These women leaned on their unique points of view to launch companies aimed at empowering others. Here's what they've learned.
In 2020, Digital Commerce 360 found that just 13% of women held CEO, president, or founder roles for the Top 100 retailers. In honor of Women's History Month, we wanted to take a moment to highlight three founders who’ve made an impact on the world around them.
We caught up with Amy Chiu of Dear Brightly, Evelyn Rusli of Yumi, and Denise Lee of Alala to hear about what led them to start their companies, roadblocks they encountered (and how they dealt with them), and their advice for other women looking to start a company.
Amy Chiu, Co-Founder and CEO of Dear Brightly
What inspired you to start Dear Brightly?
I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to start my own company, but I knew I had a natural affinity for thinking of ideas and seeing something that could be improved by technology in my daily life. As an engineer and retinoid user myself, I saw a technical solution with Dear Brightly to make prescription-grade retinoids more accessible through an online dermatologist consultation.
Branding is everything these days. How did you decide to brand your product, and how did you come to your brand messaging?
I went through a year when my skin had sudden bouts of acne and pigmentation. I didn’t feel like myself or comfortable in my own skin, as cliche as that sounds. But when I started using a retinoid that my dermatologist prescribed, my skin was not only brighter and clearer than before these skin changes, but I noticed I felt more confident, less closed off. So in terms of the name, given what retinoids do, I was thinking “brightness” or “brightly.” My husband suggested adding “dear,” which was the perfect addition given that I also became more open again. It was like writing to and calling my “inner brightness” too.
Additionally, our branding decisions really came from our core beliefs and how we saw the world. We talk about how aging is living all the time. A lot of skincare brands promote words like “youthful” and “anti-aging,” and that truly hurt me at the core. I wanted to change the conversation around skincare. It’s about feeling comfortable in your skin, at any age. Just like eating healthy can make us feel healthy, or exercising can make us feel strong, taking care of our largest organ—our skin—can make us feel more confident and open. From my own experience, there’s power in that.
What roadblocks or challenges did you face that were specific to being a woman founding a company?
Whether you want to believe it or not, women get treated differently than men. Being an Asian woman, I hit even more roadblocks. About 90% of the people I pitched to were men. When I came to them with a dermatology and skincare company, many of them didn’t quite understand the problem. They had to ask their wife, sister, or a woman in their life if they knew what retinoids were. So I had to be more prepared to explain these things.
I also think that people expect a woman of my stature to be more timid. I’m 5’3’’, but I have a lot of opinions, beliefs, and convictions. Once I opened my mouth, I think I surprised a lot of people, and they were able to hear where I was coming from.
What’s a piece of advice you’ve gotten that’s really resonated?
To listen to the “no” instead of the “why.” When pitching, you get a lot of no’s. For me, for a split second I’d start thinking, this is what they’re telling me, maybe we should change something in our business. But it’s so dangerous to think that way and focus on the “why” because you start to lose sight and forget the core beliefs you had about your company and why you built it in the first place. You’re not building your company for investors; you’re building it for you and your customers. You have to listen to the no and move on. Otherwise, you’re going to lose a lot of time going down these paths that don’t align with your company or your vision.
What would you tell women looking to start their own company?
Surround yourself with people who raise you up—coaches, friends, and family. Have people you trust around you because on this ride, one thing is for sure, things will get hard.
The second piece is to take up space. I’ve been in many rooms where I’m the only woman, and it can be difficult to have a voice in those kinds of environments—but take up space and take up as much as you need.
Evelyn Rusli, Co-Founder and President of Yumi
What previous work experience or personal journey led you to start Yumi?
Previously, I was a tech and innovation journalist for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, so I am naturally drawn to telling stories and have always loved shedding light on important issues. As a journalist, I also had a front seat in covering startups, and I came to deeply appreciate that startups can be immensely powerful vehicles for change.
Given that context, it’s not that surprising that my path eventually led me to Yumi. I co-founded Yumi with my friend (and CEO, Angela Sutherland) who was going through motherhood for the first time. She was down the Google rabbit hole, and we, as nerdy friends, were geeking out on all the research together. She pulled virtually every clinical study she could find on child development and it was astounding how much pointed back to nutrition—the importance of specific nutrients, variety to impact taste preferences, and limiting sugar intake. We felt there was an opportunity to build a modern food brand that was science-first and based on the idea that food at its core should be functional.
How did you find space for your brand and product? Was there a gap?
When you go to the grocery store, you realize that so much food is processed, high in sugar, and not really optimized for nutrient density or health. That’s especially true in the baby food and early child nutrition category.
But beyond the lack of product options, we recognized there was also an information gap—a need to connect the dots between what parents are feeding their children and future health outcomes. We have invested almost as much in content and being able to deliver personalized insights, as we have in the food product. We are in a unique position to have a deep, engaged relationship with our families, redefining the relationship between brand and consumer, and being a more holistic support service.
How did you come up with the product and brand messaging for Yumi?
We started with the problem and worked backwards. From day one, we knew that we were not just trying to replace a product on a shelf. We were here to support families by empowering them with information, personalized insights, and more nutritious products. I believe this approach allowed us to see the potential of the service and show up in a meaningful way for our parents.
What roadblocks or challenges did you face that were specific to being a woman founding a company?
In typically male-dominated industries, like technology or venture capital, there’s often less of a support system for women. So you have to be all the more aggressive when building out your network and asking for help. Oftentimes, as a woman or person of color, you don’t know what variables influenced a rejection. Every time we got a rejection or a “no,” it pushed us to find five more “yeses”—leaning on our network, and cultivating the right allies and mentors.
What would you tell other women looking to start a company?
Invest in community. Leverage your network to help accelerate your startup and also invest in helping others in the community. As massive as the modern startup community is, it is also small and life is long. If you take time to help and invest in great humans, you’ll see unexpected dividends in the future. Ultimately, every business is powered by people, and it’s really hard to predict what connection or node will yield a step-change outcome. It’s pretty simple. Be a positive contributor, appreciate the value of your community, and try to give more than you take. If you do those things, you’ll be on a great path.
Denise Lee, Founder and CEO of Alala
What inspired you to start your own company?
Both of my parents were entrepreneurs. My grandfather and dad owned factories that used to make clothes for brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic. I always knew I wanted to start my own company, and was encouraged to pursue my passion.
After business school, I was training for a couple of triathlons with my friends, and I wanted to buy some new workout clothes to get myself motivated. This was about 10 years ago, when the only options were Lululemon and Nike. That’s when I had this lightbulb moment, like what if there was an activewear brand with more of a New York City style, something women could wear all through their day? I launched Alala in the spring of 2014, when “athleisure” became a word. And we’ve been growing organically ever since.
Alala is the name of a Greek Goddess and signifies a battle cry. How did you come to this brand name?
We have so much strength and power as women. We’re going into some sort of battle every day—wanting to achieve all the things we dream of, the good we want to do in the world. Alala signified that desire and journey to be the best version of yourself.
I’m a woman of color—I grew up in Singapore. So the inclusivity and diversity message we have within Alala—and the acceptance of yourself as a flawed human being with all sorts of feelings and emotions—is really important. Seeing people who are diverse in all different ways, and are achieving what they set out to do, ties back into who Alala is as a brand.
What’s a piece of advice you’ve been given that really resonated with you?
Co-Founder of Tory Burch (and my previous boss), Chris Burch told me it’s better to make a bad, fast decision than a good, slow one. He emphasized the importance of always moving forward and never giving up on what you’re doing.
That’s an important message for other entrepreneurs who’re just starting out. You feel really overwhelmed and have a lot of decisions to make—and you don’t have all the answers. But you have to make decisions to keep moving forward. It’s so important to exercise that muscle and to be able to make a decision. It’s okay if it’s the wrong decision, because you’ll learn from that and make better decisions next time.
What would you tell other women who are looking to start their own company?
If you’re thinking about starting a company, take the leap. But do it within reason. Don't just throw everything away and jump into it. A lot of people can start a company without having to quit their day job. I worked for my employer for almost a year while I was developing my idea and reaching out to people. Having that initial safety net of a steady income while working toward your company on nights and weekends is a great way to do it.
Lastly, remember to let your personality shine through in your brand. You'll find your people. Letting whatever is special about you really come through in your brand is really important, but also I think it’s a great way to do business.
Find more inspiring stories from founders in 3 Women Founders on Building, Leading, and Supporting Black-Owned Businesses.