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A fashion startup with gravitas 

CEO Lisa Sun shares her entrepreneurial story—and career advice—with MIT Sloan students.

By Kathryn M. O’Neill  |  November 15, 2016

Lisa Sun

Lisa Sun, founder and CEO of Project Gravitas

The little black dress, considered a wardrobe staple for many women, has been more than that for Lisa Sun, founder and CEO of Project Gravitas. It’s been the launching point for her company.

Sun described her entrepreneurial journey to a crowd of students at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship Nov. 10 as part of a speaker series organized by MIT Sloan Women in Management. “Every great brand has to start narrow and deep,” Sun said, explaining that she set out to provide clothes that would become her customers’ go-to items. “We started with the idea of the little black dress, in luxury fabrics, [and] we patented the idea of building shapewear into clothes.” 

“Lisa Sun is the living example that it is possible to be a successful woman entrepreneur after a long corporate career,” said Laura Cancherini, MBA ‘17, who introduced Sun at the event, which was co-sponsored by MIT Sloan Women in Management and MIT Sloan’s Retail, Consumer Packaged Goods, and Luxury Club. “She’s a legend in creating confidence through fashion.”

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Sun graduated from Yale University and began her career managing her family’s scrap metal yard. She then spent more than a decade at McKinsey & Company, where she worked with the firm’s fashion and beauty clients. During her time at McKinsey, Sun worked with the CEOs of many top fashion brands and saved enough money to bootstrap her business.

Project Gravitas is just three years old, but already the new fashion firm is a media hit, with mentions in more than 80 major outlets, from “Today” to People and O magazines.

GravitasStudents browse Project Gravitas apparel at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship

Sun said her company’s name is drawn from her first professional performance review, in which her supervisor wrote, “Lisa comes across as young and overly enthusiastic at times. She should seek to have more gravitas.”

At the time, Sun didn’t know what the word meant. Now, she told the audience at MIT Sloan, she seeks to help professional women of all ages to find gravitas. “If you believe in yourself, you take that with you throughout the day … gravitas is an energy we can all carry,” she said.

Sun said every product should have not only an emotional touchstone, but also a functional story. “We think about real women’s needs,” she said. She points to the built-in shapewear and focus on fit as key differentiators for her company. Rather than design 80 styles a season, Project Gravitas creates just 10 products a year and focuses attention on tailoring and styling. The company uses six different models of various shapes and sizes to create professional looks for women up to size 24W.

The Project Gravitas website shows customers up to 30 different ways to wear each dress, partnering with makers of shoes, handbags, and other accessories to customize looks. “This is a breakthrough idea,” Sun said. “[We] promote other retailers because we all grow when we grow together.”