Founder Of Rent The Runway To Women: Dream Big

By Dave Flessner
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Jennifer Fleiss, co-founder of “Rent the Runway” shares her advice for budding entrepreneurs. Fleiss also shares what she is now working on with Walmart.

Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

Last March, Jennifer Fleiss went from running her own retail company to joining the world’s biggest retailer.

Fleiss, a co-founder of clothing rental service Rent the Runway, joined Walmart to head the first company in the retail giant’s incubator, known as Code Eight.

“We are in stealth mode, so you won’t find much out there on us yet, but watch out world, here we come,” Fleiss promises on her website.

Later this year, Fleiss said, the first offering should be unveiled as part of Walmart’s initiative to “make shopping magical via one-to-one personalization.” All four of the Code Eight businesses are working on developments for the future of retailing and consumer services five or more years from now, Fleiss said.

Fleiss is used to dreaming big and building enterprises to fulfill those dreams. During a keynote address Thursday night at the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute’s annual Impact Event, Fleiss urged other women to think big and pursue the opportunities in a changing economy.

“Given that women control about 80 percent of e-commerce, they are uniquely positioned to understand problems and see new opportunities,” she said. “I think we’re in an exciting moment now where there is a real movement for women’s rights and a lot more people are supporting and realizing how important women are to the economy, both as employees and talent and as people who can realize untapped opportunities and business solutions.”

When Fleiss and her partner, Jennifer Hyman, started Rent the Runway in 2009, the sharing economy was still in its infancy and unknown to many, especially to access online or with luxury items. But the idea of renting a dress or special piece of apparel for an important event was attractive for many cost-conscious women.

“I don’t think a man could have invented Rent the Runway because they didn’t understand the need for and potential of this business like what Jenn and I did when we started,” Fleiss said.

From their success, Fleiss and Hyman created the Rent the Runway Foundation to help female entrepreneurs develop, pitch and grow their businesses “and we really encourage women to tackle big ideas.

“The trend we often see in many women is that they are more conservative, whereas venture capitalists are looking for the next billion-dollar idea,” she said.

Rent the Runway helped to revolutionize the $1.7 trillion fashion industry by changing consumer thinking and behaviors and now has more than 1,000 employees that “help create a new kind of excitement among our users.” Fleiss is looking for other such transformative services and technologies for the new Walmart venture.

“We’re looking for that same type of excitement, delight and emotional attachment, which I think is often lost in today’s retail landscape,” she said. “We have very transactional commerce, but shopping is no longer as delightful for many buyers.”

Even though she now works for the biggest business in the world, building a new independent enterprise within Walmart’s incubator “is a chance to go back to the early stages of starting a company” without some of the back office and support functions that challenge many startups.

“I think of this as a “one plus one equals three” kind of opportunity,” she said. “We can use (Walmart’s) infrastructure and use that to dig into the business problems we’re trying to solve for consumers.”

Julie Baumgardner, president of First Things First and chair of Thursday’s Impact Dinner, said the event is one of the key fundraisers to support CWLI, which was created in 1996 to increase the leadership capabilities and influence of women in Chattanooga.

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