Getting Candid About Starting a Successful Company with Shilpa Shah, Co-Founder of Cuyana

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Throughout the month of March in honor of Women's History month, we will be highlighting trailblazers within the media landscape as well as uncovering how access to technology has allowed the industry to become more equitable for women. 

Shilpa Shah is one of the co-founders of Cuyana, a premium women's essentials brand that was inspired by athe philosophy of fewer, better things. 

Symbonic: Tell us about your background! You are a female business owner, but if I recall, you started out in design and then transitioned into business with the birth of Cuyana...

Shilpa Shah: I have a ten year career in human computer interaction, specifically User Interface (UI) design. At the University of California, Berkeley, I did a cognitive science major with a CS minor for undergrad. Design with intention and purpose is what resonated with me. UI design was a burgeoning new field. 

I thought I would do advertising and marketing - that's what I was really passionate about in high school. I did an internship at an advertising company in college and hated it. I didn't like it because it was based on the idea of manipulating an audience to buy something. I went back to school and took a UI class where you are designing to actually make something easier to use aka what works for the customer. I fell in love with it. I had to ride the wave because I graduated in 2000 and the internet bubble was at its height. 

By the end of the year, most of my college class was laid off and I was let go the following April. I bounced around and ended up Disney in their parks and resorts division. I worked on every single major website for Disney: Disney Land, Disney World, Disney Cruise Disney - all of them. I wanted to try my hand at different usage scenarios so I went to a nonprofit. Also hated that. I ended up at a design agency where I kind of became the consultant. I was working on digital ecosystems, phone interfaces, the phone that was supposed to be the iPhone killer - super interesting products. 

As a designer and technologist, I realized out of all of these projects I had worked on, only two things ever made it to market. I looked back at my five year tenure, and questioned "What was all that for?" That inspired me to go to business school to understand what happens in the board room where "good ideas go to die." I had no idea what the answer was and knew business school would help illuminate that whole aspect. So then I went back to business school to complete the trifecta of design, technology with business.

What was the process for building a brand like Cuyana? Did you envision yourself going into fashion or did that just kind of happen?

SS: I didn't ever envision myself in fashion. I never even envisioned myself as an entrepreneur. I could have pinpointed three of my friends who would be better for it passion wise.

Serendipitously, I met Karla Gallardo, my future co-founder, and collaborated with her. We weren't even at the same business school funny enough. I was actually five years older than most of my class and I had a Emani, my son, already. I actually started business school as a mom, then had Alec, my second, right at the beginning of my second year. The reason I went back to school, so late was to get my husband through residency and fellowship. I had a lot going on.

I was kind of sitting in this position where I wanted to go to school for my own reasons. As an immigrant, I was thought, "this is the moment where so many generations of women before me never had this opportunity." My husband and  family were supportive of that. If I don't take a risk now, what's the point of all this? I also went back because I wanted to do physical things, other kinds of user experiences. So much of my work for ten years was on a screen, and I just felt a user experience could be more than that. I thought, if I had my own company, I could control that.

In walks Karla who says "be an entrepreneur". I told her "I'm not going to do it unless I'm co founder" And she said that she was actually looking for a co-founder and well, there goes my first out. Then I told her I know nothing about fashion and she didn't care. She said I'm learning it as I go.

I kept pushing back and told her I have a semester of school, a four month old, and a three and a half year old and she wasn't fazed by it. She said "from our collaboration, I think we have the same values." I couldn't get the idea out of my mind, because it was, it was what I was looking for. It had physical product, it had a user journey, right, where we control the entire thing and I got really excited about the idea.

She was very patient with me for the first six months because I honestly had no idea about things like how to go raise money. I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn't realize how much all in I was committing to, and from my experience, I don't think that every woman should be a founder. There's tremendous amount of sacrifice and risk you take. I think by over glamorizing it, were kinda sending the wrong message, like you could be entrepreneurial from within a company, you could make your mark in other ways. I dropped every ball, like I barely saw my children at times. I didn't know, that's what I was signing up for. And we need to talk about all of those things. 

The story of sacrificing different elements of your life...

SS: Vacations, everything! And we're the exception! Most people are not successful. So you're doing all that sacrifice for no notoriety. It has to be thought through. It has to be something that is driving you from within even if no one talks about it. You really have this feeling of "I'm going to regret it if I don't do this." It's only yourself that you're doing it for. It has to be. 

That's a very good point, too. How have you managed to balance a company and being a mom?

SS: I actually was on a panel at a retail conference four or five years ago and they asked me that question. I don't know what came over me, but I said that I think balance is bullshit. I don't think it's something new. There's no timescale that acts as an aggregate as we look back on our lives that you can say "I paid attention to every aspect of my life." I think it actually is a detriment to women, because it's just yet another thing we make women do.

Another societal expectation. 

SS: I think it limits our potential. If we're always chasing balance, you're never going to actually accomplish anything. I really feel strongly that we need to change it from balance to fulfillment, maximizing your potential, and living without regret.

When you were starting this company, what was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to get to where you are now?

SS: So many! One of the hardest things about a startup is that you you don't know the difference between what's working and what's something you can rely on. Everything can be in flux. It could be market conditions, it could be your product market fit, it could be your consumer, it could be your marketing, you just don't know. You're throwing a lot of stuff at the wall testing stuff all the time.

The other hard part as a co-founder was balancing Karla's perspective versus mine, when you don't know what's working. You can quickly become unaligned. It's one person's subjective opinion versus another person's subjective opinion. She was the CEO. I had to learn you can disagree with the CEO and represent your opinion, but when the they make a decision, you not only have to get on board, but you never point a finger to say was the wrong decision because that only makes her job harder. You begin to realize that as a co-founder, you're the only ally that that person has.

Also, raising money as a woman of color...challenging, right!? Entering a space like fashion which is a very exclusive connection, money based industry. On top of that, taking care of a family. 

That's a lot of pressure.

SS: Yeah, it is. Then you just have to have tough skin. I always told myself, I'm going to risk what would I want? What example do I want for my kids? That always gave me solace. I wanted to model a strong woman not compromising for my boys. Hopefully, I'm at a place in my life where I can help them find their fulfillment or their passion.

Drawing on from all the experiences you've had - especially as a woman of color and breaking into parts where "you're not supposed to be" - what advice do you have for other aspiring female leaders, executives, or entrepreneurs trying to get into this space?

I think it always comes back to really understanding your "why." Your why can't be a financial number, notoriety, or ego. It really has to be "what mark do I want to make on the world" even if nobody took notice that I would still feel fulfilled?

That's always been something I've thought about. I think our biggest why has always been to build a legacy the next generation of my family.

SS: Totally, I love that and it's amazing because you and I didn't come from any generational wealth. It's such a privilege to be able to do that. I mean we're standing on the shoulders on the women before us. That's never been lost on me. I get so many south Asian women who reach out to and tell me that she feels like she's here to do more on this earth than have a mediocre career and children which is what she's always been taught. Representing the idea that you can do more than be a mom has become part of my why. I can make more of an impact as an example with Cuyana to model that for other young women than I can do anything else. 

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