Jessica Landzberg (at right), Stanford MBA ’23, poses with Pareto co-founder Olivia Bordson. Courtesy photo.
It was just a coincidence that Jessica Landzberg’s last day at McKinsey & Company was the day everyone went home to work remotely. She’d already told McKinsey she was leaving, went out with her team on one of the last nights restaurants were open, and then set out to build her startup at the beginning of a global pandemic.
“It was a very interesting time to transition away from a more traditional full-time job to entrepreneurship, and to do that while the world was changing,” Landzberg tells Poets&Quants.
Landzberg co-founded Pareto, a farm-to-closet women’s apparel brand, with Olivia Bordson, a fellow McKinsey alum, in August 2020. The company aims to challenge the fashion industry’s focus on more product, more often with a more sustainable model that emphasizes fewer but more purposeful pieces.
“All of this is possible due to our fully domestic, traceable farm-to-closet supply chain. We partner directly with every hand that touches our pieces – from the organic cotton farmer in Texas all the way to the seamstresses in California and Illinois. It is the only way we can make the best product decisions at every stage,” Landzberg says.
A STARTUP OR AN MBA?
It’s not uncommon for MBAs to start businesses during their programs while surrounded by entrepreneurs, alumni networks, and experts who can help with any question. But Landzberg had a different dilemma: Though she’d already been accepted to GSB on a deferred admit status, building a brand new company needed her full attention. Would business school be a help or a distraction?
Landzberg decided to get her MBA. In September, she started classes at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the only B-school she applied to because it was the only one she wanted to attend. In this interview with Poets&Quants as part of our Student-founder series, she explains why an MBA was the right choice for her entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us about your educational background and work history.
There are two constants throughout my journey that you’ll hear: One is my love for retail, and two is my love to build things.
I grew up in northern New Jersey, the mall mecca of the United States with more malls in one square miles than anywhere else in the country. I’m the youngest of four which definitely has shaped my personality and, as you’ll see, I’m a total retail nerd. Throughout high school, I worked in retail stores as sales associates and store managers. I was that person who volunteered to work Black Friday and during the holiday season. I just loved the energy.
For college, I really wanted to explore a different part of the country so I went to WashU in St Louis. I double majored in finance and accounting. I knew I didn’t want to go into finance or accounting, but I understood that that’s the language of business, and it would prepare me for whatever I did decide to do after graduation.
In college, I co-founded a pay-by-weight candy store funded through a Kickstarter, and I sold my share prior to graduation. So this was really where my love to build things began, and I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.
What was the name of the candy store, and is it still there?
It’s called Bear-y Sweet Shoppe because we were the WashU Bears. It’s still there today, and it’s gone through a series of owners that have sold their shares right after graduation. We deliberately tiered the ownership to ensure the longevity of the business and so that there wasn’t a new setup for owners every time an owner graduated.
It is a pay-by-weight candy and snack store right on campus. We had 100 different types of chocolates, gummies, dried fruits, and nuts. Students could fill their bags and pay at the cash register. As you can imagine, for college kids, that became the go-to study snack.
And what did you do after graduation?
Throughout college, I sought out as many different experiences in the retail space as possible to figure out what part I wanted to jump into after graduation. So, I interned at a luxury designer in New York City, Band of Outsiders, and then at a more traditional, omni channel brand, J Crew. Ultimately, I wanted to check out the CPG (consumer packaged goods) space so I interned at General Mills in Minneapolis.
After graduation, I started my career at McKinsey, really to continue this rapid and diverse exposure into the retail industry. Where else could I serve 10-plus apparel clients in a short amount of time across varying functional areas. It was a great three years. I just served apparel and retail clients working on things like digital marketing, on-demand manufacturing, and tech enabled stores. A little over a year ago, my co-founder Olivia Bordson and I leaped into entrepreneurship and have been building Pareto, which is a direct-to-consumer women’s apparel brand.
You called yourself a retail nerd. Where did your interest come from?
Your T-shirt Dress from Pareto
I guess the things that make me so excited about the space is, first, it’s so real and relatable. At the end of the day, everyone is a consumer and everyone has walked into a store at least once in their life. Two, the space is rapidly changing and evolving, even just within my lifetime. From pure brick-and-mortar and wholesale models to online is the future, to now the more omni channel, digital personalization and tech-enabled stores. It’s a dynamic and constantly changing space which keeps it interesting.
There’s this real blend of art and science. I think finding that balance in this space, especially in fashion where it has a pure art aspect, is a really interesting challenge to tackle.
How did you come up with the idea of Pareto?
We officially started working on Pareto a little over a year ago, but we like to say our journey started way before that. The idea is really a baby of my and Olivia’s prior retail experiences. Olivia was also at McKinsey, and on Fridays, when we would return from our client sites, we would just come back to the office and nerd out about retail – the trends we were seeing, what we would do differently. And before we even realized it, these high level conversations about the industry very quickly turned into white boarding a business model. There was a moment in time when we took a step back and thought, ‘Whoa, this is actually something we can do.’
What exactly is Pareto?
Pareto was really born from a frustration with what we were seeing in the retail industry. So, we were seeing women wearing 20% of their closets, 80% of the time. Yet, brands are pumping out more product than ever before. All while the environment is greatly suffering as a result. They have 40 million tons of textile waste being added to landfills every year. Olivia and I would always wonder how an industry survive with all three of the major stakeholders losing. At Pareto, we really challenge this need for more, and we set out to show the world the power of “fewer more purposeful” for women, for brands, and for the environment.
So, one piece at a time, we make the best version of the clothing you wear, those timeless closet essentials that should be in every woman’s closet. We spend months ensuring each piece is built to look good, built to last, and built responsibly. My favorite part of the brand is our fully domestic and traceable farm-to-closet supply chain. This is really what we’ve spent the past year building. We partner directly with every hand that touches our pieces from our organic cotton farmer in Texas, to our yarn spinner, our knitter, our dyer, and then our cut-and-sew factories in Illinois and California. This is very unique in the apparel space., but we think that having a farm-to-closet supply chain is really the only way you can make the best product decisions at every single stage.
Your Crewneck Sweater from Pareto
When did you start thinking about an MBA?
I applied to Stanford GSB’s deferred admit program when I was a senior in college.
So I knew I was accepted to GSB, and I knew that if I did go to business school, there was no other place I would want to go. But, throughout the last four years, I have really been wondering if business school was the right choice. I clearly wasn’t looking to pivot industries, I love the retail space, and so I really grappled with whether business school was the right choice. Ultimately the final push really came down to timing. Over the past year and a half, we’ve built a really strong foundation for the business, and we’re at the stage now where we’re ready to accelerate our growth trajectory. My co-founder and I believe that attending GSB is the perfect way to do that.
There’s a few specific things that I’m super excited to leverage over the next few years. One, I think business school is just a sandbox of resources that we’re able to leverage in real time. Being a year and a half into the business, we have tactical questions that come up every day. In between faculty and classmates and alumni, the proximity and speed in which we can connect with an expert on any topic is super valuable.
Second, it’s an invaluable mechanism to think about things differently. As a team of two, my co-founder and I have really been heads down building the past year, which has been great and we’ve made so much progress, but all the experiences that comes with an MBA is like a forced break in our system. It forces us to take a step back and push our thinking in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Finally, we believe data-driven decisions in tech-enabled customer experiences are the future of retail, and we have a really exciting data and tech roadmap for Pareto. There’s no better place than Stanford to be immersed in the technology ecosystem. With the timing of where we were with the business, I was able to really articulate what I would get out of an MBA.
Where else did you apply, and where else were you accepted?
I only applied to GSB. I knew that if I was to get an MBA, GSB was the place I wanted to do it. The question in my mind was more, ‘Do I want to get an MBA?’ Where to get an MBA was always very easy, and so I only applied to GSB. The past four weeks have only been reassuring and has reinforced that this place is exactly where I belong.
How have you juggled business school and running a business?
Your Field Jacket from Pareto
Well, we are only four weeks in, including orientation, so I will not say that I’ve mastered it. It is a lot. It’s balancing schoolwork, it’s balancing business, it’s balancing social commitments, it’s balancing other professional experiences. Going into it, I knew that what I had to do was ruthlessly prioritize. I’m definitely getting better, but I started on day one with being extremely deliberate in what I was going to spend my time on. I make sure there is a reason why I am doing something or going to an event. As long as I can articulate that reason then, it’s valid.
What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs grappling with student-founder dilemma?
I don’t think there’s any one way to do it, and that is really important to realize and acknowledge. You can start something before business school and go into business school with your fully-funded business. You can start something in business school. You can find a co-founder at business school. You can start something after business school.
There’s so many ways to do it, and they’re all equally great. It really is just finding what works best for you. Have as many conversations with different people that have gone different paths as you can, but realize that it’s not necessarily advice, it’s just things that have worked well for them. Take all those data points and combine them with what you’re looking for and what you value and prioritize, and realize that you’re going to chart your own path.
What’s next for Pareto?
We have three pieces on the market currently: Your Perfect T-shirt Dress, Crewneck Sweater, and Tank Top. We actually just launched last week our fourth wardrobe addition, Your Perfect Field Jacket. Over the past year, we’ve really proven product market fit, established a really strong supply chain partner network, and are feeling really confident in some early indicators of success. Around loyalty, 30% of our customers have made two-plus orders, and around product satisfaction, we have a post purchase product rating of 9 out of 10. So really what’s next is we’re excited to pour gas on the fire and grow. We’ve been all about building a foundation that is scalable, and now we’re ready to scale this thing.
Are you a student-founder? Poets&Quants is interested in talking with you about balancing the demands of pursuing an MBA and running a new business. Email your story to [email protected]
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