Hi, Tell us your name, what you do, and about your business.
My name is Maria Murphy and I am a fashion industry executive with over 30 years of experience. I founded my passion project Lei-Lei while holding the position of VP of Sales for Tahari Arthur S. Levine.
Lei-Lei is a socially conscious e-commerce fashion marketplace that showcases uniquely designed handcrafted items by women artisans from impoverished countries around the world.
My mission is to connect fairly traded businesses that give back to their artisans through social and economic advancement with eco-conscious consumers who care about helping others.
My goal is to inspire positive consumer behavior to bring about real change, both in society as well as to the environment. I always love including our tagline
“Shop responsibly and inspire change here and around the world!”
What’s your own background. Were you always proficient in this business, or did it just strike your mind one fine day?
From a young age, I loved to dress up, shop and put my friend’s outfits together. My passion was fueled by my mother who was a showroom model back in the days when they were used during fashion weeks.
I worked throughout high school and college at Macy’s on the selling floor. After four years and a BS in Marketing and an AAS in Fashion Buying and Merchandising from FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in NYC, my career in wholesale sales began.
It’s hard to believe that was over 30 years ago and numerous executive positions later but it’s been a great ride. I started Lei-Lei as a passion project and side hustle and quite honestly it still is.
I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience over the years and am now able to put it towards #doinggood I enjoy the fruits of my day labor but the nights and weekends are what gives me inner peace with the knowledge that my efforts are being used to help and empower others.
What went into designing the initial product? Can you take us through the actual process?
I started out with beautiful beaded bracelets handmade in a Christian community in Kathmandu, Nepal. Word of mouth and a small website of loyal and repeat customers kept us very busy as well as local fairs, markets, and home parties. Two years later I decided to grow the handmade product offerings and become an eCommerce global marketplace.
Our products now include market baskets, clutches, small bag accessories, backpacks and jewelry from Morocco, Guatemala, Thailand and Mexico, sheep’s wool newborn animal booties from Kyrgyzstan, eco-resin and upcycled horn jewelry from Columbia and Vietnam, alpaca shawls, hats and gloves from Peru just to name a few.
We are committed to our handmade products meeting the principles of fair trade (visit the Fair Trade Federation). We carry products that benefit the planet and are renewable, sustainable and recycled while allowing our customers to shop guilt-free for cool items that support worthy causes.
Part of the beauty of Lei-Lei is our unique and one of a kind assortment and design.
How is your repeat customer rate like? Can you take us through how you attract and retain customers?
Our very first customer is still a devoted customer today! Our regular customers shop with us many times a year and purchase for themselves as well as gift-giving needs. Our repeat purchase rate is 33%.
We are very fortunate that our loyal customers love sharing what we do with their friends and family so we attain many new customers via word of mouth and referrals. We also use effective marketing tools like email blasts with messages like “we miss you” and sometimes include an incentive.
With social media, we create an urgency to shop with messages like “Limited Time” or “Limited Edition” as well as taking polls and asking for votes on new products these types of personalization and inclusion methods really hit home and get great sales results.
What is the current situation? How do you see yourself in the next 12 months?
Lei-Lei has enjoyed steady and consistent growth over these past years. My short term goal is for this business to operate with full-time attention given and not just as a part-time endeavor.
I am looking to grow content and share my business model/message through interviews and podcasts on a national level. I have a few in the works.
As a woman founder, do you see this as only financially uplifting? Or otherwise too? If yes, then how?
I knew I needed to do something more important and wanted to put money back into the hands of those that needed it most not the owners but the workers. I founded and launched Lei-Lei in 2013 with some help from our oldest daughter Ali in between her visits home from college.
I wanted to involve her in something that she could say she helped create, be proud of, and learn about business while helping others in need. My job as a mother is to empower my children and put them on the right path.
Our company is based on the belief that helping others in need makes the world a better place. Over the years we have also contributed to some incredibly worthy domestic and international causes that have struck a chord in our hearts.
Donations through sales and gratis product have benefited organizations such as Hearts for Honduras (child education support and sponsorship of 2 students), VNA (Visiting Nurse Association), Bernards PEC (Parents of Exceptional Children), Buildon, PBA, PTO events, Heartworks, The Unatti Foundation, etc. We are proud to be a business that gives back to our community as well as the world.
Lei-Lei is about goods that give!
What tools or services did you use?
Our website is hosted on a Shopify e-commerce platform which we love. I spent a few months launching it alone during evening and weekend hours with a hard stop and launch date of Black Friday.
It was a big undertaking but incredibly rewarding. It is easy to use the website for both owner and customer and I have been very happy with it and highly suggest it to others.
Facebook was the first social media business platform that was created for my company Lei-Lei in 2011. Our following and their interaction have grown over the years with strong brand loyalty which has been incredibly important especially as a Small Female Business Owner.
It has been a top service for strengthening connections within our local community as many of our customers like to shop locally to support local businesses.
It is our best channel for gaining feedback (both positive and constructive – especially via contests, question and answer formats for example) and commentary.
Facebook is also our best sharing tool where our followers (our Lei-Lei Tribe) continue to help grow and network for us by sharing our page and products with their family, friends, and followers and has gained us meaningful connections.
Facebook Video Posts (esp. with a real-life model) offer compelling content and get the most clicks and actions which have led to purchases. Link Posts are our #1 for comments and shares, leading to ultimate purchasing as well.
Facebook Live Videos like the one that was aired after it is first being recorded live on the AM station show “Happy to Help” still holds the record for them with 1,200 views! The segment resulted in additional sales and new customers who were hearing about us for the first time and loved our philanthropic and women empowerment endeavors.
Facebook Donation Posts have great reach and gain a lot of comments. This year one such post resulted in our being able to financially sponsor our 2nd child’s educational journey through elementary school in Honduras.
Facebook Events have helped drive traffic to the shows we participate in and brought customers with an interest in purchasing to the event which directly impacted our sales.
Instagram has been instrumental in gaining sales, brand awareness, and “street cred” in the arena of social impact.
We have gained pro bono postings and Insta-stories from greatly followed influencers from all over the country, seen content growth via podcast and interview opportunities, and radio segments, all of which have had a direct sales impact and networking results.
It has also helped reach and grow our younger customer base which is what most businesses today strive for.
What are your key challenges today? How are you planning to tackle those?
One of the biggest challenges is time, time to participate in the many events and founder meetings that I am invited to. They are great networking opportunities that can help drive sales and grow our customer list however I’ve yet to figure out the cloning process!
Which are some resources, books, articles or podcasts that have been useful to you, and would share with your readers
Tools used –
Boss Project for running a successful business doing what you love https://bossproject.com/podcast-directory
Elevated Existence for discovering the beauty in mind, body, and soul https://www.elevatedexistence.com/
Many times, women feel that businesses are for only for men. What’s your take?
I’ve held numerous positions in the fashion industry working for and alongside men and women. As a woman, I’ve held my own in business and think that in general, it is equal opportunity.
I am however proud to have founded my own company and to be able to call it a woman-run business with a product line handmade by women from all over the world.
I am pleased to see more women supporting other women through networking and financial and capital investment and support.
Looking to kick start your own venture?
Hi! This is Misha.
I interview women founders in building profitable businesses
My idea is for other women to get inspired by these actionable tell-all stories and start their own profitable enterprises.
I am hugely inspired by inspirational interview series starters like IndieHackers, StarterStory by Pat Walls, Failory, SpaceBandits and have put significant efforts in reaching out to women founders in order to get started.