Empowering Malaysian Women, One Bra at a Time
When Natasha Shazana meets her Instagram followers in real life, some don’t even remember her name. To them, she is @brapreneur, the force behind a new bra company, Soko, whose mission is to bring empowerment and comfort to everyday women in Malaysia.
To launch the bra business in her home country, Shazana, a Northeast graduate, class of 2013, left a job in private equity in New York. But she didn’t regret the move, she said. In just a year after launch, it has grown its customer base to over 1,000 customers. She won a 2022 Innovator Award, presented by Northeastern’s Women Who Empower, in the experienced alumni category, and $22,000 in June.
“I’m a big extrovert, I get my energy from other people,” Shazana says. “That’s why I love and [am] so excited about the Women Who Empower program, because I’ve already made friends through working with the other people in the finals.
Her former college friend Jessica Pograniy agrees: “She’s super social, probably the most social person I know.
“She has a lot of energy. She is a go-getter.
As Pograniy prepares to launch an eco-friendly brand of Mezcal in Mexico, she and Shazana often chat about their business.
“She’s a great listener and gives advice,” Pograniy says. “Every time I text her, she somehow wakes up.”
And Shazana has a lot to share after the past three years of developing a product and launching her business.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”
Shazana and her sister grew up between Malaysia, Singapore, the UK, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while their parents pursued banking careers. When she was 17, Shazana came to study at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business in Boston, after her prom date told her about the university and its co-op programs.
She maximized every opportunity at Northeastern, Shazana says, by doing two co-ops, two internships and a semester abroad in Shanghai, China. She specialized in marketing and finance.
Surprisingly, unlike many of her classmates, she struggled to find a job before graduating, despite applying to nearly 200 companies. She almost started a food truck business to create her own opportunity, before landing a job as a currency broker and moving to New York.
“I had five computer screens and I was being yelled at all the time on the phone,” she laughs. She then spent five years working in institutional sales and private equity at Morgan Stanley, which she left in 2019 to return to Malaysia to pursue her own entrepreneurial idea.
Shazana was ready to try her own business with the support of her future husband, Chris Evans, who also quit his day job and originally acted as co-founder of Soko, providing her with the big picture. and strategic advice.
Although Shazana didn’t live in Malaysia for nearly two decades of her life, she felt the need to go back and try to build a business that would represent real Malaysian women. She ventured into bras because female empowerment has yet to reach this industry in Malaysia. Existing brands didn’t reflect modern women’s values or what local millennials and Gen Zs expected of them, Shazana says.
“I wanted to drive change and accelerate change across the industry in terms of representation, first and foremost,” says Shazana.
As she puts it, the industry offered either “grandma” bras or photoshopped and retouched oversexualized images of predominantly white women in ad campaigns. Very rarely, you could see a dark-skinned model in the advertisements.
“For me, that is not enough. Like, why are we accepting this? Shazana said.
She knew that in a Muslim country like Malaysia, change could only happen with respect and at a pace that people can appreciate there, she says. But Shazana wanted to at least get started and have a brand that represented representation 365 days a year and not just in infrequent ad campaigns about token diversity.
Shopping for a bra was an overwhelming experience in itself, with hundreds of items from different brands packed into one store, making women as uncomfortable as Shazana felt, buying her first bra in a Malaysian mall 20 years ago.
“I have my personal stories, but I’ve interviewed, spoken at conferences and focus groups, and interviewed over 300 women before I even started my business,” Shazana says. “I had to make sure other people felt the same pain about the representation, the aversion to the bra-shopping experience.
Shazana has focused on three things with her bra brand: representation, utmost comfort, and a great shopping experience. She called her company Soko, from a Malaysian word sokong, which in English means “support”.
To create the bras she would be proud of, Shazana conducted extensive research. She found an experienced technical designer who carefully crafted the bras. The first manufactured samples were tested by 50 women, who slept, jogged and jumped in them.
Currently, Soko offers three styles of bras — an everyday wireless bra, a lace bralette, and a sports bra — for around $29 each. With the Innovator Awards cash prize, Shazana plans to expand Soko’s size offering from L to 2XL.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Shazana started building her community on Instagram under the name “brapreneur”.
In the first three hours after launch, Soko achieved five-figure sales, Shazana says. She attributes the success of the launch to her followers who were posting about the bras on Instagram.
She grows her business organically, by word of mouth, as it is capital intensive and uses her own limited savings.
“Anything I earn goes back into savings for our next purchase order,” Shazana says.
Its main marketing tools are social media, especially Instagram and pop-up events. In Soko’s first year of operation, she spent just $2,500 on marketing.
There have also been major setbacks in his entrepreneurial journey. The first factory in China she used to make the bras ghosted her during the pandemic. The second factory in Sri Lanka did not reach the quality standard hoped for by Shazana. She found a third plant in Sri Lanka which came highly recommended for her work.
She cherishes the comments and stories her customers share with her, from a cancer survivor, to a mother who bought the first bra for her 12-year-old daughter, to a transgender person, to a customer who was happy to see a model in a hijab that looks like her.
“The last few years I’ve grown the most in any chapter of my life than I’ve ever had,” Shazana says.
That’s why she doesn’t regret leaving the corporate role at Morgan Stanley. But she’s eager to share practical advice she learned the hard way: “Don’t quit your day job, that kind of advice is what I wish someone had told me.”
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