Sarah LaFleur - CEO & Founder @ MM.LaFleur
"Whatever my job was, I wanted to make it my passion. For most of my twenties, I was driven to find the purpose that would fulfill me in life."
Meet Sarah LaFleur, CEO & Founder of MM.LaFleur. After testing the waters in consulting and non-profit work, Sarah committed herself to following her passion for entrepreneurship. This led her to found MM.LaFleur, a women's clothing brand that believes, "When women succeed in the workplace, the world becomes a better place." We chatted with Sarah about her inspiration for MM.LaFleur, how she made early business decisions, and why a leader's optimism is important to success.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Paris and grew up mostly overseas. My dad was American and a diplomat with the U.S. State Department, and my mother was Japanese and a businesswoman. My dad’s work took us to many countries, but whenever my parents could choose, we lived in Japan. I spent a good portion of my childhood in Tokyo, Taipei, and Kuala Lumpur.
What was your early professional path and what led you to found MM.LaFleur?
I never thought about entrepreneurship initially. Whatever my job was, I wanted to make it my passion. For most of my twenties, I was driven to find the purpose that would fulfill me in life.
When I started my career, I worked in management consulting and then private equity. As a young professional, I had trouble finding well-made, comfortable workwear at a price point I could afford. The shopping process was stressful and inconvenient. I was working 70-80 hours a week, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend my spare time browsing racks of suits in a department store. After talking to my female peers, I realized I wasn’t the only one who was struggling to build a great work wardrobe.
My mother had worked in high fashion when I was growing up, and through her, I got to see and feel what beautiful clothes looked like. I always was so disappointed with the clothes I ended up wearing to work. I wondered, can you take a piece of clothing that could be sold for thousands of dollars, and sell it for a fraction of the price by cutting out the middleman?
When we launched MM.LaFleur in 2013, we made it our goal to help professional women harness the power of self-presentation—and to rethink the shopping process altogether. Not only do we design our collection in-house (led by our brilliant Creative Director and co-founder Miyako Nakamura), but we integrate personal styling into the shopping experience. This allows us to offer luxury clothing that is practically and thoughtfully designed at a direct-to-consumer price point.
Could you share with us some of your early business decisions? How do you think about making key business decisions and how would you advise others on making those decisions early on?
Since our launch in 2013, we’ve lived by ten MM values that have been the guiding force in all that we do. One particularly relevant value is the Japanese concept of “kizukai,” which means we treat each other with compassion and try to anticipate each other’s needs. This sense of empathy and understanding also extends to the way we serve our customer. We are always trying to better understand her so that we can serve her in increasingly innovative ways.
What has your path been since then scaling the business? How do you overcome new challenges as you think about growing a company that has already gotten amazing early traction?
Our growth was not a foregone conclusion. In our first two years, we struggled to scale because we were trying to do so through a traditional e-commerce model. Then, we had a revelation that has continued to shape our business: Our customer is too busy to shop. It’s not how she wants to spend her time. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, because the culture at large (and much of the fashion industry) assumes that women enjoy shopping. But many don't! Our customer makes decisions all day at work—she doesn’t want to spend mental energy on building her wardrobe. We recognized that and then built our brand around it. From our product, to our service, to our marketing, we acknowledge women who are too busy to shop and would rather outsource that part of their lives to us.
Our selling point really is threefold: luxury workwear that is both practical and elegant, complimentary personal-styling (available online and off), and content that resonates with the multidimensional woman of purpose. All three pillars allow us to uniquely address the needs of professional women in a nuanced way.
What are your goals for MM.LaFleur and what are you hoping to do with the business?
Our focus right now is work clothing, but our larger mission is based on our core belief: When women succeed, the world becomes a better place. In the future, we hope to expand into additional products and services that will help women to achieve their goals at work and beyond.
How have you developed your own view of leadership, and what does it mean to you to be a good leader? How does it inform your work as CEO?
I tell everyone that I have no idea what I am doing. I have a list of four guiding principles for the company (I stole this from Jeff Bezos), but I am flexible on the details, so long as you maintain these principles. My job is to continue reiterating these four core principles. One of them is that we treat our customers as we do our friends, with authenticity and sincerity. That means no gaming our customers- we don’t do discounts, and we only do one sale at the end of the year to our loyal customers.
At a very early stage of the company we wrote 10 core values, and I see it as my responsibility to set the tone for the values, which we continue to follow to this day.
The advice I give other startup entrepreneurs and CEOs is, ‘If you are not in a good mood, then don’t go to work, because you will do more damage than good.’ You are the cheerleader of the company -- if you can’t be upbeat, if you can’t be excited about the future of the company, than you have no business setting foot in the company. The way you feel permeates throughout the entire organization, and I try to hold myself to the highest standard.
I think that writing it out is key. If you put it down on paper, you have to think through what it really is that you are trying to say. Your values are one of them. You can’t cheat out of your values, you have to write down clear sentences and know exactly what you mean.
We would love to hear about M Dash. Why did you start it? Why do you think it is important to build an online community beyond the retail experience?
For us it is more than a marketing tool, the M Dash serves a greater purpose. There was this conversation that was missing about working women. It is no longer the case, but back in 2011, it was. Growing up in Japan, the leading fashion magazines that drove sales were ones where the models were pretending to be professional women. Growing up as a young girl, I couldn’t wait to be a professional woman - it looked so cool. There was a real aspirational quality about becoming a working woman. When I moved to the US, I didn’t see that represented in the media or in fashion magazines.
The M Dash was born out of that idea -- to make content that inspires, informs and celebrates working women.
Lastly, MM.Lafleur’s mission is “Take the work out of dressing for work.” What does that mean to you and why is it important to you?
Two things. One big theme is time. I think about getting ready for work in the morning. I get up an hour earlier than my husband, because it takes me an extra hour to get ready. We want to make it easy for women so she is not staring at her closet thinking, “I have nothing to wear.”
The other is that clothing is transformational. The power of self presentation is real! I think it has the power to change not only the way other people think about you, but the way you think about yourself. Why do doctors put on a white coat? It is not because they are practical, but because it signifies power and respect. We could use the power of costume to change people’s attitudes about professional women and to also help professional women feel inspired every day.
What is an industry trend you are most excited about?
Who is a female entrepreneur or investor that you would most like to meet and chat with?
What is your spirit animal?
A dolphin. I love the water.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Show up and be dependable. You don’t always have to have a homerun.
Want to learn more? Check out MM.LaFleur here!