Luke Jordan and Michael Ayre, engaged couple and founders of SheHeThey, are drinking wine.
Based in the UK, my scheduled 11 am PST meeting is during their 7 pm UTC dinnertime. Bantering back and forth with each other and me, we all salud, a fake glass of wine in my hand, before I hit record.
As we begin to talk, Ayre introduces himself and his pronouns: “he/him.” Jordan chimes in with their pronouns, “they/he.” They identify as non-binary, and though comfortable with the use of “he,” Jordan is making a point when they put “they” first.
“Even though I don’t mind ‘he,’ I think it’s important to have ‘they’ first, because the conversation needs to be happening,” they say.
I smile at the comment, because it’s so damn Jordan. Following them on LinkedIn, their sass, their wit, their “shade” as they’ll later call it, is fun to witness. But it’s their quips of wisdom and consistent activism that alert me to the deeper soul; a soul who likes to cause mischief with deeper meaning behind it.
We’ll get into the deeper meaning later on, but for now: no matter the comfort, it’s they, not he.
For those who (somehow) don’t know, SheHeThey is the first marketplace built of solely minority-owned businesses. You identify as a cis white male and own a clothing brand? Sorry, but this isn’t the place for you.
No, this is the place where you’ll discover the disability-owned shop-owner selling their candles, or the LGBTQ+-identifying shop-owner selling earrings.
“We came up with the concept of SheHeThey because we went looking for SheHeThey,” explains Ayre, recalling the inability to find a gift for a friend, jumping from website to website and clicking through Google’s hundreds of pages. “That got us thinking, well, if these amazing businesses are hard to find, is there not an opportunity to create a platform where they are easy to find?”
Jordan and Ayre got work on researching the concept, which opened their eyes to the discrepancies in success between majority and minority business owners. “If someone is a minority or they have a minority background, then their chances of being successful are slashed at all levels. And we just thought we had to do something about it,” Ayre says matter-of-factly. “And that’s where SheHeThey came from.”
Seems simple enough, right? Ayre agrees, which is why he wakes up every day to the fear of learning they are, turns out, not the first. “I keep waiting for an email or a DM to say ‘you’re doing exactly what we do,’ because it’s that obvious,” he chuckles.
Though they were sure of their idea, they took time to themselves to perfect the concept – partially due to the scale, and partially due to just what focusing on minority-owned businesses and business owners meant.
“What we are trying to create is so sensitive and I think there’s a responsibility to make sure that, sure, it’s not going to be perfect, but it at least needs to be done right and respectfully,” Jordan tells me.
Still, the “unicorn idea” needed to be pursued. They scoured the globe to find an example of what they were doing – UK, Europe, US, Canada, Australia, literally everywhere – and couldn’t. “There were a lot of marketplaces that were dedicated to a specific minority group, but not dedicated to people who embraced equality and had the foundation behind the business,” Ayre says.
So, the number-crunching began. There weren’t many resources available, but Jordan and Ayre knew they wanted to take the plunge. They also knew that they couldn’t do it half-heartedly or distractedly if they wanted to get it right. And while they knew they’d never launch perfectly or run a perfect business – “we will hit a lot of highs and lows and bumps along the way” – they wanted to give themselves the best chance possible to make a splash.
And that name – can’t forget to mention that. Turns out, it came from one of Jordan’s friends, whose initial idea was a play on the different gender identities. As well, they (Jordan), he (Ayre), and she (their dear friend who has volunteered hours upon hours) are the foundation of the company. They. He. She.
… SheHeThey. Perfect.
“The name itself, I love it so much because I think it is an inclusive name and I know that there are other pronouns out there, but it encapsulates everybody,” gushes Jordan. “It acknowledges the fact that it’s not a gender binary and we can break free of that. … It’s just an inclusive term in itself, which is amazing.”
Inclusion is, obviously, what holds SheHeThey up. While there are many marketplaces dedicated to one minority, SheHeThey is the first that takes all minorities and says “here’s your home.” But they understand that each group is different – another reason they took their sweet time.
To prepare for SheHeThey’s birth, Jordan and Ayre knew that it would take “ a lot of time, dedication, and commitment to learning the language, to understanding different people, to connecting with different people.” But it paid off – as of opening, they had 60+ confirmed sellers, with products ranging from jewelry to art to apparel to phone cases.
Ultimately, SheHeThey is “about creating positive consumerism and changing the way that we shop, our shopping habits, our shopping behavior and making it more inclusive to other people and for the people who the system is designed for,” states Jordan. And in an age where white-washing, rainbow-washing, everything-unique-washing exists in order to sell moremoremore, it’s nice to hear that someone(s) wants to change the shopping experience for the better. Victoria’s Secret, please move out of the way.
When it comes to backgrounds, it makes perfect sense as to how SheHeThey functions.
Jordan is a branding design expert, with plenty of background at design and brand agencies. They currently run their own business, “Studio Potts.”
“To put it in the nicest way possible” they make sure to preface their statement, “I don’t enjoy working for people because I find a lot of the time their values are completely different to mine and I never feel like I fit in. I always feel very limited by people’s leadership skills and ability.”
Jordan has known they were non-binary since they were a kid, but the environment they grew up in didn’t foster a positive or comprehensive view of their gender identity. “I come particularly from a very small village where it is extremely racist, extremely homophobic. Like, feels like 100 years behind the times,” they say.
Ayre and Jordan moved to Manchester three years ago, and the change in environment (they moved from East to West) “is still opening me up in a lot of ways that I kind of shut off as a kid being in that area [of my identity],” Jordan admits.
Even at Studio Potts, however, they’d found themselves conforming. “I always found that I absolutely had to put my most straight act on. I had to be very masculine. I had to hide my queerness, be very, business like. I was conscious of the fashion I was wearing.”
Ayre, on the other hand, has a… slightly different background. “I actually worked in recruitment for a few years before moving into the prison service,” he says.
I’m sure he sees my eyebrows crinkle, because he continues. “I worked with high risk men who wouldn’t engage in education work, wouldn’t accept visits from family, wouldn’t leave the cells, so they really were kind of the highest risk, but also the furthest away from being rehabilitated. I did that for six years,” he says.
And while he just left his full-time job to dedicate his entire time to SheHeThey (“Terrifying!” I described it in my email-response to the news), at the time of our interview, he was working as a relationship manager, supporting businesses of all shapes and sizes.
So, you have a branding expert and someone who is incredible with some of the most difficult people. A brand expert and a communicator. How does a business like this fail?
More importantly, how does a business like this start? And how does it… well, work?
Answer #1: “Way back when we first met, actually, we said someday, we wanted to run a business together. Once we knew we were serious, we knew that we wanted to be self-sufficient,” says Ayre. “We’ve got ambitions to travel the world, we want to live in Spain eventually. It’s a joint ambition of ours, so we need to be self-sufficient to make that happen.”
Then, the gift-search happened, and the business idea was born.
The technical workings of the business sound somewhat confusing, but are actually pretty straightforward: businesses pay a membership price to host items on SheHeThey’s site, SheHeThey receives a small cut of the sale, and a customer ends up with a product from a minority-owned business. Easy.
There are three levels of membership for business owners; different prices correlate to how many products you can have in the store and what percentage is taken from the sale. “Free,” is free (duh); the paid memberships are “Flourish” and “Prosper.”
Most business owners have signed up for Prosper; more expensive in membership, but with a commission cut of only 2% (the industry standard is 12.5%). “We’d love for people to sign for Prosper, because at that point, we want people to see it as, ‘this can be your website and [SheHeThey] is only going to take the 2% commission, and you being on board is making SheHeThey happen,” explains Jordan.
When it comes to deciphering whether a business is truly minority-owned, there are two points of authentication.
“If someone’s interested in selling with SheHeThey, they have to fill out an application form. We ask specific questions around who they are, what their background is, what kind of products they sell. We ask them to tell us a little bit about their business and they have to submit that application form,” explains Ayre.
“At that point, that’s only registering their interest. We then review the application form, and we then have five days to decide whether we want to approve them as a SheHeThey seller.” If approved, they can see the back-end via a unique code SheHeThey gives the business owner. But the team still has to approve the business one more time before they can begin selling.
“We’re going to try our absolute hardest to make sure you don’t just get people slipping through the net,” Jordan emphasizes. “That has been a challenging point that we’ve had to kind of overcome: how do we stop just anybody signing up? Because it’s really important that we keep all that which we’ve managed to do.”
Okay, okay, yes. SheHeThey is important. But why Ayre and Jordan? Why are they the ones running the show?
I know exactly why, but I like saving the best for their own sections.
Jordan and Ayre are very open about supporting LGBTQ+ rights on LinkedIn: Ayre, with a warmth and fervent “go get ‘em!” attitude; Jordan, with emotional points and smart kiss-offs to haters; both, with genuine care for their community. So, it’s no surprise that SheHeThey will become more vocal as their presence grows.
“We will absolutely be representing all areas of minority owned businesses. We won’t be afraid to have an opinion because SheHeThey, I think, will grow to a point where people will look to us to see what SheHeThey has said,” says Ayre. “Of course, at some point, we will have to bring other perspectives in with other people with lived experience.”
It’s something I talk about with my team on a regular basis: you can’t speak about lived experiences that aren’t your own. Ayre and Jordan completely agree with this.
“For the time being, while it’s us, what we want to do is create partnerships with organizations, charities, individuals, and make sure that we are getting different perspectives that are different to our own, so that we aren’t solely the only voice coming out of SheHeThey,” Ayre finishes.
And SheHeThey will be taking a firm stand, not a soft one. Now that they’re live and posting (they had stayed relatively quiet in the stressful months leading up to the launch), “we won’t hold back.”
This support is especially important to Jordan. “I’ve only just recently let people into the fact that I am non-binary,” they say.
“I’ve never fit into that idea of man or woman, and I’ve never been able to use the words. I understand exactly why I’ve never been able to connect those dots: because that language isn’t accessible. We still have conversion therapy for people like me, which hurts my brain.”
They continue: “I’d like to think that everything that we’ll be doing will be a form of activism in the sense that we absolutely will not be doing what the UK government is doing – excluding trans people, nonbinary people, etcetera – for obvious reasons.”
They and Ayre tell me about how they recently attended a protest in Manchester, and Jordan felt wonderful being surrounded by others who identified and felt the same way they did, even if their backgrounds were not identical. It’s a feeling they want to experience in life, and an experience they want to provide to the workplace.
I explain that QUILL was born from my own sense of activism in the LGBTQ+ community. One of my previous employers was homophobic, and though it was my dream job, I left because I couldn’t be in a place that invalidated my identity. (You can only witness LGBTQ+ pitches being deleted so many times before the homophobia becomes blatant.)
Ayre and Jordan shake their heads. “It just comes back to that point of: it’s allowing somebody to simply exist and acknowledging that their existence is perfectly valid and they don’t need to explain themselves to anybody,” says Jordan. “We will absolutely be doing our part to make sure that we’re in these places to support trans people and anybody else who needs that support, to be perfectly honest with you.”
I feel powerful when I state that I’m doing the same. Still, I face imposter syndrome when speaking about QUILL – even though it’s activism. How do Ayre and Jordan deal with that… IF they deal with that?
“The people who are almost convinced that what they are doing is cute or it’s a bit of a side hustle, or are told ‘it’s great that you do that because you’re queer,’ and it’s not taken seriously? We are the platform to say ‘we take you seriously,’” says Ayre. “But – to do that, we had to first take ourselves seriously.
“We had a bit of imposter syndrome, absolutely,” Ayre admits. “We were saying, ‘who will do this? Who are we?’ People from the northeast of England who actually don’t have a heavy presence in the queer community, for a start.”
Jordan agrees, though they see the imposter syndrome in a positive light, unlike myself. “I think the imposter syndrome probably will never go. It just manifests itself in different ways… But that to me is just growth. You just grow as a human, and you’re always going to have that because that’s what constantly pushes you. So I embrace it.”
The elephant’s weight on my chest, the heaviness I feel each time I bring up QUILL for the first time, lifts slightly.
We’re winding down, and I’m about to let Ayre and Jordan go to finally enjoy dinner with their wine. But first, I must ask: they launch in around a month, so what’s the ultimate goal?
Ayre takes the floor first, adamant and driven. “For me, personally, we want to disrupt the industry. We want to look at other mainstream brands who make hundreds of millions by feeding into the mainstream narrative and say, ‘you don’t do what we do, so you need to do better. Look at all of these amazing businesses that sell with SheHeThey, look at the diversity that we represent, and look at these amazing entrepreneurs who you basically have trampled all over.’”
Jordan throws his hat in the ring. “To me, it’s about healing the narrative. It’s about healing our society. Society has been fine tuned to only give opportunity and reward a certain kind of person and that needs to be healed. We need to acknowledge that everybody needs representation, everybody is just as needed and wanted, and should be visible, and should be able to be successful, and should be able to thrive,” they say. They shrug. “For me, that’s what I hope people get from it.”
This would be the perfect place to end the interview, but I also want to share with you how selfless this duo is.
I ask what the first feelings they have toward SheHeThey are. All of it: the concept, the days leading up to launch – are they nervous? Excited? Terrified?
“For me, personally, it makes me feel excited, full of pride. I think as long as we stick to our values and we try and do good, then surely there can’t be anything bad that comes out of this. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. That’s okay. But at least we’ll give it a good old try to try and make the world better.”
Jordan gets emotional. “For me as well, just pride. For me as well, it’s a lot of pride, and I don’t know what the right words are, but I just think it’s so incredibly important. … I just think it’s an important message to get out there. An important platform.”
And when I ask what they’ll do if someone says “hey, you’re copying me?”
“If we find that there’s someone else out there who’s doing what we’re doing, well, that’s absolutely fine. If anything, we want to partner with them, and we want to work with them because we only want to do good,” Ayre says, as if it’s a no-brainer.
I tell him there’s no ego in that response, no ownership, no selfishness.
“There’s no ego attached to what we do, because if there was ego attached, we wouldn’t be the right people to do this,” he responds.
A brand that believes in supporting others – even those in direct competition with them – is rare to find.
Then again, maybe that’s exactly why SheHeThey is the first SheHeThey out there – and the one that will succeed.