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.”
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.