Names: Ashleigh Miller and Sandra Zhao Business: ZURI Location: Online, New York City and San Francisco Launched: December 2017
Sandra Zhao was running a bakery in Kenya when she met her future business partner Ashleigh Miller, a Persian rug dealer in New York City, at a wedding in Nairobi. Sandra was wearing a stunning dress she’d made from colorful handmade fabric. Her sartorial decision was fortuitous, to say the least: The dress became the inspiration behind Sandra and Ashleigh’s joint business venture, Zuri. Inspired by the bold and beautiful textile prints in eastern Africa, they set out to sell a single style of dress in an array of ever-changing patterns. The dresses are made at a sustainable, carbon-neutral factory in Kenya that supports wildlife conservation and provides jobs to the community. The dresses are exported to and sold in the U.S.
Ashleigh and Sandra are part of a growing group of apparel entrepreneurs who aim to balance profit with ethical and sustainable production. Their business name, Zuri, reflects this ideal: It’s derived from a Swahili word “mzuri” meaning “good.”
Since launching last year in New York City, the co-founders have introduced new items to their line -- shirts and baskets -- and they’ve also launched their second shop in San Francisco. To gain exposure, they’ve traveled the country hosting pop-up stores in major U.S. cities and have secured a loyal “sisterhood” of fans. (Disclaimer: This writer owns one of their dresses and is one of those fans.) Here, Ashleigh and Sandra talk about how they got started in business with no budget, how they adjust their mindset when things get tough and what it takes to partner across two continents.
Hi Ashleigh and Sandra! Tell us about your business.
Zuri is an ethical clothing business run by women and specializing in women's dresses. We manufacture our clothing in Kenya and import our dresses to the U.S. where we are the main retailer at our stores in New York and San Francisco. We do some wholesale with small boutiques, as well.
How did you come up with the idea for Zuri?
When we met at a wedding in Nairobi, Sandra was wearing the first version of our dress which she had made herself for a trip to South Sudan. Ashleigh immediately loved it, and together we decided that it was all we ever wanted to wear. We assumed others might feel the same way. It turns out they do!
Ashleigh & Sandra in their Bleecker Street store in Manhattan
You loved a dress and that sparked a business idea! How did you go from pretty dress to real business?
We were both living in Kenya when we started our business. Ashleigh still lives in Kenya. Much to the dismay of any traditional business person, we did not write a business plan, and we did zero market research. We bootstrapped our business from the get-go by selling through Instagram and pushing hard for as much PR as we could get. We've never taken any outside funding, and we've never put any personal money into the business. We did, however, pay for our first fabric run. We sold those dresses and put the money into the next fabric purchase and so on. We did call as many people as we knew in any area of the industry just to learn about how it all works and to discover if wholesale would be a viable option.
We made a website pretty soon after getting started with the hopes of selling in the United States. We exported our first shipment to the U.S. in February of 2017. Our plan was to do pop-ups around the country for exposure. The New York Times ran an article about us that April, and we were very fortunate to have opened our first NYC store in August of 2017. We just opened another short-term shop in San Francisco, and we'll see how it goes!
Zuri dresses being made in Kenya
Where are your products manufactured? How did you connect with your suppliers?
We make our dresses in Kenya with an ethical manufacturer we love; they do a great job and are lovely to work with. We source the fabric ourselves in Tanzania -- Ashleigh makes a trip every month to select new textiles. Other than the stitching, we supply all the materials ourselves.
What made you decide to adopt a business model where you work closely with your overseas manufacturers?
Because we live in Kenya, it was very important to us to support manufacturing here. We believe that sustainable economies develop from businesses that operate fairly and ethically and create products people want. We’ve spent a combined eight years in Nairobi where we've seen how much both corruption and aid can distort markets, resulting in wasted resources and unsustainable livelihoods. We hope that by paying fair wages, sourcing locally and making a product our customers truly love, we will help support a long-term, sustainable economy in Kenya.
As entrepreneurs, what mindset drives you to keep going even when things get rough?
Our friendship has been a real driving force for both of us. When we have a tough day, we can always count on the other for a good laugh, and that makes everything seem a bit easier. We're also very direct, practical people, so we tend to view the big picture as distinct from the small, day-to-day stresses, which helps a lot.
How do you deal with the inevitable stress of owning your own business?
Sandra tends to go for chocolate cake -- followed by nature walks, for good measure! Ashleigh spends a lot of time with her family on the Kenyan coast to decompress.
What is your favorite thing about working for yourself?
Our favorite thing about working for ourselves is that we truly believe all the business decisions we’re making are correct, whether they are or not! When you work for someone else, you may be forced to implement an idea or comply with a process you disagree with, which is frustrating. Also, Ashleigh loves that she can work from the beach -- that’s where she’s answering these questions from right now!
We're really grateful to be able to do this work and, ultimately, it's all because of community. Our customers, our production ecosystem, our friends, our family, everyone!
Nice! Do you have any insights to share with budding entrepreneurs?
Treat your business seriously from the start. If you don't believe it will turn into something, it probably won't. Also, call everyone you know who is connected to your industry or practice, and ask as many questions as you can. Even if it doesn't seem relevant at the time, you can file that information away and paint a bigger picture of how your business fits into the greater field.
QB Community members, were you inspired by something to start your business?
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I've worked in print, broadcast and digital media for 20 years and managed to start a couple small businesses along the way. I love collaborating with and supporting creative folks who have great ideas. As Content Creator for the QB Community team, I’m excited to help other small-business owners be the best they can be!