When Shan-Lyn Ma was a young girl, she had a poster of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang on her bedroom wall. It served as inspiration for the person she wanted to be and the woman she would eventually become — a dreamer, a doer, a changemaker.
Shan-Lyn is CEO and co-founder of Zola, the go-to online destination for contemporary wedding planning and “the wedding company that will do anything for love.” She launched Zola in 2013 with a mission to shake up Big Wedding. “The industry was lacking representation and technology for today’s modern couple so we introduced Zola as a platform built for everyone,” Shan-Lyn says.
Born in Singapore and raised in Australia, Shan-Lyn’s entrepreneurial spirit knows no boundaries or borders. Her mother encouraged her to follow her dreams and ensured Shan-Lyn that nothing was out of reach as long as she put the work in. She studied at the University of New South Wales and Stanford, and dominated the tech world with roles at Gilt Groupe, Chloe + Isabel, and yes, Yahoo. The confidence that Shan-Lyn’s mother instilled in her as a girl would come in handy as she navigated Zola’s early days and shrugged off doubts from others. “People thought it wasn’t possible,” says Shan-Lyn. “Many female-serving companies have been underestimated.”
Today, Zola partners with more than 600 brands, offers 70,000+ products via its online gift registry, and is valued at over $600 million. The company has built a community of more than 1 million diverse couples, marking an exciting and progressive era for the wedding world.
Along with a desire to democratize weddings, Shan-Lyn is passionate about making them as inclusive as possible. She is outspoken about marriage equality and Zola’s commitment to celebrating love in all forms. Any vendor that partners with Zola has to say “I do” to their Vendor Vows, which prioritize tolerance, respect, and anti-discrimination practices. It’s just one of the ways Zola works to transform what has long been an outdated industry.
Here, the Hall of Femme honoree offers advice for fellow founders, opens up about creating Zola, and reveals how revolutionizing the wedding industry has changed her outlook on the big day.
Tell us a bit about what an average day on the job leading Zola looks like.
Most days start and end with meetings. I’m frequently meeting with our co-CEO Rachel Jarrett, as well as with our CTO, Head of People, Chief of Staff, our business unit leaders and our investors. Between meetings I’m most focused on reviewing materials on Zola’s business performance and plans for what’s next. I’m lucky to get to work with such an amazing team; even though most of my day is spent pouring over numbers I get to build this company with colleagues who are incredibly inspiring.
Zola obviously started as an idea you had. How do you think about the pursuit of ideas — which ones are worth investing in vs. those that require more thinking?
There are three questions that every founder should ask themselves: why you, why this idea, and why now? When we were building Zola, my co-founder [Nobu Nakaguchi] and I asked ourselves these questions every day. We had several other startup ideas, but the idea for Zola felt right because our experience building products for millennials during a particular life stage was perfectly suited to take on the antiquated industry of weddings. We were the right people at the right time with the right experience to build Zola. Every founder should feel that way before investing their heart and time into a business that they’ll think about 24/7 for years to come.
How has shaping the wedding industry changed your perception of weddings?
I love weddings more than ever because I have so much insight into the work, energy and care that goes into planning them. I deeply understand how meaningful that day is for the couple and for their family, and I notice all of the small details that make each wedding the most special. It’s a forever moment and I’m glad to be part of it.
I also often reflect on just how broken and antiquated the wedding industry was even just ten years ago before Zola. Society has made couples feel that they should have weddings a certain way and celebrate traditions that may or may not be meaningful for them. I’m proud to be part of the future of weddings supporting couples to have celebrations that actually represent who they are and what they want their life to be like.
When you were a young girl, what were the narratives you were exposed to about women and women's rights?
I credit myself as extremely lucky because my mother always gave me the confidence to be anybody I wanted to be. The narrative in my home was that I could move to America and be an entrepreneur if I put in enough hard work. There was no narrative around not doing it because I was a girl. I hope to raise my daughter in the same way. She shouldn’t ever feel limited; she should see wide open possibilities as long as she puts in the work to get there.
Tell us about an entrepreneur who has inspired you.
I recently watched Self Made on Netflix, a show about Madame C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in the country. Her beauty business was influenced by her own experience as a Black woman. She was also a fierce advocate for the Black community and as she became more successful so did her level of activism. It was a fantastic series and she is an incredibly inspiring woman to think about.
What's a ritual in your life that you swear by?
I have an extensive nighttime beauty routine. I love beauty products but also I like the ritual of it all before bed.
What's your favorite way to celebrate a win (big or small)?
With a glass of Une Femme Wines champagne, of course!You can follow Shan-Lyn on Instagram and Twitter.