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Q&A with CEO Vienne Cheung

From office cubicle to fashion empire.

Edie Ravenelle
Q&A with CEO Vienne Cheung
Vienne Cheung (Photo: Ted Ancher photo)

Entrepreneur Vienne Cheung chose a Cambridge setting for her latest photo shoot because she sees VienneMilano, her online boutique dedicated exclusively to thigh-high stockings, as having the same venerable yet contemporary vibe. “When I started VienneMilano I wasn’t looking to launch and flip the next million dollar company,” explains Cheung. “I wanted to build a company with a product that would make the American woman feel more comfortable, more confident. I wanted the American woman to experience thigh highs the way that European women and I see them — as an affordable, luxurious and more hygienic choice than pantyhose. To do that, I knew I had to change the perception of thigh-highs as something that’s just for the bedroom.”

In just two and a half years, Cheung’s company is both profitable and on its way to bringing thigh highs from the bedroom to the boardroom. Her latest collection features bright colors and lighter fabrics that are easy to wear at work and after-hours.

Cheung, who earned a BA from UMass Boston and an MBA from Bentley University, comes to the fashion world after working in the corporate world and at ASPIRE, a grassroots nonprofit that helps Asian American girls and young women develop career and leadership skills.

Banner Biz asked her how she became a successful niche entrepreneur in an industry dominated by established brands like La Perla and Wolford.

How did your corporate and nonprofit experience impact your approach to VienneMilano?

If not for all my work experience, I would not be who I am now. My very first job was with a small dot-com and I wanted to go back to that, but to my own venture. Working at a grass-roots nonprofit, I learned to build a team with a limited budget. I definitely believe that running a startup and a nonprofit requires the same ability to try everything you can think of to make it work. For instance in a small nonprofit you might be asking donors for funding that they’ve previously directed to a larger, well-known nonprofit. So you have to think creatively how to reach them and convince them that you are worthy of their time and money.

With VienneMilano, I’m running up against huge advertising budgets from La Perla and Wolford and I have to think creatively how to reach my market. One way we’ve done that is to work with models who are more like real women — not super tall or super thin — and we try to bring their story out as well. On our website (VienneMilano.com) there’s a section that describes our model as a full-time realtor who models on the side.

One of ASPIRE’s main messages stuck with me: You have to let go of your insecurity to try different things and be fearless in order to succeed. I really believe that thigh-highs are the way for American women to feel free, confident, elegant, playful and sexy.

What’s your number one piece of advice to make it as an entrepreneur?

I think attitude is everything; you can’t let your fears and concerns get in the way. Perseverance is key. It may take six, seven, eight years and you just have to keep at it. You also have to have some idea of how business works: cost and profit margins, marketing, finance. My parents are from Hong Kong, which is a very capitalistic city, and my dad still has his own business there. It’s in the auto industry so not really relevant to my business, but I really appreciate what he built and I’ve learned from him. Both of my parents were very encouraging.

Did you have an “uh-oh, this isn’t going to work” moment about VienneMilano?

Yes! You definitely have to be mentally balanced and thick-skinned and not have everything go into drama mode. When we launched, our prices were twice what they now are. But our first-year sales, despite great marketing and media coverage, showed us that our prices were too high for our American market. So we slashed them and waited. You ask yourself, “Gosh have I made the right decision?” By lowering our prices we were able to reach a broader audience willing to give our product a try.

Let’s talk about funding. How did you handle access to capital as a startup?

I met my investor a little more than four years ago. Through conversations with him he said, “If you are willing to do the work, I’ll back it up.” He told me that sometimes you invest in people. He set a certain budget and is now getting a return on his investment. There are many places you can go to ask for angel funding, but I think it’s always essential to be able to make people believe in you, in what you can do.

On a personal level, when I left corporate America I was making over six figures, which allowed me to live life differently than what I have today.. You have to be willing to adjust so you can build something great and fulfilling, but higher risk.

I’ve met other women entrepreneurs who have the luxury of a rich husband or father and don’t have to worry about paying the rent. But there are many women who don’t have that and still have the confidence to cut loose and go for it. Their business growth might be slower, but they still get there. However a woman finances her business, she needs to have something financially to fall back on, some level of savings.

And what about funding now that you are a few years in? What’s next for you and for VienneMilano?

Now [my business partner and I] are actively seeking additional sponsors to grow the business to the next stage. To get into department stores requires repackaging the product and more expensive marketing. I’m also looking for a representative for my brand — like an Isabella Rossellini who represents Lancome — obviously less high-profile, but someone who believes in what we do and has the public appeal to represent the product long-term. I ultimately want to become a million-dollar company. My business partner reminds me daily: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. He’s been an amazing, constant support.

For the past two years I’ve been a partner in Motu Novu [motunovu.com]. It’s an international professional services firm that works with entrepreneurs to conceptualize, evaluate, refine and execute their new business ideas. It was one of those opportunities that presented itself. I had done projects with them and they liked my work. It’s definitely built my knowledge and provides me with a way to have an impact.