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Accountant by Day, Popular Fashion Designer by Night, Sharmilli Thangarajah Discusses How She Built Up Sharleez Bridal
Sharmilli Thangarajah is a finance professional with a passion for fashion. While on her maternity leave 10 years ago, she decided to turn her fashion hobby into a business, after facing many obstacles. Today, she's had one of her dresses featured on the Red Carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, and a thriving bridal business.
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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What brought you down the path of becoming a fashion designer, specifically on bridal/formal wear?  What did you do before that?

It was actually a coincidence that I started this business.  I always had a passion for fashion and fashion shows.  I spent a lot of time reading and watching fashion-related content on TV. However, I am a financial professional with degress in business/finance along with a CPA license. I built up my career in the corporate world and climbed the proverbial ladder to senior management.  While I was on maternity leave with my daughter, I was really bored as I was used to being busy (I'm a workaholic). Since I had a lot of free time during my mat leave, I decided to start doing some research into the fashion industry. I attended some seminars and travelled to a few countries to explore options.  In the end, I decided to create a couture collection. I did a photo shoot and participated in a few fashion shows. I received so many compliments and encouragement that I didn't stop. It started as a hobby, but I continued to work on the business in the evenings and weekends after I went back to work. After 2 years, I started my first boutique with a few of my own collections that I made.  I continued to collaborate and participate in industry events and shows. I got invited to particiapte in Toronto designer shows and Vancouver fashion week.  This brought me a ton of publicity and recognition for my brand and the boutique.  I started with a couture collection as a hobby and it turned into a bridal and formal collection.

I first became aware of your work when your dress was featured on the Red Carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. What are some wins over the years that you are proud of?

Being an immigrant coming to Canada as teenager and adapting to the new culture opened up my eyes to many opportunities.  I see Canada as a land of opportunity.  As a woman, I am proud of overcoming challenges and starting my own business in the Canadian fashion industry, while having my brand recognized in many magazines and fashion shows (including Vancouver fashion week, Miss Universe Canada, Miss Canada and the Cannes Film festival).  I am also proud of the Toronto Sharleez Fashion gala, which I host annually, collaborating with other Canadian designers and artists to support my foundation which helps other women in need. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all of this without my strong work ethic, love for my business and the support from others around me.

How did you find these opportunities to showcase your design work, whether it is a magazine cover or down a world famous red-carpet runway?

The opportunities came from a lot of collaboration, networking and branding. I never said no to collaborations when I first started my business as a hobby. I was very excited to learn about the industry that I am passionate about. I used to attend countless networking events to get to know other designers and artists in the industry.  I made a lot of friends, who encouraged me to take my vision to the next level. I expanded my connections in the industry to get to know many people, which opened up opportunities. I wasn't an overnight success, it was many years in the making for me to get to where I am today.  

One important thing that I always prioritize and focus on is my branding. Many people think that the brand is just a beautiful logo and marketing. However, for me, branding is more than that. It is trust, quality, service and giving back to the community. I really emphasize building trust within the community, the quality of the products I create, how we treat our customers and giving back to the community.  Ever since I was young, I have been been heavily involved in community organizations and love to work with people who are in need.  Helping to change other peoples' lives is an important part of who I am. I incorporated giving back to the community into my business by creating my own foundation. It was always part of my vision when building my business to have this foundation, through which I host an annual fashion gala to support worthy causes like the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and Operation Smile Canada.  In addition, we help support George Brown College design students in recognizing their talent and providing them with opportunities in this field.

Where do you see your business and yourself personally in 5 years?

As a business owner, I believe you should have a vision of what you want to for the next 20 years.  You set small milestones along the way to get to where you want to be.  My goal for the next 5 years is for the business to explore looking at opening new locations including internationally. I'm excited to say that two international boutiques will start to carry my collection starting in the new year!  

Personally, I see myself growing as a strong leader in the fashion space, while also contirbuting more time to support and help women grow through my foundation.  

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in creating and running your business?

I faced many challenges along the way and still face challenges, as it's part of the entrepreneurial journey. The first challenge was that I had never run a business before doing this. I had the employee mindset because of my professional job and all I knew was corporate culture. It was difficult to adapt and learn to be more entrepreneurial, because it was outside of my comfort zone. The second challenge was because the fashion space is a branding business, it took a long time to build credibility. I had to prepare myself mentally to have a lot of patience and continue to work on my craft knowing it would take more time before I would potentially reap the rewards of my hard work. The third challenge was work-life balance - balancing time between my family, my job and my business.  

Do you have any advice for other Tamils women who aspire to be in a position that you are in today?

I would first ask myself why you want to start a particular business. Only start that business if you have a passion for it and the work that comes along with it. Do NOT do it just for money. When you love what you do and enjoy the process, you have the courage and energy to handle setbacks. I've seen people who start a business just for money and at the first sign of trouble, it's much easier to quit versus having the courage or patience to continue to face and overcome challenges. If you love what you do, you will enjoy the journey and the learnings, you will get through the mistakes you will inevitably make. Also, have the right people beside you who will support you, love you and show interest in your progress.  

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How did your family play a role in your career choice? Was there any pushback from friends or family when you decided to go down this path?

Initially, my family was against the idea of me starting a business, since I had already built up my career as a sucessful professional. It seems to be a common theme with entrepreneurs, but my family eventually came around to supporting me. This was also important and comforting for me, as it is very important for an entrepreneur to have a support system from family/friends to help them face the stress and challenges they will face.   

It seems like a big part of your business is designing wedding dresses.  COVID-19 has severely impacted the ability for people to have weddings or at least the wedding that they envisioned. How has this impacted your business?  If it has impacted your business, how have you been able to pivot?

Just like other small businesses, my business was affected because the wedding industry was hammered by COVID-19. The pandemic was unexpected. As an entrepreneur, I could sit back and wait, or I could be proactive. I doubled down on marketing, utilized the support provided by community business organizations, continued to motivate my team along with investing in building my team and revamped our website to include an online sales platform. All of these things helped our business survive and hopefully thrive moving forward.     

Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career? Do you think everybody needs mentors?  How does somebody find a mentor?

I didn’t have any mentors when I started the business. I believe that before you look for a mentor, you have to invest in yourself. Self-motivation and self-development are important for any entrepreneu.  The more you invest in yourself, you are more likely to make better decisions for your business. I did this by reading inspirational stories of other entrepreneurs who were success stories.  

What is a great business idea or product that you would be working on if you weren’t focused on Sharleez Bridal?

I actually already started working on this idea. I won't get into it at this point as it's a surprise. But within 1 year, it is something that I will share.

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What do you think you would tell 16-year Shar looking back?

Looking back, when I was 16-years-old, I'm not sure there is anything I would change except maybe not be so academically focused. My biggest goal was to get straight A's in high school. I used to perform Tamil classical dance, which took up a lot of my time on weekends and evenings for practice. I also enjoyed organizing fashion shows in my high school programs. I had great friends that I spent time with and I'm still good friends with them 25 years later.    

How would you describe your dream life? 

My dream life would be to become a successful entrepreneur, spend time with family, maintain a healthy lifestyle and empower others.  I always loved travelling and exploring the world, while learning about other cultures and history. I would love to continue to spend more time on that. 

What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?

My favorite book that I have read recently is “Blue Ocean Strategy” which taught me a lot about strategy along with trying to be more data-driven in my decision-making.  

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

To focus on self-development as it's really improved my life mentally, emotionally and physically. I try to surround myself with people who are motivating, potential mentors and leaders in the business world. This has helped me learn the skills I need to have to be a great leader for my business, my profession and the community. 

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

I would invest in helping other women who are creative and have dreams but don't have the resources or support to take action on their dreams. As a female entrepreneur, I understand how important it is to have a support system around you. We are fortunate to live in a country full of opportunities. However, there are women in developing countries like Sri Lanka, who are very talented and have big dreams, but aren't fortunate to have the resources or support system.  I would love to be the support system if I was given the opportunity.

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How would you describe the Tamil community in Canada?

I am very proud to be a Tamil woman and proud of our community. We are one of the fastest growing communities in Canada from an economic point of view in such a short period of time.  There seems to be something within the Tamil community where people are humble and value hard work on the path to be successful while still remembering our roots.   

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

My favorite Tamil food is vegetarian food including rice and vegetarian curries. During the COVID-19 shutdown, I learned to make pittu, string hoppers, thosa etc. at home. I was very excited about it.

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

I hardly watch movies in general as I don’t get much time for it. I am more interested in classical and historical movies. The latest movie that I liked is called “Bahubali”.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

I love Tamil culture. It is very rich in history and Tamil is the world's oldest language as it's over 5,000 years old!

Connect with Sharmilli via her TC profile

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