For WNBA star, Shyra Ely-Gash, before there was basketball, there was fashion. Her earliest memories consist of her childhood self sprawled out on the floor sketching outfits.
Somewhere between then and now, she picked up a basketball. The game took her to the University of Tennessee, one of women’s basketball’s most prestigious collegiate programs, and allowed her to travel the world playing in American and European professional leagues.
Shyra has lived a life little girls dream about, and I’ve had a front row seat to her journey (we’re cousins). Growing up, I remember her having a rambunctious personality. One that still allows her to make fast friends with almost anyone and give off an aura that she could succeed at whatever she attempts.
Now her mind is set on fashion. Three years ago she made her personal shopping duties for friends and family into a second profession, launching her styling company, Styles By M.E. (the M.E. is Ms. Ely.) Initially targeting the women’s basketball community, it has since grown to include a diverse clientele, an online boutique, and originally designed pieces set to launch this year.
I sat down to talk with the self-described “glamazon” about gender stereotypes, and how a setback in one career helped her take the other to the next level.
MN: How did you know entrepreneurship was for you?
Shyra: I know the type of person I am. Being an athlete and having my own schedule, I know I’m not the type to work for someone else. I knew I had to be my own boss. When I realized I couldn’t study fashion design in college, I went into retail and consumer science. It’s still in the field, but it gives me that business background.
MN: Why do you think there is a belief that women can’t be both athletic and feminine?
Shyra: That is probably what I will go to my deathbed trying to disprove. I’m not sure why we feel that way. I didn’t really find myself until I was about 13 or 14 as far as owning my femininity. I remember going to an AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] tournament down south, the players went out, and I didn’t have anything to wear. I was the oddball out. All my teammates had on their girly, dressy clothes. I was thinking because I was tall [and was always around boys, I had to wear boys’ clothes]. From that moment I said, I’m not going to be someone else. I’m a chick and I like looking like a girl, so that’s what I’m going to do.
MN: How do those two aspects of you, fashionista and athlete, blend together?
Shyra: I’m a businesswoman. My business is basketball. So on the court I’m going to be dressed in my business attire. Off the court, I’m a businesswoman of a different kind. So, I’ll be dressed in my business attire. Playing a male-dominated sport doesn’t take any of my femininity away.
I’m an athlete. I have muscles. I take care of my body. On the court, within the limitations – I’m not going to have on four-inch nails – my nails are painted, I wear a little makeup, and my hair is done. I’m just not going to not be me because of what I’m doing or where I work.
MN: How does being an athlete influence how you approach the business of fashion?
Shyra: I have a very strong competitive spirit. I compete in everything I do — whether against myself, time, whatever. When I got hurt last year and wasn’t able to play [a torn ACL in May ended her season with the Indiana Fever early], I’m thankful I had another area to channel that energy. I’m always thinking and trying to stay up on the latest. I’ll see someone in an outfit and think, “How can I make that look better? What would I do differently with that?” I love challenges.
MN: Why styling?
Shyra: The best feelings I get aren’t from what people are wearing but how they feel about themselves afterwards. To see the change in their confidence level, that’s huge. That’s the greatest reward. I love when I’m on the phone giving my clients pep talks, telling them, “You can wear this, don’t be afraid.” People don’t realize you can make anything look good if you’ve got the confidence to rock it. That’s the secret!
MN: You’re always talking about building an empire. What are you working on right now?
Shyra: [I soft launched my boutique, TUTZglam at the end of last year.] I have so many clothes that either gets worn or not. Instead of throwing it away or donating it, I thought I could get some use out of it promoting myself and getting interest in my style. So, that’s where the boutique came from.
As of now I buy products wholesale, but I’m in the process of designing long inseam leggings. That’s very cool for me because as a tall woman, I can’t find leggings with the trendy studs and leather and all the fun stuff the average woman can find. This is just my way of saying, “If you’re not going to make what I need; I’m going to make it myself.”
MN: How are you expanding your brand?
Shyra: Most of it is specific to me. Because of the trouble I had coming up finding clothing and being stylish while being a tall, athletic woman. That’s pretty much my target: a taller, athletic woman who is fashion savvy, has a different eye and wants to stand out. Someone who likes to create different looks, and her style evolves and changes. It’s a reflection of me. And yes, I’m an athlete, so I’ll definitely throw some athletic apparel in there down the line.
MN: How do you decide what ventures to pursue?
Shyra: Originally, it was just about exposure. Being a professional athlete and being somewhat in the public eye, people want to attach themselves to me. Now that my business has some momentum, people really want to attach themselves to what I’m doing. Last year I may have said yes to everything, but now it’s more about carefully selecting what I want my brand to be attached to and how I want to build my empire.
MN: What’s the secret to juggling two demanding careers?
Shyra: Knowing your limits, and knowing when you need a break. I apply it the same way I apply it to basketball and my body. I listen to my body. If my body says, “You know what Shyra you’re sore and you need a break,” then I give myself a break. It’s the same with my business. Yesterday I felt sick and I knew I wasn’t going to get any quality work done, so I didn’t do anything. I just listen to myself, and give God the authority and control. It’s his anyway.
MN: Why does the fashion industry need Shyra Ely?
Shyra: This isn’t a game for me. This is in me. This is my passion. This is what I think about the majority of my day. I think [my success] will show young women that it doesn’t matter what you do, how tall you are, what you look like, or what sport you play: be you and do you.
My parents did it for me. That’s why I’m confident enough to step out and do my own thing. I’m going to have my own business. I’m not working for you. I feel like the fashion industry needs someone like me because they haven’t seen anybody like me.
MN: What piece of advice has helped you the most since starting a business?
Shyra: It’s so simple you guys. It’s going to sound dumb. You just have to do it. Don’t make any excuses. Don’t feel like I can’t do this, without doing this. If you include – and I’m going to get spiritual on you – if you include God in everything you do, he’ll open those doors and he’ll make those ways. If you have the faith and the confidence to believe in what you’re doing, and you imprint it into your mind so that’s all you see, that’s all you breathe, that’s all you think about… I believe that you can do anything.
C. Cleveland covers professional development topics and entrepreneurial rebels who blaze their own career paths. She explores these stories and more on The Red Read, Twitter (@CleveInTheCity) and Facebook (/MyReadIsRed).