Many women consider pregnancy to be one of the most exciting times of their lives as they expectantly await the arrival of another tiny human to mold and shape. But, it can also be one of the most challenging periods for others – the body changes and with that comes the chore of trying to find clothes that fit and look good at the same time.
Leung to the rescue.
While studying the entrepreneurial track at UCLA Anderson School of Management, Leung was looking to launch a company that had a purpose, one she could “stand behind.” One day while driving to class debating a couple business ideas, she heard a segment on the radio about waste. Specifically, that 15 million tons of textile waste is thrown into landfills every year in the U.S. The announcer further stated that if you calculated that to per person, it’s over 75 pounds of clothing.
Leung had once worked in the fashion industry so she knew there were a lot of inefficiencies. However, the volume stated in the segment took her aback.
“I thought, ‘I’m not throwing that much away, but I guess other people are.’ And then I thought about it. You buy something from Forever 21 or H&M and it’s super cheap. But, you get a hole or a rip in it or it’s out of style and you’re like ‘Eh, it was just like $5, $10, $20. Alright, I don’t need it anymore. I could throw it away and have some space in my closet.’”
Then, she thought about her pregnant girlfriends who were struggling to justify paying for clothing, particularly professional maternity attire, which they’d only wear for a few months.
“They had to sacrifice how they look by going to a lot cheaper options that they knew they would end up either tossing away or giving to someone,” Leung says.
From that, she surmised that a viable option would be to rent quality maternity clothing that they could cycle through as their pregnancy progressed and their bodies grew into different sizes.
The result? BellaNove´ or “beautiful nine,” a membership-based, e-commerce service that allows women to rent sophisticated and professional maternity clothing rather than pay for new clothes. The company offers three membership levels – Starter, Enhanced, and Ultimate – with packages priced from $129/month for five items to $199/month for 12 items. But, they don’t have to remain tied to one membership; they have the ability to switch between memberships month to month.
This fashion rental model isn’t new, with companies like Rent the Runway (possibly the most recognized fashion rental web site), Gwynnie Bee, and Armoire leading the way. La’na in Australia is for pregnant women or those who recently had a baby and also has its own in-house label.
BellaNove´ has been well received by its target market beyond the obvious fashion reasons.
“[Customers] were telling me things like ‘I feel beautiful again.’ Or ‘You’ve given me my confidence back.’ Or ‘My husband says I look amazing and I’m seven months pregnant and I wasn’t feeling beautiful in my own skin anymore.’ There’s almost an emotional side to it that I realized, fashion has always been a way that we express ourselves. When you put on something that makes you look good, you feel good. And that brings a different confidence to you in the way that you present yourself; the way you move,” Leung says.
One of the biggest challenges Leung has faced has been juggling a full-time job, graduate school and starting her company. “I was thinking, ‘Either I stay with my high potential to grow in this position in this company or I choose to put my life savings in here and try out this new venture.’ It was hard because steady income versus completely knowing nothing. But as we started beta testing, meaning we actually bought stuff that we thought was work appropriate and having real pregnant women try our things. That’s kind of where it tipped over to the other side.”
As part of her entrepreneurial journey, Leung has participated in several pitch competitions, including the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council’s (WBENC) Student Entrepreneur Program in June at the WBENC National Conference & Business Fair in Detroit, Michigan. Leung was one of 21 students participating in the SEP and a finalist in the EY Competition. Although she didn’t win, it was a valuable experience.
“The program was super helpful in actually growing the business and talking through with other people who had the entrepreneurial mind, as well, to help unblock some things if you have some challenges. We got to utilize each other’s thought process, like our constructions or experience to really help open up our eyes to specific challenges that we might have or solutions that could be there,” she says.
Leung, the daughter of immigrants, was born in Hong Kong but came to the U.S. at three years old with her parents and younger sister. Her parents basically left everything in Hong Kong to pursue better opportunities in the U.S. for their daughters, a fact that has had a profound impact on Leung.
“They saw [that] with two girls, over there probably wasn’t going to give us the best opportunity. So they brought us here and they didn’t know how to speak English,” she says. “We weren’t well off or anything like that. But seeing my parents’ work ethic and how hard they work inspired me to think that I can do it. I feel like it’s an ode to them in a way where they’re giving me this chance. I better take this chance.”
And she has.