Looking at Anna-Lise Sharma dressed beautifully from head to toe in well-loved fashion labels Ruby and Liam, you could be forgiven for not immediately grasping the fact that her business mind is one of the key ingredients to ensuring the company is commercially successful. Indeed, in her day’s work, she’s not just head of marketing and business development for Ruby, she’s also account director for De Vere Apparel – an arm of the business that manufactures uniforms for government agencies and corporates. “It’s pretty intense managing two very different roles that are just as important as each other,” she says.
The dual responsibilities don’t come without confidence wobbles or tough learning curves. “I’m a perfectionist, very organised and definitely a control freak,” says Anna- Lise. “I’ve had to learn the hard way that you can’t always be in control if you want to grow. I manage a team of eight across our business, and I’ve had to gain an understanding that it’s crucial to let other people do their part. I’ve struggled with that.”
A family legacy
Growing up in a family involved in fashion, you could say the business is in Anna-Lise’s blood. Her parents are Christine and Vere Sharma, who have been involved in the clothing industry for over 30 years. They formed De Vere’s in 1988 with an initial focus on importing and supplying fabric before moving into production. The purchase of then-client Ruby in 2008 saw them enter the retail sphere.
I've had to learn the hard way that you can't always be in control if you want to grow.
“The label was originally founded in 1999 by Lizzie Shand and Kate Gosling and started out as a streetwear brand that catered to their love of the snowboarding scene,” says Anna-Lise. “When the founders’ focuses changed, we bought Ruby. My parents had started out importing textiles before moving to manufacturing, so it made sense as a next step.”
The Ruby girl
“Retail is not an easy space to be playing in, but we have nine stores now, four in Auckland and one each in Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, plus online which is our biggest outlet,” says Anna-Lise. The brand is more about a spirit than a specific demographic. “Ruby doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s spirited, cheeky, charming and adds a bit of sparkle to the wearer’s day,” says Anna-Lise. “Women in their 70s still wear our clothes because of the way they make them feel.”
Commerce VS Creative
Anna-Lise has always loved fashion and knew she wanted to work in the industry, but more from a commercial stance. “Growing up, my dad would bring back samples from overseas, and I loved to dress up in them and put looks together, but I wasn’t really into design or sewing whereas my sister Emily (Emily is general manager of the company and designs Ruby’s sister label, Liam) studied fashion design.”
“I went down a different tack and completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree majoring in marketing and commercial law.”
Though it may sound like a strategic plan, Anna-Lise says it wasn’t. “I felt they were core business skills and I’d see how they transferred to my love of fashion,” she says. While still studying she went to an open day at Showroom 22, a fashion PR firm owned by Murray Bevan. “I saw how business and marketing could work together, so I emailed Murray and asked him if he had any internships available,” she says.
Moving on up
Murray gave her one day a week and she also worked for a day a week at the Ruby High Street store, which ticked off the retail side of things. When the showroom manager at Showroom 22 decided it was time to explore the world, Anna- Lise picked up a few more days, eventually becoming showroom manager. “I learned so much during my time there,” she says. “It’s all very well reading a textbook, but nothing compares to actual hands-on experience.” A couple of years later Ruby’s then-brand manager moved on, so Anna-Lise applied for the role (yes, she did have to formally apply). “I had an interview with our amazing creative director Deanna Didovich and our creative consultant Amelia, to discuss what I could bring to the brand,” she says.
The UK experience
Anna-Lise took over as Ruby’s brand manager until mid 2016 when she and her nowfiancé Tom moved to London (Anna-Lise and Tom became engaged a few weeks ago). “While in London I worked in a fashion distribution agency in a marketing and PR role,” she says. “We had brands like Scotch & Soda out of Amsterdam, Eastpak, Samsoe Samsoe and the Wolverine footwear group who own iconic heritage brands such as Sperry and Keds. It was my team’s responsibility to ensure our brands became top of mind within the UK market. While I was there, I had amazing opportunities such as attending global brand conferences to learn about upcoming collections and how this could translate to the UK market.”
It was a dream gig which delivered a multitude of learnings, but eventually Anna- Lise decided it was time to head home. “I’d taken a step up, learned new life skills and developed a new level of confidence,” says Anna-Lise. “I also felt that I’d done ‘me’, and it was time to get back to the business. I returned to NZ in September 2017 and took on this role.”
Anna-Lise is quick to point out that it was hard work and experience that saw her qualify for the position. “Many people assume that because this is a family business it’s easy, but our parents always instilled in us that if you want to succeed, you have to work hard,” she says. “In many ways, when you work in a family-owned company you have to work 10 times harder to prove yourself.”
The importance of external mentorship
She says that Co.OfWomen has been helpful with her work challenges. “I knew my mother was a member, which was how I discovered it, and I got on board because it’s important to have external mentors and a neutral sounding board. We don’t bring a lot of emotion to work but at the end of the day my sister is still my sister, and she’s also my manager,” she smiles.
All of these ingredients – the confidence that comes with experience, the mentorship, the learnings and self-realisation – are allowing Anna-Lise to be a great girl boss. Indeed, learning to let go of control and delegate is a challenge for entrepreneurs and leaders – after all, it’s a big part of our MO. “It used to be that I was confident when I felt like I had everything sorted, but I’ve had to change,” says Anna- Lise. “Where I used to reply to emails within five minutes, now I have to let go of the reins as that’s my team’s responsibility. I’ve stepped up. I’ve always been the person who has been happy to work until 11pm to get the job done, but it’s about working smarter not harder. The task list gets too huge to be able to do that. I’m very driven and always have been, but I’ve had to learn that the only way I can continue to grow is if I let go – Anna-Lise Sharma is not a lone ranger. It’s about empowering my team, so they gain confidence in their roles.
It used to be that I was confident when I felt like I had everything sorted, but I've had to change.
Anna-Lise believes one of Ruby’s core strengths as a company is its human element “We have 70 staff nationwide and 15 here at the head office, and a big part of our success is our communication with our customers,” she says. “Social media is huge for us. We have 56,000 followers on Instagram and 41,000 on Facebook, and we’re not always about selling. We’re constantly thinking about how we can make the online experience personable. We have Live Chat so we’re always in conversation with our customers and we include handwritten notes with all our orders. It’s essential to us that people have a welcoming and friendly experience in our bricksand- mortar stores too. We try to make every single person feel special.”
I've got this
It’s a technique that’s obviously working as one of the beauties of working with social media is instant feedback. “The other day we got about 50 messages on Instagram from customers about in-store experiences they’d had with our team, saying things like ‘thanks so much for making me feel confident’. It made me so proud of our team.” With feedback like that, Anna- Lise Sharma – girl boss – can stand tall and know ‘she’s got this’.
Co.ofWomen has been helpful with work challenges. It's important to have external mentors and a neutral sounding board.
Anna-Lise's five bombs of wisdom
1. Think back on previous wins to fuel your inner confidence.
2. Control doesn't equal confidence.
3. Build a strong team and champion each other - "We've got this together"
4. Never underestimate the power of a smile.
5. Confidence breeds confidence.