Ashley Young, Co-Founder of Bridal Babes, knows what it takes to compete in a crowded marketplace. Her company, which aims to provide special occasion gowns and experiences for “women of color and women with curves,” is forging a successful path in the billion-dollar wedding industry through previously unexplored audiences and an intentional focus on diversity made possible through tech.
Standing out in order to reach her audience requires a committed online presence and visual professionalism that support and empower the clients she aims to serve. Her career and education have readied her to excel in this venture.
Prior to launching Bridal Babes with her husband, Charles, in 2019, Young spent 10 years managing $500 million in public education campaign advertising and creative to prevent youth tobacco use. She also spent time with both New York ad agency Universal McCann and public relations firm Porter Novelli, where she developed her skillful approach to marketing by collaborating with global brands and corporate clients. The result of those experiences greatly informed how she developed her company and the goals she is aiming to accomplish.
“When it comes to marketing and advertising, I’ve never been afraid to spend money,” she says, explaining her attention to detail and partnering with those who can ensure she realizes and maintains her high standard of creative execution.
Young also credits the business acumen that came with those years on the job—and her McIntire coursework, which she says gave her the foundational knowledge required to formulate her strategic vision and the familiarity and fluency in pitching her ideas. She confirms those abilities make all the difference for an entrepreneur who has to be as camera-ready and marketable as her products.
“Learning how to present and how to articulate an idea or an opinion has definitely helped me,” she says. “Gone are the days when you could run your business from behind your computer; now they want the CEOs and the brand owners to be up front and center. They want to know the person behind the brand. You have to be on Instagram Live; you have to have options to do meet-and-greets—it’s the social media and reality TV world that we live in,” she says, pointing out that the high-touch approach has allowed her to interact with her customers every day. “People want to know who you really are.”
Following that logic, we thought we’d get to know more about Young and her company, Bridal Babes. We discovered how her startup is changing the way people shop for wedding clothes while simultaneously creating a much-needed space for groups of women during one of the most significant moments in their lives.
The wedding industry is huge. What business challenges are specific to your area of it, and what part does technology play in how your company achieves its goals?
One of the major issues is overcoming how antiquated the entire bridal industry is. Many times, when we go to retail shows looking for new manufacturers, designers, and partners, we hear this hush-hush talk of other businesses saying that they don’t like the online stores. It’s because we have really changed the game when it comes to margins, because we can price more competitively. And it’s not just the overhead of having a brick and mortar—because we do have a warehouse and a showroom location—but we don’t have the staffing costs of having stylists waiting for customers to walk in the door. So, bringing the old system into this more virtual era has been somewhat challenging from an industry perspective. But our customers love the accessibility and convenience!
Our customers are women of color and women with curves, women who have typically been overlooked by the bridal industry, similar to the beauty and fashion industries, but I think it’s even more pervasive in the bridal industry. That has been a challenge but also has been an opportunity for us because we’re one of the only brands speaking to women of color and women with curves. Many times, I speak with different business partners, and they might not be women of color, but they fit the curve category and are happy that we have something that works for them. It’s great that we’re able to really touch on both segments.
Last summer, your pitch earned one of the top spots in Capital One/Boss Women Media’s Black Girl Magic competition. Congratulations! What do you feel are the most important aspects of being an entrepreneur as a woman of color? In what ways do you believe that your business efforts may enact changes in business and society?
One of the key missions for us is being able to showcase diversity—not just in ethnicity, but also in body type and shape. I do think that having these really powerful images makes a difference. People say, “Oh, you’re spending so much on photoshoots again?” The answer is yes; we have to flood the market with this imagery in order for people to see themselves in these pieces when they’re shopping and know we truly appreciate them. If the models don’t look like the people shopping, they don’t know how a dress is going to look on them.
Early on, one of the things we heard from customers was that they were grateful we were virtual because they were tired of going into stores and being concerned because they couldn’t find anything in their size. Now, they can shop from the comfort of their home, see that we have sizes up to size 24, and that we can even do custom sizes. We’re promoting that confidence because curvy women are beautiful and we want to make sure that we’re celebrating them.
As you pursue success for your venture, what experiences from your time at the Commerce School continue to stay with you and inform your work today?
I’m trying to hold back my smile because I feel that it’s everything. But I think the most important piece is forming relationships and having the network of people I can reach out to. We did a webinar [and networking event] with McIntire Black alumni and students, and I actually connected with an alumnus who runs a business who was giving me tips. The network has been so powerful.
Obviously, you just have such a leg up on everyone, having gone through the mini-boot camp of the Integrated Core, especially in the corporate world. I also took Jack Lindgren’s Promotions course, and that was just fabulous. It was actually the reason why I switched over from Accounting and Finance concentrations to Marketing. My mother is a banker and a McIntire alumna, and my dad is a CPA, and they were like, “What are you doing? You’re not going to make any money.” But I told them that it was so much fun and that I could go do something I was excited about. They said, “That’s not what work is.” But that class was like a game changer for me; going up to New York and meeting with all the ad agencies was just fabulous, so I loved that course.
I loved my experience with [former Associate] Dean [Becca] Leonard as well. She was just a guiding light for me throughout the entire process, and having her in my corner was wonderful.
Now that you’re starting your fourth year with Bridal Babes, what are you looking forward to most?
I’m looking forward to getting through this wedding season. When we launched in 2019, we had success, and then the pandemic hit, followed by supply chain issues, so I feel like this might be our first like normal wedding season. This is also supposed to be the biggest wedding season since 1984.
We’ve just got to hire more people. That’s the main goal for this year. We had a big revenue goal last year to attract more investors. Long term, we’re definitely starting to map things out for our seed round, pitching to VCs and, of course, figuring out our ultimate exit strategy.
I’ve heard a lot of entrepreneurs talk about time; you switch to this entrepreneurial world from the corporate one and think you’ll be able to make your own schedule, but it’s not like that. There just aren’t enough hours left at the end of the day, and I’m working three times as hard as I was when I was in a corporate job. My husband is our Co-Founder, so he manages the logistics and operations, and then I do more of the marketing, the production, and the design. We are definitely stretched thin—and we have two toddlers!
Our biggest goals are to add some more automation and grow our team, because that’s also going to provide a superior customer experience as well as allow us to work more efficiently, to get prices down, and to delight everyone.
As this year marks the School’s Centennial, we’re collecting favorite McIntire memories from alumni. What’s yours?
I have so many, but I think one of my favorite memories would have been in the Promotions class, when we did an event to promote an anti-binge drinking campaign in the amphitheater. I remember pulling up in my Jeep Compass and blasting music from the back of my car; Jack Lindgren was there dancing with us when he was like 60 or 70 years old. It just makes me think that with age, with ethnicity, with different backgrounds—with all of it—we all came together, our entire Promotions class, and just had a great time. You can always find commonalities across different groups.