The CEO Of Zola, Shan-Lyn Ma, Wants Women To Think Bigger

Success stories can seem just as fantastical as the fairy tales you (may have) loved growing up: Bold career woman finds herself in the right place at the right time, and poof, her fairy godmother mentor snaps her fingers, transforming our hero into an overnight success who brings home a seven-figure salary, jet-sets around the world spreading her you-can-have-it-all gospel, all while looking awesome and Instagramming the whole thing. Umm...really? Why do we so rarely hear the other side of the story — the false starts, the waves of doubt, the failures, and the fuck-ups? Those late-night worries and, occasionally, breakthroughs that are so relatable to the rest of us?
Introducing Self-Made, Refinery29's column spotlighting the real stories that fueled success — the wins, the fails, and the curveballs — proving there's no one path to getting what you want.
Shan-Lyn Ma, 41, is the CEO and cofounder of Zola, a wedding company that's revitalizing this $72 billion industry with a free suite of tools for couples to use to plan their big day. Any bride will tell you the months and weeks leading up to a wedding day can be some of the most stressful, and Zola is hoping to relieve some of that stress. Since it launched in October 2013, the platform has helped half a million couples and opened a pop-up shop in New York City, and Ma and her team have raised over $140 million in funding to date. So far in 2019, two female-founded companies (Glossier and Rent the Runway) have announced their unicorn status — could Zola be next?
Refinery29 talked to Ma about the challenges of thinking bigger, her self-care routine (which includes Game of Thrones), and how her experiences as an immigrant and woman of color have impacted the way she's built her business.
What inspired you to launch Zola?
"When I was growing up in Australia, I had this crazy idea that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I even had a picture of Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo (and now an investor in Zola), on my wall, next to a picture of Kylie Minogue. The idea for Zola specifically was born out of my own personal need. In 2013, all of my friends were getting married at exactly the same time, so I basically spent every weekend as a wedding guest. As a product manager with experience working for several retail companies, I was appalled at how impersonal and clunky the wedding-gift shopping experience was. As I was evaluating different business ideas with my cofounder, Nobu, reinventing the wedding registry was one that really resonated with both of us, and we knew we were the exact right people to do it. We used our experience building online products that customers love to build the best ever wedding registry."
What do you think the definition of self-made is, as it pertains to you?
"I’ve always worked really, really hard. In order to put myself through college, I worked three jobs, including being the absolute worst pizza waitress who ever lived. One time I even dropped a pizza into a customer's lap. When I was an MBA intern at Yahoo, my dream company, I worked my behind off, and as a result got a great offer to come back full-time. When Nobu and I were dreaming up Zola, we spent 24/7 working together in my tiny Manhattan living room to get our business off the ground. So working hard isn’t the only thing you need to do, but it’s absolutely a minimum requirement."
What quality do you think you possess that's made you a good candidate for self-making your destiny?
"I spent a long time working for other amazing founders before I felt ready to start Zola. I know some people jump from school into entrepreneurship, but that’s not my story. I’m also really lucky to have met Nobu. He is the most amazing design thinker I’ve ever met in my life, and I wouldn’t have started a company with anybody else. So we are self-making it together."
Tell us a lesson you keep trying to learn, that you hope to master at some point?
"Something I’ve been working on over the past few years is how to be more present and live more in the moment. I just downloaded an app called Moment, which is my new fave app helping me resist the urge to stare at my phone 24/7. It helps track progress towards certain goals, like what percentage of my waking life is spent on my phone, and I’m hoping to learn how to be the master of my phone, rather than let my phone be the master of me!"
Zola is disrupting the retail industry, but recently you opened a traditional brick-and-mortar location in New York City. What made you decide to open a store? And how is the experience different for your customers from a more traditional shop?
"In six years we’ve grown from a wedding registry to a full-on wedding company. We built the store so everyone could experience the whole Zola world under one roof. It’s not a traditional retail store, it’s a wedding-planning paradise where you will get an extremely high level of customer service. We have wedding invitation stations, over 3,000 registry gifts that are all scannable through our app, and Zola advisers to help with anything and everything. We’re also about to bring in wedding party attire next week! We are so excited about how well the store has performed and how much our couples love it."
Being self-made means committing to self-care, too. How do you fuel and refresh yourself when shit really starts to get hard?
"I am a self-care junkie. I’m obsessed with SoulCycle, because you have to cycle so hard I can’t think about anything else. And my nighttime skin-care routine is my favorite part of the day that I make time for no matter what. On a typical Sunday night, I am watching Game of Thrones with a face mask on."
Can you talk about some of the challenges you’ve overcome raising capital for Zola?
"One of my favorite quotes of all time is when Susan Lyne said, 'Men pitch unicorns and women pitch businesses.’ That resonates with me, because during our earlier funding rounds I received feedback that I can come across as modest in comparison to how fast Zola is growing. It has taken me a while to get comfortable with the metaphorical banging my fists on the table about how we’re building a multi-billion-dollar company, but we are. Fortunately, now I can bang a little less loudly because our numbers tell the story."
What's your Self-Made Mantra for other women, no matter where they are in the process?
"Can the idea be bigger? Can it be even bigger than what you are thinking about right now? That’s how we thought about Zola. We started as a registry, but we always knew it could be something that was much bigger than just wedding gifts — something that served millennial couples from engagement through to their first years of newlywed life together."
There is a lot of pressure of female CEOs and startup founders to be both great businesswomen and motivational leaders. Do you feel that pressure? And do you think those expectations set these women up to fail?
"I think every founder has to be a motivational leader in order to build a great team and business. I do feel an extra responsibility to show it’s possible to be a woman, be a respected leader, and run a fast-growing startup. I’m lucky to be a part of a growing community of female founders who I have to lean on for advice. I try to share my thoughts with female founders who are a few years behind me whenever I can, but only if asked!"
How have your experiences as an immigrant and woman of color impacted the way you run your business?
"Diversity has been a pillar of Zola since day one, and not just because we value that culture internally. Our couples are diverse in nearly every single way — race, sexual orientation, religion, where they live, where they work. And all of this really comes into play when you're planning a wedding. So it's vital that we pool together as many experiences and backgrounds as possible at Zola — including my own — in order to be able to serve such a diverse set of people."
What are you generally doing at midnight?
"I’m asleep!"

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series