Silicon Valley is an attractive destination for any entrepreneurial-minded graduate, but breaking into the business can be difficult. Katrina Lake, who visited Bowdoin last weekend, has found a way. The CEO and founder of the fashion app Stitch Fix visited Bowdoin last weekend to discuss being a female leader in tech and business.

Stitch Fix is a unique approach to personal shopping. Five clothing items are selected for shipment every month using the help of professional stylists and Stitch Fix’s own algorithm that match each customer’s tastes. When a subscriber receives his or her box, he or she can choose either to purchase or return any of the items, and with the help of user feedback, the Stitch Fix algorithm becomes better at providing customers with satisfying products.

On Sunday in John Brown Russwurm African American House, Lake took part in a Q&A session with Associate Director of Career Planning Sherry Mason, where she shared with students her experience in breaking into the fashion business world and what her job as CEO entails. On Monday, Lake spoke at the Bowdoin Breakfast, a program targeted at local business and community members, which was followed by a “fireside chat” facilitated by President Clayton Rose. 

 In five short years since its creation, Lake has transformed Stitch Fix into a multimillion-dollar company that employs over 4,000 people. Throughout, she has been intentional about building a supportive and inspiring environment for her employees by creating and fostering a diverse work environment and making Stitch Fix a great place for women in particular to work and to lead.

“I care really deeply that there aren’t enough women in leadership,” said Lake, citing that only 15 percent of leaders in tech and 12 percent of leaders in retail are women. “[It] is really sad because these are companies selling cosmetics and apparel, and this is an industry where half of the people who are coming in are women.”

Lake considers herself lucky to have been able to create Stitch Fix. The idea for the brand emerged when Lake was attending Harvard Business School and looking for post-graduate jobs to apply for.

“I was trying to look for a company like the one that I would create to join…I felt like I could do super-interesting things with data and technology and retail,” she said.

At the time, most other retailers were working to get their products to people in the cheapest and fastest fashion. However, she figured that when it came to clothing, people did not just want what they could get cheapest and fastest—they wanted items that were best for their individual body type and made them feel most confident.

While she mostly focused on product testing in business school, Lake was also able to acquire the interest of her first investor, Steve Anderson, also one of the first investors in Twitter and Instagram. By the time she graduated from Harvard, Lake’s company was already up and running.

“That first year, we didn’t even have a website. We did everything through email, and we packed our own fixes in our tiny little office every single Monday. It didn’t matter if you were the CEO or the inventory planner; you were on the line getting fixes out the door. Getting the actual company off the ground was a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but in the end it was very rewarding,” said Lake.

Lake attributes much of her success in business not to her time as a graduate student at Harvard, but rather as a pre-med undergraduate at Stanford University.

“My undergrad was far more important and influential for my life,” she said. “It’s not necessarily what you learn in the classroom that you end up using in your job…I think so much more of it is that you’re surrounded by great people and you’re surrounded by engaging people and that you’re learning and loving learning, and you’re able to take that with you.”
Lake, an advocate for liberal arts education, advised undergraduates to not just take classes that they think they need for their career, but also those that simply sound interesting. She also believes in taking this broad outlook towards education while searching for jobs and internships.

“I feel like there’s a lot of focus on, ‘This would be my dream job and this is how I would feel fulfilled in my life’…but the honest truth is what makes your job rewarding are things like, ‘Are you doing work for someone great who supports you and cares for you?’ and ‘Are you learning?’”

In the last five years, Stitch Fix has exceeded any expectation Lake had for what the company could be. At the same time, Lake still believes that there is more growth to come. 
“Everyday I see more and more of what we’re able to do, and I get a bigger vision for the company,” she said.