Sarah Sukumaran: Founder & CEO of Lilith NYC

Episode 394

Today we are joined by Sarah Sukumaran, Founder & CEO of Lilith NYC, a very cool and comfortable brand that you need to know about that aims to overhaul the women’s streetwear industry! Lilith NYC brings together design with functionality in sneaker silhouettes that are rooted in performance. The brand champions women and femmes to explore and express their style, gender, and sexuality across a spectrum. I love the back story, the products and can’t wait to hear more about Sarah’s journey in building Lilith NYC. I love the back story, the products and can’t wait for you to hear this very inspirational interview that is sure to have you racing to get your pair on! On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Sarah Sukumaran, an awesome founder and CEO of Lillith, New York City. And if you do not know about this brand, or maybe you have seen her beautiful photography that she has, with plenty of very cool and very inclusive models as well, as a part of it, you definitely need to check it out, because it is absolutely beautiful. So again, this is love New York City, a very cool and comfortable brand that is aiming to overhaul the women’s streetwear industries. So they’ve started out with incredible shoes that are so cool, and cute and comfortable. But also, they have just gone into a few other categories I noticed when I was on their website last night, so I cannot even wait to talk to Sarah about where she got this idea from all about the design. And really the brand champions women and fans to explore and express their style, Gender Sexuality across the spectrum is definitely sort of the ethos of the brand. But there’s so much more that I want you to hear about. So welcome, Sarah. Hi, Kara,

Sarah Sukumaran 2:03
thank you so much for having me today.

Kara Goldin 2:05
Super, super excited. So before we get into hearing all about your incredible brand and the great products that you’ve developed, I’d love to hear about you. And what were you doing before you decided to launch your own company?

Sarah Sukumaran 2:20
Sure. So yes, my path definitely has not been linear. My background is actually in tech. So, you know, went to business school, graduated and then ended up in the world of startups in New York in particular, really focused on just building SaaS based software analytics is kind of just you know, what I’ve learned along the job, didn’t study computer science learned kind of how to code on the job working with engineers. And my last role, I was actually Director of Product at Nike. But getting there, you know, wasn’t really from my passion of sneakers, he was actually my love of data and having worked at some of these startups over the past 1013 years. So yeah, definitely not linear for someone who’s working in footwear now.

Kara Goldin 3:03
I love it. Well, I think the best entrepreneurs actually come from different industries. And like you said, it’s not always linear linear. In fact, most of the time it isn’t right. But obviously, this was a definitely a sort of a journey in the making, as you started to go through your path and your early years. Very, very inspiring, for sure. So you are the founder and CEO of Lillith, New York City, how would you describe the brand to others who aren’t familiar with it?

Sarah Sukumaran 3:37
The way I describe it is just a global luxury footwear brand for women and femmes that is incredibly size inclusive. And you know, I started this brand, as someone who was sneaker obsessed as a child growing up in Queens, bit of a tomboy, very interested in kind of the basketball silhouettes, right? This is the early 90s, when the NBA was kind of in its prime, and players had their own signature silhouettes, and I was just needed to have them at the time. And so growing up in Queens growing up in New York, you know, sneaker culture is so you know, pervasive, it’s kind of core to who we are. But growing up, I just realized I was always having to shop in the men’s or the children’s section in the boys in particular. In my late 20s, I realized, you know, why am I doing this, I’m a grown woman, there should be product available to us, whether it’s from a size perspective, just high quality materials being used, and, you know, time and time again, I would have conversations with girlfriends and you know, we would be like, Why are we shopping in in the men’s section in the boys section where oftentimes, because the reason is because women’s version is simply a takedown, right? They use cheaper materials, stripped down performance tooling, and they simply don’t create the footwear for women in particular, it’s actually just a copycat of a male silhouette. And so that was really kind of the motivation behind the brand and you know, how I kind of describe and you know, why we why we exist today.

Kara Goldin 4:59
So, You had worked in analytics, such a great background for being an entrepreneur and actually figuring out what’s working, what isn’t working. Truly understanding measurements, for sure. And then you went in to Nike, which absolutely is, I’m sure great training to ultimately go and start your own thing. What did you see was was missing out there? Was it more about paying attention to, to women and size and colors? And all of that? Was it storytelling to inspire the consumer? I mean, what were you kind of seeing was like, sort of the core thing that you felt, I guess, fearless enough to go and start your own brand, because people were not covering this area, right.

Sarah Sukumaran 5:47
So I think as a consumer myself, I had my own kind of preconceived notions of what was not right in the market. But I think to give a little bit of context, folks need to realize that the footwear industry as a whole, right, Nike, Adidas, all these large brands, they really started out focused on the male athlete, the male consumer 4050 years ago. And it’s only been you know, and they will also operate in the wholesale business. So with that being said, that means that they truly don’t understand their consumers one to one, it’s only been in the last 567 years, that they’ve announced their Consumer Direct strategy, right, selling direct to people like Zara people like Kara, and understanding what those consumers want from them, because they’ve relied on middlemen, whether it’s a foot action, Athlete’s Foot, Foot Locker, to sell their product to consumers. So there’s been always been kind of a disconnect in terms of data. And the last, you know, five, six years, they’ve been hyper focused on selling direct kind of moving away from Wholesale production, right, they’ve cut off tons of wholesale accounts in the last few years, to learn better about their consumers. But I think, for consumers as women, we realize that the industry as a whole has always been hyper focused on the male consumer when it comes from when it comes to sportswear and footwear, when it comes to ads. So for me, you know, I had this idea to start a brand but it was more than just fixing product it was how do we also address the marketing campaigns? How do we change the way ads are done? How do we change the way editorial is because historically, I’ve always viewed women’s footwear as kind of something you show up on the basketball court, right, still kind of perpetuating the tropes of having to be a tomboy that women don’t contain multitudes that were kind of very one dimensional, and when we wear footwear, whereas, you know, as I grew, grew into my 20s, becoming a little more feminine moving away from my tomboy aesthetic, I realized I love wearing dresses, with my sneakers, I love wearing maxi dresses. And there’s there was ton of women around me who felt the same way. But we never saw ourselves in the brands that we were wearing. So when I kind of had this idea stirring in me, I was like, Okay, this is more than just having size, inclusive product, high quality product. It’s also how are we communicating and building a platform for women globally, to see themselves in a brand because historically the bat, I just felt the brands haven’t shown up for women in that way.

Kara Goldin 8:03
Yeah, definitely. And I think like you said to there’s there are situations where you might not want to be wearing heels, right? Right. And you want something cute enough, that is not your, your sneakers that you would wear on the subway and throw in your bag. And

Sarah Sukumaran 8:17
the feedback I got from women was I want the comfort of an ASICs and books that I can wear at daytime during work and then grabbing drinks with my girlfriends in the evening. So I kind of took feedback and ran with it.

Kara Goldin 8:30
I love it. So who do you think your How many pairs of shoes tennis shoes does your consumer How do you think?

Sarah Sukumaran 8:37
I think for me, I think it’s a lot actually, you know women have I’m I’m guilty of having a lot of heels and sneakers personally, I’ve moved more towards sneakers in the last few years, just you know, post COVID Being more casual working from home, I would say 50 pairs is kind of like a baseline. If I’m being honest, I think a lot of credible saved them in their in their boxes, pull them out when they have a special event special occasion. And that goes for both sneakers and and high heels.

Kara Goldin 9:05
So that’s where Lillith New York City comes in. For sure. And can you walk me through the design process and how you thought about this too, you have this incredible like the black Velcro on the side. I mean, it’s just everything about them just as so cool, and so cute and useful as well. But I’d love to kind of hear you how you thought about this.

Sarah Sukumaran 9:30
So there were three I would say primary things that we were focused on addressing because at the time of starting the company and even few years prior women in particular were very vocal about size inclusivity or the lack of size inclusivity. So I wanted to make sure that we had what’s called a full size run so we have 20 sizes we started the US Women’s five to 14 and a half all have sizes included. So that meant having a last available so Alaska is kind of the device that we use to to make every shoe so making sure we had last and every Sighs when we’re in production, the second thing was that women were paying attention. I think historically, brands have assumed that women don’t pay attention to materials, maybe just colors just aesthetics. And, you know, women were saying, hey, like, this is super cheap. This is a synthetic plastic that’s being put on my shoe, it’s fallen off. So we really wanted to index on premium leathers on so we use pebbled leather nubuck suede, things that are definitely considered luxury. But we felt that we could definitely provide women with an affordable, more affordable version than some some of the stuff on the market. And then lastly, and I think more important, most importantly, is the performance outsole tooling. So even when I was growing up, in the women’s version of a shoe, that airbag was missing, right? Because they just felt like they would use did most the cheapest version for women thought we weren’t paying attention again, going back to being focused on male consumers. So I actually use a outsole tooling from a company called V. Brom, and it’s an Italian based company, you know, it’s the yellow logo, they make the five finger shoes that everyone’s familiar with. And historically, when I when I show men and women, the brand logo, men immediately recognize it off the bat, they like, oh, yeah, I have a few shoes that use this woman, it’s brand new to them. So what I always say is I want to introduce women to the level of performance that men have enjoyed for decades. Because when you put when you put the shoes on, they’re incredibly comfortable, you feel like you’re walking on clouds. And it because it’s because the outsole is actually a high abrasion EBA outsole, it’s incredibly lightweight, just provide so much cushioning for your feet. And I always say women spend more time on their feet than men, right? We’re running around running errands, picking up our kids, you know, running back home, make dinner, like we need Comfortable shoes. And I think historically, the industry hasn’t provided that support, which of course has long term effects on our health and our knees. And so those I would say is kind of like what I started the design process off with those kind of three pillars. I didn’t want to compromise on that. Because everyone was saying it was impossible. I was like, I think we can try this. So then I had brought on a footwear development design team in 2020. So I quit my job, not knowing COVID was around the coat around the corner in March of 2020 brought on to footwear designers, and a brand agency because I felt like I couldn’t invest just in product, I had to also invest in kind of a brand ecosystem or brand ethos to really marry that together to bring it to market. So all of 2020 we work from home work remotely worked on the designs wanted to start off with a low top silhouette intent, like selfishly. So I’m five, three. And sometimes when I wear high tops silhouettes, I feel like proportions, I just look a lot more shorter for her. And just working through it, you know, back and forth with our designers over zoom getting samples made with at the time we were in China for production. And that had so many issues just with that just during COVID Production delay. Yeah. But yeah, that’s kind of how we, we kind of kicked off the design process, just like just going back and forth with samples getting feedback.

Kara Goldin 12:59
So I know that as a founder, and as an entrepreneur, we don’t always get credit for the hard things. I always use this as my example. I remember when I first was starting hint that I wanted to create a product that didn’t have preservatives in it. And all of the manufacturers said that’s impossible. And your point about using that as like fuel, right? That I just kept saying, well, could it be that they just have never thought about it, and they haven’t tried different things and, and so we ultimately figured out how to create a product using real fruit with no preservatives in it. And I was really proud of about that. But it wasn’t something that I was going to go and share with all the consumers because I wanted them to focus on other things. And and that was kind of complicated. I wasn’t afraid to talk about it. But it wasn’t sort of front and center. But it’s something that anyone who who has worked at hand knows that I it was something that I was really, really proud of, especially when it first happened. So is there anything that you feel like you’ve done internally that you’re you have done with your team? That was just hard? And everybody said, oh, you can’t do that?

Sarah Sukumaran 14:11
I think it was so while we moved production just last year over to Portugal. And I think I think like it’s the finances. I don’t talk about how I bootstrap this company. And I think consumers don’t realize how expensive like footwear is very capital intensive, it is expensive to make. It’s expensive to just convince people to have a lower MOQ for you. China just simply doesn’t make it affordable for small brands to operate. Right. They want the large 10,000 unit orders. So I think that’s what folks don’t see it’s the behind the scenes negotiations try to make it work at the MOQ is an order from every supplier right because we have mo cues from the leather components level we have it from the outsole component. It’s not just like one factory does it all there’s literally so many moving pieces that need to work in tandem to get it out the door. And I don’t think our consumers see any of that, that happens behind the scenes, they just see the finished product land on our website, and it’s ready to go. But there’s, I can’t even 1000s of WhatsApp messages, emails, just, you know, keeping track of things logistically from a global supply chain side.

Kara Goldin 15:16
That’s amazing. And you bootstrapped it as well, which, you know, again, is something that, I think, you know, there’s so many incredible entrepreneurs that you don’t have that kind of messaging available right to the consumer. But it’s something that part of the reason why I wanted to do this podcast was to share more about how people did it, because there were many points along the way where I’m sure you thought, I don’t know. I mean, I hope we’re gonna try. But we, you know, we’re not sure

Sarah Sukumaran 15:46
Oh, every day I go through a roller coaster of emotions of like, no, why did I do this? Why did I leave my comfortable job? Yeah, why did they leave a good paycheck? Those thoughts crossed my mind all the time.

Kara Goldin 15:57
Do you have a network of other entrepreneurs that kind of feed you? When you’re having those down? days? Yes.

Sarah Sukumaran 16:04
And I I’m, I tell everyone who wants to be founder like, that’s what you need to keep going. Because I have a network of great women founders in particular, who are all building in different spaces. But actually, during COVID. For the past two years, we had like a regular monthly, if not bi weekly touch base where we helped each other like whether it’s helping each other find angel investors, investors, VCs, brainstorming, like marketing strategies, like we did that. Like, I think that support system is so needed. Because otherwise it’s such a lonely journey. Like being a founder is incredibly lonely. No one understands that unless you’ve actually been in the trenches yourself. So I think surrounding yourself with folks who are in it, right, who could roll up their sleeves and understand the work is what’s gonna get you through it.

Kara Goldin 16:46
So how have you gotten the word out about liberals? NYC.

Sarah Sukumaran 16:49
So we, you know, I started organically, I was very kind of adamant about not leaning so much into Facebook ads or paid media, because we you know, cuz the cost of customer acquisition has been going up and up year after year. It’s so expensive, and especially when you have a footwear brand, like it’s just crushing your margins, right at that point. So the, when we first launched, we, you know, I did a lot of podcast kind of organically friends invited me to their sneaker platform type focused podcast, we did a bit of seating right to folks who were in the sneaker world, folks who were considered influencers, micro influencers that got the word out, they produced gorgeous content for us, tagged us in it. But everything I would say to date, just this past week, we started launching a few bit of ads for a more recent pop up. But we I think it’s been just through word of mouth. And we had a little bit of early press. Last year when we launched, some great publications covered us everything from sneaker world and just kind of lifestyle publications. But it’s been organic. And what I’ve noticed, even from our customer base, it’s repeat purchasers, right, so it’s everyone who’s purchased, the first color comes back for the second third color. So it’s kind of growing organically just from our internal network. And I think that’s great and word of mouth. But I’m hoping, you know, with the popups, and doing kind of shared work with other brands, and for example, we had the Nordstrom pop up for the month of May, that’ll also just expose us to hopefully, just their customer base as well.

Kara Goldin 18:13
That’s great. So just the month of May like you’re you’re going in Oh, that’s great. Yes. Fabrics is such a great opportunity for sure. That’s amazing. Who do you think your consumer is from an age standpoint?

Sarah Sukumaran 18:27
You know, this is an interesting one, because I think originally I was so focused on what I call the sneaker head streetwear consumer, probably in their late 20s. But hardly, you know, I’m a data person, I stare at the data, I was finding that woman sneakerheads were not purchasing from us, it was actually who I consider like the woman luxury consumer who I think is late 30s. You know, steady job, high disposable income, likes fashion, enjoy style, likes a bit of stuff that other people don’t have the streetwear consumer is very hype focused, they want what everyone else has on their feet, they want the Nike, the Adidas the Yeezy. Whereas the luxury consumers like wow, this gets, you know, they understand color theory, for example, like they understand architecture and their disciplines kind of intersect in that sense. So our consumer, I would say his late 30s. And I have a consumer who actually purchased for us who was 74 in Ottawa, and she reached out and was complaining about how, you know, other brands have been kind of neglected a certain age bracket and found them to be incredibly comfortable. So it’s, it’s interesting, especially like my parents, generation, a lot of my friends parents have purchased and find how incredibly comfortable shoes are so yeah, it ranges I would say late 30s And then to like, mid 60s,

Kara Goldin 19:39
what’s the hardest thing for you? i You know, I always say to people, it’s like it’s hard at every stage, right? There’s different points along the way. That especially being a first time founder, you’re learning all these things. It’s like, it’s like you’re in a game of what does it Walk the ball, right where you’re like sitting here going, you know, you’ve got, like, everything’s great at Nordstroms. And then all of a sudden you have an employee who quits, right? And you have a supplier who’s, you know, factory blows up. I don’t know. Like, I’m hopefully that never happens, by the way. But but you know, all of these things come up. And you have to be able to go with the punches and and pick yourself up again, what, what is kind of the hardest thing today for you and your stage of growth?

Sarah Sukumaran 20:35
I mean, I think it’s everything you describe, because that’s very real. I think I got lucky in that I have the startup training, right? Because I came from the startup tech world. So I was kind of, I hate to say it, I kind of thrive in chaos. It sounds very sadistic. But this is, this is how I think I’ve been trained for the last few years working in tech startups, we’ve had instances go down, because like Hurricane Sandy, I had engineers hauling up buckets of diesel to keep our servers running like so I kind of saw all of that mayhem and craziness firsthand. So I think I’m a little more able to handle everyday. But I think it’s you know, what I realized is some things you can control some things you can’t and just learning that things are out of your control. And it’s just having contingency plans, right, having backup plans, especially like, for example, China, when we realized very quickly, they fall over that they don’t have a skeleton team running production, if there’s a COVID case happening, just learning to have backup plans, I think is for me, just like planning ahead.

Kara Goldin 21:30
Yeah, no, definitely diversifying suppliers to because I think so many people in different industries learn that during COVID, that, you know, the world was on a different schedule than what we wanted it to be. So it’s, it’s always a big challenge. Along the way, what advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs knowing what you know, today about building a company, you, I mean, you’ve touched on some of this, but like, you know, it’s, it’s definitely something new every day you roll with the punches. It’s a, it’s probably more expensive than you ever thought it was going to be. And you’ve, I always tell people that with our product cans, you know, we had to pay for the caps up front and pay for, you know, the bottles and the fruit. And you know, and do all this, like, nobody really realizes that and you have to make sure that you’re going to produce something that’s going to sell. And maybe there’s a certain size that even though you have a few consumers that are a certain size, you’re going to be out of stock on it pretty quick until you actually figure out that there’s more of those consumers, but so curious, like what you would say to that,

Sarah Sukumaran 22:42
I would say, for me, I think I thought I had to wait to start this company much later. So I actually had this idea in 2015. But gate had a lot of excuses on my side not to actually, you know, take small steps to start. So I would say the first thing is like, you don’t need to quit your full time job to work on your idea, right? It can absolutely start as a side hustle. Where you can dedicate small, you know, small amount of hours a week to get that idea off the off the ground and test it right, like being able to just test it on the side without putting so much resources in. Because I think sometimes people are saying, Hey, if you’re gonna be an entrepreneur, you got to be all in right, quit your job. And I think also a lot of VCs will tell that to, you know, whether it’s women founders, etc. But that’s such a privilege to be able to quit your full time job and work on this, right? Like, I was lucky that I had a well paying job, I had savings that I can then divert to this project. But a lot of folks don’t have it, right, don’t have that privilege. And so I think, taking small steps while you are full time working, right, as long as there’s no conflict of interest, being able to do that, I think it’s just like those little steps. And then to like leaning on other founders, like reaching out to people who have been through it, who can give you advice, creating a support system, because you’re going to need that. throughout the journey. Right? You’re going to lose people who think, you know, along the way, but I think, kind of creating community, that’s going to what, that’s what keeps you going in the journey, because there’s going to be incredibly hard days ahead.

Kara Goldin 24:07
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. So the best advice that you ever got for, for your business. If there’s a person or just in general, somebody that said something to you that rings true for you today.

Sarah Sukumaran 24:22
So I had a friend who told me as many years ago, she was like, when you follow your intuition, you’re always on time. I love that. And I just that stuck with me all the time. And I have every every job I’ve done, it’s always been based on intuition. Every decision I make is based on intuition. I know that some people might sound that’s woowoo. But your gut tells you everything right? Like we know that scientifically that it does lead you in certain ways. And so yeah, I follow your intuition. You’re always on time, like don’t compare yourself to others and what other people are doing and accomplishing, like, you have your own timing and your own path and just following that.

Kara Goldin 24:54
When you think about your brand, like what impact do you hope it has on on the industry?

Sarah Sukumaran 25:00
I always just say feeling inclusive and feeling seen, right? I think I get messages. You know, we talked about this before we started recording, but getting messages from women around the world, different countries, different cultural backgrounds and say, Wow, this is the first time I’ve seen myself in this photography in this campaign in this ad. And that was what I set out to do. Because I never felt my felt seen in some of these, these other brands. And so that’s the impact that I hope to see. And I think we’re already seeing it today.

Kara Goldin 25:28
I love that. Well, thank you so much, Sarah, and everyone needs to get a pair of Lillith New York City for NYC I should say when we’ll have all the information in the show notes to you and if you’re around the Nordstroms for the month of May Are you in every Nordstrom no

Sarah Sukumaran 25:48
or in Nordstrom NYC which is the flagship flagship location, Columbus Circle on West gift is amazing in the month of May

Kara Goldin 25:55
amazing. I’ll definitely check it out for sure. And thanks so much for all your wisdom and inspiration. I mean, it’s you shared a lot and I know that there’s going to be people listening that are really going to be excited to to learn more about the product too. But thank you, Sarah, have a great rest of the week. Thank

Sarah Sukumaran 26:14
you so much Kara, again, lovely chatting with you today.

Kara Goldin 26:17
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review. And feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my book undaunted, which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening