Sophia Amoruso: The anti-capitalist shoplifter who built a $100m empire

Is Sophia Amoruso a role model for ambitious women?

In America, they call her “fashion’s new phenom”, says Forbes, and Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso certainly lives up to the tag. In seven years flat, her “spunky retail fashion site has streaked across the web”, smashing traditional business models.

Eschewing advertising and discounting, Amoruso has built a $100m global business on the backs of eBay, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook – translating ‘likes’ into sales. Not bad for a former ‘anti-capitalist’ who used to shoplift.

Nasty Gal’s office in downtown LA is “a cool girl’s fantasy of corporate life”, says New York magazine. There are potted fiddle-leaf figs, Rihanna on the sound system, a yoga room and several cute dogs of “cuddling dimensions”.

Amoroso tends to roam the office with her own toy poodle, named Donna Summer, tucked under her arm. More than three-quarters of Nasty Gal’s 300-strong workforce are women; the standard greeting is “girl-friendly hugs”.

Amoruso, 30, looks glamorous in Yves Saint Laurent heels, but there’s still a “Dennis the Menace quality about her”. That is being put to good use. Her new book #GIRLBOSS, a hybrid business bible and memoir, is storming the US bestseller charts, billed as an antidote to Sherryl Sandberg’s Lean In (see below).

Amoruso describes herself on social media as “Founder, CEO and Chief Troublemaker” at Nasty Gal, and her life story certainly “makes her an oddity in business”, says The Guardian.

Born in San Diego, into a Greek-American family, she went from high-school dropout (she has attention deficit disorder), to anarchist shoplifter, to small-time eBay seller.

Eventually caught stealing a George Foreman grill, she felt so “comprehensively lame” that it “embarrassed her away from crime”, says New York magazine.

In 2006, she got a desk job, bought a copy of Starting an eBay Business for Dummies and started sourcing vintage clothes to style and sell – either modelling them herself or recruiting likely candidates on MySpace.

“She paid them in hamburgers and analysed their conversion rates to see which ones were most effective.” By 2008, Amoruso’s Nasty Gal brand (named after funk singer Betty Davis’s 1975 album) had earned such a following that it spun off to its own site.

“Amoruso knows her rags-to-riches tale of a naive ingénue is appealing,” says the BBC online, but she emphasises just how much “sweat equity” and discipline was involved. “I built a huge profitable business with no debt [by] putting every drop of profit from this business back into it,” she told WSJ.com.

By 2010, venture capitalists were banging down her door: Amoruso “barely entertained them”.

When she finally did need help expanding in 2012, she took $50m from Danny Rimer of Index Ventures – an early investor in Asos and Net-A-Porter, whom she views as a fellow traveller in terms of “contrarian thinking”.

“It’s only in the last six months that I can say my team has better ideas than I do – and how much of a relief that is,” says Amoruso. But she has no intention of relinquishing control yet. “I’m having fun with my autonomy.”

Success is gained by fighting, not whining

“There’s nothing more inspiring than a successful weirdo,” says Molly Young in New York magazine. That’s the basic rationale of Sophia Amoruso’s book #GIRLBOSS: “a gleeful f**k-you to the notion that life is a series of crescendoing achievements”.

Like most books by CEOs, it’s a marketing tool – an effort to broadcast her brand. But it’s also a “passion project”. When someone tweeted a complaint that grown women shouldn’t call themselves girls, Amoruso responded: “How’s #BROADBOSS? Or would you prefer #MATRONBOSS?”

“I mean, come on,” she says, “It’s okay to call girls girls. And I think it’s okay to call girls bossy.” That Sheryl Sandberg jab is “a canny fight to pick”, says Young. Sandberg’s Lean In has sold more than 1.7 million copies.

Whatever you think of her brand of corporate feminism (“a bullet-proof resumé, a perfect husband and a roster of friends in high places”), it has created “an open spot for someone different”.

Sandberg is writing for women who’ve already made it. #GIRLBOSS is for those who haven’t, making it a “riskier and more enjoyable manifesto”.

It’s insulting to be praised for having “no college degree”, she writes. But “this is also to my advantage: I can show up to a meeting and blow people away just by being my street educated self”.

Success, she maintains, is gained by fighting, not whining. “You don’t get taken seriously by asking someone to take you seriously.” It’s punchy stuff, says Richard Feloni on Business Insider. Amoruso has made “feminism cool again”.

Not to me, says Helen Lewis in The Guardian. I don’t want to be a “girl boss”, or “a ladyboss, a bossette, bossina, bosstress… I just want to be a boss”. God help today’s school-leavers if they need advice like “treat your LinkedIn profile as an online
resumé” and “spellcheck exists for a reason”.

After 200 pages I had learned two things: Amoruso seems “fun, self-deprecating
and self-aware”; and “this book is as shallow as a teaspoon”.

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