Inspired by the power of a gorgeous gown to boost self-esteem, CAROL CHEN, founder of dress rental service Covetella, is on a mission to make women look and feel beautiful. We chat in her new showroom about the brand’s special makeover, startup life and how to bounce back from failure.
You’re a serial entrepreneur who worked on a number of startups before Covetella. What has your journey taught you?
Being an entrepreneur is a lot like getting on a rollercoaster and going with it, even when you want to get off. The first startup I was a part of experienced rapid success then eventual failure. My second steadily grew into the millions, and the third never really took off. My fourth startup, Covetella, has been almost three years in the making and is still a challenge every day.
These experiences have not only taught me how to effectively run a business, but also helped me become more tenacious, resilient and resourceful. I’ve learnt that many people are willing to help you, and that the ability to adapt quickly and stay positive is key. Also, most things don’t turn out as planned, and anything is possible if you believe in yourself and are willing to put in the work to make it happen.
What inspired Covetella’s concept, and why choose Singapore as its launch market?
I fell in love with Singapore after doing a brief consulting project here and was looking for opportunities to stay. When I went back to Texas over the holidays, my mum asked me what I was going to do with all the dresses in my closet from my pageant days, so I decided to bring them back to Singapore to see if I could sell or rent them out.
Eventually, I discovered that most women here fall into two categories: those with closets full of special occasion dresses they rarely wear, and those who only need one occasionally. So I created Covetella as Singapore’s first fashion rental marketplace, and it all grew from there.
You’ve talked about Covetella making women feel beautiful. Tell us a bit more about that concept and your new showroom.
I was very shy growing up and didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, so I asked my parents if I could enrol in modelling school to learn how to be like the glamorous girls I saw in the magazines. Sure enough, the better I looked the better I felt about myself. I also realised how empowering a simple dress could be.
Since then, it’s been my personal mission to help all women look and feel beautiful, and we opened a new showroom this year to provide a better shopping experience with personalised styling advice. My team and I love playing fairy godmother, and seeing someone’s face light up when she finds that perfect dress.
How receptive are people here to the dress rental “sharing economy” concept, and how do you see this evolving?
It was tough in the beginning, but women have started to realise that renting is a good alternative if you appreciate variety and tend to wear a garment only once or twice. It’s also more economical, but most people don’t come to Covetella to save money; they come because we’re a convenient one-stop shop and have an amazing collection of styles they can’t find anywhere else. We still sell dresses to those who prefer to keep them, but there is definitely a trend towards experience over ownership.
How have you learnt to bounce back from failure?
By accepting that it’s part of the process. There is no success without failure, no achievement without struggle, no triumph without defeat. The latter is just what prepares you for the former – the growing pains required in order to learn lessons and grow stronger. I’ve endured so many personal and professional failures (some of which I felt I could never recover from), but once you make it through a few dark tunnels, I guess you develop the faith that there will always be light at the end of the next one. I also think that you never really fail unless you fail to try, and I’ve learnt to embrace my setbacks by using those experiences to help others.
You come across as strong, driven and motivated. Have you always been this version of Carol, or is she the result of a culmination of experiences?
I think that watching my Taiwanese parents build themselves up from humble beginnings had a profound impact on me. As immigrants in the US, they faced many challenges like language and racism, and many setbacks in their multiple businesses, but they managed to overcome the odds and become respected leaders in their community while also being amazing parents. I get a lot of my strength and courage from their unconditional love and support, and my motivation comes from feeling that I need to make the most of all the blessings I’ve been given. So many people don’t even have food to eat, much less the opportunities I’ve had, so I’m driven to live life fully and give back to the world as much as I can.
In light of the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal, what would you say to women who have suffered from sexual victimisation?
As the #MeToo campaign illustrated, I would remind them that we are not alone – and we are stronger than we think. We are not what happens to us; we are whatever we choose to be. We shouldn’t feel we have to be scared, or be ashamed, or remain a victim. We should write our stories in a way that serves us and let go of everything else. No one can take away your power over yourself, so don’t let anyone else shape you or your destiny.
As an entrepreneur, time is precious. Is there anything you wish you had more time for?
Everything! Exercising, travelling, hanging out with friends, reading, volunteering, hobbies… the list goes on. Because our product is consumer-facing and our team is small, I feel a constant need to be maximising opportunities to grow our business around the clock. But I do try to lead as balanced a life as possible, and the nice thing about being your own boss is having the flexibility to set your own schedule, hire people you enjoy working with, and do work that you love.
Finally, is there a mantra that you live by?
You only live once – make it count.
Make-up: Kelly Bilimoria | Photography: Michael Bernabe
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