How Sarah LaFleur Went From Struggling To Get Investor Traction To Building A $70M Startup In Four Years

How Sarah LaFleur Went From Struggling To Get Investor Traction

To Building A $70M Startup In Four Years

Sarah LaFleur brought her professional women’s wear company, MM. LaFleur, from the brink of shutting down to a $70 Million dollar start up in four years. Her company continues to thrive in today’s marketplace; they’ve recently expanded their product line to include shoes. The company is anticipating massive growth and has one of the highest lifetime value in the e-commerce industry.

LaFleur could be anyone’s definition of a successful business woman. But paving the way to success was not easy for her, especially in the beginning.

“I had a horrible time fundraising, it was impossible for me to get traction,” says LaFleur. “There’s definitely a stereotype about what a successful founder looks like. For a long time, I was like, what is wrong with me, what am I doing wrong? It took awhile for me to realize, maybe it has nothing to do with me or the business plan. Maybe I just don’t fit the mold of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.”

Many entrepreneurs secure funding for their vision and then proceed with their product. After being rejected by many investors, LaFleur returned to her business and kept pushing.

“I raised my first million dollars three or four years after I started the business,” she says.

In 2014, MM. LaFleur faced the possibility of going out of business. With less than 10 people on board, they saw little success with their e-commerce and were fighting with everything they had.

“This is the time when every single person really matters. I think at this point we were running out of money, we had very little in terms of cash,” recalls LaFleur.

Amid this, one of LaFleur’s early partners, who was Chief Marketing Officer at the time, became pregnant. It was the first time LaFleur had to consider how her company’s parental and leave policies would take form, as well as losing someone who was fundamental to the young company’s prosperity.

“We are a professional women’s company advocating for women being successful in the workplace, and we had to take a stand,” says LaFleur, who ended up offering her partner eight weeks of fully paid maternity leave, despite financial limitations. “There are so many more things we can do now that we have more room in our finances, but I think the ethos of what we wanted to do never changed.”

Today, MM. LaFleur offers every employee 12 paid weeks of parental leave. By advocating for her employees since the very beginning, LaFleur has become a pioneer for compassionate leadership within and outside her organization – starting with impressive corporate leave benefits and continuing by extending those benefits to every employee, regardless of position.

“There’s massive discrimination towards warehouse and retail employees because they’re hourly. They often don’t receive the same benefits as the rest of the company,” explains LaFleur. “In some ways, they’re the ones that need it the most. One of the things we really stood behind as a company was making sure every single person, regardless if they’re the CEO or a packer in the warehouse, is getting the 12 weeks fully paid.”

LaFleur readily admits that she wasn’t always aware of this discrimination, even within her own organization. It took visiting a warehouse for her to realize that those employees were taking two days off to be with their new babies, then coming back to work.

“So much discrimination comes from a place of ignorance,” says LaFleur. “It’s by not knowing. I now see it as my responsibility to ask these questions and really make sure that we’re living up to our values. It’s on us to say, let’s really examine this, and let’s make sure every part of our people policies actually align with our values.”

LaFleur wrote down her company’s values at the very beginning, starting with compassion for her employees. It’s something that has carried her through the responsibilities of being a CEO.

“Even if you’re not a big company, you can take a day to write down the things that are most important to you and your business on a piece of paper,” she says.

“When you treat your employees well, your employees bring so much more to the table. That is a fundamental principle for me, treating your employees with compassion.”

LaFleur approaches everything in her business with compassion in mind. She recently instituted a Compassion Training program for her stylists, teaching them how to interact with consumers as if they were friends. It resonates with their audience, she says, and brings delight into the experience of buying clothes.

LaFleur believes in her consumer – the purposeful, professional woman – and continually proves it by providing compassion initiatives, the superior quality of MM. LaFleur’s product and their corporate policies. LaFleur’s most recent step, bringing pay transparency to her entire organization.

“When we think about how much pay discrimination there is against women, this is our way of saying you cannot discriminate because everyone knows what everyone is making,” explains LaFleur. “We are leaders in the space. We are doing something radical, even though I felt like we were doing what was human.”

The sky’s the limit for this women’s wear company. LaFleur wants MM. LaFleur to be the go-to brand for women as they get ready for work – not only dress them head to toe, but to introduce beauty products in order to serve every need.

“I don’t actually feel like I’ve reached success yet, in any shape or form,” says LaFleur. “I wonder if I ever will feel it. What I am most happy about is that I’m doing something I love.”

Pursuing something she didn’t love wasn’t an option. As a college student and young professional, LaFleur was filled with a debilitating dread for her own future. She remembers racking her brain trying to find things she was passionate about to pursue as a career. Discovering what she wanted to do was a crisis of the conscious, she says, but she was rewarded.

“Nobody is asking you to be everything,” assures LaFleur. “Where you are great, play into those strengths. And where you’re not, ask someone to fill that role for you. It’s [about] knowing to take a step back where you don’t excel.”

Isabelle Hahn

Isabelle Hahn is an editorial associate for SWAAY and a journalism student at Northeastern University. Alongside SWAAY, she contributes to Reverberations Magazine, Society16 and The Avenue.

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