“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Ambika Singh of Armoire
An interview with Phil La Duke
You don’t have to know all the answers, ask for help when you need it. I don’t always have all the answers, and my answers aren’t always right, but I know I can ask for help when I need it. Nobody knows the answers to everything. Knowing that I can lean on others when I need makes me feel like I can achieve anything and teaches me to be more open to others’ ideas.
I had the pleasure to interview Ambika Singh. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School, Ambika works to make women’s lives a bit easier with Seattle-based startup- high-tech, high-touch company, Armoire, which offers a true “wardrobe as service” experience. Busy women need no longer waste hours scrolling through endless retail web pages, or feeling their way through crammed racks of clothing; for a flat monthly subscription fee, Armoire members gain access to an unlimited, curated virtual closet of high-end pieces from dresses, to sweaters, to jeans, and more. Passionate, upbeat, and success-driven, with over five years of experience in Tech Marketing, she has worked across diverse contexts in organizations both small and large, via roles in marketing, business development, product management, SEO and social media. Additionally, she played a key role in the creation of internet startups Rover.com and TravelPost.com as well as two major Microsoft product launches: Internet Explorer 8 and Windows 7. This year, Ambika was fortunate enough to be featured on the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list, in The Seattle Times, and was invited to speak at Amazon, Microsoft, American Express, Harvard Business School, MIT, and the UW Foster School of Business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?
I wanted to build a place that provided value to our customers and made people feel like they were part of a community. Community is at the core of everything we do, whether it’s for our members or our employees. I truly believe that the belief in human potential, and the ability to foster this potential, is what makes a company thrive, so I want to create an environment with no employee mold. In inclusive spaces, that allows people to be themselves and makes them happy, people can rise.
As the CEO of a startup, you have a lot of power to create an inclusive company culture from the beginning. Our staff is 90% female because most of these women found us. We’ve created a company culture that feels inclusive for women from the outside. I’ve always loved the idea of starting with a blank slate, and being able to create whatever you want from the resources you have. This is what we did with our company culture at Armoire — we focus on grit and resilience and because of this have unintentionally built diversity and inclusion into every part of our workplace culture. We wanted something that was authentic and built our community of boss ladies from the outside in. I wanted to start Armoire as a way to give back to the powerful women in my life, so we built a way to give back to and lift women across the board.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We haven’t missed a single shipping day. “Customer-centric” is such a throw-away phrase, but we know that people rely on our service and that’s what makes it a home run. When we moved the company from Boston, I had so much anxiety about getting everything right. We shipped out all the orders by 5 p.m., packed all our inventory into 12 suitcases, and dragged them by hand through the airport. Once we got to Seattle, we reordered all the inventory, packed the orders for that day, and shipped them. Even during one of the worst snowstorms Seattle has seen in years, our operations team came to work, packed the orders, and shipped them. Amazon packages weren’t even being delivered, but our member’s cases were still making it to their doorsteps.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we started having significant growth, we decided that we needed to get some Armoire swag. After some cursory research, we purchased some wine glasses with “Armoire” and our signature dress printed on them. We were so excited about our new swag and couldn’t wait to proudly present them to our members. We celebrated our wonderful glass purchase with some drinks, and put the glasses in the dishwasher for our next celebration. Upon emptying the dishwasher an hour later, we pulled out fresh glasses with peeling letters and missing dresses. We were so disappointed when we realized we had just wasted our hard-earned money on cheap glasses, and we already gave them to customers! We had made a decision without putting much thought into it. Thankfully, it was only a few glasses, and we can still laugh about the mistake today.
Specifically, what is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I realized that I knew less than I thought. I thought I would have all the necessary skills, but there is always something new to learn. This is part of why I’m so grateful for the amazing team members we have — they teach me something new everyday and come to the rescue when I don’t know what to do. I had to accept that I didn’t have all the answers and be okay with it, but I’ve learned to rely on the people around me when I need it as well.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
There are unachievable double-standards for female leaders. Women are either looked down upon for their nurturing side, or criticized for being too much of a “cut-throat” business woman. Women can win, so we need to redefine what it means to be a female leader for ourselves. As a CEO, I realized that I needed to be a real person, be myself. An authentic ethos is what drives retention and promotes inclusive environments. We created a culture where it’s okay to fail, to learn, and to grow, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t been myself.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
From my experience working with a large team, I have found it very helpful to simply believe in the people you hired. It’s been most beneficial to let leaders do things the way that they want and to sometimes take a step back and know that your way isn’t always the best. The people you are hiring are a part of your team for a reason and they have the skills and talent you need. It’s been best for me to trust that they are going to get the job done.
Who inspired/inspires you and why?
I am most inspired by the incredible women who bear the torch for female entrepreneurs. I’m incredibly grateful to have them in my community, and so many of them have paved the way for me. It is amazing to see women doing all of these amazing things; leading companies, founding companies, getting sh*t done. Being able to find role models and pattern-match myself based on the way other women have accomplished these things has made starting a company much easier. Without these women, I don’t know how I would have been able to start Armoire. I have started seeing leaders in everyone, which has been eye opening, and has driven our mission to give back to our inspiring members.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am so grateful to my mom, Rubie Singh. In our little family, we call her the Lioness. She is fiercely protective of her tribe and she would do anything for us. Knowing that she is always in my corner, and I’m not standing on my own has given me the confidence I needed to drop everything else and start Armoire.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Armoire aims to give back to the modern “boss lady” — professional women are busy, and traditional shopping is a huge cost in terms of money and time. Clothing really does change how you feel about yourself, so we give women a way to feel their best, without having to spend a fortune to keep up with trends.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You don’t have to know all the answers, ask for help when you need it. I don’t always have all the answers, and my answers aren’t always right, but I know I can ask for help when I need it. Nobody knows the answers to everything. Knowing that I can lean on others when I need makes me feel like I can achieve anything and teaches me to be more open to others’ ideas.
- Give hard feedback when needed. Giving feedback when I don’t always want to can be difficult. Through experience, however, I realized that it is absolutely necessary. People don’t always know how they can improve if you don’t tell them — hard feedback is what we all need to be pushed to do our best. Putting my foot down, nudging someone out of their comfort zone, or asking for more than seems possible is what has kept Armoire as successful as it is now.
- Don’t aim to only be liked. A leader has to be someone that people look up to, someone who sets the course, and someone who needs to make the hard decisions. These things don’t always go over well with a crowd. A leader isn’t a pushover, a follower, or someone who has to make everyone happy. The goal is to help your employees succeed. Being liked is great, and people like working towards a cause they feel vested in, but as a leader you need to stay true to yourself and your goals.
- You can’t approach everyone the same way. Everyone is different. Employees will react differently to everything you say. It takes time to understand what motivates different employees. For some, it’s simply the idea of helping the company succeed that makes people work harder. Employees like to be recognized for their accomplishments in different ways. Recognizing how your employees work, and knowing that this takes individual attention, is important to being a successful leader.
- Develop goals together. As someone who isn’t in the middle of everything, it’s easier to see the big picture. We are always striving for more members, more range in inventory, and faster operations. But making goals for others can have a negative outcome. People don’t feel vested in them, or you end up setting unrealistic goals because you aren’t down in the little details. I have found that by developing goals with my team, we have created more realistic expectations that they believe they can achieve.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Thoughtful consumption. The impact of more and more consumer marketing has caused serious environmental damage in many industries, especially apparel. Fast fashion is thought of as easy and convenient (that cute top is only $10!), but has a huge negative impact on the planet, driving consumers to purchase without limitations. Fast fashion assumes infinite resources in a finite world, which isn’t the reality of the situation. The textile industry is a top waste producer and Armoire is taking a stand against clothing waste. By renting clothing (or cars, homes, etc), you can save money and the planet! If we all make an effort to be thoughtful of our consumption and focus on buying less, we can make a change for the better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” -Michelle Obama
I bounced between working at Microsoft and wanting to start this business. I realized that there was never going to be the perfect time for me to start this. I needed to dive in head first if I was going to make this happen. I never wanted to regret not trying to create Armoire. I am constantly trying to take risks because that is what helped me begin the most rewarding thing in my life.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Megan Rapinoe! She once said, “This is my charge to everybody — do what you can. Do what you have to do. Step outside of yourself. Be more. Be better. Be bigger than you’ve ever been before.” She is my hero and has inspired me to be more and be better.
About the author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. He is the author of two books, I Know My Shoes Are Untied Mind Your Own Business, and Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke