Last year Rent the Runway partnered with UBS to launch Project Entrepreneur (PE), an initiative to provide women access to the tools, training and networks needed to build scalable, economically impactful companies. PE took shape as a multi-faceted national initiative that includes this robust digital hub, multi-city events, a venture competition, and a 5-week accelerator program.
Atima Lui and I are founders of Mia Pielle, a fashion-tech company that helps women find basics (lingerie, hosiery, shoes) that match their skin tone. Last January we applied to the PE pitch competition and our company was selected as one of the top 12 finalist for a chance to join Rent the Runway’s 5-week accelerator.
Atima Lui and I are both MBA candidates in the HBS Class of 2016. We met on our first day of classes at HBS, as we were assigned to sit next to each other during our first semester. A year later, and a few months after our corporate internships, Atima and I were sitting in my apartment complaining about how hard it has been for us to find shoes and lingerie in our very different skin tones. We realized that the color ‘nude’ in fashion is not ‘nude’ for everyone. Nude is conventionally a pseudonym for the color ‘beige’ or ‘blush’. We then set out to fix this problem, not only to give confidence to women that have been left out of the ‘nude’ standard, but also because at the core of the issue lies the standard definition of beauty, which we intend to disrupt.
Mia Pielle is the world’s first retailer to define the color nude as the full range of skin tones found across humanity. Our proprietary algorithm matches products to skin tone by using inputs from a colorimeter as well as 4 additional variables that take into account the materials used to make the product. This enables us to determine the skin tones that each product matches best.
Getting to Work
Our workspace is in the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab). We have applied the lean startup model by creating an offline prototype, which consisted of visuals with minimum functionality, and subsequently gathering user feedback. We then set off to launch a testable Minimum Viable Product (MVP) a goal which we achieved early in April.
In our development process, we have taken advantage of i-Lab resources, such as Entrepreneurs in Residence to strengthen our strategy and brand presence. We also participated in Harvard’s New Venture competition, which allowed us to stress-test our business model before experienced investors and, most importantly, receive invaluable feedback.
Project Entrepreneur – The Process
We were invited to pitch for PE early in March. The five-minute pitch would be delivered at a weekend-long conference named “Project Entrepreneur Weekend Intensive.” We were told 250 startups lead by women were selected to attend the Weekend Intensive out of about 500 applicants. Only ten startups were extended the invitation to pitch, and two more would be selected during the Weekend Intensive. Three winners would be selected, each would be awarded $10,000 and a spot in Rent the Runway’s 5-week accelerator over the summer.
Project Entrepreneur – Weekend Intensive
The weekend started with a practice session for the 10 pitch finalists, on the afternoon of Friday, April 8th. The practice session was more like a carefully planned and expertly executed event that started with a warm welcome from Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, the Rent the Runway co-founders themselves. The welcome was followed by a voice training class and a pitch writing workshop. We then broke off into two groups to practice our pitches before real VC investors, who asked challenging questions and armed us with feedback.
The PE Weekend Intensive brought together over 250 women leading start-ups all over the country. The workshops included “Tech Essentials for Non-Engineers” and “How Customers Can Live Your Brand”, led by Jenny Fleiss. A “Lunch for Women Who Eat Lunch” featured Bethenny Frankel as a speaker, straightforwardly addressing her drive to start and continue to lead her company, Skinnygirl Cocktails.
All pitches were delivered on Sunday, April 10th before high profile judges that included Jennifer Hyman, Jenny Fleiss, fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff, and BBG Ventures President Susan Lyne. We delivered a powerful pitch we were proud of. Although we did not win a spot in the Rent the Runway Accelerator, we found the experience extremely valuable. The weekend was true to PE’s mission: to provide women with access to tools to build scalable, economically impactful companies. We benefitted from investor feedback, from the workshops, from pitching, and from meeting other powerful entrepreneurs. Additionally, PE put us in the radar of important publications such as the Huffington Post and Essence Magazine.
Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss want to help women build economically impactful businesses, but their real wish is for women to continue to help other women succeed in this male-dominated field. We are grateful for their support and acknowledge that, in terms of empowering women in entrepreneurship, we have big rented heels to fill.
Atima Lui and Nancy Madrid (HBS ‘16) Co-founders of Mia Pielle, with a mission to redefine the color “nude” in fashion to match the range of diversity in women’s skin. It is a digital platform that curates lingerie, clothing and accessories in six different shades of nude from a wide variety of online retailers and brands
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