16 Sep 2020

Q&A with Shelly Xu (MBA 2021): Designing Zero Waste Clothing

Shelly Xu

Shelly Xu (MBA 2021) wants her 15-year-old sister to live on a better planet than the one she grew up on. Armed with knowledge from studying sustainable development as an undergraduate, creative inspiration from former colleagues at Instagram, and lessons from the entrepreneurial community at Harvard, she is working to launch Shelly Xu Design (SXD), the first fashion-tech startup to make custom, beautiful, low-cost, 100 percent zero waste clothing designs. In between launching her company and trying to change the fashion industry and save the planet, she answered some questions about being a female founder, zero waste fashion, and the future of her company.

What is sustainable fashion and why is it important?
To me, sustainable fashion should be about creating a symbiotic relationship between what we wear and the planet we inhabit. This is very different from the situation today. The fashion industry contributes to about 10% of global carbon emissions, which is many times worse than the airline industry. The situation is projected to get worse in coming years.

Why zero waste?
One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting on a refrigerator while dining with my parents in a 70-square foot home in China. The house could fit either a table or a bed, so we rearranged furniture throughout the day. That was how I learned about creativity under constraint—finding solutions in a room of limitations. Zero waste designs uniquely maximize creativity under resource constraints. So I guess you can say I have been trained since birth to tackle the world’s fashion problem!

Zero waste design is also the only method that can enhance affordability in price and appeal in design. Consumers care the most about price and design, so with our zero waste method we can encourage sustainable behavior by meeting people’s most important needs.

How does Shelly Xu Design ensure zero waste design?
With all the greenwashing, we want to be purists who do it right. We look across our process, and where we see waste, we innovate to eliminate it. This includes sourcing upcycled fabric so materials that could have been wasted get a second life, and eliminating fabric waste in the design process and inventory waste through on-demand manufacturing.

What does the process of launching a company look like?
It is the hardest thing—I’m still learning! I have been spending a lot of time assembling the right team for the company launch. It’s taken a lot of art and science to build the right team of people who work well together, love to strategize and execute, and have complementary skills to get things done.

Has being part of the HBS entrepreneurial community enhanced your experience starting the company?
HBS and Harvard’s entrepreneurial community were the main reasons why I decided to go back to school. I have learned so much about financing a business from my Required Curriculum (RC) professors. I have also received tested wisdom from the Entrepreneurs in Residence Program at the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship. I consider the i-Lab my home because it’s where I’ve met with mentors, staff advisors, legal experts, and my team.

What are your long-term goals for Shelly Xu Design?
We want to make eliminating the carbon footprint in what we wear a no brainer rather than a compromise on price or design. We know that we need to build not only our brand, but also a platform so that other brands in the industry can adopt zero waste into their production. Fashion is an extremely fragmented industry in which even the largest players, like Zara or Nike, have only approximately one percent of the market, so I won’t be so naïve to think that our startup alone will transform the industry. We have to inspire others along the way.

Will you be expanding beyond custom clothes?
Absolutely. That is our priority! We have secured a pretty great on-demand manufacturing partner, and our goal is to release our first scalable line by the end of 2020. We also want this line to be at $100 or below, so that it’s much more accessible in price.

We love a good female-founded company; what has your experience been as a female founder?
It’s been quite empowering to work alongside brilliant, generous female founders in the Harvard community. For example, I got to know Rebecca Kersch, the founder of Tang, over the summer. I gave her some social media tips based on my experience working at Instagram, and she told me about a social impact fellowship opportunity that is perfect for SXD—I’m actually joining the fellowship this year!

What are some of the challenges of being a female founder?
I spend a lot of time making sure that what makes me different is seen as a highlight rather than a red flag. I’m not only a female founder, but also someone working on fashion design innovation—a space that is often more familiar to women than men. So, when the judging panel is packed with men who are software experts, for example, I have to work extra hard to translate what I do into something that excites rather than alienates the audience.

Do you have any advice for other female founders?
Don’t be afraid to rewrite some rules to stay true to your values. There are a lot of awesome tested and true rules for founders out there. But because female founders haven’t received the same level of funding and attention as male founders, I think there are better practices out there that we have yet to uncover.

Can you tell us about a favorite moment in this process?
Selling our first zero waste fashion design. It’s one thing to have people comment that they like what we do, but it’s a totally different feeling to see someone believe in our vision and work so much that they get out their wallet and become the first customer. That’s the highest compliment. I remember seeing the sale come through right after coming back from a trunk show and just jumping up and down in my apartment.

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