Is Women’s E-commerce a Woman’s World?

A few weeks ago, a small group of entrepreneurially minded women at Harvard & MIT got together for a dinner hosted by Google Ventures. Unlike most company sponsored dinners, the Google Ventures team was not trying to explicitly hire. Instead, they wanted to spark the conversation about women in entrepreneurship (specifically, tech entrepreneurship).

What did not happen is the cliche, stereotypical hour long conversation about women in tech, you know, the one that every mainstream Tech source has already covered at length. We were past that — this was personal. This wasn’t so much about why we weren’t starting companies — indeed, a number of us at the table had already pursued our first venture — it was about what company would we start, and when? It came as no surprise that one of the icebreakers was “If you could be the CEO of any startup, which would it be?”

To start the conversation, a second-year at HBS pitched us on the social-fashion startup she was working on. As we critiqued and praised, we explored other interesting fashion start up concepts from Aubrie Pagano’s Bow&Drape to The Hunt to Laura Evans’ Valti to 99dresses to the big data possibilities of social fashion. As we took our tour of the startup world, we covered hardware startups such as CustomMade and Lockitron, services such as TaskRabbit and SurfAir, and big data startups like Palantir.

A few weeks later, I was discussing the future of these dinners with a good friend Leila.  Leila is a bubbly and incredibly bright sophomore with a world of opportunities in front of her, and I’m eager to pull her into the startup world. As the coordinator on the Harvard side, I was curious to hear what she thought of the first dinner. She looked at me intently. “Liora, do you think a similar group of men would have spent as much time talking about fashion tech?”

I was embarrassed. I’ve turned down opportunities at many fashion startups — even in technical roles — out of fear that I’d be branded with the “woman in fashion” stigma. And yet, I had contributed substantially to the fashion ecommerce conversation at dinner, bringing up my own experiences in Silicon Beach, Los Angeles. My initial defense addressed the dinner as a whole, “Sure, we talked about it a little, but we also talked about so many other things…like big data….” I could tell Leila wasn’t particularly satisfied with my answer.

gemvaraI realized I wasn’t properly addressing her concern. Do male entrepreneurs talk about women’s fashion? Why yes, yes they do. “Leila, let me show you some interesting startups…” The first company I showed her was Boston-based Gemvara.  Jason Reuben, one of the original cofounders, is a good friend and personal mentor. If you live in Boston, they’re hard to miss — their marketing campaign has permeated the public transit system’s walls.

jewelmintFrom there, I showed her Jewelmint by Beachmint, where I had my first startup internship working for cofounders Diego Berdakin and Josh Berman. In Beachmint’s first three months, they only had one woman hired full time, and they had a part-time consultant Ara Katz (who eventually joined full time). Yet they were a women’s fashion company, making decisions about what kinds of jewelry they would be selling, what price points made the most sense, and how to best market their celebrity faces. Today, Beachmint’s nearly all-male executive team is well shielded by its celebrity spokespeople, from Kate Bosworth and Cher Coulter to Mary Kate & Ashley, and its beautiful, female-oriented site design. As someone unfamiliar with the company, you would probably have to dig through tech sources a little to learn that it was in fact founded by two men.

shoedazzleNext ShoeDazzle, the original subscription-celebrity-ecommerce pioneers and one of Beachmint’s chief competitors. ShoeDazzle too has a celebrity face – Kim Kardashian, and was (“co”)founded by Brian Lee. Like Beachmint, their marketing strategy puts celebrity first — to the point where many customers believe that ShoeDazzle was Kardashian’s idea, and that she played a huge role in building the company (if I had to guess, I’d say doubtful). Unlike most other tech companies, in a typical ShoeDazzle press release, it takes some scrolling to find the actual founder’s name (and often, it’s not there at all).

honestcoBrian Lee is also a founder of the Honest Company, again, with celebrity face Jessica Alba. A quick look at their About Us page fails to mention Brian entirely, and contrasts sharply with Crunchbase’s list, which counts Ethan Czahor, and Jeremy Liew in addition to Lee. Even on Crunchbase, Alba is the founder, Lee is the co-founder; ironically, no other “co-founders” are listed. As with ShoeDazzle, Lee hides in the fine print — although Honest Company has less of a female slant than  its sister shoe club, its founders are no less eager to hide from the spotlight. Alba seems more involved in the company than your average celebrity face, but it’s hard to know for sure — and without a doubt, Lee and his team aren’t getting enough credit in the press (deliberately, I’m sure).

fabfitfunSimilarly, FabFitFun, a women’s enewsletter, appears to be run entirely by Giuliana Rancic. Behind the scenes, though, the business decisions are being made by men. CEO Daniel Broukhim runs FabFitFun via Charlie Ventures, which itself was founded by Broukhim and three Harvard grads, but his profile on the FabFitFun website credits him only with Business Development. Like ShoeDazzle, the men behind the scenes are hidden, and if you didn’t know any better, you would never believe that it’s not a group of women running the show.

Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list; nor is it the case that there are no women leading successful ecommerce companies – from Olga Vidisheva’s Shoptiques to Rent The Runway to Milk & Honey Shoes. Perhaps it is time, however, for us to question what it means for an industry to be “traditionally female.” The men running these companies have discovered something important: women’s shopping habits make them an excellent target audience for a growing business. Then why should we, as entrepreneurially-minded women, shy away from these opportunities simply to avoid a stigma?

Leila was concerned that male entrepreneurs aren’t talking about fashion the way women entrepreneurs do. Some clearly do. Maybe most don’t. Personally, I think we’re asking the wrong question. I’m more curious — what opportunities are women missing out on from fear of fitting some stereotype? Our male peers are building business. They’re looking for opportunity, inefficient markets, profit, and arbitrage. Are our male peers worrying about the “male in sports” stigma the way we worry about “female in fashion”? The “men in men products” stigma? I’m inclined to believe they embrace it they way they embrace any business venture. As women in tech, we limit ourselves by avoiding these stereotypes — not by fitting them.