Wharton San Francisco second-year EMBA student Rel Lavizzo-Mourey recently launched her luxury outerwear company called Silver Lining on Kickstarter. More than half-way to her fundraising goal, we asked Rel to tell us more about her “double bottom line” venture and how her Wharton experience is helping her build her business. Here is what she said:
I had the idea for Silver Lining prior to coming to Wharton, but I knew I needed more business knowledge to really be successful as an entrepreneur. Knowing the hurdles facing startups, I wanted an MBA to be able to tackle the challenges that I will inevitably face.
Also, I don’t have a traditional business background. I’ve had a bit of a different career path with an undergraduate major in educational policy from Princeton and a fine arts minor. After college, I did some consulting before going to acting school and working as an actor in New York City. That got me into the media world where I helped re-launch Honey, a magazine targeted towards an urban female audience. I learned a lot about startups and fundraising there. I also met the owners of Minx, a company launched by two women who design and produce nail covers. I joined their team in San Diego, and we gained a lot of traction with celebrity clients like Katy Perry and Beyoncé, as well as high-end fashion designers like Marc Jacobs and Vivienne Westwood.
As I saw the power of fashion to excite people with wearable art, I started thinking about how to use collaborations with artists and other designers to generate a really interesting product. I came up with the idea of putting art on the lining of luxury outerwear. The coats have an element of secrecy, as one side is traditional and the other side is wilder. The idea for the Silver Lining brand is to highlight the idea that “it’s what is on the inside that counts.”
After I moved to San Francisco because of my partner’s job, I began taking garment industry classes and thinking about pursuing an MBA. I grew up in Philadelphia and my parents are both Wharton/Penn alumni and past faculty, so it was perfect serendipity to learn about the Wharton EMBA San Francisco program just a few weeks after moving to the city.
At first, I was nervous about applying to Wharton’s EMBA program because of its reputation as a finance school. However, when I went to an information session and an admissions interview, the Wharton staff members were very encouraging. My interviewer emphasized how the School looks for a diversity of experiences when putting together classes. She also put me in touch with another Wharton EMBA student who is working on a double bottom line fashion startup. That really gave me the confidence to apply to the MBA for Executives program.
I didn’t launch my business in the first year because I was focused on classes and my then a full-time job as a consultant. In my second year, I was able to take electives in subjects like entrepreneurship and design innovation, which gave me the confidence to get my business off the ground. I launched in December through a Kickstarter campaign, and Wharton has played a big role in this launch. Not only have many classmates backed the campaign, but they also are helping spread the word through social media. They’ve given me a lot of helpful feedback on everything from my business model to overall design features. The peer support has been overwhelmingly positive and I have been surprised and humbled by the generosity of my class.
In addition, I’m working with Prof. Ethan Mollick on an independent study on the value of Kickstarter campaigns as an entrepreneurial tool, and frequently talk to Irina Yuen, the Wharton entrepreneurship director in San Francisco.
Since the inception of my idea over a year ago, Silver Lining has evolved to become a double bottom line venture, as 6% of my profits will go to arts education programs. I’m partnering with Root Division, a San Francisco-based visual arts organization that provides free arts classes to over 500 students, using working artists as teachers. I’m also partnering this season with Bay Area artist Kelly Ording, who completed an artist’s residency at Facebook. We’re working to translate her paintings into a collection of unique linings for our jackets and bags. And I’m offering custom orders because we can digitally print anything onto a lining. I already have a few pre-orders from people who want their kids’ artwork on the linings. So far, we’re off to a great start.
Being embedded in the Wharton community has been tremendously helpful. I never could have gotten this much support — or gotten my venture off the ground this quickly — without being here and launching now. If you’re thinking of getting an MBA and working on a startup, I highly recommend coming to Wharton.