Annie Shafran is the founder and CEO of Bellgray, a site that takes the work out of shopping for work clothes. “Bellgray’s mission is to present a streamlined solution to the persistent challenge of curating a beautiful work wardrobe. We achieve it by curating only a few pieces across different brands and price points that you will actually want to wear to work,” says Annie Shafran. After graduating college, Annie Shafran worked in investment banking and had difficulty finding professional clothes that fit her personality. And Bellgray was born.
What inspired you to start Bellgray?
My inspiration started in college at the University of California, Berkeley and then really grew more and more important to me since then. During junior year, my friends and I were interviewing for competitive internships across all types of industries from investment banking to tech firms. The one question that could be heard across the dorms was “What do I wear?” When you Google what to wear to a (fill in the blank) interview for a woman, nothing comes up. It was a mystery as to why there were no resources for young women about appropriate interview attire.
I eventually took a job in finance and spent the next three years wondering where to purchase work clothes that expressed my personality but were formal enough for the job. When you have more of an analytical mind, it is not fun to piece outfits together and hunt for the best brands at the best price. I started Bellgray for women (including me) who wanted a place to buy work clothes that took the infinite options out there and edited it down to the best few pieces.
What is BELLGRAY’s mission and how do you achieve it?
Bellgray’s mission is to present a streamlined solution to the persistent challenge of curating a beautiful work wardrobe. We achieve it by curating only a few pieces across different brands and price points that you will actually want to wear to work. By putting it all in one easy place online, Bellgray actually mirrors what is in your closet and how you shop for work clothes. We also tailor sections around typical work events like happy hours, travel, and interviewing.
What were the first logistical steps you took to start a business?
Step one: Throw all logical steps out the window. There is no logical process to follow when you are starting a business because all problems become the chicken and the egg problem and then you have no idea how and where to start. If you get bogged down in the details of writing a 100-page business plan you will never get around to actually doing.
Step two: Talk to everyone you know. You would be surprised who knows who and what it can lead to. This was one of the most important steps for me as far as getting my idea off and the ground and in motion.
What is a day as Annie like? Please walk me through a day!
I wake up early and start the day with a breakfast taco (no eggs because I am weird) and a large cup of black coffee. I head to my office at WeWork which is only three blocks from my apartment. Then I usually sit at my computer and take calls, send emails, and spend the afternoons in creative brainstorming mode, AKA working on long-term projects. Occasionally I present to offices and corporations on what to wear to work or advice for other entrepreneurs.
I will take a break to head to my favorite workout class – YoStrong – which is a pretty much a 100-degree heated boot camp class where you usually finish the class with 100 burpees. Or I will go on a run because I am “training” for a full marathon in February. (Because I am not busy enough, clearly.)
I love living in downtown Austin because I never have to get in a car. I grew up in Hong Kong and then went to boarding school for high school, so I honestly never really learned how to drive a car. It is amazing that I don’t have to drive anywhere in Texas because that wasn’t what I imagined before I moved here.
After working out I will grab dinner, typically Thai Curry or anything spicy, and finish out the night in the office or at a networking event. In between working and working out, you can find me laughing hysterically at Doug the Pug’s Instagram account.
What are your responsibilities as CEO of Bellgray?
I oversee operations, advertising, merchandising, and strategy. As we only launched in May, all this is relatively new and the role evolves every day. Being the CEO of Bellgray is definitely the most fun thing I have ever done. It is a constant stream of creative thinking and logistical problem solving.
What has been your proudest moment from your career so far?
It is a toss up between the day I launched Bellgray and the day I started pursuing Bellgray full-time. For about a year, I was working at UBS and Bellgray full-time. So part of me is really proud I was able to manage both and launch a company while working in finance. But I am also really proud that it has done so well since launch that was I was able to pivot into this role full-time.
You started BELLGRAY with your sister. What advice do you have for other siblings turned business partners?
My sister Isabelle and I are really close and are very similar people so the partnership evolved very naturally. It started out with me just giving her one-off jobs and then expanding her role more and more over time. She is still a full-time student at USC, so I try to be sensitive to the fact that school is really important but secretly I just want her to work with me full-time.
Advice I have: Don’t abuse them because they are family and would do anything for you. Make sure to set clear expectations and goals from the beginning about what is expected of each of you.
What have you learned about yourself since founding Bellgray?
That I am creative! That wasn’t something I realized about myself before this job, but there really aren’t many ways to express yourself creatively in finance. I loved the creative process of creating a brand from scratch and all the little pieces that go into it.
What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of starting Bellgray?
The biggest challenge is not having unlimited funds, but I’ve learned that money isn’t always the answer to your problems. I am self-funded so every business decision is also a personal decision. Not having a huge budget forces you to really understand the value of what you are purchasing.
For example, in the beginning, one of the first tasks I had was to come up with the company name. Hiring someone good to come up with a name for you is about $20,000, which made it out of the question.
I spent two weeks of non-stop thinking, drawing, meditating, and talking to everyone about potential names. I felt like a crazy person. Eventually, I came up with Bellgray because I was inspired by the company Lululemon. I loved that name because it was made up and you could call them Lulus or your lemons. Bell came from my sister Isabelle’s name and gray from the color. And I did it for free. It was an extremely valuable (literally) lesson and was an important part of the branding process.
The biggest reward is owning my own company. It was getting the idea into a product on the market in six months. I was expecting to only have a business plan in six months and instead I had a company.
What is the most important characteristic for entrepreneurs to have?
Passion, resilience, and determination. Being an entrepreneur will force you to make a lot of tough choices that a more typical career path won’t have you face. If you don’t have those three things, it will be hard to take those leaps.
What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
That it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up! It’s a constantly evolving process. I remember when I showed up UC Berkeley as a freshman I was so worried because everyone already knew what they were majoring in. They were pre-med, business, or engineering bound and I felt like the only one without a “plan.” Some people know what they want to do and others don’t, and it’s really important not to fault yourself for that.
What is on your desk right now?
Coffee, water, Doug the Pug’s calendar which is currently a photo of him dressed up like Harry Potter, some leftover salad I am tired of eating, and a bunch of sticky notes where it looks like I am trying to crack the Da Vinci Code.
What are your three favorite books?
What is your morning routine
Essentially, hit snooze way too many times, black coffee and a breakfast taco.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Life’s not fair, duh”
My mom used to tell this to us pretty much every day of our childhood. It was always her response to tears when it came to anything from my sister stealing my toys to having to move schools yet again. She taught me a lot of resilience from a young age. When she passed away unexpectedly when I was 15, her words stuck in my head whenever I felt like it wasn’t “fair.” If you expect things to happen a certain way, you will only be disappointed. All you can do is move on to the next challenge life has coming your way.
What are you reading right now?
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It is about a psychologist who survived the Holocaust and writes about it from a perspective of how humans deal with suffering. His theory is that the mental state of how the prisoner’s dealt with the state of suffering – either embracing it as part of life or avoiding it and pretending they were somewhere else – ultimately played a role in their survival.
What is your career advice for other young professional women?
Never strive for perfection. If perfection is the goal all you can do is fail. Strive for learning. Any instance where you have learned something is valuable, and you should feel good about it. Awkwardness equals learning so constantly try and push yourself out of your comfort zone.