A Conversation with Cuyana Co-Founder, Shilpa Shah
Article By: Megan Dizon
Photography: Marisa Vitale
Set foot in Cuyana and you’ll feel as though you’ve just stepped into the way you wish your closet looked.
As the brand that invented the“Fewer, Better Things” movement, the Cuyana experience is highly curated. From baby alpaca capes to the ultimate day-to-night bucket bag, their collections evoke a feeling of luxury and simplicity. Though as Shilpa Shah, co-founder of the growing fashion and lifestyle brand, knows best: there’s a story behind everything.
Before Shilpa co-founded the business, she was a UI/UX designer, working for Disney and other design agencies. Yet after years of working in technology, she grew tired of the limits of virtual design.
“In the five years that I worked at the agency, where there were many late nights and deadlines, only two things ever made it to market. It frustrated me that products never actually made it to people. I wanted a tangible element to everything.”
She considered going back to get a master’s degree in design, but felt her career had outgrown it. With a one-year-old in tow and a husband in medical residency, she realized that if she wanted to make products that went to market, she needed to go to business school.
As Shilpa was applying to MBA programs in 2009, she had a fortuitous meeting with her Cuyana co-founder Karla Gallardo, who was then an MBA student at Stanford. Karla needed a UX designer, so they collaborated on a project. When Karla started Cuyana in October 2011, she asked Shilpa to join her. With her second child only three months old and one semester left of business school at UC Berkeley, Shilpa admits launching a business on top of that was not easy.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, to be honest. It was pretty overwhelming. There were times when I was like, ‘What did I just do to myself?’”
But committed at heart, she and Karla decided to double down instead of quit. It was then that they made their first serious breakthrough: the “Fewer, Better Things” movement. Launched in June 2013, “Fewer, Better Things” put Cuyana on the map.
“[Initially,] it would take us 10 or 15 minutes to describe what Cuyana is and does— from the job-producing luxury factories and retail supply chains to our principles of environmental sustainability and premium quality. There were so many messages. What we would see time and time again is that people really didn’t care how it was made. And I really mean that in the best possible way. They didn’t care first. They cared second or third, which is okay. I think most sustainable brands want them to care first, and that’s where they fail.” Shilpa and Karla realized that they needed to sell customers on their first priority, style, and then follow up with their sustainability message.
It’s true. Though fashion may come off as a materialistic pursuit, the smartest minds in style know there’s a psychological element that drives us to choose one brand over another, and strong, values-based storytelling matters.
Yet as true academics, Karla and Shilpa didn’t stumble across their brand story by accident. They did their research by asking women to walk them through their closets and tell them about their clothes. What they found was that most of our beloved pieces have stories behind them, and they are purposeful and versatile. Whether it’s that dress we bought for our bachelorette party that we now wear every Valentine’s Day, or the hand-painted silk scarf we bought from an artist in Italy—when we walk through our closet, we realize our things mean something.
Karla and Shilpa always wanted Cuyana’s products to feel like a treasure, so this re-messaging was a huge aha moment for them. As Shilpa says, it was about not getting in the middle of “the love affair between a woman and her bag. Let her have that.”
In fact, Cuyana means “to love” in Quechua, which is the language of the Andean craftsmen who made their first product, The Panama Hat. The meaning of the brand Cuyana is, as Shilpa explains, “loving what you wear, loving where it’s made, and loving where it comes from.”
And origins matter to the company. As a sustainable, conscious brand, integrity is at the heart of everything Cuyana does. Though they’ve grown to 65 employees across four stores, they still keep distribution at their warehouse in Oakland, with every product packed and shipped by a Cuyana employee to ensure quality. And with all of their products made by skilled craftsmen from Europe, South America, and the United States, they’re not afraid to cut ties with factories when things don’t feel right.
They also made the strategic decision to seek out investment early on to help them grow.
Shilpa says, “We couldn’t really make the impact we wanted without getting money. We were pitching to a lot of men who just didn’t really get it. Then we found this Pinterest board, where someone had pinned pictures of every female Venture Capitalist in the valley, so Karla and I literally went after every single one of them.”
Their grit paid off. The duo secured Maha Ibrahim from Canaan Partners, a female investor who completed Cuyana’s first round of funding and fully supports the company’s efforts and vision.
As a self-described momtrepreneur, Shilpa has also learned to invest in her work/life balance. With two kids and a doctor husband, she admits that starting Cuyana put a lot of pressure on her marriage, and the two sought counseling. Shilpa and her husband eventually decided to hire a nanny to cook and care for the children on the weekdays, allowing them to spend quality time with their kids after work. Shilpa says her incredible nanny is the reason Cuyana exists and credits her with easing the pressure placed on her marriage.
“A month after having her in our lives, there was this moment where we had another [counseling] appointment and my husband is like, ‘I’m actually pretty good. Are you good?’ And I was, too. We had just needed really good help,” she says laughing.
Shilpa adds another insight for working moms: “Anyone who doesn’t highlight their childcare situation is doing other women a disservice. I feel like someone should do a whole article on Sheryl Sandberg’s childcare team. What should be required to lean in?”
Bold and unapologetic, yet compassionate and committed, Shilpa embodies the qualities of a great and enduring entrepreneur. She seems to have discovered truths that many of us tend to overlook: that balance can foster growth, and no entrepreneur can do it alone. As co-founder of the “Fewer, Better Things” movement, Shilpa’s approach to business and life is not just part of her brand, it’s something to aspire to.
What is the inspiration behind your business?
We design for a modern woman who has set out to accomplish so many things and wants a beautifully curated wardrobe that will not only keep up with her, but will last a lifetime. Our woman is very intentional about what she invests in. She cares for the pieces in her closet; she is thoughtful about the fabrics and the countries they were crafted in. The categories we develop are with the intention of enduring time and trends. Pieces like a classic pebbled-leather tote, a crisp cotton-poplin shirt, or a warming wool coat are foundation pieces that are built to last.
How do you hope to help shape a better tomorrow?
Social responsibility is the foundation our company was built on. Everything that we have set into motion—from the way we source, the materials we select, and the way we do business with our family-run partners—was started with this value at heart. From there, we’re able to concentrate on creating beautiful products with a distinct design point of view.
What was your personal highlight of the past year?
I have always been an avid traveler with a love of discovery. This year, my family and I took a ten-day road trip to Yellowstone National Park where we camped and totally disconnected from the world. It was unforgettable.
What are the unique benefits or challenges that come with with building a business in San Francisco?
The innovative spirit of San Francisco is uniquely inspiring. Being removed from the traditional center of the industry has made us think about building a business differently. We have set out to change the conventional retail method, approach our production chains with great purpose from beginning to end, and design for real women who desire both practicality and luxury in one. There is an abundance of fresh ideas floating around this city that are meant to improve the way we live, and I think this is a great asset.
Do you believe that politics and business should be separate? If not, how have you integrated politics into your business?
We believe in running a business that already reflects all of our political beliefs. We’ve built a company that empowers women, has a built-in element of philanthropy, is environmentally sustainable and socially ethical—this is how we associate ourselves politically. Action is our tool.