How the Co-Founder of Cuyana Customized Her Own Career Path by Being Intentional
In the Women Entrepreneur series Mentor Moments, female founders sit down to chat with their own mentors (and us!) about how and why the relationship developed, and the lasting impact it’s had on their careers.
Shilpa Shah wasn’t ready to be a leader at the age of 23. But when she was unexpectedly thrust into a management position at one of her first jobs, she leaned on her then-boss, Paul Yanover, at the time an EVP at Walt Disney Online, for support and guidance as she built her team. More than a decade later, Shah is the co-founder of clothing line Cuyana, and Yanover has moved on to serve as the president of Fandango. As their paths have diverged, their friendship has maintained, and Shah still turns to Yanover for advice as she builds a budding empire.
Women Entrepreneur: First things first. How did you two meet?
Paul Yanover: In 2003, I was given an opportunity lead Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online—a team focused on direct-to-consumer e-commerce. I came in to a team of 50 people and, candidly, I felt like there was a lot of talent that had been suppressed. Shilpa exuded that, this incredible pent-up enthusiasm. It was immediately obvious that if you could enable someone like Shilpa, you’d mostly just need to get out of the way.
Shilpa Shah: When I started at Disney, I was the youngest and most junior on a team of seven interaction designers. By the time Paul started two months later, everyone had left except me, so I kind of inherited the entire department. Paul didn’t just have to inspire disillusioned people, he had to trust untested talent. He did that with great expertise. For the first three months, I wouldn’t take the management title and tried to recruit and hire [someone to be] my direct boss. At month four, I finally went to Paul and said, “I think I should just take this job.” And he was like, “I’ve been waiting for you to say that for a while.”
WE: Today, it’s been more than 10 years since you’ve worked together, and Shilpa, you’re running your own business. What lessons from Paul still stick with you?
SS: As a female leader, [you] can feel that you need to be firm and not kind in order to be effective, but I want to be both firm and kind. When we were at Disney, I remember one time there was a meeting where I felt very vulnerable, and I walked out. I’m not proud of it. I left the building, went for a walk and came back in. Paul called me into his office and was empathetic but firm. He reminded me that the organization’s role is bigger than me. As I was leaving his office he was like, “By the way, that can never happen again.” Managers can sometimes be too friendly, so he’s taught me how to find that balance.
WE: At what point during your time at Disney did you really start thinking of him as a mentor?
SS: On my 24th birthday, [when] Paul told me that a small change in career trajectory is the difference between landing on Venus and landing on Mars. That idea overwhelmed me, but it made me realize the importance of setting goals intentionally and making even small decisions with care, to stay on the path and trajectory you want.
PY: You’re making me smile, because I forgot I had that discussion with you! I tell people all the time that our lives are a rocket. If you’re traveling thousands of miles to a destination, one or two degrees’ difference at launch can really change your landing. When you’re young, you want the freedom to make mistakes, but you also need to think, Where am I going? Do you want Mars, or do you want the Moon?
SS: Being 23 years old and reporting directly to Paul was a real, lucky privilege. When I eventually left Disney, I took that rocket concept to heart. I could have continued on the path of management, but I felt I had missed steps as a designer. So for my next job I actually took a junior designer role, to build my portfolio. Eventually, I decided to go to business school. Paul, I don’t think I told you this, but in my interview I said I wanted to go to business school to understand what happens in a boardroom when good ideas die and never come back out.
WE: Did you two keep in touch during that process?
SS: Paul wrote my references for school, and he also did a reference call for our Series A with Cuyana after we launched in 2012. But professional advice and favors aside, I also update him about my life because he really cares about the whole person. He taught me at a young age that success is not just professional.
Related: How to Lead Like a WomanPY: Like any friendship, you have ebbs and flows. A couple of years ago Shilpa came to Fandango to visit me, and we got into a big talk about teams and products for an hour and a half. It made me think how easy it is for us to not talk for a very long time and then pick right back up where we left off. I was talking about Fandango and she was talking about Cuyana, but it was still easy to connect and talk about ideas.