12 Aug 2020

A Q+A with MBA Class of 2020's Marissa Pan and Lily Wang, Founders of Si Silks

Marissa Pan and Lily Wang

by Ashley Wheeler

With growing ethical and environmental concerns, it is no secret that the fashion industry needs a make-over. Sí Silks, co-founded by Marissa Pan (MBA 2020) and Lily Wang (MBA 2020), who both have roots in China’s silk-making communities, is reinventing the silk scarf industry with a debut collection of beautiful, sustainable, and affordable silk scarves inspired by modern lifestyles. They have spent the summer launching their company as Rock Summer Fellows—an opportunity that enables students to continue to explore their entrepreneurial path, both as founders and as those interested in joining early-stage startups. In a Q&A session, they discussed the sustainable benefits of silk, entrepreneurship at HBS, and being a female founder.

On Sí Scarves

How is silk a more sustainable choice?
Silk is a fantastic material—it’s renewable, biodegradable, free of microplastics, and has one of the lowest carbon footprints of any fiber. It is also incredibly breathable and easy on skin and hair. In a world of dubious supply chains and inaccessible price points, we wanted to find a way to provide silk products that were of the highest quality yet affordable enough for every day.

With fast-fashion and mass-market consumption, the standards and quality of silks have fallen, so it’s hard to discern true quality. A lot of brands that sell silks to Western markets are not offering the highest quality, or are mired in so many levels of the supply chain that they do not have a good sense of the source. The best silk producers are in a very small and insular community near Shanghai. They produce high-end silk for discerning Chinese buyers, or export fabrics to European fashion houses.

We custom-create our silk fabrics directly from a small, specialized supplier nestled in the cradle of silk farming in China. We also work obsessively to curate a custom silk fabric with the perfect weave, weight, wash, and color to make every scarf a luxury staple with the perfect drape and fold. Additionally, we work closely with the producer on artisanal details like hand-rolled edges, which give our scarves a luxury touch.

You mentioned that Sí Scarves are ethically produced—what does that mean and why does it matter?
There are three different ways we think about ethical production. First are the industry standards and priorities we use when determining a factory partner, including accreditations and certifications on sustainable practices (for example, our dyes are Oeko-Tex certified and free from over 300 harmful chemicals, toxins, and irritants).

Additionally, we prioritize production waste reduction. We calculate our production runs to minimize waste run-off and eliminate excess fabric (for beautiful hair ribbons!). Our packaging is made from 100% recycled paper and is compostable and recyclable.

Finally, there’s an important element of trust and transparency. We’re sourcing and working directly with our producer without any intermediaries and contractors. I [Lily] had a chance to visit the factory, see everything for myself, and collaborate with them on the fabrics and handiwork. We can be direct and purposeful in what we produce (e.g. labeling, limiting plastics, etc.). Our initial production run was scheduled right when China was hardest hit with COVID-19, so the factory owner and I changed our plans out of concern for the safety of his team.

On Entrepreneurship at HBS

How has being part of the HBS entrepreneurial community enhanced your experience starting the company?
The culture of the entrepreneurial community at HBS is extremely collaborative and supportive. We’ve been able to leverage incredible resources and support to share our story, find advisors, and get insights along the way.

We were able to build the brand through two semesters in the Rock Center Accelerator program. In addition to funding, it helped keep us accountable in driving deliverables, and provided endless expert guidance on fundraising, marketing, and legal matters.

HBS coursework was also instrumental in how we developed our brand, and informed our product development process. Jill Avery’s Brand Value course helped us craft a compelling brand strategy and narrative, and Julia Austin’s mentorship was critical to informing our customer discovery journey. To refine and select the perfect colors and fabric textures for our debut collection, Julia encouraged us to conduct live user testing, so we presented swatches to hundreds of people in Manhattan, which informed that collection and taught us so much.

We’ve also found incredible resources through the broader Harvard community. As a design-driven brand, we collaborated on our web design, creative branding, and photography with students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and recruited undergraduates to model our debut collection. The broader community has been nothing but supportive. We’re constantly delighted by the diversity of their experience and expertise.

What is it like being a Rock Summer Fellow?
The Rock Summer Fellowship has been an incredibly rich resource in continuing along our entrepreneurial journey post-graduation. Not only does it allow us to devote our time to getting Sí off the ground, it also provides an incredible support network of fellow students, entrepreneurs, and experts in the field.

It’s been a great way for us to hold ourselves accountable to our goals and milestones. As entrepreneurs, there are a lot of unknowns and distractions; being able to prioritize our work and also reach out for help and guidance has been incredible.

What does your day look like as a summer fellow?
It’s definitely moving at a mile a minute! Day to day we’re usually collaborating on something big like an ad testing campaign, our website, or finalizing our cost model. We’re also hustling to achieve individual responsibilities and tasks, whether it’s connecting with advisors, collaborating with interns, or working at a popup event.

On Being Female Founders

What has your experience been as female founders?
We’re often challenged on our vision and whether our product resonates, which can lead to self-doubt. It’s critical to have conviction in the vision and an understanding of the customer.

It’s also important for us to hold close to our values and ensure that we are cognizant of the intersectional challenges faced by women of color, LGBTQ+, and other minority groups. It is not enough to focus on the empowerment and benefit of our own business; it is also our role to amplify and promote the voices of others, and to call out inequalities and biases when we see them.

From day one we’ve prioritized listening to and learning from a diverse set of customers, emphasized collaborating with minorities and other women, and focused on ensuring that our brand and product stay true to these values throughout our lifecycle.

Do you have any advice for female founders?
Always pay it forward. We’ve been floored by the generosity of other female founders, some of whom we didn’t know at all. The outpouring of support and guidance we’ve received from mentors and peers in this space has demonstrated how close-knit and empowering this support system can be, and how important it is to see representation across the board.

What are your hopes for Sí Silk?
Following our debut collection, we want to expand into prints, and partner with artists and designers that we admire. We want to make the silk scarf the next big accessory, while also serving a more inclusive audience of people who wear scarves in their day-to-day lives.

Our long-term goal is to reinvent the silks market for contemporary audiences by transforming traditional high-end silk products into accessible, modern essentials. Now that we have found manufacturing partners that we trust and are creating products that we are proud of, we really want to push ourselves to make products that highlight the legacy and quality of the fabric, last a lifetime, and encourage conscious buying.

Shop and learn more about @sisilkscarves.

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