Behind Project Entrepreneur: A Conversation with Jenny Fleiss and Lori Feinsilver

The following is excerpted from a conversation that took place at the UBS Women’s Symposium in March 2017.

Leading up to #PEIntensive17, Lori Feinsilver, Head of Community Affairs & Corporate Responsibility and Executive Communications for UBS Group Americas, and Jenny Fleiss, Co-Founder of Rent the Runway, sat down to discuss the motivation behind creating Project Entrepreneur, the unique position women have when concepting businesses, and the importance of becoming a mentor early on.

Seven years after creating Rent the Runway, Co-Founders Jenny Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman have raised over $190 million in venture capital from the likes of Bain Capital, Fidelity Investments, Highland Capital Partners and Kleiner Perkins – just to name a few. With over 1,100 employees (75% of whom are women), 6 million members, over 250,000 designer dresses, and 6 retail locations, they also launched their subscription service, Unlimited, last spring which now accounts for 20% of the company’s revenue. Needless to say Rent the Runway is disrupting the way women think about shopping and getting dressed on a daily basis.

Lori Feinsilver: The company is strong and growing and on top of all that, you’re also pretty busy outside the office – with 3 young kids, and Jennifer is due any day now with her first! With everything happening in your professional and personal lives – why did you and Jenn decide to start a foundation and partner with UBS on Project Entrepreneur?  

Jenny Fleiss: Our investors certainly asked us the same question. I think our reason was twofold. One was the story I shared where we were doing focus groups and our consumers naturally thought of our brand as so much more than a fashion company or a way of getting dressed. It was a lifestyle, it was a way they thought of themselves, and part of that was female entrepreneurship. Whether our consumers were female entrepreneurs or not, we wanted to support them and give back to them or just to do more behind this kind of big moment in time that our brand was standing for. We felt that we had something more to offer, so I think that was one thing that our brand had kind of taken on a life of its own. We felt that we had the power to catapult that into doing so much more good.  

When Jenn and I started the business, we had the benefit of an amazing network of our Harvard Business School contacts and our undergraduate contacts that we were able to leverage. Often the people who were most helpful were other entrepreneurs who were going through what we went through, but maybe a few years ahead of us. They had just lived through it, they knew how much office space should cost per square foot, or who you called for your first healthcare broker, etc. There were a lot of real-life practical skills that helped us drive things forward and be efficient with our time and because of that we said, “You know, we can offer something that’s unique. It’s not just a check to get someone started, it’s sitting in our office alongside Jenn and I and our whole team, our engineers, our product team.” There are very few areas that our business doesn’t touch between marketing and logistics and analytics and engineering and product. There’s typically value that we can offer to every single company.    

We had also seen how we, as women, were able to think of the problem that Rent the Runway was solving in a unique way, so we still don’t believe that men could have started Rent the Runway. Our ability to be our own consumer helps us evolve the business forward and think about where the future of shopping and fashion is going as opposed to where it is just today.  

As we let other women have the power, resources and the tools to think of their own ideas and to dream big, we believe we will have better solutions to problems being solved. The platform that we are leveraging is really all the real life learnings that are happening on a day-to-day basis in our office. That’s why our incubator, where we have the program finalists actually sitting in our office for weeks during the summer, is the most valuable part of the program. That’s the differentiator that we really feel we offer combined with rallying the entire city of New York to help with our Project Entrepreneur Intensive.

LF: When we look at the companies that women are starting today—this is one of the big reasons why we decided really to focus on high-growth women entrepreneurs—they are starting companies faster than ever before, but they are starting really small companies. The average annual revenue per female-led firm is $155K/year and if you look at minority women it is like half of that.  

The idea behind Project Entrepreneur is to to help women think bigger. This idea to start as problem solvers has been really really important as we work with these women. When you think about that mission and you think about what we are trying to do, when you look at the landscape, what do you see as the opportunity?  Where are there industries, where are there opportunities you think women can really disrupt?  What does the landscape look like and how do you feel about the women that we are preparing?

JF: It is definitely true statistically and anecdotally that women are less aggressive in the numbers they throw out, the dreams, the visions, and the concepts they go after, and that is the space we hope to change the most. One of the reasons why it can be problematic is because when you pitch a venture capitalist, they typically want a billion dollar idea. A woman has the same chance of making it into that as a man, but they’re typically less bullish in throwing out those numbers from an initial meeting. As a concept evolves, it could easily follow that path, but a woman might not get that funding out of the gate because she’s not as aggressive about how her numbers could look or about how big the opportunity could be.

One of my favorite things we offer is encouragement for a woman to state that their idea is not just for their industry. Their concept could apply to every single industry, so when they pitch it, pitch it as a platform. We weren’t just renting dresses, we were disrupting the fashion industry, we were changing the way that women consume fashion. We always thought of a bigger vision.  

Amazon started with books, but it was never a book selling concept. I think in this moment, there is so much opportunity for women to think uniquely about different ways of changing our world. Women are kind of in the driver’s seat here because we are the primary shoppers, we drive over 67% of e-commerce shopping, and so we’re also best positioned to think of different ways shopping might be better and easier.

There are also more working mothers and working women than ever before which means the pressure to find tools to make our lives more convenient is a real need. I think a lot of the businesses and concepts and companies that are starting up right now really help that evolve and emerge. There’s also a lot of stuff in the parenting and mother space that really let women do it all and be successful. I am very optimistic about there being further disruption and innovation in areas that women are uniquely positioned to unlock.

LF: What has been the most exciting part of Project Entrepreneur for you and what are you most looking forward to next?

JF: I still get chills even seeing that video and thinking of the impact that we’ve made on the women who attended last year and all the participants so far. It’s been a dream come true and we are so thankful to have found a team at UBS who feels so passionately about the space, too. We have come together with different perspectives and viewpoints where it is really a one plus one equals three outcome, so that has been fantastic.

I think we play in this sweet spot of providing actionable tools to take concepts to the next level. With every workshop that we’ll host, probably 20 different workshops over the course of the weekend… I want companies leaving with the next step forward in their business. I think last year we really saw that happening, whether it was that they got better in their pitch or they met a key contact or they learned how to position their brand or they learned about how to think of using QuickBooks, and a lot of very practical and tangible skills you really need early on.

We’ve only gotten better at putting people on different tracks depending on the stage of the startup and evolving their concepts. A lot of it comes together at the final pitch competition where we invite 12 companies to pitch onstage. It’s companies who have been working all weekend on refining their pitches. They get up in front of a huge audience which includes investors who may invest down the road, and pitch their concepts for a chance to win a spot in the incubator and an initial cash prize. Those are really cool moments because they are companies that you watch from the initial application that they sent in, all the way through this final pitch. Often in the span of 3 months, you see how much you’ve helped change these companies. The ones who get to the final stage, you get to see them get through that next moment of where is their company 3 months later? And how do you transform it over that summer? You really feel the tangibility of what you’re doing for these companies and these women.

We now have the benefit of having a first class of alumnae from last year’s program. I think at least half of the women from our final pitch group received funding so they are now further along and we’ve invited them to come back and participate. We are hoping they all mentor and grow this movement so that they themselves can be this group of women who goes through everything a year ahead of the next class of people and thereby can continue to pay it forward. I think we’re starting to see some of that happening and I’m really excited to see where it goes. More and more, I think companies in New York in particular, are jumping on board and really want to be a part of this. So overall it’s not just about Rent the Runway, it’s about how can we galvanize other young entrepreneurs who are going through these moments to not wait until later in their careers, but to help out now.