Fashion Tech Startups Emerging From Harvard Business School Runway in Droves---the (Fashion) Slide Show

2/14/12Follow @xconomy

When Harvard and startups are mentioned in the same sentence, it’s usually to talk about the undergrad dropouts who went on to start tech empires (think Bill and Mark). But Harvard Business School has its own set of graduates making waves, and it’s not just the finance industry tycoons you’re probably thinking of.

Gilt Groupe. Rent the Runway. Birchbox. FashionStake. Snapette. BaubleBar. Trendyol. And that’s not even the half of it. Beyond working at the intersection of fashion and Internet tech, these companies have the common thread of founders with degrees (or half-finished degrees, in some cases) from HBS. And the majority are founded by women.

“A lot of women go to Harvard with the intent of working on the business side of fashion,” says Sarah Paiji, co-founder and CEO of Snapette, who was set to finish HBS this year before leaving to work on her social shopping company full-time. “Some find the intersection of fashion and tech is a little more fast-paced and exciting.”

Of course it’s not just fashion 2.0 startups that are being created by women from HBS (take a look at LearnVest and Take the Interview), nor is it only women who are launching tech startups with an aim to improve the retail industry (as you’ll see in the slide show below).

And the surge in entrepreneurship, and female founders, isn’t confined to Harvard. “The energy is running across the entire economy,” says HBS professor of business administration Bill Sahlman. “We went from a period where it was pretty expensive to launch a business and not many people were geared up to do it to where it costs under $250,000 to test an idea and see where you can get traction.”

For its part, HBS has increased the percentage of women students from 30 percent about a dozen years ago to 38 percent now, says Sahlman. During the last Internet boom, 10 percent or more of Harvard’s MBA class went into startups, a number that has lagged over the last decade. But it’s been back up to that 10 percent figure over the last three years, Sahlman says. Harvard has also been building out its infrastructure to better support startups, with more entrepreneurship classes and programs at the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship such as the Minimum Viable Product Fund, which provides mentoring and funding of up to $10,000 to student startup teams.

But let’s get back to fashion. Early successes coming out of Harvard, embodied by flash sale company Gilt Groupe, cofounded by Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Alexis Maybank (both HBS ’04), seemed to have created an energy among graduates. “Gilt’s model and success opened up the eyes of entrepreneurs and the VC community to the inefficiencies in the traditional fashion industry that could translate into successful online fashion opportunities,” says Aslaug Magnusdottir,CEO and co-founder of Moda Operandi, an online startup for shopping runway collections. Other startups in this roundup have also cited Wilson and Maybank, known to some as “the As,” as influential.

The Gilt pair also act as mentors and advisors to many of the startups in the space, Wilson told me last week when I caught up with her in Cambridge, MA. “I think it’s awesome—Alexis and I couldn’t be happier that there are so many female-founded, fashion related tech companies coming out of HBS,” she says.

As with other startups, many of the fashion tech entrepreneurs were inspired to build a product they’d actually want to use. “A lot of the female-focused startups that have come out of HBS are really coming from a pain point that the founders had as the target community,” says Amy Jain (HBS ’10), co-founder of the jewelry e-commerce site BaubleBar. She also pointed to the “safety net of the business school” that enables students to test ideas on classmates and do external research while wearing a student hat.

Others cite shifts in the retail and fashion industries more broadly as powering the surge in fashion-focused as Web startups. “From an industry perspective, it’s only been in the last few years that contemporary and luxury brands have started to adopt e-commerce and social media—before there was this stigma that online wasn’t luxury,” says Karen Moon (HBS ’08) of StyleMusée.

This shift coincided with traditional industries being wiped away by the financial crisis, while the resulting recession caused consumers to rethink how they shop. “Because retail was so hard hit by the economy, there was a lot of opportunity there,” says Jenny Fleiss, president and founder of Rent the Runway. “It created this ‘recessionista’ culture. People became more proud of getting value out of a product.”

Gilt, Rent the Runway, and Moda Operandi have become Harvard Business School case studies. Marissa Gibbons (HBS ’10) founder of fashion tech startup Lineby, points to the case study style of learning that HBS is well-known for as a similar experience to starting a company.

Our slide show, starting with Acustom below, tracks the 16 HBS fashion tech startups that came onto my radar (not counting one in stealth mode that asked to be left off the list). Almost all are based in New York, with exceptions noted. Collectively, they’re building social platforms that make buying products and picking out outfits easier; e-commerce sites that cut out the middle man and hope to improve antiquated sizing standards for clothing; curated, subscription-style shopping experiences for clothing, accessories, and beauty products; and much more. As far as the future goes, Sahlman predicts that new generations of entrepreneurs will try to replicate successful fashion 2.0 company models abroad.

Scroll through the list (which is in alphabetical order), and please shoot me a note if you know of any fashion tech startups out of HBS that I missed. Oh, and there are a couple of other fashion tech startups with Cambridge connections that I think deserve honorable mentions, even if they didn’t come from Harvard Business School): Proper Cloth, whose founder Seph Skerritt got his MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the customized woman’s clothing startup Zoora, founded by Harvard College alum Aubrie Pagano.

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Acustom — Acustom was founded last year to make “bespoke” clothing—tailored-to-customer measurements—more accessible to the masses thanks to 3D body-scanning technology. “Measuring tape sucks,” says co-founder and CEO Jamal Motlagh (HBS ’11). What does he think of being one of the few male entrepreneurs on the list? “I like being the outsider,” he says. Motlagh, who formerly worked for Microsoft and played professional water polo, says he has always been interested in fashion. Acustom is opening its design lab, where shoppers can get their 3D body scans, soon in SoHo and will be testing its women’s jeans product over the next three to four months. It currently sells men’s suits.

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