry, and Poorna Jagannathan. In addition, the company has grown to encompass 7 brick-and-mortar locations and over 150 employees. During their latest funding round in 2019, they raised $30 million from H.I.G. Capital.
Before co-founding Cuyana, Shilpa began her career in information architecture and built web and mobile interfaces for multiple Fortune 500 companies like Disney, AT&T, and Sun Microsystems, a part of the early class of UI/UX designers. She received her MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where she also completed her bachelor’s degree in Human Computer Interaction and Computer Science. Shilpa is a mover and shaker in the new cohort of conscious and compassionate executives stewarding the future of fashion.
Excerpts from the episode below:
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Can you talk about the genesis of Cuyana?
My co-founder Karla and I met when she was in business school. We forged a really great bond on a project we did together. On the Cuyana front, when we started talking about making a fashion brand, we really started at the meaning and what was missing for us in the world. For her, coming over from Ecuador for college, she was shocked by American consumerism. She was in shock about how we shopped in a disposable way. As she started to point out this out to me, it brought me back the stories of how my mom or grandmother shopped in India. It was different. We look at the silk, we look at seam, and we go look at the quality. But in American clothes, we're like, ‘Oh, that's cute.’ And we just buy it. We have no intention on how we're gonna wear it — you're wearing it Friday night, but who knows if you're going to wear it again. So this was really interesting to me.
And so at the heart of our ‘fewer, better’ philosophy is buying things you use, if we can do that, we can make such a big impact. So every step of the way I mean, and it’s still true today — the way we make and produce products is different. Because otherwise why would we build this business? Karla was a banker at Goldman Sachs, worked at Apple, and went to Stanford. I was coming from computer science and had a burgeoning career. Why would we spend all of our energy making something that already existed? So to us, it was always about making products that mean something, making those products that always made a woman feel beautiful. We were trying to make a different economic proposition.
After you started visiting business schools, your mom said, ‘I pray that you don't get in because she wanted you to focus on your family.’ You went anyway, and once you became a founder, there were points in your life where you were barely sleeping 3 to 4 hours a night. As someone who's now actively building a business, how have you strived to structure your life to manage the competing demands on your time, especially as a female founder?
It's been hard. Look — Karla basically approached me with ‘Hey, be an entrepreneur with me,’ on a platter. She said, ‘I don't care that you have a semester of school left. I don't mind that you have two children, one of them being a newborn. I want you to join me in this because we had such a good relationship when we worked together in the past.’ How could I not take this opportunity? I was completely intrigued by it.
And so I jumped in, headfirst. And then I wasn't going to renege on my commitment. I was going to go all in.
There were days where I was barely keeping it together. And similar to what I shared about my experience in information architecture, it's not the environment that it is now. Nobody was celebrating female founders then. It wasn't part of the dialogue or zeitgeist. We were very much alone trying to figure all these things out. We were always one step ahead of the trend, which was hard.
We were trying to launch a D2C business and develop our own brand with inventory when investors weren't excited about that. We were female founders — a minute before female founders were celebrated, right? It was always a little bit earlier. And it was really hard because my parents didn't understand, my in-laws didn’t understand, and my husband barely understood. It was like, ‘What are you doing?’ From their perspective, you're selling hats and bags. It was really hard, especially not having family support at the time.
It’s no secret that only 2% of venture dollars go to women today. What has your fundraising experience been like?
Fundraising is hard no matter who you are when you do it. I don't want to diminish all the men out there and the rounds that they've raised. It's a really hard to convince investors of anything. They're trained to say no, so they're out there looking to say no. Overcoming that obstacle is really hard.
The hardest part for us was they didn't understand what we were trying to do. They just weren't our consumer. The hardest part is that there aren't enough venture capital partners who are women, who identify with the stories and problems that women are facing. And so you spend so much time trying to convince them there's an issue, that you can't even get to the intelligent part of your presentation. We spent half an hour of the Cuyana pitch telling you ‘No, no, no, the quality out there is really bad.’ And all they say is, ‘But there's a plethora of handbags. Like I don't get it — women do not have a shortage of consumer product options.’ And they're right, but not all of those brands are delivering value. And when they don't understand that, you're never going to get to the intelligent part of the supply chain, of how we're going to do inventory demand and forecasting. And so I think that's where a lot of the real challenge was. I don't believe the venture community is trying to be anti-women or not give women money. I just think it's hard — they have a huge fiduciary responsibility to deliver returns. And if they're not convinced by the problem, they're not going to put their money there. They need more representation and more voices to understand a greater diversity of problems.