Anna Elshafei, founder of women’s luxury slipper brand Shaffay, grew up in South East London.
She studied Chinese at Leeds University and the course included a year in Beijing which was cut short when students had to be repatriated following events on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. After graduating, Anna returned to Beijing where she met her husband. Subsequently, she became a lawyer and worked in the UK, Hong Kong and Shanghai before leaving private practice to work on a freelance basis.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role:
I am British (English born and bred) but have spent nearly all my adult life overseas. For most of that time, I have been in China. However, since Covid, I have been dividing my time between the UK and Egypt (Cairo) which is where my husband is from. We met in China when we were both studying Chinese. When we married, my husband didn’t want to live in England and I didn’t want to live in Egypt, so we made our life in China, he was a businessman, exporting all sorts of things from China to the Middle East and South America, and me as a lawyer.
I started Shaffay after becoming fed up with being a lawyer and deciding that I wanted to be able to spend more time with family in the UK and Egypt. The inspiration came from personal experience: trying to buy slippers that were a bit elegant and would look good with the clothes I wear at home; slippers that I could wear with a nice outfit when friends come to visit, when working from home and also when simply padding around the house. I tried all my usual haunts and hunted online but couldn’t find what I had in mind. I wanted a pair of slippers that were elegant, sleek, soft and good quality.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
My first, and main, interest was always China and Chinese and I went into law so that I could use my language skills in a profession. I spent most of my time as a lawyer practising in large law firms in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I have advised clients in a wide range of industries but never any in the fashion or footwear spaces.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Launching a small business is not straightforward. There are so many things to think about and so much to learn – especially when you have spent your working life in a completely different space. I struggle with many elements of it, most of all with online technology
How did you persevere through the tough times?
When the tech spec was ready, my husband and I were separated by Covid rules. He was in China and I was in England. The long-suffering man, therefore, did all the heavy lifting in terms of finding the right materials and visiting the workshop in Guangdong. That was a really tough time for both of us but we managed to muddle through and came out the other side still talking to each other!
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I think creating my first slippers, The Signature Collection. Until I started on my slipper journey I didn’t know I had a creative side. I really enjoy the design process, especially choosing imaginative colour combinations. I also love seeing people’s faces light up when they first see a pair of Shaffay slippers and, without fail, exclaim “Oh my god! They’re so soft!” That really makes all the effort I have put into the brand worthwhile.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in your achieving success?
Finding smart people to help me. I was clueless about marketing, branding, website building and all the other myriad things you need to get on top of in order to run a brand and have been extremely grateful to all the small businesses who helped and continue to help, Shaffay develop and grow.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I think mentoring can be very helpful. Having Susannah Davda aka The Shoe Consultant as a mentor from the start of my slipper venture has been invaluable. Susannah uses her extensive knowledge and experience to help entrepreneurs start footwear brands. I mentored younger people myself when I worked as a lawyer. I am very happy to be a sounding board for others and share the benefit of my experience.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
What I would like to see change is society’s default setting that a woman is somehow less than a man. It is all-pervasive and runs so deep that we are not even aware of it most of the time. My generation certainly tolerates this less than my mother’s do but I truly thought it would have entirely changed by the time I was in middle age. I am quite optimistic for my daughter’s generation though, I think they will tolerate it even less than ours does.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
It would be, don’t stick around in an unhappy work environment that is getting you down. Life is too short. The longer you stay in an unhealthy culture, the longer it takes to recover afterwards. Trust your gut, get out and find somewhere or something better.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I am in the process of creating and producing more slippers in some exciting new designs. Choosing new colours and new materials is fun but getting them made in time for the winter is going to be a bit of a challenge!
Looking ahead, I will be expanding the range of slippers and possibly adding some new products to complement them. In years to come I would like to think that Shaffay will become the “go-to” brand for women wanting to buy a pair of high-quality, elegant slippers that they will really enjoy wearing.