Mei Xu has an edge when it comes to starting and scaling her latest business: YesSheMay.com, an online boutique dedicated to curating products designed by women, for women. That’s because she already impressively did it with her first one before selling it: Chesapeake Bay Candle.
A Chinese emigrant, Mei was one of several hundred youth selected to be trained as career diplomats in 1979 as China began to do business with the rest of the world. At the age of 12, she was enrolled in a boarding school for international studies and language immersion. She also spent four years in Beijing finishing her training while working as an interpreter for World Bank. “I was very happy traveling on international missions,” Mei recalls.
Once her training was complete in 1989, the other graduates were sent to work in remote Chinese warehouses, while Mei opted to take another path. She applied and was accepted to graduate school in Maryland, which brought her to the U.S. and put her near World Bank in Washington, DC, where she continued to work while studying journalism and mass communication.
As Mei was preparing to graduate, the Gulf War led by the U.S. against Iraq was ramping up. The U.S. was a major donor of World Bank and couldn’t pay its dues that year, so Mei’s position was eliminated. Her search for a new job led her to New York, where she found a “very uninspiring” position with a high-tech medical export company. The office was right next to Bloomingdale’s flagship store, which got her thinking.
“I would go window-shopping every day and noticed the difference between the fashion floor and the home floor, which looked like you had entered your grandma’s home,” Mei says. “I kept telling my then-husband David that I couldn’t imagine a woman with wonderful, minimalistic taste going home to this.”
David, who had entrepreneurial spirit, agreed there was a missed opportunity in home goods. In 1994, they decided to launch a business in Maryland that sold silk flowers, pillows, throws, rugs and candles. “I didn’t pay attention to the candles at first because we never burned candles unless there was a blackout,” she recalls.
By September of ’98, the pair noticed when they went to a wholesale tradeshow that every order included candles. Then, between September and December, they sold half-a-million-dollars in candles to department and mom and pop stores. “That was the beginning of our focus on candles; it was really by luck,” she says. “Candles are unlike sofas where you only buy a few in your lifetime. We hit on something people continually use and go back to buy more for themselves and others.”
Chesapeake Bay Candle took off from there—infusing culture and design; introducing color trends; and combining aromatherapy and destination fragrances. “These things allowed the business to not only be a jar with fragrance, but a lifestyle,” shares Mei. “We always tried to be culturally relevant and remind people what fragrance can do for you.”
For nearly two decades, Chesapeake Bay Candle thrived. In fact, it reached a point where Mei focused more on profitability than growth. Then in 2016, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She thought about the long hours and travel her business required and what would happen if she could no longer work that way. That’s when she was approached by a private equity firm interested in buying the business.
“I’d usually say ‘no’ but I was almost thankful I had the opportunity to think about it,” Mei shares. “I decided I wanted to find the best home for my business. I was without hair with a wig, but what helped me was selling my business while going through treatment. I had to get up and go to work.”
In doing so, it was important for Mei to find a company that would continue to innovate as well as honor the suppliers and clients that had helped Chesapeake Bay Candle grow over the years. Ultimately, in 2017, she chose Newall Brands, the parent company of Yankee Candle, among other brands.
Her advice to women business owners considering one day selling their businesses? “Sometimes the timing isn’t right,” she says. “Quite a few of us wait until our late 60s or even 70s to consider the process, but you want to give yourself two rounds to get it right. Do it earlier than you find comfortable. Also, find a good banker who doesn’t promise you the world, but has a history of success on both the buyer and seller sides.”
Today, Mei is taking all of her lessons learned and applying them to her new venture, YesSheMay.com, which she launched in June 2020. After selling Chesapeake Bay Candle, Mei was spending her time speaking, serving on boards like the advisory board of Enterprising Women magazine and helping other women business owners scale. When the pandemic hit, many of these smaller mom and pop businesses she was mentoring were forced to close.
Mei had an idea and quickly assembled a team that built a digital platform to house retail products from more than 60 hand-selected women business owners from all over the world. With in-person trade shows shut down, they evaluated potential businesses one by one through short virtual appointments, many times in different languages.
Currently, the site features fashion, beauty and giftables—all thoughtfully made and priced between $50 and $1,000. There are beach towels from Turkey, handmade alpaca sweaters from Peru, skincare based on Chinese herbal medicine and more. “We provide these women a chance to sell the consumer market here in the U.S., but shine a light on how they do it,” Mei says. “A lot of them live and work in rural communities. We’re also looking for partners and hoping to welcome other unique voices to our platform.”
Learn more about Mei and her book Burn here.
Best Scaling Advice
“Our secret sauce was focusing on being different from the big brands. Creativity was in our DNA. It’s easy to sit on the same golden egg and let it be the driver of your business. That mentality is understandable, but in a consumer industry, consumers are fickle and want to be entertained and surprised. We were a company that really wanted to be the leader in innovation and design and stayed true to that by making sure we were always challenging ourselves. I used to host a day each week where I asked design, sales and marketing to present whatever had come through during the last two weeks that was interesting—music, art, movies, etc.—to provoke us. It trained the team to never get too comfortable and always feel a little pressure and sense of urgency.” —Mei