Faces of Entrepreneurship: Samantha Dong, ALLY Shoes

2021-01-11T18:08:08-08:00 January 11th, 2021|Business Planning/Strategy, Developing a Product/Service|

Samantha Dong is the Founder and CEO of ALLY Shoes, an innovative, fashion brand designed for women by women. ALLY is renowned for designing pain-free heels for power women. After a foot injury, Samantha couldn’t find heels that wouldn’t hurt, so she teamed up with the best creative minds and podiatric experts to design stylish heels for all women. She is passionate about empowering women through fashion and making luxury footwear more accessible for women on the move.

What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
Samantha Dong: Create innovative solutions to real problems while building a sustainable business.

How did your company come to be?
SD: A former management consultant, I always wore heels to work. Then I hurt my feet hiking and couldn’t wear heels without pain. That’s when it clicked – heels shouldn’t hurt. I made it my mission to find the best in the business to create pain-free heels for women. ALLY Shoes’ founding leadership team includes Podiatric Surgeon, Dr. Roxann Clarke, and acclaimed shoe designer, Sarah Jaramillo. Our diverse backgrounds and varying professional experiences inspired the overall concept of our unique pain-free heels and shoe design. We each bring our expertise to the table and together we created a heel that can be a woman’s ally.

How has your business changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
SD: When COVID-19 hit, It sent a huge shockwave to business. However, we quickly pivoted and launched a new “at-home trial box” program that allows customers to try different sizes before buying, aiming to re-create our fitting room experience in the comfort of their homes.

In addition, we believe office life will be changed after the recovery as well. Many offices will stay closed in the foreseeable future, and remote work will be more acceptable in the long term. We are adapting our product line by launching high quality footwear more suitable for walking outside, including block heels and flats with proper arch support.

What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
SD: Proudest moment: When Fast Company featured us as one of the most comfortable high heels to wear to work, it was an extremely motivating moment.

Darkest moment: The beginning of this year was tough to say the least. I lost my grandma to cancer in January, but couldn’t go back after the border closure. Due to Covid-19, we experienced significant delays in our supply chain, and had to shut down all of our offline channels including our showroom, store partners, and trunk shows. It’s a humbling experience that tested the resilience of myself as an entrepreneur and our ALLY as a business. Luckily, we pushed through as a team, and have since launched new products and offerings which moved our business in a much better direction.

How is your company changing the landscape?
SD: Embracing diversity, representation and inclusion are core to who we are and it has long been a challenge in the fashion industry. Most design teams, especially in footwear are led by men. ALLY’s all-female leadership team scientifically designs stylish options for women. We solve for the fashion and fit problems they experience making our brand truly unique in the market. We also tested our product extensively in year one with real women in our community. It’s important to see women designers in the footwear space to challenge the status quo, and the ALLY team is one of them to change the misperception that fashion can’t be stylish and functional at the same time.

In addition, the fashion industry currently has a devastating impact on the environment. It is the second-largest polluter in the world and the second-largest consumer of water. According to research, 30% of fashion products were never sold, resulting in 92 million tons of solid waste. The Pulse of the Fashion Industry report projects that, by 2030, fashion brands will see reduced profits of $52 billion industry-wide if they continue to operate the same way. It’s time to reduce our footprint and have a mindful and conscious approach to design and distribution models.

ALLY disrupts the traditional footwear business model by offering micro-sizing options and carrying less inventory. We are able to keep cost down by having a lean product line with one silhouette while diversifying color and sizing options. Our business model includes a custom approach that ensures a better fit, reduces overproduction and waste as a fashion brand. ALLY’s proprietary online fit-finder has an algorithm designed by Dr. Clarke, seeded with data from over 2,000 women, and it gets your fit right. We have also implemented a flexible supply chain with an on-demand, 2-week bespoke factory turnaround, while maintaining a healthy margin.

What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
SD: I wish I knew that developing an innovative product is just half the battle. If I were to start again, I would have honed in on branding and growth strategies in parallel with product development.

What advice/credo do you live by as you grow the business / what is your professional and personal mission statement?
SD: Run fast, but pivot often. As entrepreneurs, we are often pressured with limited time, resource, and growing competition. As a result, it’s essential to be able to act quickly. However, we are also tackling brand new problems and often building something that has never been done before. Inherently, we will have to test directions with imperfect information and make mistakes. When things get hard, true resilience requires optimism based on clear analysis and openness to change, followed rapid executions.

Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
SD: Our customers are always a source of inspiration for me. It’s a joy to lead a mission-driven brand and to experience customer reactions when they first step into our shoes. Our customers are real women who love heels and style, but also appreciate comfort. They inspire us as they take on the world and stride through life in our shoes. ALLY is never just about the shoes – we want to be the brand that represents the qualities of a modern woman – beautiful, strong, and uncompromising.

What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
SD: When women all around the world are wearing ALLY products. We’ve been blessed with word of mouth and a group of enthusiastic brand ambassadors. But for ALLY to reach the next level, we have been forming partnerships with like-minded brands / retailers, and also recently enabled international shipping to select countries. We are always looking for more ways to increase brand awareness and for more women to experience the ALLY comfort.

Has personal or professional “success” changed for you since the COVID-19 pandemic?
SD: ALLY has always been a mission-driven brand for women empowerment and sustainable fashion. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has made us reflect on more ways we can have a social impact. We believe that should be part of our “success” metric. We have expanded our partnership with women-focused nonprofits for collaborations and donations, and will also soon launch an ongoing giving aspect on our site.

What’s it like to work alone or with your partners? What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
SD: We are a small and mighty team. In addition to myself, our founding team includes two other powerhouse women – Dr. Roxanne Clarke, a practicing podiatric surgeon, and Sara Jaramillo, an accomplished footwear designer. As an entrepreneur, it’s crucial to be open and lean on diversity of thoughts from the team. Our diverse professional backgrounds allowed us to bring best practices from different sides and create a product that has never been created before; our varied cultural backgrounds also inspired us to launch our nude collection with five different shades to represent the diversity of today’s women. We also rely heavily on our advisors for their industry experience, including former Innovation Director from Cole Haan / Nike and former executive from Shultz.

Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day? How has it changed in recent months?
SD: Starting my day with some meditation and light workout (with calming music) helps me ease into the day and clear my mind to get ready for the day. In recent months, with no more commute time and hence no more boundaries between life & work, this small ritual helps me build in some “me time”, and clear my mind every day.

What keeps you motivated during this time?
SD: It’s been very motivating to look back and see the development and changes we’ve made to our business due to COVID. We were able to quickly adjust our product offerings to fit the needs of our customers in the “new normal”, and also introducing new ways to shop such as the “at-home trial box” that has received great feedback. It goes to show just how agile and resilience we can be as a team, and I can’t wait to see what other innovations will come out of this unique time.

What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
SD: I want to be known as someone who has created something truly useful for the world, and a changemaker to some bigger issues such as diversity and sustainability using our platform. Similarly, I want the legacy of ALLY to be the go-to functional fashion brand for today’s modern women, and to be one of the pioneer brands to make changes in the fashion industry.

What is a quote or some words of wisdom that help get you through the tough days?
SD: You are capable of more than you know. E.O. Wilson

Do you have someone you’d like to nominate to be profiled in our Faces of Entrepreneurship series? Please let us know by emailing media@thecenter.nasdaq.org.

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