NEW YORK -- Erin Yogasundram meets me in what’s quite possibly the only quaint café in a five-mile radius of Penn Station. She rolls up in perfectly winged eyeliner and a hat that's printed with the words “I miss you -- Read 1:43 AM,” in that familiar text-bubble font. A veteran detoxer myself, I quickly spot the bottle of BluePrint juice in her hand and we commiserate over our mutual cleanse-induced angst.
But Yogasundram is anything but angsty today. She's agreed to meet with MTV News just one day before she leaves for Los Angeles, where she'll open the brand-new West Coast offices of Shop Jeen, the online clothing and accessories store-turned-Internet-phenomenon she founded three years ago in her college dorm room. Yes, like a good meme or any other brilliant form of Internet fodder, Shop Jeen has gone totally viral -- but this latest power move proves the company is an undeniable force on the e-commerce scene.
When 23-year-old Erin tells me how excited she is about that L.A. office, it's almost impossible to believe she's already her own boss, overseeing 22 employees (and counting) in her New York City office alone. During our 30-minute conversation -- the first in a series MTV News will have with badass female CEOs -- we talked about everything from dropping out of George Washington University to building an empire on Instagram to why the ageism in business is REAL.
MTV News: So you founded Shop Jeen in your dorm back in 2012 when you were just 20. Can you tell us about what you were doing at that point in your life? Where your head was at?
Erin Yogasundram: Yeah! So I was going to school like a full two days a week, and I was working at, like, minimum-wage retail jobs like five days a week, but I have always just been more interested in working than I have sitting in a classroom. Like when I was 6, I had to have a lemonade stand, outside my house everyday of the summer.
I started getting autographs when I was 10. I used to go down to "TRL" and stand outside and get autographs and I would sell them on eBay. ... I always had that love of fashion and entrepreneurial background and I was just, like, super fed-up with working minimum-wage jobs and going to school and not really doing the things that I [wanted] to be doing.
I was studying sociology, and I was failing everything 'cause my heart was actually in, like, immersing myself in experience -- you learn so much better like that. I’m not saying school isn’t for everyone. We definitely need people -- we need doctors, we need lawyers -- it’s just not the path for everyone and that should be more accepted into society.
That’s kind of where my head was at when I started Shop Jeen. ... I coded the first website myself, like just literally trial and error, just sitting in my dorm room to teach myself how to code. ... I started out by negotiating wholesale with a bunch of Etsy vendors that I really liked, and [my website] was like a platform for the best of Etsy and accessories only -- [that] was the initial premise.
MTV: When did you realize you were on to something?
Erin: We started to gain attraction pretty quickly. I was a one-woman show in my dorm room, and I wasn’t going to class. My ex-boyfriend was going to class with me at the time and we were doing like $40,000 a month. Like me, by myself doing everything. You know, it was good to be in D.C., because you’re like a big fashion thing in a small pond. So a bunch of media outlets picked up on it ... and then it just kind of got too big for my dorm room and I was like, “I’ll take a leave of absence from school. Hey, dad, mom, come get me and all this sh-t [merchandise] to U-Haul.”
MTV: What happens when you get back home?
Erin: So they picked me up and the first [office space] I saw was right up the block [from Penn Station]. Literally, like a hole-in-the-wall. And I just looked at it, didn’t even question it and had a bunch of interns running around for, like, maybe 2012. In January of 2013, I hired Amelia [Muqbel], our creative director -- the bomb. First employee, got very lucky; she’s like my soul mate!
MTV: Aw, that’s so nice!
Erin :It’s steadily growing now; like 22 employees. Pretty big office space in the city. We’re opening up an office in L.A. tomorrow, actually!
MTV: Congrats! Tell me a little more about that move.
Erin: It’s 12,000 square feet. Lots of big moves! We just got our own brand, too, called NetGear90. ... But I’m glad we started off as a retailer, sourcing from other vendors because we got to learn, What is the customer like? So now, in almost year three, we have so much knowledge about who our consumer is so that we can actually venture out and produce our own stuff. ... It’s a really big move for us because we carry over 200 brands on the site and we don’t have any control over our destiny basically [with other brands]. ... [But] we can turn around our merchandise in 10 days when brands sell out of things.
MTV: Having that social media channel doesn’t work for every brand, but it's really worked for Shop Jeen because that’s what your platform is based on anyway. Was social always the strategy?
Erin :We were really early adapters. I was doing this in 2012 when brands weren’t even using it and didn’t get it. I started following as many people as possible. I was just doing anything that I could do to get attention, like, any eyeballs. Anyway I could do it -- I don’t care how long it took.
On Instagram, we post 3-5 times an hour. It’s super aggressive but it works: We’ll post something and then we will sell it. Like, if something was doing really well, and then all of a sudden now it's not moving, we’ll post about it and then sell all of them. You know, that’s a powerful tool. A lot of things [on Instagram] are behind the scenes like lifestyle shots, outfit posts -- it’s like no, What do you have? What’s available?
We’re literally giving them a shopping feed into their Instagram, which they’re already using to find out what their friends are doing. They’re finding out about people that they’re interested in so we’re selling products through something that is engrained in our blood. Instagram is, like, the most important thing and you can’t miss it. You can’t miss it -- Twitter you can miss a post, Tumblr you can miss a post. Facebook, you’ll definitely miss it because you want other people’s news feeds, unless you’re paying. ... It’s just like, "Here’s this cool sh-t that we found and you can buy this now."
MTV: There’s just something very empowering about that. People our age would appreciate that so I think it speaks to just how well you understand who’s buying your stuff. Did something in particular draw you to clothes? I know that you said that you interned at Vogue.
Erin: Well, chronologically I did the autograph-selling thing and that kind of started from my love for Good Charlotte when I was between the ages of 10 and 14. I was pretty much hard-core --
MTV: Speaking to my soul! I understand, I was the same!
Erin: My mom took me to meet them once and that started, "Oh my God, I can meet people in New York? I live in New York. Let me use this." This was my 10-year-old mind. I was, like, super trendy. I was into bell bottoms, Trash and Vaudeville because of Good Charlotte. That changed into Abercrombie somehow.
MTV: Me too! Yeah, I understand the trajectory.
Erin: But then I became good at knowing when they would do sales online so I became more interested in clothing. And then sample sales became a really big thing. So I would go to sample sales in the city and get Tory Burch. Ten years ago, $40 flats though? I would buy them in a sample store for 40 bucks and sell them for retail for $195 and people would buy them from me on eBay, which I had knowledge of because of the autograph-selling. From doing the sample sale stuff I started to understand the value of things.
MTV: That is really cool. So, back to where you are now, what would you say is your favorite part about having your own company?
Erin: I mean it’s exciting being in something that’s from the ground up. Amelia and I were just talking about this the other day because although we have employees that have been here for about a year, they haven’t experienced what it was initially and how it blossomed. The ability to look back and say, "Wow, we’ve been through all of this" -- like, I have all of these experiences. The trial and error of doing your own thing, I mean, that’s the most valuable.
MTV: Can you walk me through just a typical day? I’m sure it’s very dynamic and always changing.
Erin: Nothing super routine, although I do work from home a lot because I just have a clear mind. Our West Coast office is beautiful. It’s like nothing that you can get in New York for the price. So I think I’ll have a much more active role in the office there because it’s a more creative space.
So I usually start off and wake up at 8:30, 9 every morning, do work from bed, basically. Like I’ll do all my e-mails till 10, 11-ish, head to the office and then meetings. I know when I get to the office, it's like I’m being pulled in a million directions. Everybody needs something so I like to tackle as much as I can at home, like any big projects and then head to the office purely to work with others.
MTV: Do you feel that you’ve personally experienced, being young, female, any discrimination --
Erin: One hundred percent. I mean, the biggest thing is, I have three big cards against me, right? I’m a girl, I’m a person of color and I’m young, and if you can believe it, the ageism is the worst for me. People don’t respect the opinion of a 23-year-old even though I have literally built this from nothing to a multi-million-dollar company. Even employees.
I struggle sometimes with employees who come in. You know, they’ve had 10 years of experience in the industry, they’re retail professionals but you know, we’re not other companies. We’re not Nasty Gal -- we’re Shop Jeen. So it’s hard dealing with that and I feel like the age works against me more so than being a woman or being a color, which is interesting.
Being a female in the investment world is really difficult and being young too. I don’t really feel the racism that much; it’s just another thing that’s attributed to the way I look and am. But venture capital is like a male-dominated industry so, like, me trying to raise money is very difficult because I wanna go about it the right way. I do not want to get taken advantage of, which is easy, you know? They’re sharks, shark tank!
MTV: Yeah, for real. And do you have any tips for young people that want to start their own company or, like, want to just get into this world pretty much? How do they go about doing that?
Erin: Like through commerce, specifically?
MTV: Yeah, that would be a good way to start.
Erin: This is hard.
MTV: Like, a state of mind maybe? Any of words of advice.
Erin: Start something that is true to yourself. I am totally the personification of Shop Jeen, as is Amelia, our creative director. You know that by kind of talking to me and seeing me, following me on social media. Everything I say could be on one of the shirts we sell, 'cause it’s funny. So that’s something that has helped us and most brands don’t have that -- it’s like some old guy kind of pulling the strings, orchestrating the whole thing. But [with my company], it’s really like I’m talking to you as a shopper, as a friend ... You could be my friend sitting right here, just having coffee, just talking about guys or whatever, how hard life is.
So I think starting something that is true to yourself is really important and just like also not listening to any negativity. People are always ... I get so much hate on Instagram, on my personal account, because I have a good amount of followers and I post funny pictures.
You know, look straight ahead, don’t get distracted, don’t lose focus and just move forward.
MTV: Is there a moment that you had in your career, where you just were like, "Wow, this is really happening!" Like a pinch-me sort of moment?
Erin: Yeah, this happens, like once every three months, because from the day to day, I don’t ever step back and reassess that. Me and Amelia try to be better and a support system. We were literally in, like, a tiny office and now we have this. It’s crazy! This L.A. office tomorrow is gonna be a really big eye-opener because everything that we do, we do a little bit impulsively, which is a blessing and a curse. I’m a very risky and impulsive person: So we decided to open up an office in L.A. a month ago. I spoke to them that morning and was like, "We need a presence in L.A. ... Our California shop, like 13 percent of our shoppers are in California, it makes sense, let’s do it." And then it happens and it's like, "Whoa, we made this happen!"
The demand is there, the customer is there, and then, like, moments where people acknowledge what you’re doing is really important. Joel from Good Charlotte is actually our mentor now, which is really crazy. So his validation, that’s crazy for him to respect what we’re doing, to think that I am a strong woman -- that helps me sleep at night.