Trisha Bantigue and Kathy Zhou are two former pageant queens who knew intimately the struggles of purchasing expensive formalwear on a budget. In 2019, the two started Queenly, an online marketplace for affordable formalwear for weddings, black tie events, prom and everything in between. Bantigue and Zhou also offer customers an option to sell items – so that bridesmaids dress that only got worn once can find a new home. The San Francisco, California-based entrepreneurs have been scaling up Queenly at a rapid pace since their launch –today, they have 14 employees, funding from Silicon Valley VCs, and a mentor in none other than Julie Wainwright, the founder of The RealReal.
Here’s our lightly edited Q&A with Bantigue, from The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project.
Tell us more about why you started your business.
Coming from minority low-income backgrounds, my co-founder Kathy and I grew up feeling that the dream of having that “fairytale Cinderella” dress was never truly attainable. Through forging friendships with other women in the pageants we competed in and working closely with countless formalwear fashion designers, we were able to start Queenly. Our company finds a home in a diverse and inclusive community of queens trying to push the boundaries of what it means to feel beautiful and confident in the modern age.
How is your business different from others in your industry?
We have built a robust search and recommendations engine so customers can find the perfect dress by color, style, hemline, neckline, and body type.
Tell us about your biggest success so far.
Being able to grow our company from scratch and now being funded by some of the most prestigious VCs in Silicon Valley [including Andreessen Horowitz, which led a $6.3 million funding round in July 2021]. We’ve had incredible growth the past three years, despite the pandemic. We’ve also hired amazing people who believe in our mission and are extremely talented.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
Whenever we reach a new stage of our business, it means venturing into the unknown. I’ve had the challenge of scaling up our team, our operations, our marketing and our product building – it’s also rewarding and fun at the same time. I love being able to learn new things and grow my skill set as a manager and as a CEO. I’ve addressed it by simply tackling things head on, collaborating with my cofounder, asking our investors and advisors for detailed advice, and also not being afraid to try out new things!
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
Earlier this year, I had a number of difficult personal situations: a friend passed away from suicide, my grandfather in the Philippines got sick, there were multiple negative comments online and on social media about the business, and all of this affected my mental health. I was able to reach out for professional help in order to take care of myself, and this has enabled me to become a better CEO for my team and my company.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with genuine advocates that will always support you and your business through the ups and downs. Your integrity and dedication to your business will continuously get tested, and so having mentors around you that “get it” and that will help motivate you will be extremely helpful. For me, I have made sure that I’ve found people that I feel so grateful for because they’ve helped me get through the toughest obstacles since starting the business.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
I try my best to anchor myself by reassuring myself that I have a really good support system. That’s really important when you venture out into something as risky and lonely as the founder path. I try to think about how my husband is here for me, how my friends have supported my vision since day one, and how my team is also on this journey with me.
What is your go-to song to get motivated on tough days?
I absolutely love any Taylor Swift song, but particularly the song “The Man.” Taylor has been a strong advocate for female empowerment in business and media, and I really resonate with her message. This song talks about how women have to work 10 times harder to just get to the same place as men. I feel this way about the startup industry and how it’s mostly skewed towards favoring male founders.
Who is your most important role model?
Julie Wainwright was introduced to me by one of our mutual investors, and she’s been helping us out for the past year. She just recently became our official advisor and I am so thankful for her. I aspire to be able to grow our company the way that she grew The RealReal, thus making sustainable fashion more the norm in tech. ◼