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Harper Wilde: Bras ‘For Women, By Women’

Jenna Kerner (left) and Jane Fisher co-founded Harper Wilde, a bra company, while earning their MBAs at Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Courtesy photo

When Jenna Kerner enrolled in the full-time MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School during the fall of 2015, she was sure about at least a couple of things. “I actually came in knowing I wanted to work at a startup, but I also came in knowing I didn’t want to start my own company,” Kerner, 28, tells Poets&Quants. But? “That was year-and-a-half ago me,” she adds. Then she took Wharton’s Intro to Marketing course.

“It was in that class that the professors talked about how Warby Parker was built while the four co-founders were here at Wharton,” Kerner explains.

It’s nearly impossible to speak with someone involved in entrepreneurship at Wharton without the eyewear retailer — the school’s current entrepreneurial marketing darling — being mentioned. For Kerner and her fellow classmate, Jane Fisher, the idea of starting a business while in B-school resonated and sent them down a unique MBA path.

Now, almost two years later, the duo has done just that, launching their own consumer products business. But instead of eyeglasses, it’s bras. And instead of Warby Parker, it’s Harper Wilde.

‘WHY IS A WOMAN’S PRODUCT MARKETED TOWARDS MEN?’

Kerner and Fisher, who plan on fully launching their first product to the public this June, have a simple plan: Keep bra shopping from being the worst.

“Frankly, right now, bras are incredibly expensive,” Kerner says. “We’ve been wearing bras since we were teenagers — most women have. It’s something you have to deal with every single day. But a lot of women have taken it as the status quo that you just have to pay $70 for a bra.”

According to the market research firm Ibis World, the lingerie industry, which includes bras, is about $13 billion and expected to grow at a rate of 3.3% a year. But one player — Victoria’s Secret — dominates the space, regularly churning nearly $2 billion in sales each quarter. Indeed, some of Victoria’s Secret bras cost upward of $70.

Naturally, then, Kerner and Fisher have set their sights on the lingerie goliath, which they believe has perpetuated everything wrong with the bra industry.

“Why is there a man standing at the door of Victoria’s Secret — you know, the security guard — watching women shop for bras? Why is the whole industry hyper-sexualized? Why is a woman’s product marketed towards men?” Kerner says. “I mean, there are so many things that when we really started to pick it apart — and when people we speak with do the same — they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re right, it’s crazy that this has been going on for so long.'”

THE WARBY PARKER OF THE BRA INDUSTRY?

When Fisher approached Kerner with the idea to create a bra more like what they and other women were looking for, Kerner decided to at least explore the idea. She majored in neuroscience at Cornell before a four-year stint in strategy and operations at Deloitte. Fisher, also 28, earned a psychology degree from Emory University and spent five years as a portfolio manager at McKinsey before Wharton. Looking for a change, Kerner took a three-month internship as a product manager for Lumo Bodytech, a venture capital-backed, Silicon Valley-based health technology startup. “I really loved managing the technology and understanding human needs,” Kerner says of her time in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Fisher, who was based in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, met Kerner after being accepted at Wharton but before moving to Philadelphia to start the program. The two stayed in touch, and when they enrolled at Wharton, they quickly became friends. In their first semester, during an innovation class, the two worked together on a project that was “totally different” but that led to the two realizing that they worked well together.

And so, in the marketing class, when the two learned about Warby Parker’s story, something stuck with Fisher. She started thinking about something she — and countless other women — had been dealing with for a long time: expensive, uncomfortable bras that are made more for men than women.

When Fisher explained her idea to start a bra company, “It immediately resonated with me,” Kerner says. “What really resonated was knowing that a lot of women don’t know where to shop for bras. They hate Victoria’s Secret, but they don’t know where else to go. They are willing to spend money on jeans and other articles of clothing, and yet they will wear a bra for five years till the underwire is poking them in the side and they refuse to replace it. There was something really fascinating to me as to why people act that way.”

GOING ‘ALL IN’ ON THE VENTURE

After weeks of discussion about values and what they were hoping for in a founding partner, the two decided to go “all in.” Their first task? Interviewing hundreds of women about their bra shopping experiences.

Kerner says in those interviews, they discovered an interesting trend. For the first 30 seconds or so, the conversation would stay surface-level. “Then they start venting,” Kerner says of the women. “We’ve heard everything, like ‘I’ve had the worst experiences shopping for a bra. I can never find a bra that I want.’ There are just so many things and they completely unload.”

Still, both Kerner and Fisher had almost no experience in building a product. They would need to come up with a brand and a design for the bra, as well as a manufacturing partner to make it. In May 2016, they raised a friends-and-family funding round and spent nights and weekends developing a product and brand while working full-time internships over the summer. With the funding support, the duo began searching for a designer, and then a manufacturing partner.

After exhausting their network, they found a designer through the online platform Maker’s Row. Fortunately, while at Lumo Bodytech, Kerner had rubbed elbows with one of the leading lingerie manufacturers in the world. “We were fortunate enough to have a connection to them and be able to reach out and talk to them about a potential partnership,” Kerner says.

But convincing a manufacturing company of that size to commit to Kerner and Fisher wouldn’t be easy. After email exchanges and meetings, they were able to convince the manufacturer to take a chance. “One of the key turning points for us is, we knew we wanted to build a business that could scale and could scale easily,” says Kerner, noting they have been working with the manufacturer since last October. “We knew we were working with a product that could be a commodity product, but we wanted to make sure we were building a scalable business model.”