Finding a Billion Dollar Opportunity, with Shirley Chen
Episode 141: Finding a Billion Dollar Opportunity, with Shirley Chen
Shirley Chen, the Founder & CEO of Narrativ, started her career journey when she scored her Vogue internship through waiting in line for a Broadway musical. Jumping from biology to fashion, and management consulting to online retail marketing, Shirley shares her career journey and how she founded her own company, Narrativ, fixing digital media with AI technologies. On this episode, she also talks about the benefits of networking, the science of online shopping, and the difficulties she faced starting her own business.
00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network podcast, this is your host Kristy Wallace with my co-host Maricella Herrera.
00:20 Maricella Herrera: Hey.
00:21 KW: Hi.
00:21 MH: Hi, Kristy. How's it going?
00:22 KW: It's going awesome.
00:24 MH: Awesome.
00:25 KW: Yup, I don't know, I'm just feeling great, I'm feeling good. This week... And I cannot wait to hear your interview with Shirley Chen. I always love when you do the interviews because then I get to hear the narrative, the questions from your perspective, which is so powerful for me because I know what I would ask, and then when I hear what you ask, it really opens my eyes to a different way of thinking. And I love the way that you interview.
00:56 MH: Oh, thank you, I appreciate that. It's fun doing them 'cause I don't get to do them that often, so it's good to get off... Get out of my usual internal company things and be a little external for a little bit, which is pretty cool. Shirley Chen has... It was just a great conversation to be able to talk to her. She is extremely knowledgeable about what she is doing. She's the founder and CEO at Narrativ, which is really... It's fixing the broken Internet, particularly when it comes to e-commerce 'cause... So apparently 30% of the links online, that you find online, when you're looking at an article and find a product that you want to buy or anything like that, 30% of those links are broken. So it's a little bit of a mess out there.
01:49 KW: I'm not surprised. Have you ever seen, there is a website that you can... It's like the Wayback Machine, you see website... Archived website screenshots from...
02:00 MH: No.
02:01 KW: Back in the day? And we used to do this back in, I don't know, 2005, 2006 because so many companies were starting and failing at such a fast rate. And so, we would be like, we would be talking about one of the companies that always have the parties and the Digital Alley here in New York City. And so we would have to remember what those companies were and we'd looked them up in the Wayback Machine and see the screenshots and stuff.
02:28 MH: That's really fun, I have to look that up. A couple of months ago, we had our team retreat, and our whole team was in town, and we were talking about different things about our product and our strategy and our values and all that stuff. And one of our team members... [chuckle] One of our team members, at some point, said something like, "As someone who grew up with the Internet from like," or like, "Has always had the Internet," or something like that, and it made me feel really old.
02:56 KW: Yeah. Oh, yes. Yeah. All the time.
03:02 MH: No, anyway.
03:03 KW: But it's powerful. That is, again, there's so many layers to diversity that we talk about in the world, but that is an aspect too, growing up during a certain time.
03:13 MH: Yup.
03:13 KW: Where everything is shaped around having access to or not having access to something. And it's interesting, I look at my kids or some of my colleagues and how they see things, but this is what's driving innovation.
03:27 MH: Right.
03:27 KW: Because when that's their norm, How do they try to push the envelope to create a new norm? And I'm still amazed that I can get email on my phone. I don't know, I mean.
03:38 KW: It's taken me a while to get up to speed, but I'm really excited to hear your conversation with Shirley. I actually met her at SAP. Who has... SAP is an incubator for founders, but they really focus on women, people of color that are creating solutions relevant to the SAP ecosystem. So it was great to go there and meet with a lot of the founders because they were each approaching the world and problem solving from a different viewpoint and tackling one aspect of it. And so, Shirley, really thinking about fixing broken links and being this pioneer in ending the 404 is doing some things that is such a pain point that we... It's like the little splinter that you just hope that one day takes care of itself. We're not taking action to change it.
04:33 MH: Yeah.
04:33 KW: But she's taking the action. And it's creating a better experience for all of us. So thanks to Shirley.
04:40 MH: Yeah, I'm sure you'll have lots to say and to think through as you hear our conversation because she knows her stuff. And also she's had a great career journey, super interesting. And the way she decided to go out and try this... Actually, fix this problem that she was seeing, I think, is really inspiring. It's really great to see how people do those jumps. How people make those jumps and how people take that action.
05:09 KW: Absolutely.
05:10 MH: Let's go to my...
05:12 KW: Well, excellent.
05:13 MH: Conversation with Shirley.
05:14 KW: Perfect. I can't wait to hear it.
05:28 MH: I'm really excited to be here with our guest Shirley Chen, and I can't wait... I was reading your bio, and you have quite the career journey, you've done tons of different things. Would you mind just telling our audience a little bit more about how you got to where you are today and your company?
05:48 Shirley Chen: Absolutely. First of all, my pleasure to be here today, thank you so much for inviting me. I've spanned being a biochemical engineer to being a Vogue intern, to being a JP Morgan and McKinsey analyst, to being a head of marketing at Moda Operandi to now being a startup founder. And I never would have expected to take these career leaps, but I'm very excited today that across these different careers, I still work with almost everyone from one of these jobs, which is completely...
06:21 MH: Really?
06:21 SC: Unexpected. Yes, and if you'd asked me when I was 26, or 28, or 24, what I would be doing, I never would have... I never would have predicted this. In fact, actually, my wedding was this weekend.
06:34 MH: Oh my God, congratulations.
06:36 SC: Thank you. And having all those guests there was... Brought back such memories from all the different jobs I've had, but my father also reminded me that when I was 14 and taking my first computer science class, I told him I would never be an engineer. And of course today, I manage a team of 30-something engineers and they're all spectacular. And I love working in the tech industry. So you can never really predict where your life's gonna go.
07:03 MH: This is... Well, first of all, you took your first coding class when you were 14?
07:07 SC: Yes.
07:08 MH: Amazing. [chuckle]
07:13 MH: Why didn't you wanna be an engineer?
07:16 SC: I was in love with biology in high school. I went to a school called, "Thomas Jefferson High School for Math, Science and Technology," and we took tracks very early on, so I took AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, all of that in 10th grade. And then got the chance to work and intern at NIH and Walter Reed Navy Medical. So I very much felt I was going down a science route, computer science was something slightly different. And I think today, I realize how similar all these fields are, and how that structured thinking and problem solving background really ties all of these things together.
07:55 MH: Well, it's incredible, because the places you've been and these different things you've done, seemingly are very, very different. You went from Vogue... From science background, you were at Vogue, you were at JP Morgan. It's a lot of different industries.
08:12 SC: It's a bit of serendipity too.
08:13 MH: Yeah.
08:14 SC: So I went to Colombia undergrad, and I was standing in line for Broadway tickets, when a Teen Vogue editor came up to me, right outside 4 Times Square.
08:28 MH: Oh my God.
08:28 SC: And she wanted a seat filler, because she'd had cancellations for a movie screening, it was Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and offered to pay me money to be that seat filler. So from there I learned more about fashion, was seated next to Eva Chen, who was at Teen Vogue at the time, obviously Instagram now. And she had no idea who I was, but introduced me to Phillip Lim who was starting up a brand and ended up being an intern...
08:56 MH: Oh my God.
08:57 SC: That summer. So that internship led to working at Chanel and at Vogue and it was all out of standing in line, in Times Square. So make the most of your opportunities.
09:13 MH: That is... Yeah, that is... You got quite the learning from that. And be open to people I guess, 'cause I would have probably not talked to someone who was coming up to me in a line as I was making a line. So now you went from doing more bigger like you were, I think at Moda Operandi was your last corporate, quote unquote, 'cause that's really not, but in a company to building your own thing. So tell us a little bit about Narrativ and what you guys are doing?
09:44 SC: Yes, so Narrativ is a media technology company, and we're building a better Internet for shoppers. That means a less transactional shopping experience, where the places where you buy products are closer to where you learn about what to buy and actually have a digital experience around that. So this is obviously the content and commerce mix. We're also fixing broken links, 404s, prices that are not up to date along the way. So if you're reading an article and you wanna buy something, today about 30% of the time, those links are broken and that's such a frustrating experience. Our Smart Link technology repairs this and we're enabling retailers that sell these products to always show up with the best price. So this is the technology that the World Economic Forum awarded us a Technology Pioneer award for this year.
10:39 MH: Yeah, I saw that.
10:39 SC: And we are now building and scaling these experiences to more categories, but also more points of consumer interaction.
10:49 MH: How did you even come up with this idea?
10:52 SC: It came out of Vogue conference room, honestly. I at Moda was responsible for driving customer acquisition, as well as lifetime value. And Moda's a luxury e-commerce retailer, when I joined we were doing about 4 million in revenue, when I left we were doing 45 million.
11:11 MH: Incredible.
11:12 SC: And we tapped into a lot of the traditional digital channels, so Google, paid search, Facebook, social, SEO, Events. And we also worked a lot with publishers, because our founder, Lauren, came from Vogue and Condé Nast was also one of our investors. And I saw that content was this huge unharnessed pipeline, but there was no technology that had been built around it, the way that Google and Facebook had for their own channels. So there was a ton of inefficiency. Not only the broken links, but retailers not being connected to the products that they were actually selling, very manual processes that required editors or interns have to go into their CMS and code. And I realized there was a $25 billion opportunity in transforming this, but that we had to apply today's standards around technology and machine learning to do this. So the idea came fast and furious. I actually did not do anything about it for almost six months. And then, one of Moda's investors NEA funded our seed round.
12:20 MH: Wow, that's great.
12:21 SC: Partners like Condé Nast and New York Magazine from the beginning. As well as retailers like the Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Sephoras of the world. So, all of that came together very quickly and we had clients, we had revenue. And then I would say the year after is where it actually got really hard. Because the difference between having two or three clients and having 25 or 50 clients is radically different.
12:51 MH: Yeah.
12:51 SC: And the operations, scaling, go-to-market, playbooks, etcetera, around managing that, as well as building a team that can operate around the culture when you're not there, is incredibly difficult.
13:06 MH: We're going through that in the sense that we've been around for a really long time, but we grew from being a eight-person team to a 25-people team in a span of a year, two years.
13:18 SC: Wow.
13:18 MH: So right now, it's been that, like how do you build a culture that actually represents the company and grows and scales as...
13:28 SC: I do think one jump that I made and what helped get me from, "I'm working at Moda, this is a great job" to "I wanna start my own business" was this idea that at Moda, I could help one company grow and at Narrativ we work with so many partners.
13:45 MH: That's a really good...
13:46 SC: And...
13:47 MH: Good way to see it.
13:47 SC: Yes. It is about moving the industry forward and making sure publishers get paid fairly, but also that the consumer-user experience could be fixed at scale, and that's not something you can do when you're operating inside a single brand.
14:00 MH: Yeah. For sure. No. That's awesome. So why should we care about the Internet's crumbling infrastructure?
14:10 SC: If it sounds dramatic, it is.
14:11 MH: It did sound dramatic, and I started thinking about it and I'm like, "Wait, I need to know more about this."
14:18 SC: Yeah. So, which may seem very young or very old depending on who you are, but what that means is there are trillions of links that exist that are eroding and about 30% of all the links online, are broken.
14:40 MH: Really? That's a lot.
14:43 SC: Yes. And it calls into this question of sustainability. Similar to many other industries we're always writing new content, creating new links. Well, links are bridges. And when you have an eroding infrastructure, it's almost like building on top of a landfill instead of actually going in and fixing these inherent problems. What's also interesting about the internet is that there are multiple ways to access data and the foundation of having strong links or fixing 404s means that we always have open and free access to information, and this information is also what powers the foundation of machine learning. So, there's so much around this infrastructure that people don't think about. We hear about the Cloud. You think of the Internet as this vast resource of endless potential. Well, we have to maintain that and I really think it's our generation's opportunity, but also unique place to make sure that we're building sustainably online.
15:48 MH: I would have never guessed. 30% is huge of links. I would have never actually guessed that it was that.
15:56 SC: Yeah, and I think think back to your own...
15:57 MH: [15:57] ____.
15:58 SC: Think back to your own online browsing experience and how often you're clicking on a link for a page that doesn't exist anymore. I've been very lucky. Our investors are all male.
16:09 MH: Very interesting.
16:11 SC: Some of my...
16:12 MH: Not that interesting 'cause they're...
16:13 SC: It's not surprising?
16:14 MH: Right. Not surprising, very interesting though.
16:15 SC: It's not surprising. But even my mentors at McKinsey and earlier in my career, a lot of the folks who pushed me to start Narrativ were male. And I think it comes through in situations that you don't expect. So last month, I was at a dinner that was hosted by one of the pioneers in the advertising industry, and it was 25 folks at a dinner, there were two women that were there. And funny enough, I was seated at the head of the table. So I had a.
16:53 MH: Love it.
16:54 SC: I had a perfect view, but I had never seen that... Our day-to-day Narrativ has quite a few female engineers, a lot of folks kind of making that balance. And it was interesting watching men talk at and over each other at dinner, and just chiming in. And I'm at dinners with my friends a lot. I've never really seen that happen at scale. And I realize that there's something about the representation of them talking over each other, and what was happening in online advertising. These really loud ads being... Coming at you. It's a representation of that ecosystem. And the products you build represent the people who build them, right? And a lot of the culture has been coded into the digital infrastructure. And I think, as you see more and more female entrepreneurs, especially engineers, folks who are tapped into the digital space, build products. They have different sensibilities, and they have a different mission. And when we talk about sustainability, or putting the user first, we really mean it. You may see large technology giants like Google or Amazon doing that in their own platform, but we wanna facilitate that across the board.
18:09 MH: Yeah. It is very true that the products really do reflect the people who build them. And it is very true that I had not thought of that, but it's true, the way you see the advertising world and what you were talking about dinner, it really does reflect what culture and society is like.
18:29 SC: Yes. And I think the other piece to add on is I've had really well-meaning folks just ask like, "Oh, why are you building Narrativ? Why don't you build a consumer-facing company? Your background is perfect for that." And they're not trying to... They're not trying to instigate or insult.
18:50 MH: No.
18:51 SC: And sometimes that faint hint of sexism is just part of everyday life.
19:01 MH: Yeah.
19:01 SC: And I don't take it as an insult. I feel very passionate about the product that we're building, and democratizing this $25 billion industry. But it may not make sense to folks who are used to seeing women stand at the front of only consumer-facing companies.
19:19 MH: Yeah. It's interesting because that's what we hear most about, right? When you see a lot of the female entrepreneurs that keep being showcased or coming up, most of them, I would say, or a lot of them are consumer-facing products or consumer-facing brands, or products that are very much associated with women. But there are so many really smart and talented women like yourself who are doing these really great things that people might not necessarily know about.
19:52 SC: Yeah. Well, consumer brands are tangible, relatable. You can actually buy them.
19:56 MH: Yeah.
19:57 SC: It makes sense. But the other thing that came out of this dinner was I actually went back and did research on the Top 100 media companies and advertising companies, and actually zero out of 100 have female CEOs.
20:12 MH: Not surprising. It's sad. Not surprising.
20:14 SC: It is. It was actually a bit shocking to me. I thought like, "Maybe 5%, 20%, something like that."
20:22 MH: Yeah.
20:22 SC: But it was zero.
20:24 MH: It's the Top 100.
20:24 SC: We pegged it as a goal. I'm like, "I'm gonna be in this Top 100 list."
20:28 MH: Yes, please. We'll support you. [laughter] So I wanna go back to a little bit of the conversation about the people who are... Have invested in your company, or have been... Or are advisors of your company because it really does seem that your network was instrumental and just... To really starting Narrativ. And as you know, at Ellevate, we're all about community and how that feeds for everyone kind of getting to that point of being successful, or achieving whatever it is they are looking for. So do you have any insights or tips, or do you wanna share some of how your network influenced you, and any advice for women who want to start their own business, and leveraging their networks?
21:21 SC: Yes, I think that when I was younger, I had no idea what networking meant. In fact, going to Columbia lots of folks go to banks, go into consulting and I never once went to a single networking event, because I felt so shy and I didn't like going up to people and I just felt like I was imposing on their space or their time. I'm probably still not the best person to walk into an elevator and give you a pitch. It's just not my style.
21:54 MH: Yeah, I'm like that.
21:56 SC: Yeah, and I think I've learned that's okay, we all have different styles. You should push yourself out of your comfort zone, but that doesn't mean you need to become a different person. And when I think about my career, yes, there was this chance encounter in Times Square, but after that, going from fashion and Vogue and Chanel to McKinsey it actually came at the recommendation of one of the editors.
22:26 MH: Really?
22:27 SC: Her husband was a consultant at Bain and mostly working in media and retail. I had no idea what consulting was, which is shocking to some people, but I still remember going to Wikipedia, looking up Bain, finding out their resume drop had closed online, and that BCG and McKinsey, were also consulting firms. BCG's resumes drop had closed. So only McKinsey, I think had three or four days left on that online application. So, after I joined McKinsey, one of the... Worked there in the media and retail industry, advised a lot of the folks that are our clients today. But the founder of Moda Operandi came from Vogue. And the other founder came from McKinsey. And that led to a really natural jump to working there. And now with starting Narrativ, it really came from folks within the industry and within our investor base that pushed me to take the leap myself.
23:29 MH: Yeah. I love hearing those... How those relationships or the advice that you get from someone can really push you in a different direction, or to do something different.
23:41 SC: I often think it's not conversations necessarily, that can create that network, but your actions, so...
23:48 MH: How so?
23:49 SC: Waking up at 5:30 in the morning to go to a shoot and unpack samples. How does that lead to you working at McKinsey? But I think showing the commitment and dedication to doing the work well. Having the self-respect, really, and integrity to get any job done I think that's really important and I think it's these qualities and characteristics that can come through in every day life. And that's what made people... That's what make people care and invest and wanna help you.
24:21 MH: Yeah, what's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
24:27 SC: Say thank you...
24:28 MH: Really?
24:29 SC: More often.
24:30 MH: That's a good one.
24:31 SC: Say thank you. I think a lot of times, it's not that you take things for granted, but that you don't realize other people wanna hear that, and they don't know what a great job they're doing.
24:47 MH: I like that, I like that a lot. Thank you.
24:53 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate, if you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E Network dot com. And special thanks to our producer, Catherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice over artist Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.
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