By Theodora Yu The Sacramento Bee
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Vivian Chan is the co-founder of "East Meets Dress", an e-commerce store that designs and makes modern cheongsams for brides. Cheongsam is an iconic Chinese dress originated nearly a century ago in Shanghai.
A report by the Asian Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship shows AAPI women-owned business grew by between 76 percent to 108 percent in 2017. As of 2016, about one-quarter of women-owned employer firms were minority-owned, and among them, more than half were Asian-owned, according to a 2018 statement published by the Census Bureau.
This week, we spoke with Vivian Chan, a co-founder of East Meets Dress, an e-commerce store that designs and makes modern cheongsams for brides. Cheongsam is an iconic Chinese dress originated nearly a century ago in Shanghai.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background.
A: Entrepreneurship was not in my vocabulary. Growing up in an immigrant family, you are taught to have procedural jobs so you don't worry about steady income. I thought I was going to be a doctor and I majored in biology and pre-med before realizing I did not want to pursue that, as it was not my passion.
I was raised in a single-mom household. My mom worked 16 hours a day wanting a better life for me. She always wanted me to pursue a better job so I don't have to work as hard as her.
Jenn Qiao (East Meets Dress co-founder) and I have known each other for a decade. We were roommates and best friends in Yale. After graduation, we worked in tech startups in the Bay Area. I started in nonprofits such as Teach For America and Girls For Code before joining an early-stage tech startup.
I was her maid of honor at her wedding. We looked for cheongsams for the wedding dress to honor her heritage, but the options online and on Alibaba looked sketchy, or were limited in terms of style at stores in local Chinatowns. If you don't live in big cities, you don't even have access to cheongsams.
Then both of us decided this is our time to build East Meets Dress from scratch. Growing up in Las Vegas, I have always been interested in startups, in companies that would allow me to combine my passion and culture to build something into their business.
With our modern designs and quality craftsmanship for making dresses, we were able to create this new experience and beautiful modern cheongsams for Asian American brides around the world.
Q: What was your mother's reaction when she learned that you were starting a company?
A: First thing my mom said when I told her about running my own company was, "When are you going to get a full-time job? Are you going to be perpetually unemployed?" There were a lot of questions. "You went to Yale to sell qipaos? You live in the most expensive city in the world!"
Q: How did she respond to your business as it is now?
A: She is growing as we grow. There was a lot of skepticism, but now that the business is working, she came around to the idea that this is a viable business and we are making enough money. She is more accepting of the fact and will tell her friends proudly about it. It is the typical Asian parent who in the beginning doesn't want to tell people, then saw the hard work and effort we put into our work that is leading to success, and began to think it is much plausible, that this could be a real job.
Q: How did you launch East Meets Dress? A: I didn't know any mentors or entrepreneurs. We went into the business as first-time entrepreneurs to build things from scratch. We did this with a lot of hustling, and trial and error.
We technically launched East Meets Dress on a weekend with less than $100, starting with a online free-landing page, with a question that read: "Are you struggling with finding modern cheongsams?" and collected 40 email addresses. We then ran a Facebook advertisement.
We are being more risk-averse. This is a risky venture and we were optimistically cautious. We know we have 40 brides so that gave us courage. We took it one step at a time and started small to test it out. We spent that weekend building the website and launched a design. We were the photographer and the model. We reached out to everyone in the email chain to get their feedback and become more confident to continue to build up our company.
There was definitely a lot of Googling on how to start a business. At the beginning, we were scared of spending money on marketing with no return in revenue. We had to unlearn from that behavior: in order to earn, you have to spend money more thoughtfully.
In the beginning, we didn't know what design brides would like. Our initial concept was that everyone will want modern designs just like Jenn did. Her wedding dress was not in the traditional red and gold color, and quickly we got from our customers that many were in fact interested in traditional dresses, but with a modern experience in making purchases on e-commerce sites, with sizing and customer services. From there, we evolved to providing quality design for all our brides.
We design a lot with our inspiration along with our dressmakers. We also do a lot of designing with brides to bring to life their dream dress ideas. They can browse our collection with elements they can customize, such as the back, the color, the length of sleeves or to add a train or make it shorter, to make a dress they can call their own. There are also standardized options for last-minute brides, which is also more budget friendly.
We offer a variety of designs of ties and bow ties as well. We do have a men's collection for the groom, which was inspired from the feedback we got.
We also have something for moms, as we found that moms are looking for cheongsams to wear on their daughters' weddings. A lot of high school students also like to wear cheongsams to celebrate their heritage during prom.
Q: What are the challenges and opportunities you faced as an entrepreneur?
A: There are many challenges in weddings, in the fashion industry and as entrepreneurs.
For example, we do custom sizing for dresses to be made to fit the client. A lot of brides don't fit the traditional sizes. As we are an e-commerce company, we don't have store fronts (to do the measuring), but we provide detailed measurements and we recommend clients visit a local tailor and triple check their measurements.
We have gotten better at providing the process. We will reimburse the local tailor is there is one. In the past we have launched a sample dress kit where clients can touch the fabric, try the dress on and send it back to us. We are in the midst of planning our very pop-up show in San Francisco, where we will be hosting our first show and customers and brides can visit, see the dresses in person, and get measured in person
The larger challenge of being an entrepreneur is like running a marathon. There are days when your sale fluctuates. We learned over time that it is less about the external metrics that we can drive motivation from, but the daily input we put in to make that 1 percent improvement. So if we continue to do that every day, even if results don't show immediately, it will show in years of efforts and work for hard work to gain success.