How We Launched Yes She May in the Middle of a Global Pandemic
Despite 2020 being nothing but tragedy and chaos to many, this year we launched Yes She May, our e-commerce platform promoting women-owned businesses from around the world amidst a global pandemic. As I joined the rest of the world anxiously waiting for a vaccine and the improvement of conditions, I look back at this year with mixed feelings: shock, anxiety, helplessness and the will to find a solution!
It all started when I was helping women-owned businesses to succeed in the cut-throat consumer industry. The statistics are jarring – while US women make more than 80% of household purchase decisions including fashion, food, healthcare and vacations, less than 10% of the products available for consumers to purchase are produced by women-owned businesses. These already existing women-owned businesses are also often so small that they lack the access, finance and logistical ability to supply large national retailers. Despite all this, women-owned businesses often have superior designs as they better understand consumer pain points and have more unique solutions than already established brands. And it is my belief that growing their business will also benefit consumers.
Mei and Girls Who Start
As I consulted many of these women-businesses from around the world, in late February and March, Covid-19 took over, shutting down international flights, closing malls and retail stores, and restraining people to their homes. In fact, most in-person activities came to a halt globally. The lockdown left many women businesses scrambling as they delt with canceled orders, laying off staff due to lack of business, and huge piles of unsold inventory.
Amidst long conversation and deep discussion of the future of their business, as well as the brick-and-mortar stores they rely on, my small team in Washington DC realized that we have to do more than just consult with them. So we put together a platform that is so robust and dynamic that it allows us to remotely work with them and introduce them to American consumers shopping from the convenience of their homes.
The idea of Yes She May was born in April out of pandemic turmoil, fear, desperation and an incredible resolution: let’s put our action where our mouth is! It took us two months, and a few more additions to my original team. We have the luxury of working with a fashion expert in Merchandising Director, Allyson Burkhardt, who previously was in charge of buying designer fashion for the prestigious Saks Jandel in Washington DC. Corina Heymann, our Creative Director who worked with me at Chesapeake Bay Candle for more than a decade has a design aesthetic synergistic with mine. Courtney Hartford, our young and ambitious Marketing Specialist is thoughtful and talented with all that she does. My long-time associate Maria Mesina, who has worked with me for more than 6 years helped the organization of the business and our initial outreach. We then invited Wesley Wang, a UC Berkley trained Computer Science Engineer who has been Chief Technology Officer for a number of successful tech start-ups. We were then pleased to welcome three energetic new hires over the summer. Elizabeth Pamboukian who is also pursuing a Masters at FIT in New York has brought us so much social media savviness and a genuine passion for women-owned businesses. Roland Tillery, our hardworking and well-liked web service intern is always ready to solve problems for vendors, help ship products, and set up logistics. Finally, Aria Cao, a Johns Hopkins MBA graduate brought to us her advanced training in accounting and financial analysis to help build out our business muscle.
Mei and Allyson at Seoul Fashion Week November 2019
I would have never imagined being able to gather a dream team during the Pandemic but here we are, each bringing a specific talent, passion and a relentless drive to succeed! Two months later on June 8th, we were able to launch our website with 12 international brands, all with a nod to our principle of engagement: we want to showcase great products designed by women, for women!
When we need photographs for the website, we turned each other into photographers and models, opening the door to our vendors who may not always understand American consumers and their aesthetics. We also provide these assets to our vendors who may sometimes lack the resources to have photoshoots during the pandemic.
But the hardest part of our job, as you can imagine, is to win the hearts and minds of the consumers. As people began buying food and cleaning items online during lockdown, not many were interested in fashion and farfetched items that we showcase. There are days when we have visitors to our site but no orders. And each time when those days hit us, there is a collective pain in our eyes as we search for answers and look for solutions!
After six months of daily struggle, sometimes shooting photos of so many products in just two days that even the professional models we hired get tired, we finally gained some traction and rhythm. Most of all, we started to have women designers who like what they see knocking on our doors.
One thing however is clear, while people genuinely like the idea of helping more women-owned businesses, they have not yet found us and the women we work with. Compared to the machines behind Amazon, Wal-Mart and other consumer giants, we have little resources to bring online traffic to our site or to make the kind of investment to open a retail store anywhere soon.
Our hopes and dreams are no different than those start-ups that come before us, or after us: we want a fair shot in the idea that if we search the world and find well-designed products designed by women, that we can give consumers a meaningful purchase. The question is how can we make this a reality? We would love to hear your thoughts. Please share with us any comments you may have!
Thank you for your trust and support! Together, we welcome 2021 together, a new beginning and a symbol of hope for the future.