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Rent the Runway CEO shares trials, knowledge gained from startup at Harvard talk

The U.S. apparel market is expected to accumulate over $326 billion in 2018, according to Statista, but one individual has a plan to save consumers’ wallets. CEO and co-founder of Rent the Runway (RTR) Jennifer Hyman encourages consumers to not buy clothes, but to instead rent them.

At Harvard University last Wednesday evening in Cambridge, Hyman spoke to a crowded room about her journey from Harvard undergrad to CEO of one of the fastest-growing women’s apparel and accessory rental services.

Attendees asked Hyman questions ranging from running startups to college advice, while enjoying complimentary cupcakes.  

Hyman, who earned a master’s in business from Harvard, explained that she came up with the idea of renting dresses from her younger sister. After purchasing a dress for a wedding, she accumulated credit card debt due to the price of the dress.

After Hyman explained her idea with her friend and RTR co-founder Jennifer Fleiss, they reached out to the fashion industry to see if their idea could work. In 2009, RTR was born.

The two Harvard juniors had little knowledge of the industry, but RTR became their gateway to the world. Francesca Hess, who is studying social studies, and Lacey Hines, who is studying applied mathematics, are RTR’s brand ambassadors on Harvard’s campus.

Hess said she had used RTR in the past but decided to become a brand ambassador to explore different career opportunities.

“Rent the Runway has been great in my life,” Hess said. “I think the brand stands for a lot. It really promotes sort of being this outgoing, millennial woman who’s on the go. [RTR changes] the way that women use their day-to-day lives.”

Hines said she started using RTR after Hess recommended it to her. After listening to Hyman on a previous talk at Harvard, Hines became a brand ambassador.

“I was like, ‘I want to be like here,’ so then, I went into the fashion industry and worked in fashion this past summer,” Hines said. “This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get experience while still at school.”

Hess explained that RTR combats the stigma women face when wearing similar outfits by giving them a multitude of apparel options at a low cost.

“Men can wear the same tux a hundred days in a row, and no one will say anything,” Hess said. “A woman wears a dress two days in a row and is immediately commented on.”

Hines said she has been criticized before for wearing the same shirt within three days.

“I don’t have an endless closet,” Hines said. “Rent the Runway makes it affordable and still allows people to explore different options of fashion.”

As a college student, Hess said she didn’t wear many brand names because she couldn’t afford them. Although she said she didn’t place much importance on brands, she wanted to put her best foot forward.

Danu Mudannayake, a Harvard junior, attended and said she walked away from the talk motivated.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be so moving and to hear everything from a more personal perspective,” Mudannayake said. “To hear how she went from being an undergrad here and studying social studies, not really knowing what’s going on, [usually,] you get this idea that [founders and CEOs] know what they are going to do their whole lives. It’s refreshing.”

Kai Potter, a junior at Harvard majoring in history, said she was drawn to the event by ethical and slow fashion. For her, the greatest part was the connection Hyman had to the students in attendance.

“It’s really inspiring to see someone that was in our position, to see where she is right now,” Potter said.

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