Wellesley Alumnae Take to the Start-Up Road
Wellesley Women Drive New Businesses in Food, Fashion, News, Sustainable Tools
Whether it’s crafting award-winning ice cream or delicious organic juice, designing a more sustainable planet, or revolutionizing how we bike, more and more Wellesley women are breaking new ground through building their own businesses. We talked to a handful of alumnae entrepreneurs and asked them about their stories, and what advice they’d share with younger women seeking to do the same.
Juice and the City: Claire Schlemme ’06, Mother Juice
Claire Schlemme ’06 describes her experience at Wellesley in one simple word: empowerment. As the cofounder of Boston’s first and only organic juice truck, Mother Juice, Schlemme has used that empowerment to tremendous effect. Schlemme worked in organic farms in Spain after graduation, and maintained an interest in healthy eating. When she came back to Boston, she and friend Ellen Fitzgerald brainstormed ways to forge connections between farmers and city-dwellers, when they decided to create a juice table at a local farmer’s market. “Once we had this initial idea, the ball started rolling, and we realized that we would be able to reach so many more neighborhoods and communities if we moved to a truck,” Schlemme said.
As the pair successfully raised the initial funds on Kickstarter (reported on by Boston magazine), Schlemme relied on that sense of empowerment, as well as the Wellesley network. “In a direct sense, friendships made at Wellesley and through the alumnae network provided us with core members who brought diverse talents to the company,” she said. “In a more indirect manner, Wellesley engendered in me the ability to handle encounters with gender discrimination during our efforts to grow our company.”
Schlemme and Fitzgerald have been most surprised, and impressed, by the support Bostonians offer to start-ups in their city. “Many people are drawn to the idea of the entrepreneur, an individual who takes risks for a concept she truly believes in,” Schlemme said. “They are interested in hearing the founder's story and readily willing to provide encouragement. We were delighted and humbled by our successful crowdfunding effort that ultimately paved the way for Mother Juice to become a reality. And while there is no shortage of hard work and long hours, we have found that we operate in a wonderful community.”
(Mother Juice photos by Kim Huestis '05.)
“Start a business or join a start-up that you're passionate about. The infancy stage of a company takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, and it's your interest in the work and dedication to the outcome that motivates you through the challenges. If you have an idea, go for it! With the Internet and social media, it doesn't take much to try out most ideas on a small scale to test a market.”
All the News That’s Fit to Aggregate: Kacie Lyn Kocher ’09 and Jiali Lin ’12, MacroDigest
In fall 2013, Kacie Lyn Kocher ’09 and Jiali Lin ’12 joined a small team with a big mission: to create the world’s largest economics news aggregator. Based in the United Kingdom, MacroDigest has won rave reviews from economists like Brad DeLong and Tyler Cowen. Through this experience—and through working full-time jobs in addition to their involvement with MacroDigest—both women found themselves using skills learned during their undergraduate years. “Wellesley really challenged the way I understand problems and create solutions,” said Kocher, who credits her Middle Eastern studies and political science majors for encouraging “a type of analytical thinking that incorporated multiple disciplines, perspectives, and methodologies. Rather than viewing problems in absolute terms or in simplistic, causal relationships between distinct factors, I approach these types of projects through an evolving and reflective approach.”
For Lin, it was her time studying abroad in Beijing that taught her how to transition into a new environment. “By learning how to operate within the confines of a different education system, I learned how to communicate with different types of people and how to get around and achieve what needed to be done,” she said. “This ability to adapt and learn on the go was not only developed during my study abroad experience but also while I was at Wellesley. It has proven to be a very important skill not only in the workspace but in personal endeavors as well.”
Kocher: “Through working with start-up initiatives and companies, the thing that I didn't expect has been how much of a relationship you need to cultivate with your team because so much of the endeavor is built on trust and open communication. Especially in those beginning stages, I take the time to get to know people and understand their priorities, motivations, and work style, which helps me create a foundation for us to work together toward mutually identified ends.”
Lin: “While constantly being on top of things is often seen as very Wellesley, I think there is also something inherently important about being able to step back and realize when an adjustment needs to be made. Often times, responsible people will push the limits of what they are able to do and overwork themselves. The ability to assess when that point has been reached and then to communicate such information in a way that expresses one's honest opinion should be noteworthy as well.”
A Different Lingerie Experience: Claire Chambers ’02, Journelle
When Claire Chambers ’02 was nine, she ran a dog-walking business; when she came to Wellesley, she started an organization called Optik with a friend. “I still remember the excitement I felt about everything to do with Optik, from developing a basic brand identity, recruiting members, and creating events,” said Chambers. “The sheer amount of energy that this extracurricular activity gave me reaffirmed that I wanted and needed to run my own company someday, even though at the time I didn't know what type of business it would be.”
After graduation, Chambers worked in management consulting for five years, before turning a long-held love of beautiful, tasteful lingerie into her own business. As magazines like Forbes have documented, Chambers built a strong professional network to help successfully launch Journelle in 2007, the luxury lingerie company now with multiple store locations in New York City.
Now in her sixth year, Chambers finds the entrepreneurial journey still full of of surprises. In the beginning, it was the loneliness of starting a business by herself. “Now, as my team grows and we add senior leaders besides myself, it feels much less lonely, because we're all in it together,” she said. “What's currently surprising me—and I'm sure there will be more surprises to come—is how different it feels to run a company that's no longer a start-up. My job is so different than it was even a few years ago, and I have so many new skills I need to master. This constant change keeps things exciting and challenging, even after six years in the business.”
“Choose something you're passionate about, intrinsically—not just something that you think will work or might be lucrative. You'll invest so much time and energy as an entrepreneur that you'll eventually lose motivation if it's not something that speaks to you deeply. I only need to respond to a customer care inquiry or spend an hour in the stores to remember why I started Journelle and feel reenergized for the road ahead.”
Building a Better Bike (Boot): Kathryn Carlson ’00, Buca Boot
“It all came down to the shoes,” said Kathryn Carlson ’00, of the inspiration for her Buca Boot concept and company. Carlson was studying at the London School of Economics and then—as now—she biked everywhere. “One evening, I planned to meet friends for dinner and dancing,” she explained. “I wanted to wear something practical for biking across London, but the same shoes wouldn’t work at the club. I didn’t want to lug the extra pair around with me all night. That’s when I realized I wanted a car trunk for my bike—somewhere that I could throw my things and walk away.”
Carlson continued to muse over the idea for a bike trunk, or a Buca Boot, as she entered the investment world. The idea became a design and the design would become a Kickstarter campaign last fall, where Carlson and her team successfully raised over $80,000. She left her job as an investments analyst with Fidelity and now works full-time on Buca Boot in the Boston area.
“The general experience of Wellesley has been a driving force behind making the Buca Boot,” said Carlson. “While the idea of making a product or starting a company wasn't on my radar in college, it was Wellesley friends who convinced me to turn my idea into a reality. I think this speaks to the creative, ambitious, and supportive nature of Wellesley women. First they tell you to just do it, then they make you believe you can. And they are your biggest cheerleaders along the way, too.”
“Well, I wish I'd started this project when I was even younger so I'd say: Go for it as soon as possible! But, in all fairness, starting late worked for me because I saved enough money to build a prototype. An entrepreneurial friend once told me that that can be the biggest hurdle for a new idea.”
D.C. Screams for Ice Cream: Victoria Lai ’01, Ice Cream Jubilee
Victoria Lai ’01 was offered a career-defining opportunity to work as a litigator for the Department of Homeland Security on the same day that the famous Brooklyn bakery Four and Twenty Blackbirds asked to sell her homemade ice cream in its stores. Lai moved to D.C. where for several years, she focused on immigration policy during the day and made ice cream on nights and weekends. “I made the conscious decision upon my arrival in Washington not to choose between two dreams, but instead to pursue both and just sleep less,” she said. “I was surprised to find that this extra work was not exhausting. Because I was diving into something that I loved, making ice cream and building my brand was energizing and calming.”
Her work paid off. Lai’s delicious Ice Cream Jubilee’s flavors (e.g., bourbon caramel, Thai iced tea, raspberry rose) won “People’s Choice” in the 2013 D.C. Scoop awards. Ice Cream Jubilee was also noted widely in the media for starting D.C.’s first ice cream subscription service, delivered by courier bicycle. Lai will now pursue ice cream full time, and to open the first storefront location of Ice Cream Jubilee in 2014 on the riverfront boardwalk of southeast D.C. “I am surprised at how prepared I feel to change my career dramatically,” she said. “Because I’ve found something I love, every step and sacrifice seems like a step in the right direction.
“Invest in yourself to learn what makes you happy and force yourself to create. If you love music, squeeze time into your day to create music. If you love science, challenge yourself to understand it better and take your appreciation of it to the next level. Dreaming takes discipline, and you’re the only one who prioritize your dreams for yourself.”
Curating the Unique Boutique: Olga Vidisheva ’07, Shoptiques
Olga Vidisheva ’07 had a problem: She found her favorite clothes in small, independently-owned boutiques in different parts of the world. However, most of those stores didn’t have the capability to sell their products online to out-of-town (or out-of-country) customers. The problem vexed Vidisheva as she entered Harvard Business School, and she began to research the lack of online presence among independent retailers and boutique stores.
The idea for Shoptiques was born: an online, highly-curated, highly-personalized selection of boutique clothing from around the world. Vidisheva and her team select only the most interesting shops (80 percent of stores that apply are rejected) and then work with the boutiques to bring their unique designs online to offer customers a one-of-a-kind shopping excursion. “We're like your personal shopper and travel agent: We want you to have a fun experience shopping and virtually traveling.”
While starting Shoptiques, Vidisheva relied on the support and advice of her Wellesley thesis advisor, Karl “Chip” Case. “When I was down, I would call him; when I was happy, I would do the same; when I was fundraising, I would call him for advice on how to handle a negotiation and he has been there for me despite [the fact that I had] already graduated,” said Vidisheva. “That is the essence of Wellesley—professors really do care!”
“Make sure that the idea you are starting your own business with is what you would like to be doing for the next five years at least. You have to truly believe in it and be very passionate about it. There is a lot of 'buzz' about entrepreneurship; however, starting your own business is very hard, and probably it is the hardest thing you will ever do. So make sure you really truly love what you are doing, so when you are there till 2 a.m. doing some boring tasks, you still feel the passion for business the next morning.”
Designing a Sustainable Planet: Catlin Powers ’09, One Earth Designs
“The one consistency of entrepreneurial life is that you experience surprises every day,” said Catlin Powers ’09. Powers’ journey has been one marked by surprises: from unexpectedly falling in love with chemistry through a course taught by Wellesley Professor of Chemistry Chris Arumainayagam, being challenged by the environmental studies program, discovering the pollution-induced illnesses while studying abroad in China, and winning an EPA grant to partner with Associate Professor of Chemistry Nolan Flynn to address pollution by developing clean energy products. It was the last opportunity that would inspire the nonprofit branch of Powers’ company, One Earth Designs, which seeks to create multidisciplinary, sustainable social innovations for people around the world.
One Earth Designs has a uniquely customer-centric research and development model. In the Himalayan region of western China, Powers’ team worked with nomads and farmers to develop 54 different versions of a single solar concentrator before releasing the final product on the market. The research and development team visits many of the homes of its customers in order to receive feedback for product refinement and to understand their needs in a holistic manner. “This is rather an unusual approach to product design in developing markets. We have, at times, turned out new products or product updates within a matter of months in response to ideas voiced by customers,” said Powers.
“Remember that your team is everything. In order to accomplish what you set out to do, you need people with the right talents and the right mindset, working together as an effective team and asking the right questions along the way. The weakest link will slow the company down to his/her pace or else bring it down completely…. Try working in a start-up and observing the lifestyle of the founders. While founding a company can be a rewarding and uplifting experience, deciding to build you own company can take over your life and may take you away from the day-to-day work that you love. The job of the founders is to create a great environment for other people to work on the problems that you’ve set out to solve.”
If you know an alumna with her own business, let us know on Facebook.