Wharton Network Helps Alumna Grow Startup

Wharton San Francisco alumna Rel Lavizzo-Mourey WG’15 launched her luxury outerwear company called Silver Lining Bespoke during her second year in the EMBA program. We recently caught up with Rel and asked her to tell us about her experiences starting a company in school and how Wharton has helped her since graduation. Here is what she said:

Silver Lining 600x450On Getting an MBA:

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 would 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 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.Rel-Lavizzo-Mourey-1-299x399

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 in 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” And to send a message of inner beauty to our customer.

On Applying to Wharton:

After I moved to San Francisco, 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 San Francisco MBA for Executives 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 was working on a double bottom line fashion startup. That really gave me the confidence to apply to the MBA for Executives Program.

On Launching a Startup in School:

I didn’t launch my business in the first year because I was focused on classes and my then 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 of my second year through a Kickstarter campaign, and Wharton played a big role in that launch. Not only did many classmates back the campaign, they also helped spread the word through social media. They gave me a lot of helpful feedback on everything from my business model to overall design features. The peer support was overwhelmingly positive and I was surprised and humbled by the generosity of my class.

In addition, I worked with Prof. Ethan Mollick on an independent study, which eventually became the first draft of my business plan, and frequently talked to Irina Yuen, the Wharton entrepreneurship director in San Francisco.

I also participated in Wharton’s Business Plan Competition last year. Two other classmates – Pav Dharwarkar from the West Coast and Miriam Williams from the East Coast – joined my team and we created a business plan that really brought the idea to the next level. We made it all the way to the semi-finals. It was a valuable experience because we had to learn how to succinctly tell our story and respond to judges — and we received helpful feedback throughout the entire competition.

In the spring, I took a Global Modular Course in Milan on luxury retail taught by Prof. Barbara Kahn and Prof. David Bell. That was a wonderful experience because in addition to the immersive learning about this area in Italy, I also made connections to Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, which Prof. Kahn directs. I’ve received a lot of great feedback and advice through the Center, and have found it to be an amazing resource given my specific entrepreneurial focus.

Rel-Lavizzo-Mourey-2-299x399On Staying Connected:

Now that I’ve graduated, I’m still on the Wharton San Francisco campus quite a lot because I’m continuing in Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program (VIP), which is an on-campus incubator. This has helped me stay connected to Wharton and be more aware of all the programs and resources available for entrepreneurs.

An interesting development on campus is that Prof. Karl Ulrich, Wharton’s vice dean of entrepreneurship and innovation, is spearheading an innovation initiative at Wharton San Francisco to support entrepreneurs with new ideas. There has always been a strong interest in this area, but I’ve seen an energy level shift that is very exciting.

I’m also using the Wharton network to help grow my business. There is a Wharton angel investing network in New York City, which has a subgroup of investors specifically interested in fashion and retail startups. Although I haven’t started a formal fundraising process yet, I’m planning to connect with that group soon.

On the Wharton Community:

There is a spirit of openness and willingness to connect in the Wharton community. Students and alumni are happy to provide feedback and offer their resources across the board. It’s helped me in many ways. For example, almost all of the collaborations I’ve established –and the connections I’m making now – stem from someone in the Wharton network. There are always two to three degrees of separation from any milestone I achieve and a person or resource at Wharton.

On Value:

You don’t need an MBA to start a company, but I’ve seen from first-hand experience that you do need an MBA to grow a company. I invested in a Wharton MBA because I know there is a lot of value down the line. All entrepreneurs get to the point where they hit a wall and need help getting over that wall. That help will come from having a formal business education as well as the Wharton network. Also, the Wharton MBA adds a lot of credibility to your resume. It shows people that you know what you’re doing and where you’re going.

My mother, Risa Lavizzo Mourey, also is a Wharton alumna and she advised me to make the most of the opportunity by forging good relationships within the community. She said that the value and “ROI” of the Wharton network grows stronger over time. Being able to witness this effect firsthand through my mother’s experiences has helped me appreciate the lifetime value of a Wharton education even more.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Executive MBA Stories