This unlikely investor saved a plus-size fashion retailer
ABC News(NEW YORK) — James Rhee is not the person you’d expect to be the driving force behind the revival of America’s largest plus-size, retail chain for African-American women.
The company was Ashley Stewart. It was founded in 1991 as one of the first and only fashion brands for plus-sized, African-American women. It was built around the idea of serving a community. Store managers were referred to as “Miss Ashley” by shoppers. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters would shop together for special occasion clothing. And in 2013, it was on the brink of declaring bankruptcy for the second time. That’s when Rhee — an Asian-American man, the son of Korean immigrants, with no retail experience at all — stepped up to take over as CEO. He left behind his career as a financial investor to run Ashley Stewart and give the brand one last shot to stay alive.
“It was one of those things where … I just felt what was going to happen to the business was wrong,” said Rhee. “The company hadn’t had a really fair shot in a long time.”
He went on, “I think as an investor, you’re trained not to be emotional,” said Rhee. “But I think some of your best investments of money and your time are things driven by emotion. But you have to have the rational sense to make sense of that emotion.”
For Rhee, that emotion was tethered to his own experience, growing up a first-generation American in New York. His father, a pediatrician, became involved in their community through his work. But Rhee’s mother remained home to take care of him and his two siblings. English remained a barrier.
“I remember her asking for some anti-rust spray at a local hardware store,” Rhee shared. “And she was treated really poorly. And I remember going in there and saying – you know, I must’ve been 14 years old – and saying, ‘Why would you speak to my mother like that? It’s not nice.’”
He continued, “There were times growing up when I saw my mom enter into a place where she could speak Korean, and she was a different person. Like, she was just so comfortable. I could see it in her neckline, her shoulders – the stress was out.”
Today, Ashley Stewart is thriving. Its digital business is booming, the customer base has grown, and the brand is leveraging its name to help promote new entrepreneurs from the same community it serves. But for Rhee, the last four years were not about serving one particular brand, nor one particular community.
“I really believe people are the same,” he said. “At the end of the day – particularly after being a father – what [people] want is just to have something decent for their kids. And to be able to feed them, and send them to a good school, if they want to go to school, and to have grandkids. I really believe it’s that simple.”
To hear about Rhee’s own story, check out the full conversation on this week’s episode of “Uncomfortable.”
Download and subscribe to the “Uncomfortable” podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and ABC News podcasts.
Rhee was interviewed as part of a series called “Uncomfortable,” hosted by Amna Nawaz, that offers in-depth honest conversations with influential figures about issues dividing America.
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