Born in China and raised in the U.S., Shauna combined her rigorous academic background–an MIT computer science and electrical engineering degree–with an abiding wanderlust and work experience in luxury marketing to create AHAlife in 2010.
The website and daily email service carry unique products from around the world, spanning fashion, food, design, and beauty. The site explains how the product was made, who made it, and where it came from. AHAlife’s celebrity curators include Tim Gunn, Bobbi Brown, and Petra Nemcova. Its products range from cork iPad cases ($22) to rocking chairs made of horseshoes ($5280).
How did you come up with the idea for your business?
In my travels, I’d see all of these incredible products. I’d stumble into a cool boutique in Kyoto to protect myself from the rain and it would turn out to be an old kimono shop.
At the time, there was all this fuss over daily deal sites, but nothing that was discovery shopping. I want to go to a site, hang out, and explore. I knew the demand was there for unique products. Not everyone wants to carry a Louis Vuitton bag.
Also, I had cofounded a company with the former CEO of Oscar de la Renta that took luxury brands global. I learned how insanely ineffective it is for brands to reach customers. You have to open show rooms, make relationships with designers…You have a better chance of winning the lottery than really making it in the fashion world.
So I said, let me leverage my tech and retail background to create this.
What life experiences prepared you to take the leap and start your own company?
I don’t know where I got the risk bone or gene but I will jump any time I can take a risk. My friends would say, “What do you mean you’re moving to Stockholm?” My thought would be, “Well, I don’t know Swedish, but I’m going to start this fashion company.”
I came from Inner Mongolia and I have two very risk-averse parents. They went the hard-core education route, with multiple degrees before they came here.
My father was a visiting scholar at Brown University when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened in 1989. We couldn’t go back. My mother ended up becoming an accountant here and my father stayed in education, founding the largest Chinese school in the country. They were a great inspiration. They never gave up.
You’ve raised roughly $21 million from angel investors and venture capitalists. What did you learn along the way?
If you’re going to go out and take other people’s capital, they are banking on you. You have to get it done. I see myself serving AHAlife–it’s investors, shareholders, employees–rather than it serving me.
What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs seeking to raise funds?
Tap into your own personal network. A lot of people will ask me to connect them with my investors or they’ll go after well known VCs. If you are a backable, bankable entrepreneur, you should be able to establish your own network. At the end of the day, investors back people.
Do you have any other pointers for someone starting an internet-based company?
Start a company that is around something you genuinely believe is leveraging your strengths as an individual. You’d be the best person in world to solve that problem.
You have to do what you’re really good at and create a company in which you can use your strengths. Then put a team together to fill in the gaps.
What were your strengths and gaps?
My strength: I had experience in online 2.0 and deep-rooted relationships in luxury retail.
Now I have a huge team to fill in the gaps. The first area for investment is technology. I’m not a tech coder anymore, so we assembled a strong tech team. Next, we hired great editors and writers. Our first employee was Nancy MacDonnell. (Fashion writer for British Vogue, Elle, The New York Times.)
Who are your favorite curators?
Deepak Chopra is on our board and one of our curators. I just love him. A big part of our mission is to help you upgrade your life. I see him as the face of well-being globally.
He has this MP3 button with a guided meditation. When you travel, you can meditate on airplanes. It’s super cool. It’s just as important to exercise your brain as much as your body. I meditate and it makes a huge difference in my life.
Do you have other favorite products?
One recent thing I love are these amazingly beautiful backgammon boards. They’re heirlooms. I love this idea of teaching our generation to buy things to collect, not throw away.
If you knew earlier in your life what you know now, what would you have done differently?
So many things! I learned English super fast. I wish I had also learned two other languages.
I wish someone would have told me earlier that being different is good. I was super shy throughout my elementary school years. If you speak out and you’re the smart kid, everyone is making fun of you. The older I get, the more I know that you’ve got to embrace yourself and know who you are.
What is your advice to younger women in the workplace?
Ignore the whole feminine-masculine divide–not because I don’t think it’s there, but I think when too many women are focused on it, they actually create that problem. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy idea.
Any personal financial advice for younger women?
You should always live within your means. The way I think about it, I have a portion of my income that I separate out as a “Me” pool so I can buy or donate to things for completely selfish reasons without feeling guilt.
I think investing in different stocks is very good, even if at a very low level. You learn about different industries and different management teams.