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Friday, June 18, 2021

CEO Insider

Coral Chung, Senreve, and the Idea of the New Modern Woman

Impeccable quality and innovative construction are the mark of the new “it”-brand in luxury handbags, Senreve. Launched in November 2016 by fashion veteran/executive Coral Chung, Senreve started with a simple mission: craft a functional, stylish  bag fit for the modern, multifaceted woman. Before the first rounds of funding, it grew into an overnight sensation as its flagship design—the Maestra bag—organically found a place on the arms of celebrities and Instagram influencers alike. Three years and more than $20 million in capital later, and Senreve is now performing on a similar level with  established, heritage brands while constantly innovating and pushing the overall luxury space forward.

Coral Chung saw the untapped potential in the market for a brand like Senreve due to the collective culmination of unique experiences. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School, Coral Chung received her BA in International Studies and BS in Economics—magna cum laude, along with an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Ivy League opened the door for Chung at Bain, and she advised Fortune 500 companies on retail strategy. Her passion for luxury retail and consumer brands led her to work with Prada’s COO as well as its CEO of North America on marketing, commercialization, and distribution projects prior to its IPO. Before Senreve, Chung was most recently with Medallia, a SaaS and big data analytics platform based on consumer feedback and experience, where she worked with leading luxury and global retail brands. While educational and industry experience honed creative skills, Medallia gave Chung valuable, quantitative analytical insights into the industry based on consumer behavior and trends. The network derived from these experiences, Chung says, has profoundly informed Senreve—from company culture to operations, design, and strategy.

What is Senreve, and what was your original inspiration for the brand? 

The original concept for Senreve came to me when I was working for Medillia and speaking on a panel in New York, talking through customer experiences and consumer insights driven from our software. In the middle of the panel, I had an out-of-body experience—a realization I was giving power to others’ visions and ideas, telling myself, “Hey, you really should be talking about your vision and your ideas. You have so many. It’s time for you to be talking those instead of focusing on other people’s passions.” That night, I got on a plane, and the business plan for Senreve just poured out. I labeled this “Project 1920” at the time—1920 being the year of the women’s suffrage movement. Celebrating the centennial this year really had me thinking of the whole idea of the complex and multifaceted modern woman: powerful, evolved, and more able than ever. This idea that women are no longer defined by society or confined to one particular definition—we are doing so many things. We are executives, mothers, creatives, family leaders, business leaders—graceful and powerful at the same time. Balancing these characteristics was really the beginning idea for Senreve and the design basis for every piece in the collection.

Senreve was created to be the embodiment of the modern woman, her role in today’s world, and her proclivity toward the contradicting demand for function and beauty. Today’s woman is versatile; she wears many hats and fills varying roles. As a result, the products in her life should meet the complexity of her needs and her desires—beautiful and emotionally impactful, but serving with purpose, performance, and strength.

Senreve checks all these boxes. It’s the idea of dichotomies coexisting. Sens, French for “sense,” and Reve, French for “dream.” This idea that, as a woman, you can be both sensible and dream-like. Fantasy can coexist with the everyday, and luxury and functionality can share the same space. You can have this luxurious dream bag that still has the versatility of sensible, everyday use. While these ideas are inherently at conflict, it translates to our products with such a beautiful balance, and I think that is why we’re seeing women really connecting with our brand. The exquisite craftsmanship from our Italian manufacturer merits an emotional connection to pieces that truly represent these ideas.

How did you turn these ideas into reality?

It was quite a process—very much the intersection of art and science.

Wendy Wen (my co-founder and Senreve COO), and I (along with an army of interns) took an unique, data-driven approach, initially interviewing and surveying hundreds of women to gain insights—pinpoint wants, needs and aspirations, and holistically form this data into a product.  I also spent a lot of time meeting with artisans and technical designers, prototyping, and creating various iterations of the product. We scoured the globe and found a manufacturing partner in Italy who believed in us and could really execute the vision.

For about 18 months, we focused on creating the perfect product; it was quite a journey. Executing this vision is the most fulfilling aspect of my career thus far, and certainly a reflection of my blood, sweat, and tears.

What motivates your work. Where do you find inspiration? 

My husband and I have a 7-year-old daughter. She’s funny and aware and intense and precocious. She keeps us on our toes and truly teaches us little lessons every day. She’s one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met, adult or child. She’s just so dedicated and passionate, like, she will dance every day for two to three hours in preparation for a competition—just disciplined and self-motivated. It’s really, actually, very inspiring for me. I think she sees that I work really hard, and I hope that that’s also inspiring for her.

I think motherhood has really changed how I view the world. As an only child, I really focused on myself and my career and my own academic achievements, but with Aria, it’s very different because she’s added this element to my life that I’ve never had before; she’s fascinating and so deserving of all my love and attention. But I think that inspired my journey with Senreve because I needed a career that wasn’t just a job. I needed something that validated my time spent away from her but something that I could also really share with my family and make it a part of who we are as a whole. So, she has been a huge motivating factor for me.

Our SENREVE community also motivates this work. Women who can do it all and look great doing it—women who balance all these conflicting demands with grace and style. These are the people who supported us from the beginning and continue to shape new collections.

Who is your target clientele? 

Again, I think Senreve customers are modern women who balance their lives in a really elegant way.  We feature a lot of different inspirational women in the brand’s story, centered around women and this modern lifestyle. We’re very specific about the tone and visuals of the brand. We take a very active stance on issues that affect women, focusing on diversity and equality and all of these tenants.

It was also really important for us to make the price point more accessible than traditional luxury brands, as most of our customers are in their mid-30s or younger women entering the workforce. Our direct-to-consumer model saves a lot of “middleman” costs and makes our bags more accessible to a younger audience.

When did you know that Senreve was going to be a success?

We had really humble beginnings as a startup, but I for reason always had the confidence and hope that SENREVE would be successful. Immediately after our launch, we had significant word-of-mouth and organically gained momentum when we had a few key celebrity partnerships, and the buzz just grew really quickly on social media. Riding on that wave, we broke into Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Farfetch. The funding rounds were so crucial too—the Series A came in at $16.75M, which is really just helping us set the stage for our vision of a global brand. There’s a statistic floating around that only like 2% of female-founded startup companies receive the total capital invested in the U.S., which is a crazy metric, so we’re proud to be in that group. One thing that was important about this fundraising process for us is that we were also seeking out a female investor with strong consumer investing experience to be the lead investor in keeping every part of our process authentic to our brand, so partnering with Sonya Brown at Norwest Venture Partners was also the right fit for us.

Honestly, it’s just always about looking ahead. The journey continues. Positioning Senreve as an iconic global brand and “next-generation” luxury company. The luxury brand of the future can be direct-to-consumer and digitally native. Very strategically, we started with the handbag, and we focused on that, but we definitely have plans to expand into other categories while growing internationally.

For now, I think we’re going to really start doubling down on certain categories outside of handbags and work to understand what our core portfolio of products will be. We’re also planning to expand our retail footprint with brick and mortar. We have one storefront in San Francisco, which is our laboratory, but we have ambitions to build stores within the US and also globally.

In the long term, sustainability and ownership of our supply chain will be a central focus. Empowerment and social impact are areas we want to really lean into, whether it’s philanthropically or creating more of a social impact. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic  we have done a major mask drive and will be donating masks to hospitals and healthcare professionals around the US in need. I am very thrilled and excited that Senreve can be a platform for good and focus on all the ways that matter to women in our community.

How have you responded to what’s been happening so far with the COVID-19 pandemic? 

SENREVE has become a global company and the first thing we prioritized was our team. We really ramped up coordination and communication with our teams in Italy and Hong Kong to understand the situation on the ground. We canceled all travel immediately and wanted to make sure that everyone on our team was 100% healthy. It was also important for us to communicate with the SENREVE community, so we emailed and shared via social media updates regularly and with transparency.

We are really doubling down on our cultural values, now more than ever we need to focus on Flexibility, Grit & Perseverance, and Optimism! We are trying our best to stay connected as a team and are doing a lot of virtual gatherings including virtual lunches and coffee chats as well as happy hours and Fun Run challenges.

What advice would you give up-and-coming entrepreneurs or CEOs? 

I think it’s really important to not focus on external validation or motivation, keeping the focus and self-discipline on what you’re actually intrinsically passionate about. That’s advice I would have given myself a few decades back as I was always very achievement-oriented or academically oriented, always on this trajectory to the next marker of success, and it’s really easy to be distracted by that. Now, I get to do what I’m really passionate about, and the “markers of success” that keep driving me forward are led by emotion, and not validation from others. Motherhood has also really changed my worldview. Allowing yourself to have a career passion that is entwined with your life and your family is so rewarding. Project 1920 and this idea of this independent female, the entire idea of Senreve, really freed me from a lot of things that I felt were important, or things other people told me were important.

I also think it’s so essential to invest in relationships and mentorships. I have benefitted enormously from that throughout my life, which I still feel so truly grateful for. For me, I’m always drawing from other female founders or executives or just people who are really brilliant and visionary and creative.

What were some of your greatest challenges? 

In the beginning, there were so many people who were super critical. For a while, it was just me and Wendy; she is incredible, and we are very complimentary. My relationship with her is so central and critical to the success of Senreve, but there were so many people who initially couldn’t understand my vision, but that is a part of doing something different. When it’s never been done before, people can’t imagine or believe a world in which this would be successful. But it’s interesting now because, over time, we have been very successful in growing and building the business, so the people or “experts”  who had advised me against it have all come back and said, “you were right and I was wrong,” so I have to say hearing that is definitely satisfying.

Again, I think it’s just so important to keep your focus on what is driving you intrinsically and really keep chasing that passion because everything else outside of that is just noise.

What has been the most rewarding part of your journey?

It’s incredibly validating to have any amount of success rooted in a passion. I had hopes and dreams for Senreve, sure, but for it to take off the way it did has just been so rewarding and fulfilling. One of the best things about creating a physical product is that we can actually see it in the world! This tangible, physical item that just three years ago didn’t exist—I now see on my walk to work or at a bus stop or in my morning coffee line; that’s been such a cool experience for us. We have this thing called Senreve in the Wild, so when people see someone wearing a bag, they’ll take a quick picture and then share it with our team, and our team also shares pictures internally. It’s always really cool, because in the beginning it used to be so rare to see it, and then now it’s kind of like if I’m having a coffee meeting in San Francisco at a random Starbucks, I’ll see so many women walking by wearing the bag, which is super rewarding as well.

There are women who have sent us videos of opening up the package for the first time with a new product, so excited or even crying to receive it—for many, it’s their first luxury purchase. That is such an incredible feeling for us, we get to be this little part of something that they are so proud of.

We hear stories every day of Senreve purchases, whether a “treat yourself” moment or gifted, and it’s just another layer of how the brand gets entwined in the lives of these incredible, beautiful women, and we’re just so lucky. It reminds me that I’m doing something meaningful and interesting in the world, bringing joy to people and actually having an impact on their lives.

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Sophie Ireland
SVP for News and Editorial Director. As CEOWORLD magazine's senior vice president for news and editorial director, Sophie Ireland oversees CEOWORLD magazine's journalism and journalists around the world and across platforms. She leads an award-winning team of journalists and newsroom executives who are committed to excellence, innovation and the highest quality reporting and storytelling. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or connect on LinkedIn. Email her at sophie@ceoworld.biz.