GET TO KNOW WBENC STUDENT ENTREPRENEUR PROGRAM Finalist JENNY Leung of BellaNove
As the daughter of immigrants, Jenny Leung jokes that she didn’t have any choice but to become an entrepreneur. When she was just three years old, her parents left everything they knew in China to start a new life in the United States, primarily to give Jenny and her sister the opportunity to succeed. Rest assured, she has taken the opportunity and run with it.
While working full-time in the corporate world and studying for her MBA, Jenny founded BellaNove, a membership-based maternity wardrobe service, which gives any expecting mom access to a closet full of quality and sophisticated maternity clothes she can rent, wear and return. The concept ensures women still have access to stylish clothing, while pregnant, helps them save money on buying expensive (and temporary) maternity clothing, and helps contribute to the more sustainable practice of clothing rental to avoid contributing more textile waste when clothing is worn and eventually thrown out.
Jenny was a finalist in the 2018 WBENC Student Entrepreneur Program (SEP), which took place in June during the WBENC National Conference & Business Fair in Detroit, Michigan. As the premier startup program for collegiate female founders, SEP fosters growth for the next generation of women-owned businesses through a tailored entrepreneurial curriculum, mentorship, and a pitch competition, where students compete for $20k in seed capital. Jenny came in sixth place out of 22 incredible female founders
We interviewed Jenny to learn more about the inspiration behind business, her advice for other entrepreneurs, and what’s next for BellaNove.
What inspired you to start your business?
Having a lot of badass career women girl friends who experience the miracle of pregnancy! Just think of someone you’ve seen recently who was pregnant and you can imagine that she is literally growing out of her clothes. My friends struggled with wanting to still look great (as they always have) but seeing the high prices for more chic and sophisticated maternity wear that they would only need for a few months, not to mention the time required out of their already busy day to find stylish clothing. There just had to be a better way. Then, I had an aha! moment: “Why not rent your maternity wardrobe?” By renting, the selection and quality have already been vetted, it’s a much more sustainable way of consuming, and we can triple her product selection at half the cost of purchasing!
What has the entrepreneurship journey looked like for you so far?
A lot of hard work but also a lot of fun! When I started BellaNove, I was also working full-time in corporate America while doing my MBA part time. I’m busier now that I’ve ever been before though! Every day is a new adventure complete with its setbacks and celebrations. It took over a year to start gaining validation, meaning there were a lot of rejections along the way. But just like any other entrepreneur and their startup, I love what BellaNove has set out to do and just kept pushing forward, one step at a time. If you believe in what you’re doing, don’t give up just because of a few nos. As of today, I’ve been featured on Forbes and BellaNove was just recently listed on Babylist’s Best Maternity Clothing Subscription and Rentals of 2018.
What has been the toughest part of being a young female entrepreneur?
BellaNove is in a unique situation as, according to research, zero men have ever been pregnant! So our product is not only for females, it’s for females during an experience that only females have. When I first starting pitching the idea to investors or seasoned business owners (mostly older males), I received a lot of simple questions back because they didn’t understand the problem and couldn’t relate. I didn’t take it as ignorance, I took it as an opportunity for me to recraft my message to my audience. So now I start off with asking them to think about a friend, sister, colleague, or significant other who was pregnant. It helps visualize the physical changes these women’s bodies are going through and why a service such as BellaNove is needed.
What has been the most rewarding part of being a young female entrepreneur?
Simply as an entrepreneur, we have this opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life.
What three traits define you?
I’m mission-driven: I do what I do because I want to help others
I’m curious: I always want to learn more (and, in turn, be able to do more)
I’m fearless: I will at least try for and ask for what I want even if it seems impossible. Because what’s the worst that can happen? I get a no?
What or who inspires you?
My parents! We immigrated here when I was 3 and growing up I saw my parents struggle to put a hot meal on the table every night. But every day they would get up and work hard and give gratitude for the opportunity to be in America. They would also always do the right thing, even if it was the hard thing to do. So while we may have grown up poor, we grew up rich in values. Especially having two girls, they knew our chances in China would not have been fair, so they sacrificed everything they knew to give us the chance at the American dream.
What is one thing you wish people better understood about your industry or business?
With our generation being so familiar with the shared economy model (i.e. Uber and Airbnb) and caring about sustainability, clothing rental will one day become the norm. If you didn’t know this, Americans throw away 15 million tons of textile waste to landfills every year translating to 75 pounds of clothing per person! Much of this is due to fast fashion, where cheap items are bought and tossed when they break or owners run out of space. Not only is this extremely wasteful, it will also take over 200 years for clothing to biodegrade. In that process, it releases toxic fumes into our atmosphere. This is why clothing rental not only makes sense for our customers, but it also makes sense for our planet.
Where do you see yourself in one year? How about 5 years?
I actually recently made a 10-year plan complete with timeline blocks for my professional life as well as my personal life (I highly encourage you to do this exercise too)! In a year I will have scaled BellaNove across the nation, be very involved in the entrepreneurial community, and have learned a new language. In 5 years, I will have either expanded BellaNove into an ecosystem of services for working mothers or have started a second company. I will be a board member on several startups and serve as a mentor to many others. I will have picked up another language and hopefully have started a family of my own because I can’t wait to be a BellaNove model!
What advice would you give to other female founders just starting their business?
Do it!!! I really believe that everyone has the potential of pursuing this even if it’s not within their immediate reach. I didn’t have much growing up, but I had the conviction to find ways to put myself in a position where I would be able to pursue the startup life. And while you’ll run across people who may not believe in you, you will also meet people who do and will push you towards your dreams. There is a movement of successful women helping the next generation of successful women so just know that you are not alone. Be fearless, and know that you have an advocate in us all.
How did you first learn about the WBENC Student Entrepreneur Program?
It was in a newsletter that my MBA school’s entrepreneurship group puts out every few weeks.
How would you describe your experience?
Phenomenal, supportive, inspiring! I’ve attended several conferences in the past (some for females only too) and have never felt as much comradery, excitement, and pay-it-forward sentiments as with WBENC. This is truly a group to build your village and mastermind group with.
What did you learn during the program that will help you grow your business?
First, the network was invaluable. I connected with so many people, organizations, and companies that could employ BellaNove’s services in some capacity – even sponsoring us as a maternity benefit. Working with and shadowing my corporate sponsor Walmart was also an eye-opening experience to learn how business is done at that scale, and my WBENC mentor Patricia was such a great role model. I’m working on carrying her energy and professionalism into my own leadership style.
What’s next for you and BellaNove?
Well, take over the world of course!
Now that I’ve graduated from my MBA program, I’m fully immersed into BellaNove and want to take it to new heights while also bringing up everyone else I meet along the way. The entrepreneurial community is so collaborative and I am constantly inspired by the things people are doing to solve problems in the world. I love brainstorming with and connecting entrepreneurs to help them towards their goals. When we all advance together, we all win.