During a fireside chat with John C Head III Dean David Schmittlein at MIT Sloan Reunion 2022, ThirdLove Co-Founder and CEO Heidi Zak, MBA ’07, directly addressed her fellow alumnae in Wong Auditorium.
“Over the past five years, a lot more women have started investing in women-founded businesses, and it’s incredibly important for every single woman here today—and in the world—that they invest both their time and their money in things they’re passionate about,” she said. “Because that’s how we will change the dynamic that exists today.”
Recalling when she and her husband, David Spector, MBA ’07, were getting ThirdLove off the ground in 2013, Zak explained that, though active, the number of women in the angel investor community was very small. Even though luminaries like 23andMe Co-Founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki and journalist Katie Couric would later invest in the direct-to-consumer lingerie company, Zak said more was necessary to increase support for women entrepreneurs.
“What’s really important to me is being able to mentor other founders, so I invest in and advise mostly women founders because I think I can offer them something unique,” said Zak. “But I also learn as much from them as they do from me. It’s really inspiring. Whenever we talk, they’re making me think of something differently. It sets off a light bulb in my mind.”
Building something radically different
When Zak initially pitched her idea for ThirdLove to Spector, e-commerce giants like Amazon and Shopify were already in business, but online shopping’s market share was much smaller than it is today. And the niche business of women’s lingerie? It was still confined to brick-and-mortar stores like Victoria’s Secret and other retail giants. Years would pass before big companies would dive into the waters of e-commerce.
After conducting their own consumer research, Zak and Spector quickly realized two things. First, e-commerce was poised to grow substantially over the next 10 years, and second, a growing customer base was eager to take advantage of this entirely new way of virtually trying on lingerie and buying it without stepping foot in a physical location.
“The most exciting and challenging thing about starting a company is starting from scratch,” said Zak. “If you’re building something radically different, there’s no playbook to follow. There’s no one to copy.”
Of course, starting a company from scratch still requires some know-how, and Zak credits the MIT Sloan community with preparing her for trying radically different things. She said her time in Cambridge continues to have an immense impact on her life, her career, and her attitude toward mentoring and investing in women.
“Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but MIT Sloan presented me and my classmates with an opportunity to be entrepreneurial from the very beginning,” she said. “And I really credit that to the faculty, the classes, and the connections I made while I was here.”
Person and product
Beyond supporting women and the companies they create, Zak emphasized helping those who possess an inexplicable and unquantifiable “it” factor, which she traces to a founder’s passion about the problems they are trying to solve and the solutions they are trying to build.
“You really want to invest in people who are incredibly determined, because the early stages are all about being told no and things going wrong. And if you’re not okay with that, it’s going to be a really hard journey,” she said. “But it’s super hard to know without doing a really long analysis. It’s more about gut feelings: ‘Do I like the product? Do I think the founder is good? Do I think I can help them, too?’”
Dean Schmittlein found Zak’s thinking especially enlightening when compared to advice given a decade earlier by Douglas Leone, SM ’88, global managing partner at Sequoia Capital. At the time, Leone talked about focusing on the person more than the product. But this begs the question: what about the person do you focus on? “You focus on the person as much as the product idea,” said the dean. “Maybe it’s a truism now, but it wasn’t always.”
Zak agreed, adding that the focus on people and products connects to her insistence that investment does not always mean money. Time spent advising founders and their ideas is just as important, especially when entrepreneurs have something new to bring to the table.
Such as when, during the question and answer session, Bloomer Tech co-founder Aceil Halaby, SM ’17, asked Zak whether ThirdLove had thought about entering the healthcare space as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. “Did you ever consider how a bra might be used as a medical device?” Halaby asked. “Because if you’re interested, our startup works on that.”
“No, but I would love to chat with you about it,” said Zak.