Don’t be afraid to come in as an outsider — The First Principle.
Reach out and take a leap of faith to network and attempted new things — whether it’s a new person, attending an event, or otherwise — the worst that can happen is nothing, and you’ll be right back to where you are now.
Ask for help — others that want to support you and be a part of it will really take you farther and give you new insights and ideas.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tina Zysk, Founder and Creative Director at Grace + Ivory, a modern, curated direct-to-consumer brand of customizable, made-to-measure wedding dresses.
After seven years working in foreign aid and business development in DC, she took the leap to fulfill her passion for business done better and launched her social enterprise in 2017. She lived in China for four years, which is where she got to develop relationships with the talented women who would become the dressmakers for Grace + Ivory. Tina believes that social enterprise is the future of good business and is the way forward to address global development issues, so a portion of each dress purchased supports women’s programs around the world. Tina is a proud Chicago native (go Cubs!) and Loyola alum who loves travel (she’s been to six continents!), hiking, her adopted pup Griffey, and finding ways to support other ambitious women in the Windy City.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My own experience shopping for a wedding dress is what started me down this road. I love wedding dresses but felt that the wedding dress process and experience was not ideal for the bride — customer service was lacking, it was a stressful experience, few online options, the timeline was long, etc. I didn’t understand how made-to-measure wasn’t an option for such an important purchase (custom men’s suiting is plentiful in options), the prices didn’t add up to me, and I wanted an option to try dresses at home opposed to the store. Timing was serendipitous for me; that same year I moved to Beijing and was able to directly seek out and partner with dressmakers that I trust to make quality wedding gowns.
Launching my own social business was already on my mind, as I think social enterprises, companies that address social problems through a market-driven approach, should be the future of every business. Charities and the private sector shouldn’t be on parallel tracks, social enterprises are where they intersect. I also wanted to tackle an actual pain point, so when I recognized a gap in the bridal industry, I took the two passions and wed them together (pun intended).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most amazing thing about my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve come to find, are all the amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to encounter along the way. Personally, I was worried about my professional development and basic lack of social interactions as I set off on my own. I also simply love meeting new people, exchanging stories, learning from them, giving advice, and getting advice. The support system out there is amazing, if you’re willing to take a leap of faith.
This led me into meeting with Mark Cuban’s China contact right after I launched Grace + Ivory — a friend had his contact, and I reached out, since the worst that could happen would be no response. Well we ended up meeting for coffee, and that meeting really set into motion my whole approach for Grace + Ivory. I decided I would grow slowly and would build the company as I flew it, aka bootstrapping. I feel there are two paths — take your idea and then seek funding from investors, which is a full-time job in itself; or you take the longer, winding road, build it slowly, and adapt. I chose that road, based on the advice from that contact, which was, “Mark usually advises companies to grow slowly, get proof of concept, and adapt…see what works”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh, where to start? There are so many mistakes you make, some which you don’t even see as a mistake until you look back.
I’ve realized one of my biggest mistakes is not asking for help when I should have. This might not sound funny in itself but what’s funny is I look back on various events and pop-ups that I’ve done, with me lugging around dresses by myself. I’m very independent and I have always done so much by myself, but that is not possible when starting a business. I felt bad asking for help, even from friends and family that offered, often citing that I wouldn’t be able to return the favor. A friend had a heart to heart with me and reminded me that it is okay to ask for help. We are social creatures, and we’ve essentially built the world we live in, together.
I still struggle with asking for help; I often have to sit back, take in the bigger picture, and try to move forward with the courage to ask. I have realized that many believe in my vision and want to be a part of it. I’ve tried to let go in some ways, let the waves take over, and let those that offer to help, help. I know I would do the same in return, so one day I hope to get that chance. Lesson learned: it is okay to ask for help.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I think the first big hurdle when you first start your journey is after you built some of the basics and the time comes for more financial investment into the “meat” of the company, or assets in technology, inventory, people, etc. When you have to put more of your own money in and/or get some funding to continue building — this is the hardest because then it becomes much more real. It’s realizing you’re in it for the long run as you’re putting a majority chunk of your savings into your company and others are betting on you to succeed by investing in you.
BUT what’s hard is this is a point before proof of concept — for me, it was the time and investment to build out the try-at-home program with workflows, technology, and dress inventory. This is before knowing, truly knowing, if this concept will work. Of course, you do formal and informal research and you chat with potential brides to get an idea if trying wedding dresses on at home is something the world wants. If you can get the experience right, and the social behavior change to go along with it, then it pointed in a positive direction. The consideration of giving up is always there; it is looking you in the face and it would be dumb to ignore it. I think it is important to weigh your options, assess risk, and possible pivots.
When I was building out the try-at-home program, things were hard at many various points but having a common end goal, to get the program up and running, flowing, and the potential to get to a point where I can essentially see my work in a successful action is a huge driver to continue. Having this big vision and drive to see it in action made all the hard times a little easier. Keeping this big picture goal in mind while breaking down the challenging times into bite-sized pieces is my method to keep going.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My Dad is the #1 person who helped me get where I am today and still helps me everyday today. He is my biggest cheerleader and I am grateful for everything he has done. He’s helped me in so many ways but the biggest would be building my growth mindset in the areas that count. Growing up in an Asian household, people would ask if my parents are “tiger parents” or ”strict”, and at the time I probably would’ve said yes — but they were not strict in the stereotypical Asian households that I know about now.
I was never restricted on dreaming big, and I was never made to conform to gender stereotypes. My dad never said “girls do this, boys do that, and they get married at this age, etc.” — I had none of that and I am forever grateful. I grew up playing with Barbies and Legos; I played street hockey with the neighborhood boys, had bikes races, and loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In support, my parents bought me a hockey stick, a Turtles Halloween Costume, and Lego sets (I wanted to be an architect after all). They were strict with me about getting my homework done, being home for dinner every night, bedtime, but my Dad never told me that I could never do something just because I was a girl. This is the reason why I am where I am now, and why Grace + Ivory is a social enterprise supporting women and girls. I know now that not every girl gets this supportive family life, and boys in the family are often chosen over a girl, so we’re contributing to evening the playing field.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I wish I had something a bit more sophisticated, but my life lesson quote that has stuck with me over the years is the Dr. Seuss quote, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” This quote has a few different reminders for me, because I am a people pleaser. It reminds me that I am never going to make everyone happy, that not everyone will agree with my vision, and to ensure that I communicate my thoughts and feelings with those that do matter to me. This plays out in numerous stories for me — it reminds me to “go for it” and put myself out there, even with the possibility of rejection. Ha, and as an entrepreneur, you will get rejected from time to time.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
The pain point is that consumers are not empowered in the bridal dress industry in terms of pricing transparency and customization. Let’s look at the contrast — Men’s suiting has many options in pricing, affordability, quality, and levels of customization. There’s a menswear brand to fit almost any budget with a mix of custom and made-to-measure options.
So we’re filling a gap — Grace + Ivory is offering affordable, customizable, made-to-measure wedding dresses while being a forward-looking, socially conscious business. As an online e-commerce bridal brand with roots in Washington, DC and Chicago, we’ve partnered directly with our dressmakers, and cut out layers of distributors and retailers to offer gorgeous dresses without the mark-up (all of our designs are under $2,000). We believe in doing bridal differently, which means creating our high-quality dresses in three to four months, made-to-order, focusing on proportions, and saving on alteration costs. As I mentioned, we’re a social enterprise, and as our mission is about women supporting women, a portion of every dress purchase goes to programs helping women and girls in need. We’re currently supporting Plan International’s The WHOLE Girl Fund, which has programs around the world focusing on eliminating child marriage, keeping girls in school, girls’ health, and women’s empowerment.
On top of that, how and where you try a dress is limited. It’s typically difficult to buy a dress online because you want to try it on at first, and it’s expected you need to go into the store for an appointment. We built out a try-at-home program for our brides so they have another option for how they try on wedding dresses. You can order a sample dress to your door, have it for three days, and return through our streamlined process. You can try the dress on as much as you like and don’t need to feel time pressure in a one-hour appointment window.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We want to be approachable. Our social mission and values are driving Grace + Ivory’s revamped business model. Here’s a true story behind it: A bride reaches out via email — we chat with her on the phone — she loves our quick response, friendly approach, and dedication to giving her the best bridal experience. More so, she likes our brand ethos and tells me how she values what we’re offering: customizable, made-to-measure wedding dresses under $2,000, at the same high quality you find elsewhere, with a portion of her purchase benefiting women’s programs, plus the support we give her from start to finish, and made on her timeline. It’s a mouthful, because we’re bringing so many appealing elements together. Perhaps it sounds cliché, but it is what we’ve seen and heard — our brides like our whole package.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are consistently looking at how we can build more technology into our site and brand to enhance our customer experience. We are looking at 2021 to offer veil and bridal accessory options plus a bridal dashboard for our site to further enhance the Grace + Ivory experience. Stay tuned!
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I’m not satisfied with the status quo for women in general, and especially tech. I think more girls should be encouraged to enter STEM careers and be exposed from a young age to see if it is a passion for them. Specifically, there are a few organizations out there now to promote and empower girls to take an interest in STEM. There needs to be more advocacy to raise awareness of these organizations so more can take action. With advocacy and donations to these groups, I think public biases and opinions will change.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think this is prevalent in Tech and across industries — women need to be taken seriously, whether through equal pay and benefits, and for their opportunities in education. How to address it? By talking about it here, raising awareness, and getting people on board for the cause. So I’ll mention it again — women deserve to be taken seriously, equal pay and benefits, and other equal opportunities.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
I think taking the time to reflect, chat with others, do formal audits for marketing, compliance, and other areas of a company are important. You can identify opportunities and bottlenecks that were previously not seen, especially areas to expand, invest more in, or pivot. In today’s world, we’re so focused on moving forward, we forget sometimes to take the time to stop, look at what’s built, and reflect.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Remember that people remember their overall customer experience. As we grow, people initially purchased from us because they liked me. We have to remember that purchases are emotional as much as they are rational. An important aspect of our experience is keeping those personal touches in there as we grow — which includes training a sales team in being able to create a similar experience as if I was doing it myself.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Keywords! Most of our customers find us online so having a great set of updated keywords along with content is important to us. A small story is that once we started focusing on keywords, we saw a jump in our analytics which helped drive traffic to our site. I know this is no secret but it’s a proven method for many for a reason.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Empathy — a reminder to express empathy and understanding for anyone who might be frustrated with part of your product or customer service. A simple “I hear you” can smooth over an experience.
- Access — make your company approachable and accessible. People give up quicker than expected. Have various access channels beyond phone and email.
- Follow-Up — Find your biggest fans and don’t forget to ask for feedback — they’re more than happy to share it.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
We’re a special case as we rarely have repeat customers — so we need to ensure that we have great word of mouth. Social media and staying at the forefront of everyone’s minds is important to us. Constant monitoring of our channels
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Don’t be afraid to come in as an outsider — The First Principle.
- Reach out and take a leap of faith to network and attempted new things — whether it’s a new person, attending an event, or otherwise — the worst that can happen is nothing, and you’ll be right back to where you are now.
- Try to learn best practices — and then question them. Is the “this is how it’s done” still the best way for something to be done? How can you make it better?
- Remember to balance — you might find that your other personal priorities will have a positive effect on your work.
- Ask for help — others that want to support you and be a part of it will really take you farther and give you new insights and ideas.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would choose to start a movement where we can highlight existing efforts and progress, trackable via data and tech, and help companies create actionable plans on moving towards gender equality in their workplaces. There’s a ton of awareness, statistics, and discussions — but we rarely hear about what progress has happened and what is currently happening. The US ranks 51st in the gender equality index, so there is progress to be made.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to meet and lunch with Michelle Obama one day. She has been an inspiration to me and Grace + Ivory as I want to have a company focused on celebrating women and diversity. I admire her character and continued compassion for the world.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!