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Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake on Why Gender Matters In the Business World

12 minute read

Katrina Lake is racking up the superlatives. In November, the Stitch Fix CEO became the youngest woman to ever take a company to an initial public offering. More recently, she was surprised to learn that her business’ board won an award for being more diverse than other public companies. But she has goals for bigger disruption.

In a quest to change the way people shop, her company sent more than 2.5 million people personalized boxes of clothing in the past year — what her company calls “fixes” — using a combination of data analysis and human curation. TIME sat down with Lake to talk about why her gender matters, how shopping needs to be reimagined and when it’s actually worth giving personal data to a tech company in order to get something in return.

The following excerpts have been edited for brevity and clarity.

If you had to choose, would you say you view Stitch Fix as more of a clothing company or a tech company?

What makes this company special is undoubtedly technology. That being said, I just don’t believe in the tech tag. At the end of the day, I think Uber is a transportation company. I think Airbnb is a hospitality company. I think Facebook is a marketing company. And we are a retail company.

When items are chosen for a shipment, how much of that work is being done by human stylists and how much by algorithms?

It’s a hard question to answer. We’ve never sent a fix where a human didn’t choose it. And philosophically it’s part of our business. The human touch is super important. [Still] I do think a lot is the algorithms. [They suggest items to stylists based on data analysis] where you’re saying price matters this much, fit matters this much, what she bought before matters this much. The interesting thing is the weights are different depending on the person. There might be someone for whom price or age is much more sensitive than somebody else. Depending on your input and how we get to know you over time – fix by fix – the weights also change. … If this was all randomized and the stylist was just going through our inventory with an e-commerce shopping cart, it would be really hard to do this well.

Is Stitch Fix a replacement for department stores or something complementary?

Right now it’s definitely both. When I think about shopping, we try to capture the best parts of it. The things you love about shopping are not the driving to the mall and parking and going through racks and racks and racks of stuff. The part you like is you get to try some things on and figure out what you like and what you don’t like. This is still a shopping channel. You’re still going through things and deciding ‘This is me, this isn’t me.’ It’s just done in a much more curated, effective way.

Is the death of brick-and-mortar retail on the horizon?

There’s definitely a role for it. The experiential element of it is really important, but the transaction is just so much more effective and convenient online. So I think we’ll see fewer stores, but I don’t think it’s totally going to die.

86% of your employees are women. What do see as the significance of that number?

A lot of that, candidly, is the stylists. We have 3,000 stylists who mostly work from home. The vast majority of them are women … Our technology teams are majority male but the percentage of women is still much higher than what you would see in technology teams across the landscape. And our management team and our board are more than half women. In some ways I don’t know how deliberate all of that was. I didn’t set out saying I was going to employ mostly women.

Even if you didn’t set out to do it, are there things you’ve done at the company that have helped you attract and retain women?

The fact that we have such a strong presence of women across the leadership ranks – this is a little bit chicken and egg – but that actually helps us to attract more women here. And when I started this company, I was really cognizant: I work for Stitch Fix. If I were a manager or an associate, what are the things that I would care about? The fact that I took my whole 16-week maternity leave. If you’re 30 years old and you just got married, working some place where you feel like you’re going to be supported at that really exciting time in your life is really important.

What do you see as the end goal with diversity and inclusion? Should tech companies have workforces that are proportional to the U.S. population?

To me the goal is just equal opportunity and equal possibility. I want this to be a place where people can succeed because of the differences that they bring rather than despite of them.

How much does it matter that you are the CEO and also a woman?

The biggest thing that we could do is to be an example of a company that is founded by a woman, that is in a women’s industry and goes public. Because if nothing else it wakes up the capitalists and venture capitalists … Even if they are not going to get excited about fashion, if they feel like they missed out on that one, that creates a natural and capitalist reason for people to pay more attention.

People often mention you being the youngest woman to ever take a company public. What does that mean to you?

First I hope it’s a title I don’t hold that long. I have mixed feelings. In years past I feel like I’ve been very resistant to being labeled as a female CEO. I just wanted to be a successful CEO. It has nothing to do with my gender. And now I think it’s actually really important that I’m a female CEO and I have more pride around that. When I was writing my business school applications, I wrote all about Meg Whitman and how I wanted to be just like her someday, because to me, at the time, she was one of very few examples of women who were running tech companies. It’s so important to be able to show more examples. That has a huge impact as you think about the pipeline of people – girls and boys – who are thinking about what they want to be when they grow up.

What do you think about asking women business leaders about family life, when men often aren’t asked? Does that happen to you?

I have mixed feelings about it. I get asked the question a lot, not just in interviews but by women all the time because women genuinely want advice. How do you balance it? It’s hard, and I think people want to hear validation that it’s hard. Everybody should also be asking men.

What do you think tech and Silicon Valley have learned after #MeToo and Uber’s troubles? Have things changed?

I’m really hopeful. I don’t think things have changed yet, exactly. In Silicon Valley we’ve all felt this deep commitment and passion around transforming the future and largely people were thinking about doing that through products and technology. But the part that has been overlooked has been also changing the future of work and culture, where our children are going to work and what those places are going to be like and the obligation that we have to broader society. That’s a new conversation.

What about #MeToo in particular?

So much of this had been building up for decades and this past year has obviously been – not quite a sea change – but this moment of revelation. People need to have access to a safe work environment where they aren’t subject to harassment. My hope is that’s not the battle we’re fighting in the future. The next step is making sure that people are actually allowed equal opportunity within companies, thinking about gender equity and pay, fighting bias and things that are hidden. And that’s going to be a bigger, harder problem to solve but I’m really grateful for all the brave people who have come forward.

It can be hard thing to call out bias. It can often seem that you start taking risks with your career by speaking out. What advice would you give to women about how to make that calculation?

It’s a really hard answer. If you think about the calculation of ‘Do you say something or not?’ at a time when you are reliant on a venture population which is 94% male in order to keep your company alive and your employees paid, it’s a really impossible choice to make.

How do we make sure that things are actually different when we’re looking back at this moment 15 years from now?

There are a couple things. Having more women on management teams, having more women in venture. I think there were a lot of decisions made in the past where if a woman had just been in the room there would have been a different decision made … Some of the momentum has already changed. Corporate boards are paying attention to this. It’s a significant risk. Whereas 10 years ago, it might have been like ‘Oh, hush hush, wink wink, that guy’s kind of a creep who’s the CEO,’ today that guy’s gone.

Tech has also come under a lot of scrutiny for data collection and privacy practices, particularly Facebook. Stitch Fix depends on data in matching people with clothes. What’s your take on these tradeoffs we’re making, giving up data about ourselves for relevant stuff?

Our business model is very transparent. If you share with us that the dress is too big or too small, that’s super helpful, because next time we’re going to get you a dress that is going to fit you better. Even people on our board will ask what the income or race of our clients is. Those aren’t things that we actually ask for because we don’t think that actually helps the stylists. Our bar is that we know it’s a lot to ask people to spend time to share things with us, and we only ask for things that we can transparently show you will make your experience better.

I think there’s a disconnect with some of these other business models, where ultimately their business model is actually marketing. So they’re harvesting your data in order to help brands market. We benefit from that too – we advertise on Facebook, it’s really effective – but … there are a lot of companies that haven’t been really transparent around what data they’re collecting, what they’re doing with it, why it’s important. And it’s unfortunate, because there are opportunities where being able to share things is actually going to help people in their experiences. And I have a little bit of fear that there’s been a degradation of trust.

Are we sharing too much in general with companies at this point?

I’m not against the sharing of information. You’ll share your address with Uber or Lyft. It’s really hard to say we shouldn’t be sharing anything. The change that would feel better is if you really knew how people were using the data, if you really understood what data people had about you. Today there’s not a lot of transparency.

So with your company, people are letting data be collected about themselves for a more straightforward reason.

Also, a lot of it is optional. But 85% of people are sharing with us [feedback like] this is too big or this is too small. This is too expensive. That’s totally voluntary. And it’s also really important because if don’t share with us that everything in your fix was too expensive, the next time you’ll probably get things that are too expensive again. So there’s this really nice alignment. The business model is such that the better we are at serving you, the better our business is.

Stitch Fix has also created several in-house brands. Would you ever let people buy those clothes directly?

At the end of the day, I can’t imagine we’d ever be a straight e-commerce site. A lot of what people value in the service is not having to cull through millions of things to figure out what things are right for you. What we do right now is crazy. I just don’t believe that could possibly be the future.

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