We’re back with the formidable Carly Bigi, who shares here about persuading Deloitte to sponsor her early to go to business school, her time in business school, and then her decision – to return to Deloitte, or not?
Miss Part 1 of our interview with Carly? Check it out here (don’t miss where she talks about her favorite travel experiences as a consultant)!
Jenny Rae: Then business school.
Carli: Oh my gosh! I knew eventually that I wanted to go to business school. There was a mentor of mine, a counselor that I was aligned with. She said, “If you are ready to go to business school, you should apply this year.” I was two years into the firm and I was like, “No, typically you can’t apply until after three years.” She said, “You are ready, you should apply early.” I had to go and talk to the head of our practice and I was so nervous. I organized all my points, why I was ready, and how I was performing at a totally different level. I walked in and I said, “I want to go to business school and here is why.” I walked him through two or three points and I was like, “Any questions?”
Jenny Rae: Were there slides involved?
Carli: On the back end, yes, but I didn’t get to share them. I was confident and I just said, “Here is the deal, I am ready to go and you are going to send me now and this is why.” He smiles and goes, “I don’t disagree. You have my blessing. Go ahead and apply.” I was like, “Perfect!”
Mind you, I never knew where I was going to go. This was already the end of May, late spring of the year I was going to apply. I got all that lined up and presented my sponsorship presentation and took the GMAT the next morning. I studied for 9 weeks in Omaha, Nebraska. My team had a block on Tuesday that they couldn’t bother me in. That was when I took my class, hammered through studying, took the GMAT and was like, “Good enough. Let us start working.” I started working on my essays. It was literally the most whirlwind process. That year, I also had to go to like 14 weddings. I was up at 4 or 5am, doing practice tests, studying, and working on my essays.
It was crazy and mind you, I was on a project so I was working until 2-3 am. I somehow did it and I don’t know how. I fell in love with Columbia. There was only a small pool of schools and when I first visited Columbia, I was like, “This is it, I need to be in New York.” I loved everyone that had gone there; it was very much the same as Deloitte. It just felt right versus other schools that felt a little bit more distant but could have been a great fit for my life too. I remember sending Morgan on the [admissions team] updates of my life, the photo of me with my new nephews, celebrating with my family in Texas – “I have a new nephew, he is so cute, here we are working on a vacation.” She is like “Who is this girl?” I just made sure she realized, “You are not going to forget about me.”
Carli: I wanted them to know.
Jenny Rae: That you were coming?
Carli: I was coming. Carli was coming, put it on your radar. I just kept staying in touch with her and I remember reaching out and saying I am so excited and she said, “We know, you are going to committee this morning, you will be hearing from us soon.” I said, “I love that answer. Sounds great.” I am at my client, my phone rang from an unknown number, and I stepped out and said, “This is Carli” and I was silent. She said, “Oh! I thought that was a voicemail. Hey, it’s Morgan from Columbia.” and I was like, “Hi” and she went, “How are you doing?” and I say, “I am fine, I am in Colorado” and she says, “Good, I am calling with some exciting news. The admission team feels like they know you better than anyone else because of all your updates.” I was so excited and it was a great call, I walked in the team room, where everyone was silent and looking at me and is said, “Guys, I got into Columbia!” and that was it, game over. I retracted a couple of my interviews from other amazing schools and decided to go to Columbia.
Jenny Rae: Amazing.
Carli: I know.
Jenny Rae: And then when you left Deloitte, you imagined you were going to return to the office?
Carli: I had things to see. I thought I was going to pave the way for innovation. I thought I was going to go deep into the industry in part of New York. I experienced the mental block of what I wrote in my applications versus where my heart was. I thought I was going to come to New York, go deep into Pharma and go deep into health care, go and be a Partner and change that space and revolutionize that industry. I lined up every single internship I wrote about in my application.
Jenny Rae: That application was a strategy document, right?
Carli: That was a strategy document.
Jenny Rae: But the earlier strategy document was not this granular? Wasn’t it just, go to college, do XYZ, etc?
Jenny Rae: This was a subtext?
Carli: This was a subtext. Right before business school, I went shopping. This was an important moment in the trajectory of my life: I went shopping with my then boyfriend for work wear. We were in New York and it was a first time experience for me of how men shop. I had never seen it. He went into a suit supply store and spent 30 minutes picking out fabric, getting measured, sipping whiskey, and came out the door. Three days later, he had an impeccable fitting suit for $300. I was like, “What? How does this happen?” I spent all of Saturday going up and down Fifth Avenue, in and out of a dozen stores trying to find a basic black dress that was my fit and in my price point. It was crazy. In the end, I paid twice the price for something I liked half as much. I was working 100 hours a week and he was working 50 hours a week.
Jenny Rae: And women need to pick a variety of things as well.
Carli: Exactly! It drove me crazy. It is good that we focus on quality in the workforce so that no one is talking about how inefficient it is on the back end. Why do I have to waste a Saturday? I am working my ass off for everything I have, I am proud of it, and I put the work in. But this guy is chilling and closing his laptop by 3pm on a Friday and he can just go and get a suit in 30 minutes. It is crazy to me that it looks amazing. I want to look that amazing. I couldn’t get it out of my head; I went back to my team on Monday and said, “I am going to find a way to use some form of technology so that we can make perfect fitting women’s clothing for work. I don’t know how we are going to do it but I have got this idea.”
My mentor said, “You are going to figure this out. You wanted to leave early and go do a summer, and you did.” All of that was before business school. I still wrote all the applications for healthcare, I still was on the healthcare track by myself with someone who started the health and pharmaceuticals management program at Columbia. We were like best friends before I sent in my application. We were at a conference, and I visited him on campus and we went for coffee. We talked about everything; he was a mentor long before I applied to the school. I went to him and he said, “Congratulations! With all these offers, you landed all your dream internships in the healthcare space.” I also had this e-commerce offer. I said, “Actually Cliff, I think I am going to go to Bauble Bar, this e-commerce startup because I have this idea and this vision of using technology and data science to create perfectly fitting clothes for women but do it at scale in a personalized way.”
I don’t know anything about e-commerce. I think I have to go and learn from these women in this amazing business and I think I have to explore it. I thought he would be like, “What?” I was so worried that I was going to lose him as a mentor because he was such a champion in healthcare. He put his neck out on the line for me and made all these introductions. He said, “You’ve got to go do it. It is not even a question.”
So I went and found the one woman in our class who started a company before school. I said to her, “Erin, I have an idea. I need to take you for coffee.” We meet on Columbia’s campus and I say, “I have an idea for a company. I think we should launch a startup together. You know how to start a company, I have no idea what I am doing but I’ve got a zeal and a clear vision.” She said, “If you pitch me right now. I will think about it.”
I scraped together the first semi-pitch. I said, “Here is the problem, here are the different operating models I think would solve it, here is my ultimate vision of disrupting this industry, and let’s go light the room on fire. That is what we are doing.” She was like, “I cannot say no to you, how can anyone say no to you. I am in. Let’s get started today.” We launched a startup, dug into it. I am telling you, this is what business school is about.
Jenny Rae: I know. I love it.
Carli: We took the semester. We thought we were going to come up with a solution. I went to Myanmar and Thailand for the summer to intern with this tech company in Myanmar. I learnt so much and got to travel, but while in Thailand, I went to every single meeting I could with manufacturers to explore a possible supply chain out of Thailand. I realized there were a lot of complexities with customs but still, we had an option, we had samples.
Jenny Rae: Did you get samples that were for you?
Carli: For me, so that I could run around and say, “This is ‘Thread Counsel,’ what do you think?”
Jenny Rae: Amazing! When you were working with Bauble Bar was that during the spring? How did that whole timing work out?
Carli: May and June; we were in Thailand and Myanmar, came back to New York, and went to Bauble Bar. I specifically chose Bauble Bar because, ironically, the founders were friends with my mentor. This woman just has her fingerprints all over my life. You cannot underestimate the value of mentorship.
Back to Bauble Bar. They were two newcomers who did not have backgrounds in e-commerce; they had both been in finance. They started this business because they saw an opportunity and they built it into a large company. They have an incredible innovative supply chain; they completely disrupted the way you think about getting affordable fashion jewelry and they built an amazing brand. I said, “I am just going to go in and try as a strategic intern. I am going to focus on partnerships and international expansions.” As it turns out, we got into a number of countries. It was funny because while I was there in this social team, in between meetings, I would be like, can you come with us so that we can take photos.
I ended up all over their Instagram and website because they were like, “We can just photograph you all day” and I was like, “I will do it, anything you need.” I was very direct in asking for permission to work with every other team there. I started on the strategy team but went to work on the customer service team, the product team, and the scouting team. I got to do two photo shoots with them. I wanted to know it all and was just a sponge – I was getting ideas and running them by the founders and my other teammates. It was just a no brainer and after that summer, I was like, “I am going to be where these two are.” Once you can see someone else doing it, it is achievable. I was like, “I am going to be there in a couple of years.” Today, we actually share investors, so we’ve come full circle. They are incredible and trusted advisors.
Bauble Bar happened and I went back to school, so my thought was, “I have to do this.” I started an independent study with my team and we dug deep into what actually matters and what customers care about. We launched a survey of just 35 lawyers, bankers, and consultants. We said, “Tell us about your pain points, and your desires when it comes to shopping experience for professional clothing.” In two days, we had over 50 responses and in a week, we had over 1,000. I called Erin, my teammate, and I said, “I think our survey may have a link that is broken. Who answers surveys? Who does this?” I started getting inbound messages on LinkedIn and Facebook. Women were saying, “I think you are right Carly Bigi, starting a business in this space; your survey made me laugh.”
What was interesting was that the data was incredibly directionally aligned. We learned that women don’t care about fully custom-made, they care about fit, then price, and then personalizing the piece to your style. They were more price sensitive than was expected, less interested in altered clothing than we expected, and we learned a lot about preferences. We totally had to change our first model.
Jenny Rae: I have to ask – because of the travel compatibility, what about “washability?”
Carli: In our line, we would always have machine washable, wrinkle resistant textile – it’s what women indicated as preferences.
Jenny Rae: That’s interesting.
Carli: It is also interesting that women know what they want to wear. It is not like this group had no idea. One of the questions was; “You are going into a board meeting to present to a really important executive team – what are you wearing? It is a killer meeting, what are you going to wear?” Every woman knew what she was going to wear. It was not like, “I don’t know, someone please tell me, please coach me on what to wear.” Now, there are no surprises.
Jenny Rae: You thought you were going to do more styling advice.
Carli: Yes. We don’t. By the way, when we scraped those responses on what it was that they were wearing, it was a really consistent aesthetic that women pictured themselves wearing. We didn’t talk about the products; we leveraged the House of Cards design team and Dolce and Gabbana. We went hard on perfecting our products, as we should have. We were incredibly detailed and precise in our design. We just listened to our customer, as we had a massive data set on women’s bodies. We aggregated it using unsupervised learning. We designed a whole new different supply to process time, so that the machine component did all the mapping and sizing. We asked our customers, we are listening, and that is what we are delivering.
So I graduated and immediately started fundraising for $1M and conned a few people into joining the team.
Jenny Rae: All business school people or other people?
Carli: Other people too. We met in a pitch I was pitching, and this girl was sitting in the room and she was asking the most incredible questions. I was like, “What is your name and what are you doing here this spring? Come and work for me.” We had not even closed and she was like, “Done.” She is our Head of Products and she has been with us ever since that meeting. That is the most impressive undergrad you have ever met in your entire life. We are hiring data scientists. We recruited from Harvard and Columbia. We had 130 applications between Masters and PhD programs. People can watch you present about this business all day. We are capitalizing on that.
We have someone who is working on branding from Columbia Business School, who is amazing by the way. We are doing some outsourcing there. Our designer, who worked directly with Ralph Lauren, is a friend of a friend. Our pre-production team, I met her through a friend in the city.
Jenny Rae: I am sure that people have asked you this question because you are a beautiful with an ideal body type. I am a mother of two kids, so what is the perfect fit for me because I think a lot of us are pretty clear that the idea of perfect is…
Jenny Rae: Exactly.
Carli: Maybe we should say better fitting.
Jenny Rae: I think it is clear but I don’t know what it means. I don’t think I have ever had that experience especially since my super-hot early 20s triathlon days until now where I am like, “I am doing this. I am at the gym and I am really working my gym wear.” It is a different life and I have a different body from what I have had before.
Carli: Sure. What we found is that women are spending an average of 15 hours to find something that somewhat fits. 67% of women answered with “somewhat fits,” and the answers covered 10-12 stores. The matrix behind what it takes to feel confident in a piece was startling and consistent. We see a one-to-one correlation in our studies between a highly tailored aesthetic at work and confidence. With confidence comes action and with action comes success. We are positioning ourselves for women. Did you watch House of Cards?
Jenny Rae: Yes.
Carli: I looked at Claire the first three seasons, but the most recent season, Claire Underwood has this simple yet powerful aesthetic. I texted my advisor and said, “I want to meet with the House of Cards design team. If you know anyone, let me know.” She went, “That is a very Carly Bigi thing to say. What kind of question is that?” and I am like, “I am just putting it out there.” She called by 11:30 that night and said, “You are not going to believe this. I just had dinner with a friend and her little sister just joined the design team for House of Cards. I can get you a meeting next week.” I was like, “Who is crazy now?” Someone has to be insane enough to give up sponsorships, give up a 6-figure salary, pay herself minimum wage, build a team and go do this thing. There is a little bit of crazy.
So we meet the design team and introduce them to this tech woman using data science. I ran them through everything and said, “This is why we are here. We design clothing that gives that extra inch to your posture and I have f**ing got this mentality. Let us talk about how you design for this show.” There were two aspects: 1) When you see a woman walking down the street, just looking at her, you are saying, “That woman is crushing it, she is a CEO, Managing Director, Senior Partner.” There are social cues that tie back to powerful women. The clothes are clingy; it is the strong shoulder, the higher neckline, something that is well tailored to your body but not too tight. You are not showing too much skin above the knee, it is a very intentional aesthetic. The other is how a woman is encouraged to sit with her shoulders back and focus on arm placement; this is having alignment at the stomach so that the cloth is not making you feel exposed, there is space for you to be comfortable but also structured.
We ordered $50,000 worth of dresses in size 0, 6 and 12. We all tried on Dolce and Gabana, the best of the best cheek dresses, different fabrics, and different cuts. We mocked on the white board what it was that just made us feel invincible. That is when we started discovering: “The sleeve length up to here, certain darting around the back, the way we don’t like this cut, but we like this cut.” We literally drew it on the board and I went, “This is what we are going to design.” My designer was like, “We have never done it this way but you have never followed the rules. Let’s go for it.”
We put that into a tech pack and took it to our actor, and that was that. To answer your question of what perfect tailoring means – it means a highly tailored aesthetic should fit your body perfectly. It should not be too tight but you should have a feeling of almost like you are going in state of flow. You are so ready and so capable to accomplish whatever it is that you have to do and just be a total boss at that. We are launching with a sheath dress; it is going to have a higher neckline, a strong shoulder, sleeves down. Women who do not even like dresses are going to be obsessed with this dress. We are accounting for body shape and style. Instead of one-size fixes, it is six size fixes. We have more 8’s and 10’s because there is variability in body shape. We only have three size zeroes.
We are asking, “How do we fit 99% of women perfectly?” and we are using unsupervised learning to do it. We didn’t have a set number of sizes in mind. We clustered according to the principal components in the data set. We forgot about it and are about to start testing them and I cannot wait to get you in one.
Jenny Rae: Me too!
Carli: The fabric is important too. We would always have a machine washable, wrinkle resistant fabric, but we would have different levels of other textiles at different price points. If you have disposable income but no disposable time, for example, if you are a Senior Manager or Partner, you can easily get a $300 dress. If you are an analyst, you are cranking until 3am, you will appreciate that machine washable, wrinkle resistant, anti-microbial lining dress. So that you feel fresh, great, and crisp all day long. It is a state of mind; we are selling a state of mind.
Jenny Rae: Has it gone as you expected?
Carli: Nothing has gone like I expected. It is yes and no. My vision is so strong and big enough that it is scary. It scares me sometimes thinking about the future of this business. We have huge goals but day-to-day, we are just trying to get out of chaos in the best way possible. Fundraising was a beast of its own. Everyone said, “You cannot be a single solo founder raising $1M,” and I said, “Watch me,” and we did it faster than expected. The whole thing is strategic. We have institutions and they are strategic angels. Why can’t I be a single solo founder raising that?
Jenny Rae: Why can’t I be on a football team? Right?!
Carli: The only thing in your way is yourself. We did it, we are building the team, and we are getting there. I would say the best thing we can do for them has always been recognizing the best thing that they do, bringing them on, and inspiring them to do it. I think in consulting I learned how you leverage resources to work smart. I don’t think clever is the right word. Just be very scrappy and resourceful – there is no one right path, you have to trust your gut. But we are doing it.
Jenny Rae: I have this question of not going back to Deloitte. How thoughtful vs. gut was that decision?
Carli: It was all of the above. Until the last day, the rational part of me said, “How can you give this up?” It is paying for your business school, it is steady salary, there is a known trajectory, you know you are good at it, and you have your network there. “What are you doing?” The other part of me said, “I have everything I need lined up to make my vision exist in the world. I am so obsessed about it that I think about it every hour of the day in the first place.” It comes to a point that all you are doing is jumping; “We need a data set, we got a data set, then we need pre-orders, now we have pre-orders. Now we need investors who are interested.” We had $500,000 before we graduated. We need people to do it, and we had people raising their hands and drawing.
Suddenly, it became all inhabiting. I left my apartment that I owned. Everybody says, you are the most eligible, best-looking, minimum wage babe in New York. I was homeless at the time, living with girlfriends. Did I ever think I would be doing this? No. Do I feel like I am using every part of myself to the fullest potential in the fullest way by being the founder and CEO? Yes. This is what I am meant to be doing and we are absolutely going to crush it.
By the way, when I told Deloitte that I couldn’t come back, the first Partners that I worked for were some of our first investors. They said, “What are you doing? We are going to invest because everything you touch is going to succeed.” I kept them along the journey and I did right by them. They understood and they supported it.
They said, “Don’t decline that offer right now, defer it, you never know what can happen. Let us have that discussion at the very end of the timeline, not right now, because you need to focus on the business. There is no reason to hand over those logistics yet.” Deloitte helped me to defer my offer and they have been incredibly supportive.
Jenny Rae: Everything sounds like it has been just as you planned. Now, what if you could go back and talk to your 20-year-old self during your internship or as a first year analyst? What are the things, if any, you would do differently to make more of your experience?
Carli: I would focus purely on my performance. I think earlier on, it was hard not to look around and see how others were doing. Part of it was just market analysis; understanding where you fall, and the other part was, you don’t know what you don’t know. How are other people are managing their careers? I would just focus on my game and the best me I can be and not try to fit a mold. That Biz-bot personality came because I felt I had smaller roles. I put myself in a box and now it is funny because now I am not like that. I’m more, “Thank you for the suggestions but we’ll do what we want.”
That was not my mentality back then. This is how a 23 year old should be in a room with 65-year-old executives; this is how I’m supposed to be. I wish I leaned into being more of myself all the time, of course within the context of being a 23 year old in a room of executives, I wish I could have embraced more me and been more authentic to who I was earlier on. That is real and the quicker I grew into myself, it just accelerated my growth even more. I remember my advisor saying, “It must be exhausting to say and do what you think you are supposed to be doing as opposed to just being who you are.” This was when I was 22. I felt like I was supposed to be a certain way. I felt like there was a lot to keep up with. She said, “Carli, you just need to do you and be you. You are here for a reason. There is no one else like you and remember that.” I wish I had leaned into that mentality sooner. I also wish I hadn’t wasted so much time lining up all those internships in the beginning of business school because who was I kidding?! I was never going to do that.
Jenny Rae: Do you have any final tips or suggestions for people that are looking at your career path and looking at it as something they would want to do now or in the future?
Carli: I would tell you to challenge yourself and to ask yourself: if you are considering doing something else, whether it is going into consulting or considering something else outside consulting, be really thoughtful about if it is going to be day one or one day. In particular, if you’re starting a business, just do it. Businesses don’t grow because of an idea. Ideas are free. You need to get out there and start testing. There’s so many ways to do that in an affordable way. Just do it. Take the risk, and be true to yourself. Take the risk, and go light the world on fire.