Well, it’s been quite a few months since I shared an interview with you. So it’s time to step up my game! And what better way than by introducing Maria Murphy, a fashion industry executive with over 30 years of experience. Currently, Maria holds the position of VP of sales for Tahari Arthur S. Levine. But in her spare time, she founded her passion project Lei-Lei – a socially conscious eCommerce fashion marketplace that showcases handmade items by women artisans from impoverished countries around the world. How fab is that? Maria’s mission is to connect fairly traded businesses that give back to their artisans with eco-conscious consumers who care about helping others. Her goal is to inspire positive consumer behavior to bring about real change. Both in society as well as to the environment. Shop responsibly and inspire change here and around the world.
Maria knew from a young age that she loved to dress up and shop. Her passion was fueled by her mother who was a showroom model back in the days when they were used during fashion week. She worked throughout high school and college at Macy’s on the selling floor. After four years and a BS in Marketing and an AAS in Fashion Buying and Merchandising from FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), Maria’s career in wholesale sales began. Can you believe that was over 30 years ago and numerous executive positions later!!
The fashion business can be fun and glamorous sounding but it is also very fast paced and demanding. Couple that with daily commuting and caring for a family and the shine can wear off. Maria knew she needed to do something more important and wanted to put money back into the hands of those that needed it most…not the owners but the workers!!! She founded and launched Lei-Lei in 2013 with some help from her oldest daughter Ali in between her visits home from college. Maria wanted to involve her in something that she could say she helped create, be proud of, and learn about business while helping others in need. Maria believes her job as a mother is to empower her children and put them on the right path. Their company is based on the belief that helping others in need brings us closer to making the world a better place.
First, they started with beautiful beaded bracelets handmade in a Christian community in Kathmandu, Nepal. Word of mouth and a small website of loyal and repeat customers kept them very busy. Two years later they decided to grow the handmade product offerings and become an eCommerce global marketplace. Their products now include Moroccan clutches and market baskets, sheep’s wool animal booties for newborns from Krygystan, eco-resin and upcycled horn jewelry, alpaca shawls, hats and gloves and many others. All products must fit the criteria of being handmade, fairly traded, renewable, sustainable while allowing the customer to shop guilt free for cool items that support worthy causes. Lei-Lei is about goods that give!! They find great happiness and pride from their business knowing that they help so many in need. Their goal is to pass this pleasure on to you, so you can shop knowing your purchases have a positive impact on their artisans’ lives.
Are you ready to learn a bit more about this amazing woman? I know I am.
Maria, are you over or under the age of 40?
I’m actually over the age of 50! I just celebrated a birthday…at times I can’t believe my age and other times I know that the best is yet to come!
Where does your inspiration come from?
I lost my father at a very young age and was blessed to have the most amazing, giving and hard working mother anyone could have ever had. Her selfless spirit and determination inspired me to be the best person, the best mother, the best woman, that I could be. My hard work ethic was inspired by her working her butt off to give my brother and me the best life a single mother could give to her children. My hope is that this passes on to my kids so they instill it in theirs and so on.
This gray top is paired with a statement necklace made of upcycled bovine horn put through a heated thermal process which causes the curves in the squares. It is an amazing piece of art that comes in a couple of color combos!
What inspired you to found a socially responsible eCommerce company?
I’ve been in the fashion industry for over 30 years and have enjoyed my career. I’ve always had a passion for all things fashion and knew pretty early on that I wanted to be involved in it in some way. On a personal level, my husband Joe and I contribute to many charities and our church. Professionally, however, the companies that I’d worked for over all the years lacked the empathetic and altruistic connection towards charitable giving and caring for others. I always had an entrepreneurial itch and the internet was the route to take to reach a broad audience interested in responsible shopping. The idea of Lei-Lei started with the handmade beaded bracelets from Nepal and evolved into an ethical fashion business all centered around giving to others in need both here and around the world.
Ocean, lake or pool?
Wow, this is a good one! Having grown up on the East Coast the ocean is always my first choice. I love watching the waves roll into the shore, walking up and down the coastline finding seashells with my 2 young children Sean (11) and Mia (9), and after most people have left the beach enjoying a good read in the quiet of the surf and seagulls. That said…there’s nothing like a cool dip in the pool to feel refreshed after baking in the sun!
What advice would you give your 20something self if you could?
Follow your passion and go for it! If you do what you really love you will be happy. If you do what you think is “right” you may be disappointed down the road. Believe in yourself and work hard and never let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve whatever you want. Never backstab, be forthright and honest and good things will always come your way. Give unto others and finally…never ever quit.
Do you have a motto?
I don’t have a specific motto but sort of follow some that I’ve adopted along the way…one’s like “Make it a great day!” because you have the power to positively direct and impact your day; “Live each day to the fullest” which came from my mother who was a morning person (which I am not, I’m a night owl!) and believed we are all blessed to see the sunshine each and every day so make the most of it.
What do you think of first impressions?
I’m a believer in first impressions. I do think they are important and always try to put my best foot forward while sporting a big smile and a firm handshake. I’m usually a pretty good judge of character and get a feel for someone up front. For the most part, my initial impressions have been spot on but I’ve occasionally been caught off guard by some poor judgment. But those are the rare occasions.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Be true to yourself and surround yourself with strong encouraging people who will lift you up and steer you in the right direction.
Everyone has to start somewhere. What was your first job?
At fifteen I got a job at a small nursing home down the street from my house so it was easy to get back and forth. My responsibilities included setting the dining room tables for the residents, busing the tables, cleaning the dishes, etc. It was back breaking work for a kid and just not my thing. I didn’t last long at the job and as soon as I was able began working in retail at a small specialty leather store in the mall. Shortly thereafter my retail career continued at Macy’s while going to college full time.
You have a full-time job as well as running Lei Lei. How do you juggle all the balls in play?
Sometimes I wonder how I keep all those balls in the air!! It certainly is not easy! Commuting into NYC five days a week gives me an hour each way to read my emails, update my calendar, read and post on social media, listen to podcasts, read encouraging and informative articles and occasionally catch a few zzz’s. Once I get home Mommy mode kicks in until both kids are tucked into bed. I go back on my laptop until midnight on average (sometimes later) eventually passing out and starting my routine again. I’m also incredibly blessed to have an extremely helpful and supportive husband who allows me the time needed to run a business. He’s also always there to lend an ear or offer constructive advice. Our household couldn’t function effectively if it weren’t for our teamwork and mutual respect.
Ladies, what do you think? Are you ready to shop responsibly? Here’s where you can find Lei-Lei.
Maria, thanks so much for sharing your passion with us. It’s so inspiring to hear what women can do to make the world a better place. Thank goodness there’s no expiration date for new ideas or new journeys. Good luck!