Denise Lee's AHA moment came in early 2012 when she was training for her first triathlon and, even for the expert shopper that she is, could not find an activewear brand that offered the effortless cool style of the contemporary designers she loved.
In November of that year, she left her job at a retail brand incubator in New York to build Alala into the activewear brand she had been searching for, and hasn't looked back since.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Since I was young, I've always taken opportunities to have leadership positions - it was quite natural for me and my personality. Because of that, I feel that I've come to understand my leadership style, which is more hands off and collaborative, and use it to my best ability.
How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Alala?
So much! I worked for retail visionary, Chris Burch, as the VP of Business Development before I started Alala. We worked closely to build the brands in his portfolio, including C.Wonder and Poppin, and I was able to gain knowledge in all different facets of building a successful retail business, from manufacturing to branding to real estate and logistics. It was truly an amazing experience. Through my work for Chris, I also advised and invested in young entrepreneurs, which gave me great insight into the retail start up world and what it takes to be successful.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Alala?
Every day feels like you're on a rollercoaster when you have your own company! There have been so many highlights but I get the most joy when I know our customer is loving our product and connecting meaningfully with our brand. It's what I set out to do with Alala and what we work so hard every day to achieve. There are challenges too that come with being a small company - sometimes you have to make a lot of noise to be heard. But I look at every challenge as a learning opportunity and I tell myself that one day, I will look back on them and laugh!
Why did you want to start your own business?
My parents both work for themselves and I grew up with that same entrepreneurial spirit. I am so lucky to have always had their support and encouragement to go out on my own. After attending business school, I had an amazing experience working for retail visionary, Chris Burch -- helping him build out his portfolio of brands and also investing in young businesses and entrepreneurs. When I had the idea for Alala, I knew that I had the right experience to finally start my own business.
How is the brand shaking up the active wear industry?
We've taken a different approach to our designs and branding, and I believe that our customers are responding to the modernity and sophistication of our products and our brand. Our customers love and appreciate our focus on fashion, without sacrificing function, comfort and performance in our pieces.
What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
Be wise and brave: By being wise I mean, do your research into your idea and make a plan of action for success. Make sure that you understand the risks and prepare for them as much as you can. By being brave I mean, for as much as you plan things out, there will be many times it still feels like you're stepping into something completely unknown. It's scary but you have to take the steps to get to your goal.
Related to this, I would also say -- Know that you're not alone. I have found so much support through my professional and personal networks, many times in unexpected ways. Get over the idea that you can do everything yourself - there are so many people who want to and are able help you, if you only ask them for it.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My work is my life these days so it is difficult to maintain a balance. The biggest thing for me is that I keep my work and home spaces quite separate. I would rather go in early and stay late at the office than bring my work home. It allows my home to be a place where I can relax rather than being reminded about work. Of course, it doesn't always happen this way but I try!
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think women still struggle with wanting and doing it all - family, work, social life etc. I don't have children but I've seen my friends who do and they grapple with how to be a mother, wife, successful professional etc. all at once. I think the social constructs that surround us don't allow women to be successful in all aspects of their life. We need to be able to break the mold
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has had a great impact in my life, especially in my journey of starting Alala. There are so many unknowns in building a business and having experienced people you trust and respect around to bounce ideas off of and ask questions to allows me to move quicker and more precisely towards my goals. With mentorship also comes networks, which are so incredibly valuable. This is not a journey you can take alone. I'm so grateful to all the people who have and continue to be amazing role models and mentors to me.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are too many to name them all - its amazing to have so many incredible women who are impacting the world. I was and continue to be greatly inspired by the story of Malala Yousafzai, who at such a young age had the conviction to fight so bravely for a cause she believed in and has continued to raise awareness for issues of education and womens rights around the world. We should all be such warriors for those who need us most.
What do you want Alala to accomplish in the next year?
Our focus for the next year is growth, in every sense of the word. I would love for more women to hear about Alala, try our product and connect with our brand.
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