The entrepreneurial journey of Maria Masily
“I came up with the idea of setting up my own footwear brand when I was 18. It took me five years to make it happen.”
In June 2022, Maria Masily (Kyiv, Ukraine), founder and CEO of MARSALA Footwear, joined MSM’s executive program on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment and Women Entrepreneurship Policy. We have asked Maria about her early dream of becoming a female entrepreneur, her road to success in the shoe fashion industry, and the challenges she is facing since the war in Ukraine.
Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Since my early childhood I was inspired by an example of both of my parents. They were brave and energetic to launch and run their businesses during the uncertain “reconstruction” period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That made me instantly motivated to create my own business in the future. I started working when I was 12, so it was just a matter of time to create a business I dreamed about.
On my way, I heard lots of judgments on how unlikely men can be attracted to independent women. Nevertheless, I started working on a shoe line just because I felt the inner necessity in doing it.
When was it when you decided to set up your own footwear brand?
I came up with the idea when I was 18. Shoes were my feminine passion. At that moment I couldn’t find enough self-confidence to make a step forward, so it took me five years to make it happen. On my way, I heard lots of judgments on how unlikely men can be attracted to independent women. Nevertheless, I started working on a shoe line just because I felt the inner necessity in doing it.
Can you explain in short how your fashion shoe brand has developed since its start?
It’s quite challenging to put seven years in a few lines. I designed my first shoes right after the revolution as a response to a new feeling of freedom and right to create. It Immediately got lots of attention and most of the local celebrities and influencers became our clients. I worked on a product I wanted to wear myself. I believe this design thinking approach is always A recipe for success.
In 2017 you won the TSUM contest in Ukraine as the best local shoe brand. Can you explain a bit more about it?
TSUM is a central department store in the heart of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, with an extensive history of 83 years. They organized this contest only once, after the renovation and it was extensively promoted. At that moment we existed for one year only. We got the award in the footwear category, and it gave us an opportunity to get the small footwear shop in the store for 1 year. It was a great chance to get connected to a new audience.
Next to your footwear brand, you are also co-founder and CMO of The Sustainables. The mission of “Sustainables” is to implement sustainable principles throughout the fashion chain. Can you explain why you started this initiative and what you have accomplished so far?
My partner Hanna and I both had an inevitable feeling that the fashion industry needed a change. We decided to connect unique sustainable brands from all over the world with retailers. We worked as a B2B pop up showroom during the fashion weeks, where we presented the upcoming collection of the selected sustainable brands from all over the world and retailers.. For a couple of seasons, we successfully ran the showrooms in Paris and Milan, until the pandemic started. Alongside that, we launched the International Contest of Sustainable Fashion Design and created art project presenting various approaches to sustainability installed on 20 mannequins during Milan Fashion Week.
What was the impact on your business when the war started?
The production facility we worked with was located in the temporarily bombed city of Kharkiv. They succeeded in moving part of the production to the West of Ukraine in several months. Eventually, we started to work on the military shoes there, but of course not in the way we normally operate.
Together with millions of other women and children you had to flee from your home. You moved to Amsterdam. You said: “It was a truly transformational moment for the role of a woman in a patriarchal culture”. Can you explain what you mean with this and why this change is important for the future of women in Ukraine?
Women left their homes, and many men are working on defending the country as volunteers. Therefore, many women became an economical foundation for their families. At the same time 50000 women voluntarily joined the Army Forces of Ukraine. It presents them as brave, strong and what is also important, really equal!
In Amsterdam you came to the idea to switch from fancy shoes to military footwear. What made you decide to do this?
When the war began, we donated all our boots from the winter collection to the Territorial Defence. After a certain time, a lady reached out to me. She was one of the people who got our shoes and warm sweatshirt. Being in occupation and spending a month in a shelter, she said “these were the only warm things I had and the only things that reminded me of normal life”. That moment I understood we needed to continue.
I strongly believe that the collective work on women empowerment can benefit the society and economic growth
What was the reason for you to apply for MSM’s executive programs Gender Equality and Women Empowerment and Women Entrepreneurship Policy?
I feel that culturally determined roles have always influenced my behaviour in business and daily life. Though in Ukraine, women have all the rights and opportunities, there are historical influences and expectations that are difficult to cope with. I strongly believe that the collective work on women empowerment can benefit the society and economic growth, as well as making sure that more socially important questions are being raised.
How have you experienced the program? And how will you benefit from it?
I got more than I could ever have expected. It was a unique opportunity to experience diverse vulnerability, to share the stories of challenges we cope with, to share our pains and ideas on how to make a change.
And last, but not least…what would you like to say to women who aspire to become an entrepreneur as well?
To analyse all your fears and to negotiate these with yourself, then just to make a step forward. Usually that is all you need to start.
Do you want to join the MSM Gender Equality and Women Empowerment and/or Women Entrepreneurship Policy program as well?
The next Gender Equality and Women Empowerment program will run from 26 – 30 June 2023. Click here for more information. The next Women Entrepreneurship Policy program will run from 03 – 07 July 2023. Click here for more information.