Vanessa Youshaei is a fierce entrepreneur who is the CEO and Founder of Petite Ave, and she uses her experiences to determine how she runs her company.
Youshaei is a first-generation American, and as the daughter of immigrant parents, she watched them struggle with learning the language, making connections and understanding how things in the United States really worked. All the while, Youshaei was facing her own challenges at school with an overlooked learning disability. It wasn’t until she was a junior in high school that it was diagnosed. “It went undiagnosed because I just worked so hard and people didn’t notice,” she recalled. “Or maybe it was because I went to a private school and they just didn’t have the resources for that, and so at the time it was really, really tough…” Years later, she left her job at Google and became an entrepreneur yearning to start her own business.
Vanessa Youshaei, photographed by Matt Garamy.
Youshaei is a hard worker. Other than the struggle of finding clothing that fit, it was her father who also inspired her. “My dad has his own business so that was definitely a big inspiration for me since I was young,” she said. “I’m five feet tall and I’ve always had trouble finding clothing that fit.” The petite community is underserved in a lot of stores, and Youshaei recounted always seeing a limited selection or unstylish choices.
After spending money on one too many alterations and hunting for the perfect outfit, she began doing research on other brands carrying petite sizes. “I started discovering a lot more brands whether it was in the United Kingdom or a smaller boutique and I thought… Why not have one destination where women under 5’5 can come, shop and find all of the options,” she explained. The online store has partnerships with larger brands like Express, Ann Taylor, Bloomingdale’s and Dorothy Perkins. Customers can shop from all of these stores on one site.
Though Youshaei is proud of her accomplishments, she also admits struggling when it came to leaving her job and building the right team to turn her dream into a reality. “At first it was definitely challenging because I was so used to the Google lifestyle,” she answered.“They usually call it the ‘golden handcuffs’ because you have these top amenities, very structured days, a very cushy lifestyle and [it’s] hard to leave.” The move to entrepreneurship was a new experience, but a harder transition. “I left and all of a sudden I had to figure out my health insurance and how to structure my own days.” When she was testing the idea of having an online store targeting petite women, Youshaei felt motivated by the flood of messages coming in. Women were excited about her business. “I received so many messages from women saying: ‘oh my God; Thank God petite women are getting attention! Why hasn’t this happened before?’” she recalled. “Or people would say I had this idea and I’m so glad someone is doing it.” Already, women were reaching out and explaining how much this was needed in their lives.In the process of doing what she enjoyed– building a company –Youshaei also battled and overcame an illness. Both the illness and disability impacted how she ran Petite Ave. Referring to herself as an “empathetic” manager, she leads by listening and encouraging her team. “I always want [them] to feel like they’re part of the conversation and [that] what they have to say is important,” she said. Because of her past experiences, she included a feature page on Petite Ave’s website to make it a more inclusive community. The website has a diverse range of women who are selected and showcased with a photo and bio. “To me, it’s so important to have this inclusive community [because] I didn’t have that.” Youshaei paused for a moment. “Speaking more broadly to the petite community, I think petite women [are] excluded from the fashion industry,” she observed. “I want Petite Ave to be this champion for women under 5’5 regardless of their background, body shape or anything like that…that’s my ultimate vision”. Yes, the industry is getting better, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Youshaei offers advice to first-generation Americans who may have gone through similar experiences. “You have entrepreneurship kind of in your blood and all around you as a first-generation American,” she advised. “That should definitely give you the inspiration and grit to start your own business.” Unlike her parents when they first moved to the U.S. years ago, she speaks English, has connections and understands how things work. Youshaei believes, like immigrants, founders also have to figure everything out as they go.She admits to making mistakes on the road to success. Youshaei also advises new founders to pick the right team. “You can’t do everything yourself [and] I definitely had a few missteps where I hired the wrong people and it just slowed things down or, we weren’t getting things done,” she said. “Once you have the right people onboard it makes your days so much easier and more enjoyable, but you’re also able to build a company that much more quickly.”
Since the founding of Petite Ave, there are a lot of features that they are looking to create or improve, including the following:
Youshaei hopes to incorporate clothing from the regular section as well, not just from the petite section.
Why? “We want to find those things for you so we can make things so much easier,” she explained. “We’ll find things that may have shorter inseams or shorter waists and pull those onto our site.”
The site is more than just an online shopping hub. The company hopes to offer tools that guide their customers when they purchase items. Located on their page is a body shape filter, designed to filter items. “I think a lot of people question how [it] works or why [a] certain piece of clothing looks best on [them], so we really want to give a lot of guidance around that, and other things like how to accessorize your clothing,” she exclaimed.
In part with the features, they are looking to create an empowering community of petite women who support each other and ultimately create a movement to influence manufacturers, brands and the fashion industry. Youshaei is amazed by the revolution of acceptance with the plus size community. “If you look at what happened to the plus size community, not too long ago, it’s just amazing,” she expressed. “There’s really been a breakthrough in that space and I’m hoping that we can do the same thing with petite women.”This is just the beginning for Youshaei. If not for Petite Ave, what else would she do? She would democratize healthy living or make an impact with organizations that help students with learning disabilities. “One of the great things about entrepreneurship, [is] if you build a really successful company and you are somebody of influence, then you can actually make an impact at a much larger level,” she said. “Whether that means you invest, influence politics, or do other things because you know so many people and have already made a mark with your company.”
There is a lot in store for Youshaei, whether she is doing research to minimize the number of food deserts in the U.S. or giving motivational speeches and donating money to organizations focusing on kids with learning disabilities.
“I would love to use my influence to make an impact with that community once I’ve been successful with Petite Ave.”
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.