Harvard Business School an unlikely hotbed for fashion entrepreneurs

The creators of Gilt Groupe, Birchbox, and Rent the Runway graduated from HBS.

Harvard Business School grads are paving the way for fellow female entrepreneurs.
Harvard Business School grads are paving the way for fellow female entrepreneurs. –Getty/Astrid Stawiarz

When you think “Harvard Business School,’’ you might imagine students who want to go into private equity, business consulting, or work for a tech giant like Apple or Amazon.

But thanks to some dedicated faculty and a handful of powerhouse fashion startups, the school is now gaining recognition for something else: producing some of the most successful female fashion entrepreneurs in the business, some of whom were profiled in a recent Marie Claire piece.

HBS grads Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman were some of the style forerunners, founding Rent the Runway, an online service that provides designer dress and accessory rentals, in 2009. By 2013, their company was named one of the top five retailers best positioned to change the global marketplace by CNBC. In 2014, Rent the Runway raised over $60 million in new funding.

Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss attend the Rent the Runway DC store Opening at Rent The Runway on November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. —GETTY/Kris Connor
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The creators of Gilt Groupe, an online shopping website, and Birchbox, a beauty product subscription service, also graduated from HBS. Fleiss told Boston.com the trio of startups has been paving the way for fellow female entrepreneurs since.

“There are so many awesome female-founded businesses that have come out of HBS,’’ Fleiss said. “You get inspired, you see yourself in their place and can imagine the same success.’’

Fleiss said she credits much of her entrepreneurial spirit to the school’s faculty and case-study-based courses.

“As Jenn and I continued to explore the concept behind Rent the Runway, we met with about 80 different professors – including many that didn’t teach any of our classes – who had vast experience in several components of the business,’’ Fleiss said. “Having access to genius professors who had run retail businesses or large logistics-intensive operations was invaluable.’’

One such professor was Thomas Eisenmann, a business administration professor at HBS and co-chair of the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship.

“I couldn’t be prouder of these woman,’’ said Eisenmann. He teaches “The Entrepreneurial Manager,’’ a course required for all first-year MBA students, and has twice led a Harvard Innovation Lab course called “Cultural Entrepreneurship in New York City,’’ where students spend winter break exploring the streets of NYC to explore new ventures in fashion, food, and fine arts.

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He said HBS supports entrepreneurs inside and out of the classroom, but credits the founders of the three companies with “getting their own momentum going.’’ After all, Eisenmann knows how hard it can be for women trying to crack the proverbial glass ceiling.

“There’s an ongoing gap in startup land,’’ he said. Though his class routinely sees more female students (this year his entrepreneurial course is 53 percent female,) the students at HBS in 2015 are still only 41 percent female.

The gender gap becomes far bleaker when looking at the startup sector as a whole, with TechCrunch reporting that between 2009 and 2014, only 15 percent of startups had a female founder. But the technology news site also pointed out that if you look more closely, the numbers are slowly changing.

In 2009, 9.5 percent of startups had at least one female founder, but by 2014, that number had almost doubled to 18 percent.

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Nevertheless, many wonder why women are still a minority in the field. One reason could be related to women entrepreneurs raising smaller amounts of capital than men to finance their firms, using more of their own savings.

“Venture capitalists are looking to invest in $1 billion companies, and I think how women function – whether it’s that they’re more realistic or more conservative – doesn’t result in their valuing their company so high,’’ Fleiss said. “When female founders pitch what they’re calling a $100 million concept, that’s not conducive to the way typical VCs invest. However, there are more VCs popping up that are more interested in that middle range, which is opening up more opportunities.’’

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Hyman recalled facing difficulties when pitching Rent the Runway to a boardroom full of (mostly male) partners at a Boston venture capital firm in 2009. One of the men interrupted her presentation, she told Forbes, saying, “You are just too cute. You get this big closet and get to play with all these dresses and can wear whatever you want. This must be so much fun!’’

Though Hyman can probably laugh about the incident now, at the time, she told Forbes she was “floored.’’

Eisenmann said this type of incident is more common than many would expect.

“If you asked these women they’d say, ‘Yeah, the venture capital industry is 90 percent or more male,’ so you have the trouble of middle-aged male venture capitalists deciding whether they can sell prescription makeup in a box,’’ Eisenmann said.

Luckily, HBS students have an abundance of faculty dedicated to helping aspiring entrepreneurs launch their businesses.

Anita Elberse, an HBS professor who specializes in in media and entertainment marketing, is one of the youngest female professors to be tenured at HBS and directs the MBA program’s required curriculum.

Elberse said a big factor in some of her students’ business successes had to do with the impressive community HBS grads create. “Because of a few successes where students have achieved a lot with their own businesses, they’ve made it something more attainable for others,’’ she said. Case studies are a fundamental aspect of curriculum at HBS, with courses dedicated to studying challenges faced by the founders of Gilt Groupe and Rent the Runway.

This type of real-world experience is part of what prompted The New York Times to cite HBS as the best business school for students who want to start their own companies.

Among HBS’s many accolades, last year, 21 student entrepreneurs received more than $325,000 through the program, the Times states, adding: “Its biannual entrepreneurial summit gathers alumni with demonstrated early-stage traction, and an entrepreneurs-in-residence program invites accomplished founders (and funders) to hold weekly office hours to advise students.’’

Eisenmann pointed out that many of the female entrepreneurs live in New York City and have become good friends. “They all know each other,’’ he said. “And they all help each other. It’s a really powerful network.’’

But he cautioned anyone with the notion that a degree from HBS means a golden ticket to starting your own business.

Marie Claire celebrated the successes,’’ Eisenmann said, referencing the recent article that featured some of the up-and-coming fashion startups. “But there are a whole lot of failures, too.’’

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