How This Wharton MBA Created Her Women’s Workwear Brand
Learn how real students navigate their way through the business school admissions process and b-school itself with our What is Business School Really Like? series.
Meet Melina, a recent Wharton MBA graduate and the founder of Keaton, a woman’s workwear brand dedicated to empowering women to look, feel, and perform their best.
Melina, thank you for sharing your story with us!
What inspired you to pursue an MBA?
Melina: Prior to my MBA, I was working at a traditional (majority brick-and-mortar) retailer, PANDORA Jewelry, on the strategy team. I loved my work there, but I was excited by the direct-to-consumer trend in retail and excited to learn more about it. What has always excited me about retail is listening to the customer and solving their problems—and I felt that the direct-to-consumer business model was well-equipped for this. Wharton is well-known for incubating DTC brands like Warby Parker, Burrow, and others. Further, I did not study business in undergraduate (I was a political science major), so as I became more senior in my career, I wanted to fill some gaps related to business fundamentals (accounting, finance, etc.).
What was the most challenging aspect of the business school application process?
Melina: I was applying with a partner (my fiancé), so this made the process extra stressful—we wanted to be in the same program. Luckily, we were both accepted to Wharton, which was a top choice given our career backgrounds (retail for me, finance for him).
I also found it challenging to distill my “personal story” into a pithy essay format. I must have written about 50 versions of my personal statement. I found it helpful to seek honest feedback from people who know me well and have insight into my personality. I got feedback from my boss, colleagues, and friends to create a version that was true to myself.
Did you participate in a Wharton team-based discussion? How did you prepare for this experience?
Melina: I did a Team-Based Discussion in November 2016. The TBD is a live discussion of a broad “case question” with a small group of MBA candidates, so there is only so much preparation that is possible. However, I read the prompt and formulated several ideas going into the session.
In these environments, everyone is nervous and eager to share their thoughts. I reminded myself to step back and listen to my teammates and to facilitate an environment of collaboration instead of competition.
I really enjoyed the TBD and remain friends with candidates I met through the process.
Once school began, what surprised you the most about the program?
Melina: Not so much a “surprise,” but I was incredibly impressed with the caliber of the other students in the program. One of the most valuable parts of the MBA is learning from peers—at Wharton, students come from all sorts of career backgrounds and from 50+ countries.
I had heard that Wharton has a flexible curriculum, but I was surprised by how true this was. There are some required classes, which are very helpful for someone with a limited business background like me. Beyond that, we can take classes across Penn. I took several classes in the law school that will be helpful as an entrepreneur. I had friends take classes about nutrition science, meditation, design, and more.
I felt I had a good amount of structure in terms of coursework but also plenty of time to pursue entrepreneurship.
How does Wharton encourage entrepreneurship?
Melina: Penn-Wharton Entrepreneurship offers a suite of programming for founders. This ranges from funding awards that founders can apply for to an accelerator, VIP-X, to mentorship and networking opportunities. I was able to take full advantage of these resources with Keaton. I was awarded a good amount of funding for my business which helped as I bootstrapped in the early stages—the application requires founders to set milestones and track progress, which is a valuable forcing mechanism.
One of the most valuable resources was the Female Founder Mentoring program. I was paired with three amazing mentors from VC, fashion/retail, and branding backgrounds. We met multiple times throughout the year and they plugged in on very tactical questions I was facing. For example, I had an issue with a manufacturer and thought that I was being taken advantage of—as someone who was new to manufacturing, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. One of my mentors who is a CEO of a fashion brand was able to advise me how to negotiate better pricing and a refund for some early samples.
How has your background in public policy informed your current projects?
Melina: I was motivated to study public policy because I like to understand how people make decisions. In my public policy studies, we emphasized complementary qualitative and quantitative approaches, e.g., starting with focus groups and interviews to understand what motivates a decision at a high level, and then drilling down with data to prove out hypotheses.
I took this same approach when I transitioned my career to retail. The decision to buy something from a certain brand is complex and difficult for even the customer themselves to articulate.
When designing my first style for Keaton, I interviewed over 300 women to talk about workwear. There was tremendous dissatisfaction with workwear—styles have not kept up with an increasingly casual workplace. Women’s work attire is often dry clean-only, wrinkles easily, and lacks versatility. I also looked at sources of data, such as a large data set on U.S. women’s measurements, to inform the style.
Can you tell us more about Keaton? What inspired you to start this brand?
Melina: Keaton makes thoughtfully-designed women’s workwear created by women, for women. As a young professional, I found that having a great outfit helped me feel confident when faced with a crazy day of meetings or a big presentation. I created Keaton to be the brand that young women love to wear to work, offering office staples that can keep up with you anywhere work takes you. Keaton’s first product, the Perfect Pant, is a machine-washable, non-wrinkle pant with roomy front pockets. The product was designed with input from over 300 professional women.
Business school is intense! How do you juggle being a student and business owner?
Melina: It can be a delicate balance—but working on Keaton doesn’t really feel like work because I’m so passionate about it. So I’m happy to spend nights and weekends working on the business.
What’s next for Keaton?
Melina: I graduated from Wharton in May and I am working on Keaton full-time based out of New York City. I am working on hiring my first employees, growing the brand through a mix of channels, and developing new styles. We are making a big push for the back-to-school season in August since this is when many women refresh their work wardrobes. I love hearing from potential customers about what we should tackle next—please reach out to me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you!
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