‘Queenly’ Takes the Stage: CEO Trisha Bantigue Shows the World Immigrant Females Can Do Tech, Too
A dress is not just a dress. Trisha Bantigue knows that to her core. And now it’s become her life’s mission to make formal dresses a lot more accessible to women all throughout the country with her online marketplace called Queenly.
Philippine-born, Bantigue immigrated to Las Vegas when she was 10 years old, and the future seemed bright. But her mom’s gambling addiction turned life upside down. They moved constantly. While attending high school, Bantigue worked two jobs. At 17 years old, she emancipated and stayed at friends’ houses until she graduated.
Acceptance to UC Berkley seemed like a second chance at a bright future. Leaving what she knew in Vegas to the unknown in the Bay Area was an unchartered path and a deciding moment for her.
“I’m proud of myself for not taking the easy route,” she explained. Berkley offered opportunities.
But her dreams of attending college were almost dashed due to insufficient funds, despite financial aid. So, Bantigue got creative. She Googled ideas and learned that competing in pageants could win her scholarship money. How hard could it be? Turns out, hard. But she stuck with it and earned enough to pay for college. Meanwhile, becoming a beauty queen changed her perspective.
In the process of competing in pageants, every stereotype flew out the window as she fell in love with the experience and the strong women alongside her. What she gained would lead to something even bigger than she could imagine.
Women aren’t normally in tech, and especially women from the Philippines. Bantigue’s culture had told her to seek out something steady and known, like the medical field. No way. Not her. She went against the grain. Instead, Bantigue interned at a tech startup, then she worked at Facebook, Google, and Uber. Not bad for a beauty queen.
Still, despite enjoying working in tech, deep down she craved something new. Bantigue was a self-starter, but could she be an entrepreneur? Doubts creeped in.
“This was something I thought I couldn’t do because I wasn’t an engineer,” she said. But she had something she wanted to prove. “I wanted to put the Philippines on the map. We’re capable of being an entrepreneur and capable of being in tech. I want to change perception Americans have of Filipinos.”
This golden business idea wouldn’t leave her: an online marketplace reselling formal wear. A one-stop-shop for barely worn dresses for pageants, weddings, proms, and quinceañeras, and more. It was a problem that needed a solution. On the pageant circuit, it was painful for Bantigue to see women buying thousand-dollar dresses only to wear them once.
“I thought, wow, these girls are spending so much money. I’m always looking for deals. My first pageant dress was my $80 high school prom dress I ordered from China.”
While some women had tried selling their used formals on Poshmark, Facebook Groups, Craigslist, etc., these outlets don’t cater to the specific needs of the formal crowd. Which meant a ton of formal gowns collected dust in the back of closets, while many women struggled to afford their next dress for a formal event.
The gap between reselling formal wear was staring her in the face. The idea percolated in her brain. “I was on the couch drawing and writing stuff down and really brainstorming. I got really invested,” Bantigue recalled.
True, Bantigue wasn’t an engineer. But she knew a really good one.
Co-Founding with Meaning
Kathy Zhou was a fellow intern at a startup years earlier who was a wiz at software, with experience working at Pinterest and Venmo. But Zhou, a who never wore make up or dressed up didn’t quite “get” the concept Bantigue pitched at first.
“I finally convinced her to do her own pageant, after eight times that I asked,” Bantigue said. “I helped her; I mentored her.”
Zhou underwent a “Miss Congeniality” type transformation on the outside and on the inside. The pageant experience hit Zhou just as hard as it had hit Bantigue.
“She told me, ‘Now I see what you’re talking about.’”
The two worked nights and weekends, and in record time launched a beta version of Queenly in January 2019. Bantigue didn’t realize it at the time, but co-founder Zhou was extremely good at development. Their winning combination of Bantigue’s passion and Zhou’s know-how was key to what Queenly would become. Listening to beta testers and keeping the user experience as simple as possible was paramount.
The two women knew they were different than a lot of tech startups in Silicon Valley that existed so the founders could “hit it big,” Bantigue explained. Queenly wasn’t like that. From the start, they were all about helping women. Inclusion of different nationalities and sizes was a natural part of their business from the ground up.
“The biggest difference between us and typical brands who struggle to [have inclusion], we started Queenly because we wanted to help people and solve a specific problem.”
After all, a dress is a moment that can turn into a memory, according to Bantigue. But it doesn’t have to be a financial burden in the process.
“It’s so important for our work to actually mean something to our users. We are happy to touch many lives.” For instance, when COVID hit, some low-income moms were selling dresses to pay their bills. Queenly was more than just a hobby, she realized.
Fundraising is one of those necessary evils. Startups need capital from investors. The first round is especially challenging because there’s no track record.
“This is the round when investors are supposed to invest in YOU and your vision,” Bantigue explained. Right out of the gate, the co-founders were at a disadvantage—only about 2 percent of venture capital goes to female-owned businesses.
“A lot of people underestimated us. They automatically assumed we were not technical and contracted out our tech.” In fact, no one really took them seriously until they put the buzzword “machine learning” in their deck. “It wasn’t until I put masculine techy words that we started getting interest.”
Their hard work paid off. In early 2020, Queenly had raised $500,000 in its first round of investment. Which felt like a blessing and a curse, considering the timing. March 2020 hit and panic set in. The investors expected business to grow, but how could they expand a formal-wear resale marketplace when no one was holding events?
“We felt lost. We felt like we hit a dead end. Like we didn’t have control over anything. We thought we were going to let people down.”
Add to that the fact that many people didn’t believe in Queenly—didn’t believe formal wear was enough of a market. Too small. Too niche. Would Bantigue let this get her down? Of course not.
“We decided to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off,” she said. They stayed lean and focused on growing supply and not spending. Profits would come later. Over time they developed the Queenly Partners program, where mom and pop formal wear shops with no online presence would jump onto the Queenly app and expand their customer base.
“The majority of formal wear is offline in brick and mortar—very, very old school,” she said. “It took two pageant girls turned into tech founders to help them.”
They continue to get creative. Recently, Queenly acquired a quinceañera marketplace company and they are working to integrate that into their platform while catering to the Latinx community. Next up will also be a reverse image search feature, plus a Queenly Forum for users to share tips and foster community.
Despite the challenges, Queenly has raised $7 million from VCs including Andreessen Horowitz. Bantigue was named Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree for 2022. And her future is even brighter. Looking back on how far she’s come, the biggest thing that sticks out to her is taking chances.
“I’m most proud of not settling when it was comfortable. I’ve had many opportunities to settle and take the easy path. I appreciate that I’ve pushed myself. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t seek out the opportunities I was internally craving.”