Rent the Runway is arguably one of the most successful startups we have seen emerge in the last decade (it started in 2009.) After all, it solved multiple problems. The first one it fixed was that young women have limited funds to spend on their wardrobe and at a time when they are making appearances at high stake opportunity events both in their career and social lives.
When social media exploded and became an outfit killer once your outfit was seen on multiple platforms, it let you never repeat an outfit again with the launch of Rent the Runway Unlimited. And, for anyone that doesn’t have a closet like Cher from Clueless (so the majority of us), this expanded our closet infinitely without having to build an addition on our homes.
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With Americans experiencing “wardrobe panic” 36 times a year, an infinite closet is pretty darn smart. That is why this past February the company received $21 million from Blue Pool Capital, which is run by Alibaba founders Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, bringing the company’s total venture funding to nearly $210 million, (they just had a $20 million investment), according to ReCode.
No network, many problems
Cofounders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss are now household names and startup legends but when they first launched their company, now dubbed “the Netflix of fashion,” fresh out of Harvard Business School they felt a bit lost as they didn’t really have that absolutely essential network of people you need for your career to succeed.
“At the beginning we had nothing! We had Jenny and I, who had limited work experience to start out, and there was really no entrepreneurial community in New York at the time. Every single question that came up we just had to figure out on our own, which we did but it just took us longer than it probably need to,” Fleiss told Ladders recently.
That is why the cofounders, in partnership with UBS, started Project Entrepreneur in 2015. The foundation’s goal is to take the already stellar pipeline of female founders and help them build scalable companies at an accelerated rate.
Project Entrepreneur has trained over 1,600 women entrepreneurs through its educational programs and events. More than $18 million has been raised by program alumni and 100% of the 2016 Project Entrepreneur Accelerator Participants raised seed rounds within 16 months of the program.
“We wanted to democratize entrepreneurship in this country to help female founders scale their businesses into big impactful companies. We saw a lot of women with great ideas become founders but then something stops them. They never build the $10 million business, the $100 million business, etc.,” Hyman said. “We wanted to help women who are already founders, who already had ideas, who have already developed products, who already had raised a little bit of money so we could help accelerate them.”
The pipeline is not the issue
She emphasized that there is not a pipeline problem when it comes to female founders, nor is there an issue of diversity as Project Entrepreneur has worked with women from all 50 states. At the 3rd Annual Project Entrepreneur Intensive which took place this month in New York the 200 women that were invited to participate represented 25 different states.
“There are great ideas everywhere and by making sure these businesses accelerate we are not only helping these women to build bigger companies and dream bigger but we’re also diversifying entrepreneurial communities throughout the country,” Hyman said.
Women leave the two-day workshop conference with an action list as well fundraising deks, branding tips and instructions on how to assemble a team.
What Project Entrepreneur really does is gives these founders the built-in network every entrepreneur or really anyone starting out in their career needs to climb the ladder.
“Jenny and I believe in action orientation philosophy. Your startup is only as good as your ability to execute and often your ability to execute is dependent on receiving help from the network around you of people who are having the same problems. To have that ability to just answer those questions is a game changer,” she told Ladders. “The difference between now and when I founded the business is I now have an incredible team and network and group of mentors who are other founders and people at all stages. Maybe a few steps ahead of me or a few steps behind me. You need that because the challenges of entrepreneurship never end.”
Hyman noted that when she was building RTR she saw that male founders at similar stages did have those networks and were able to grow faster.
“I think that’s part of the reason of why men have been able to accelerate their businesses. There is a movement over the last year not only related to MeToo and TimesUp, but also in the venture capitalist and startup community. There is momentum here around the importance of paying it forward and building a network of women helping other women.
“That was really our philosophy from the beginning. We knew that if we brought these 200 amazing female founders together and helped them and introduced them to a network of people a few steps ahead of them that in two years time the people in the audience today will actually be the mentors,” she said.