Member Spotlight: Samantha Dong
Sam is the founder and CEO of Ally Shoes, a new brand of comfortable heels for professional women. Ally's heels are beautiful, elegant, and versatile, and we were super curious to learn more about everything from the initial inspiration behind her company, as well as how she created them, and what she's doing now. Read Sam's story and hear about how her brand is inspiring women to feel more confident in the workplace, in a comfortable way!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Sam Dong, and I’m the founder of Ally Shoes. I was born and raised in Shanghai in a retail family: my parents are both veterans in the department store business, and my cousin is an apparel designer. I came to the US at the age of 17, as a freshman at Cornell. After graduation, I started my career as a management consultant in New York, then moved to SF to join an early stage startup called OrderAhead (acquired by Square). I went on to get my MBA at Stanford, and that’s when I started working on Ally Shoes.
What was the inspiration behind Ally? Why heels?
As a petite Asian woman, I constantly had to work harder to get noticed and recognized. Wearing heels make me taller and feel more confident in the workplace. But those beautiful heels always hurt my foot, and the comfortable ones never looked good enough. So when I was at business school, I started exploring this idea: Can I create a pair of classic heels that I can wear all day long without pain?
I talked to all the women around me, took classes to learn how to make a pair of heels from scratch, and worked with a shoemaker in Shanghai to come up with the first prototype. When I graduated, I decided to move back to NY to form my current team (including Dr. Roxann Clarke, foot ankle surgeon; Sara Jaramillo, former designer at Yeezy).
I believe everything we wear and carry is a way of self-expression. I like heels in particular because it’s one of the few pieces that can make you feel feminine and powerful at the same time. I know not every woman likes wearing heels, but for those who do, I want them to enjoy the experience, and not be distracted by the pain.
Why do you think now is right time to start a company like Ally and what is your vision behind the company?
While the pain point of heels always existed, the following trends in the fashion industry propelled me to start Ally right now:
Simple, versatile design:
Even though the fast fashion brands are still going strong, you’re seeing brands like Everlane that started with a cashmere sweater, or Allbirds with the wool runners. After decades of information overload, I believe brands and products with distinctive and sharp value proposition are the ones people will gravitate to.
Stats shows women on average own 17 pairs of dress shoes but only wear 3 pairs regularly. Instead of having a rack full of unworn shoes, I want to create a pair that’s versatile, classic, and goes well with every occasion.
Beauty meets functionality:
This is especially prominent for women’s fashion. Women’s roles have changed tremendously in society, and they often have to balance more in life than their male counterparts. Today’s women want to look good and feel good at the same time, and everything they wear or carry should match up with their busy and multi-faceted life.
The brand is called “Ally”, because I want to make heels women’s best friend and confidant, and not their worst enemy, and to prove that beauty doesn’t’ have to hurt.
Brands started by customers:
From Warby Parker to Bonobos and many more, fashion brands are not just started by designers or retail experts. Brands started by those with no “fashion expertise” tend to be more innovative and empathetic, as they often focus on an acute pain point only the customer would understand.
As a heel-lover myself, I started Ally Shoes out of personal frustration. Throughout my research, I realized most top heel brands are designed by men, and almost all the shoemakers I encountered are men. I wanted to create a brand that’s made by women, for women.
The vision behind Ally is not just about the heel, but also about creating a community of ambitious women as we navigate our career and life in the modern world, and creating products that WE always wanted.
Who are your role models?
Elon Musk: I’m a huge fan of his framework of reasoning from first principles, which I believe applies to all problem-solving, but particularly important when you’re trying to change the status quo and create something new. I’m also inspired by him as someone who dreams big but is persistent / gritty enough to make his dreams into reality.
Michelle Obama: Michelle is the type of leader I aspire to be: someone who’s brilliant, capable, ambitious, yet extremely relatable. Her fashion sense is impeccable, but her beauty shines more from her confidence and personality.
Which podcast, books, or apps are you currently obsessed with?
- How I Built This
- 996: GGV Capital’s series of interviews with Chinese tech companies
- Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
- The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
What’s next for the Ally team?
Get the word out: We just launched our first collection, “The Little Black Heel”, and are busy with upcoming pop-up events to showcase and have more women try on those amazing shoes
Build out our community: We owe a great deal of our innovation and progress to our community, the Ally Circle, where women see and test our latest samples and provide us with direct feedback. We want to continue expanding our community and host more fun events for women to get together beyond shoes.
More designs: We’re working on more colors and heel heights, so stay tuned!