This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
While pregnant with her first son and working full-time at the United Nations as a strategist for partnerships, business development, and stakeholder management in 2019, Elle Wang had no luck finding professional maternity wear that was long-lasting, sustainable, and comfortable. She soon realized that many professional women were facing this same dilemma. So, at seven months pregnant, she decided to take things into her own hands and create her own maternity and postpartum clothing brand, catering to expecting and new moms at all stages.
Thus, Emilia George launched in 2019 with the goal to redefine the traditional concept of maternity wear by providing mothers-to-be with professional silhouettes in sustainable eco-fabrics—such as bamboo, cupro, and Tencel-Luxe—from niche producers around the globe.
Fortune recently spoke with founder Elle Wang to learn more about the business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, as well as plans for the new year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Could you share a bit about your background and what you were doing professionally prior to launching Emilia George?
Wang: Prior to launching Emilia George, I was working my corporate job at the UN. Working for the UN has been a great platform and such a rewarding experience. I can’t think of many other professions where you have the chance to work with a small team where everyone is from a different part of the world.
I’ve also been extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to many different countries such as Uganda, Haiti, and Guinea, and speak to refugees to learn about basic survival from natives who come from completely different financial and cultural standings. This job has truly shaped my mindset and encouraged me to remain mindful and grateful in everything that I do.
I founded Emilia George when I was seven months pregnant based on months of frustration with a lack of high-quality maternity wear that was comfortable on my skin, professional-looking, and functional. I had invested in a few pieces of more expensive maternity wear at the time, and I outgrew them when I got to the third trimester. I was so furious that I had wasted money, not to mention the clothes were made from such uncomfortable and unbreathable fabrics. So, I did some surveys with a few mom groups on Facebook and interviewed other moms. The most interesting conclusion was that many maternity brands underestimate the power of classy and timeless designs that pregnant working moms are looking for. So, my mom and I joined forces and a few months later Emilia George was launched.
What inspired you to launch Emilia George? What makes it stand apart from other maternity-wear brands on the market?
Working at the United Nations inspired me in a number of ways, especially when I met the refugee women, some pregnant and some mothers already, in Bidibidi refugee camps in Northern Uganda. I have always had this innate passion for helping others, and that along with my entrepreneurial spirit, I knew I wanted to do something good for motherhood.
Then when I was pregnant with my son, working at the UN, and unable to find professional maternity wear that was long-lasting, sustainable, and comfortable, I realized there is a huge gap in the market here. So, I made it my mission to create a new mom-wear line that would empower professional expecting and new moms to honor their identities, while embracing the transformation of motherhood.
My experiences as a mother to my son, George, have also lent inspiration to my work, especially my founding of the Fabrics Matter Movement. After finding that George’s skin became irritated from contact with my clothes that contained harsh dyes, I was inspired to raise awareness for the importance of fabrics, not only for baby clothes but for the mother’s clothes, too. Fabrics matter for pregnancy and postpartum because what the mom wears, the little one ultimately ends up wearing as well.
Today, Emilia George is one of the only 100% sustainable maternity lines on the market. All of our pieces are thoughtfully designed using earth-friendly fabrics like bamboo, cupro, and post-consumer plastic bottles, and come from suppliers that have Oeko-Tex and Global Recycled Standard certifications.
One of your collections is centered on maternity workwear. What was the design process for that like? What kinds of needs were factored in for working mothers-to-be?
When I recognized this demand in the market for professional maternity workwear that was also sustainable, I was inspired to design mom-wear with thoughtful details using innovative, sustainable fabrics that would empower women. Pregnancy is a beautiful moment when femininity is blossoming, but expectant (and postpartum) women in formal work environments are often forced to sacrifice quality, comfort, and style.
Every piece is designed with working moms in mind. It is actually really tough to find maternity wear that is stylish, so this was core of my design inspiration. I really wanted the clothes to emulate professional style—think fitted pencil skirts and dresses. How do women like me, wanting to dress in a certain way, make these pieces more versatile? Our collection presents more sophisticated clothing options for pregnant women and working moms.
Now professional doesn’t have to mean working in formal boardroom meetings; it also includes mothers who work in creative and various industries that encourage a more “smart and business casual style.” In our Fabrics Matter collection, for example, we made sure our pieces could be paired well with a blazer to maintain a corporate image, while still being transitional for a night out.
Retailers have taken quite a hit during the pandemic, so it must be daunting to launch a company of any kind, let alone a clothing brand, right now. What has it been like running a direct-to-consumer clothing business during a pandemic? What has it been like to work with supply-chain partners and develop new collections?
This crisis has created a lot of stress for business owners, myself included, but I remain so grateful for my health.
Along with the anticipated delayed shipping and production times, unfortunately our onboarding process with Neiman Marcus was initially put on hold. However, we were able to pick things back up at the end of the year, and Emilia George is now available online there. I have also noticed a big gap between “Add-to-Cart” and “Reached Check Out” rate to actual sales on our site, which is understandable and unavoidable in uncertain times like these.
That being said, during this time we have also been able to pivot business in creative ways that led to incredible opportunities and growth. With the shortage of face masks in the spring, we moved quickly to produce tens of thousands of masks to meet customers’ needs and to donate to childcare centers open to essential workers around the nation. Then we actually won a federal contract to provide over 120,000 customized masks for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Anthony Fauci even wore one of our masks at a recent Senate hearing. We are now in the process of negotiating a federal contract to produce another 100,000 masks for federal employees as well. I’m so thankful for how we’ve been able to utilize our resources to produce sustainable face masks for the nation.
We also began hosting webinars, which were interactive opportunities to not only get to know our audience, but also to provide them with something valuable rather than a sponsored post on social media. It was a great chance for us and the Emilia George community, many of whom were expecting during this uncertain time, to get hands-on advice, support, and resources from doctors and authors who not only work with mothers but are mothers themselves. It was super rewarding to receive positive feedback from those who attended.
We were still able to launch our Fabrics Matter collection in the summer, and there were, of course, a lot of moving parts to plan the launch of a new collection during a pandemic. Plus, being pregnant at the time, this collection meant something extra special for me. Rather than casting models for the collection, we used real women whom we crowdsourced via an Instagram campaign. We let them choose their favorite pieces from the collection and we provided photo guidelines so we could make the photos look cohesive on our site.
The images were so organic and raw and exceeded our expectations. It actually made me want to continue creating content this way. My number one priority is that our brand projects positive and genuine energy, and I am so happy we were able to achieve that with these photos.
Most recently, we launched on Amazon, and are proud to be in alignment with Amazon’s Climate Pledge.
What has it been like to secure funding for Emilia George? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
I was extremely lucky and fortunate to have been able to self-fund. Plus, I have a great network of people who have helped me on my journey to build Emilia George. My mom, who has since retired, has over 15 years of experience in the textile industry and truly believed in my mission. She has always been my biggest supporter, and I feel very blessed to have also had her to invest in this brand.
Toward the end of 2020, I started my own investment arm, Mother Funder, as I am truly passionate about working with more “mompreneurs” who are like-minded! If there is anything I have learned in my first year as an entrepreneur, it’s that having great ideas does not require a substantial amount of money, but sometimes you just need a little bit of help to see your idea come to fruition. So I wanted to provide a way for women entrepreneurs to have a leg up. In November 2020, we closed our first investment deal with Markid, a baby products buy/sell platform, which was started by a couple of fellow parents.
Looking forward, where do you see Emilia George in five years?
When launching Emilia George, I quickly realized the learning curve was very steep. Especially trying to get through the pandemic, it dawned on me that Emilia George was doing much more than producing and providing clothes. I have been and continue to be determined to make Emilia George a maternity brand that stands out from the rest.
As far as our products, I would love to get to a place where we can build on our sustainable options. I’m not sure what it looks like yet, but I think Emilia George has the ability to innovate and improve the sustainable fashion industry, and I look forward to seeing how we can achieve that. All in all, I have found that what I want to accomplish with Emilia George is far more than our clothing. I want to do more for the motherhood community through mentoring, investing, and overall making moms’ voices heard.
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