24 Mar 2021

Get to Know Shelly Xu Design, a Social Enterprise Track New Venture Competition Team


With the New Venture Competition (NVC) finale right around the corner, we wanted to learn more about team Shelly Xu Design (SXD), a design-tech startup making zero waste clothing.

Team members: Shelly Xu (MBA 2021), Ahmed Fardin, Junga Park (MBA 2021)

What inspired you to start your company?

The field that I grew up playing in is now covered with textile waste—that inspired me to start a different kind of clothing company that is fundamentally better for us and our planet.

Clothing designs today waste 10-30 percent of their fabric. There is another way of designing that is about maximizing beauty under constraint. The original kimono uses one bolt of fabric and minimal cuts, it’s the OG zero waste garment. As an Asian designer with experiences from Prada and Instagram, I have spent the last 10 years expanding on the philosophy of not only creating a suite of zero waste designs, but also working with my engineering team to save 55% of the production cost with minimal cuts, zero water waste, and zero fabric waste.

How has the Rock Center or Social Enterprise Initiative helped with your entrepreneurial journey? Are there any other HBS resources you have been using?

I love that the Rock Center matches us with mentors who have tested their own products and raised their own funding, so they have very practical knowledge based on past experiences. The Rock Center has helped me make decisions from payment processing platforms to determining the right equity structure for my team.

The Social Enterprise Initiative and other resources like the i-lab have helped me think through SXD’s systematic impact. Fashion/apparel is a multi-trillion dollar, highly fragmented industry in which even the biggest players like Zara only have about a one percent market share. To meaningfully shift the industry, SXD has to be more than a product or brand. It has to be the roadmap to the next generation of clothing. This realization helped us craft a plan to capture more than 50 percent of the market using our proprietary algorithm to scale our method to other brands in the industry.

Through the Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, I also realized that the problem was not just with consumers and brands, but also with the seamstresses and their place in the manufacturing ecosystem. I already knew about unethical labor practices in the fashion industry, but I did not know the magnitude and how unethical manufacturing practices and climate change are linked. Diving into the people behind the clothing taught me that the biggest manufacturing countries are also those hit most by climate change.

How have you been preparing for the competition?

My team and I have been practicing to sharpen our narrative as much as possible. This is a complex subject that a lot of the audience might not be familiar with, so we want to quickly and clearly show why this is such an important topic. We have been testing our narrative with brilliant people who are not from the industry.

What part of the NVC journey has been the most helpful for your team?

Putting together the executive summary for the Social Enterprise Track was very helpful. We have been pretty in the weeds working on a new style with climate refugees from Bangladesh. Putting together the executive summary forced us to zoom out and do some serious reflection. Condensing our work into four pages forced us to think about what we stood for and what we had to include.

The judges’ feedback was also super helpful. I love that we get the opportunity to learn and improve through the competition.

How did you go about creating your competition pitch? Do you have any advice for someone looking to create a pitch?

SXD started with design. We knew that no matter how sustainable the clothing is, if people don’t like the design, they are not going to wear the clothing—anything that doesn’t get worn is waste. When putting together the pitch, we wanted to showcase our authentic selves by taking the audience through an aesthetic design experience in addition to a business one. I see our pitch as a gift that adds value to our audience. We want relatable moments in the pitch to keep the audience engaged; we also want exciting moments that reveal new aspects of our work.

I’m a believer that a pitch has to be, first and foremost, true to your company. There are a lot of pitch guides out there, but I think it’s important to think more about why they are there rather than trying to check all the boxes.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

If you want to be an entrepreneur and you have a meaningful idea, you should start now! I wish I had started my entrepreneurship journey earlier. Even if it doesn’t work out, the skills that you learn, like building a community, systematically breaking down a massive problem, and bringing together a team will elevate you to another level no matter what your next role is.

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