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“You Have To Be Honest With Yourself”: Shauna Mei

The former Goldman Sachs executive recalls the bumpy path to her own startup.

“You Have To Be Honest With Yourself”: Shauna Mei

When Shauna Mei moved to the United States from western China as an eight-year-old, it was not an easy journey. Her parents had come over several months ahead of her, so she traveled alone. Her destination: Moscow, Idaho, where her father had gotten a job. Once here, Mei slept on a lawn chair set up beside her parent’s bed. She spoke no english at first and was an object of curiosity at school, in a community with limited diversity. The one subject she thrived at from the outset was math, where cultural and language differences were limited distractions.

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Mei found her way, as her parents eventually relocated to Seattle. She attended MIT, where she earned a due degree in computer science and finance, and after graduation in 2004 landed a gig at Goldman Sachs. There, once again, she found herself a bit of a fish out of water, treated a little differently.

“At that time, lots of large companies were getting refinanced, rental car companies, mattress companies, older industries. I wanted to take on these large deals, but my supervisor put me on women-connected companies. I did Tampax and then Playtex, and after that I implored him, I can do an oil-and-gas deal, and auto supply company. The next deal I got was Neiman Marcus, a luxury retailer for women.”

Mei says she faced a moment of truth. “Am I going to fight the battle to work on industries the boys work on? Or is there a competitive advantage to work on luxury fashion business that I actually understand and enjoy?”

Today Mei runs a bustling startup called AhaLife, which acts as a marketplace for high-end luxury artisans and designers. “We launched at the height of Gilt, and there was a lot of pressure from the industry to consider flash sales and a discount model. But our mission is to teach consumers to accept full price for full value.”

Mei has taken it as her mission to help artisans and designers making unique goods develop a real sustainable business. “Now we have over 2,000 brands, and we’re nearing break even. Our goals are measurable, but our mission has to do with our underlying purpose. It isn’t always measurable. My goal for the year might be to save 500 artisans from bankruptcy. But my purpose is to create a safe environment to connect discerning consumers to high quality brands.”

Mei’s embrace of this mission didn’t start at Goldman. “I didn’t have a mission at first. I was focused on building my skill set–until I found my purpose. Having immigrated from China, I learned as a child that to survive you need to find your competitive advantage.” While working on that Neiman deal at Goldman, she discovered not only inefficiencies in the industry but that “the people working in luxury were from a different background. I saw that I could bring a different perspective, and that was an advantage.”

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She left Goldman in 2006 to co-found an advisory firm for luxury goods makers, and when the economy tanked two years later and business dried up, she pleaded with a client in Sweden to hire her. “I volunteered to work at cost, I moved to Sweden, and after three months I was hired as COO. They only had about 50 people, and I spent two years there, learning how to operate a business.”

It was in Sweden that the idea for AhaLIife came to her–“my holy shit moment,” she calls it. She admits that she doesn’t know for sure if her current mission will always animate her. “You can only be as committed as you are today, you have to be honest with yourself,” Mei says. But she notes, “I wake up now, I’m very passionate about solving this problem. Some companies are built to exit; that’s not what I’m after.”

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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