Women Entrepreneurship Week Spotlight: Ling Zhang | Redefining the Nursing Bra

Ling Zhang

Ling Zhang, mother of two and full-time faculty at Iowa State University, is revolutionizing the world of nursing bras and inspiring female entrepreneurs along the way. Ling, spent her college years at the Institute of Fashion Technology, pursuing an undergraduate degree in fashion design. Her discipline led her to the vibrant fashion industry in New York and New Jersey, where she worked for well-known brands, from Calvin Klein to Victoria’s Secret. Today, she is at Iowa State University as an Associate Professor in the Apparel Merchandising and Design program. It was at Iowa State that she had the unique opportunity to combine her skill for design with business, which would ultimately empower her as a researcher, mother, and entrepreneur.

Identifying a Gap in the Intimate Apparel Industry

As a nursing mother, Ling faced several struggles with existing nursing garments that fell short of her expectations. The products on the market today are uncomfortable and often unsafe, as they have the potential to cause various health issues due to the stiff materials such as metal wires and boning. Ling personally experienced clogged milk ducts, which for many mothers, often require antibiotics or force the mother to eliminate breastfeeding altogether.

This realization sparked her research. Eight years after giving birth to her first child, and as she nursed her second, she realized that little had changed in the world of nursing bras. Drawing from her background in fashion design, Ling embarked on a journey to develop a nursing bra that addressed the real pain points of nursing mothers.

Research and Design

Ling kicked off her research in the fall of 2020. She assessed dozens of bras, performed extensive market analysis, and surveyed around 1,300 breastfeeding mothers to gain insight before designing her product. Today has Ling developed 2 unique one nursing bra and one babydoll based on scientific research, marketed under MUQIN, LLC, the company she founded in 2022.

Ling Zhang

One of the nursing bra prototypes.

Muqin (meaning “Mother” in Chinese Mandarin) is a company focused on science-based maternity clothing and nursing clothing for new mothers. The bras use soft, sustainable fabrics like bamboo jersey, and are beautifully designed. The absence of stiff materials offers a high level of comfort and flexibility. Support is provided only by fabric of varying weight and material, from power mesh to delicate lace sourced from France.  Several of the innovative features include Velcro adjustments to accommodate the changing body sizes of nursing mothers and 4-way nursing access.

The Keys to Success for Female Entrepreneurs

Today, 42% of all U.S. businesses and one-third of businesses worldwide are owned by women. Over the past 20 years, women-owned businesses have grown 114% worldwide. There has been incredible growth in female entrepreneurship, but we are only scratching the surface and still face many challenges. “I think it is very challenging for women to be entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur, based on my experience, is one of the most challenging jobs in the world…but I think starting a business as a woman can be an incredibly rewarding and empowering journey for us. As women, we have to believe in ourselves,” said Ling.

Ling is incredibly passionate about incorporating women into the vision of entrepreneurship and business. She always considered herself an artist only, lacking the skillset of an entrepreneur, but as she gains momentum in her business, she recognizes the necessity of encouraging each other, as women, to be confident in pursuing our passions. Ling highlighted five important keys to success for female entrepreneurs:

  1. Find Your Passion: If you love what you’re doing, you’ll be less likely to give up on your vision and more driven to overcome the challenges you face along the way.
  2. Believe in Your Ability: Confidence in your abilities and the vision for your business is essential for success.
  3. Make Connections: Leverage your connections, build a support system, and seek mentors to evaluate your work and provide new perspectives.
  4. Be Open to Partnerships: Surround yourself with those who complement your skills.
  5. Balance: It is a constant struggle to balance work and personal life but be sure to prioritize your time and take care of yourself. Remember, your time is valuable.

Early funding for Ling’s research was provided through the College of Human Science’s Early Career Faculty Research Seed Grant. Over the last 3 years, she has participated in and received funding from the Iowa State I-Corps program, the Regents Innovation Fund, and the ISU Startup Factory under the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship. Ling also filed a patent for her nursing bra designs with the ISU Office of Innovation Commercialization/ISURF. This will be the first apparel design patent in Iowa State history.

Ling’s nursing bras are currently in the mass-production phase. By the end of this month, she hopes to receive all the garments from China to begin selling online, with the end goal of partnering with department stores and larger companies to sell her products.