“I’m a proud Colombian in NYC, doing my MBA while launching my bra business.”
Hometown: Bogotá, Colombia
Fun fact about yourself: By the time I was 22 years old, I’d lived in four different countries, four different states, and 11 different houses.
Undergraduate School and Degree: Tufts University, BA in Economics and BA in International Relations
Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? After spending two years at McKinsey as a Business Analyst, I moved to NYC to join a technology startup as their Marketing Manager before starting my MBA.
Where did you intern during the summer of 2018? I was one in five students selected for the NYU Stern Venture Fellowship, which supports high-potential entrepreneurs in advancing their ventures during a customized summer-long program. I was also awarded a spot at NYU’s Summer Launchpad Sprint, a two-week startup accelerator program.
Where will you be working after graduation? Now that my co-founder and I have managed to scale Pepper, our bra business, to a point where we can pay ourselves a (still modest) salary, I will be a full-time entrepreneur once I graduate.
Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: I’m a fellow with the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, the country’s preeminent organization for promoting diversity and inclusion in American business, and a recipient of a Hispanic Scholarship Fund award.
At Stern, I serve as President of the Entrepreneurship and Startup Association, managing a team of 18 board members. ESA’s mission is to empower its members through unparalleled access to NYC’s vibrant entrepreneurial community. We provide education and information on the entrepreneurial resources available to Stern MBAs, and also organize events that have brought in prominent guests from organizations such as Techstars, Pinterest, and Brooklinen.
I am also a fellow with InSITE, a leadership development program comprising graduate students from various top universities (including NYU, Columbia, Cornell, and Wharton). Across our seven nationwide chapters, InSITE fellows engage in semester-long consulting projects for emerging companies, in addition to chapter-specific curriculum and networking events.
Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Overwhelmingly, almost unanimously, to the point that it started to feel like a conspiracy or planned intervention, my friends, family members, colleagues, and mentors warned me to pick one path or the other: either do the MBA, or launch a business, but don’t even think about doing both. I understood where they were coming from and why they worried. But the more I listened to their advice, the more I started to think of it as a challenge. I already sensed that business school would actually be the best time and place to start a company. Now, I had something to prove, to myself but also to them. Upon entering Stern, I found that the demands on my energy and attention were indeed numerous, unrelenting, and often in direct conflict with one another. But by focusing on what matters—by being selective, at times painfully so, about the initiatives I want to take on and social events I want to attend—I’ve found my path as an entrepreneur and managed to make wonderful connections with professors, faculty, and my fellow classmates along the way.
What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? We launched Pepper as a Kickstarter campaign in April 2017 (about 2 weeks before I got my acceptance letter to Stern!) while my co-founder and I were working full-time jobs. Initially, we had a goal of reaching $10,000 to meet the minimum production requirements in Colombia, where I had forged a partnership with a female-led, socially responsible manufacturing partner. We achieved that goal within the first 10 hours; after 13 days, we had attracted 950 backers and surpassed our goal by 370%! Our online pre-order store sold over $100,000 worth of bras, before we had even finalized our prototype. My co-founder and I invested $5,000 and turned it into a 20X return, and it was all because we took the risk to put our ideas, passions, and stories in front of everyone even though none of it was even close to being perfect.
What was your favorite MBA Course? I’m amused, and more than a bit embarrassed, to think about what a lousy negotiator I was before I took Collaboration, Conflict & Negotiations at Stern. Based on an experiential learning model, the course took us through different simulations to help apply negotiation theory to real-life scenarios. I began to notice that I constantly fell right in the middle of my class in terms of negotiation outcomes. As uncomfortable as it sometimes is, I learned to ALWAYS ask for more than whatever my instinct was telling me made sense. Whether I’m negotiating with investors, vendors, partners, or even friends, I try to apply that learning.
Why did you choose this business school? Besides the cosmopolitanism of New York itself, I knew that Stern’s emphasis on diversity and holistic approach to community would help create an unparalleled setting to grow my startup. Internationalism had formed the basis of my approach to entrepreneurship, an outlook I shared with Stern’s globally minded MBA. Moreover, Stern’s interview process stood out based on how customized the programming was, and how approachable and inclusive the staff and students were.
What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? When I was applying to MBA schools, I was so excited about sharing my achievements as a founder and my passion for entrepreneurship that perhaps I conveyed an overly narrow vision of who I wanted to be in the future. My advice for upcoming entrepreneurs specifically would be to frame your story in a way that gives others confidence in your success no matter what happens to your startup. After all, we hear a lot about hot success stories—Jet.com getting acquired by Walmart, Stitchfix going public, etc.—but the truth is that the vast majority of startup ventures don’t make it. Keeping an open mind in the MBA will lead to a more rewarding experience, regardless.
What is the biggest myth about your school? Stern is known to be a top finance school, and I found this to be absolutely true! Even though finance isn’t my career specialization, I really benefited from top-tier professors in this field, teaching some of the most complex analytical concepts. What I didn’t necessarily expect is that it would make me a better, more well-rounded entrepreneur, as well.
Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Aria Ashrafzadeh. I try to mirror my class schedule to hers because she is such a team player and patient teacher. I learn so much while working with her. She will be joining McKinsey once she graduates, is involved in multiple leadership roles at clubs within Stern, is a great friend, and somehow managed to plan her entire wedding during the chaos of midterms.
Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My passion for entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in my upbringing. Everything I had growing up, everything I’ve achieved as an adult, I owe to my paternal grandfather. An immigrant orphan who couldn’t speak a word of Spanish when he stepped off the boat in Colombia, he risked a great deal to escape the Holocaust and create a better life for himself and his family. It took him decades to work his way to the top of a button factory and—later, as its owner—transform it into a successful business that provided for us and hundreds of other Jewish families.
I believe that most of the best entrepreneurs out there have to be immigrants like my grandfather. When you have nothing and you step into a new country, your instinct for survival forces you to be creative and identify market gaps to find a place for yourself. His story inspires me every day, and I know even in the days when I’m financially challenged, I’ll push through and figure out a way to succeed.
What is your favorite movie about business? Joy. My biggest lesson is that an idea doesn’t have to be super complicated for it to succeed (e.g. all that blockchain silliness). You can draw it on a piece of paper and create it!
What was the goofiest MBA term or acronym you encountered – and what did it mean? Our career services is called OCD
“If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…a full-time employee at a tech company working multiple side hustles and waiting for The Big One.”
What dollar value would you place on your MBA education? Was it worth what you paid for it – worth more or worth less? Short-term, the MBA will always be worth less than you paid for it. But I believe that there is a lot of intangible, long-term value to the MBA that will pay off in unexpected ways later on.
What are the top two items on your bucket list? Eat sushi in Japan and sell my first business.
In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As the only entrepreneur from the class who maybe rarely went out to social events but accomplished unimaginable things with her venture.
Hobbies? I work out every day to stay sane. I’m currently teaching myself how to sew, which has given me a whole new appreciation for the women who make our bras. And I also paint, play pool, and watch Friends reruns on Netflix
What made Lia such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2019?
“I met Lia at a “meet and greet” for incoming NYU Stern students. There, she made a beeline for my table and immediately asked for advice on how an aspiring entrepreneur could best leverage their time at NYU. It was clear from that first encounter how strategic, focused, and committed she was to her studies, to the Stern community, and to her venture, Pepper. It was also clear how special she was.
Over the past two years, I have watched Lia deftly juggle the demands of a rigorous MBA curriculum and a long list of student leadership roles with the daunting challenges of founding a startup. Somehow she has managed to find time for:
- Standing outside Victoria’s Secret to conduct more than 100 interviews to gain a better understanding of her market and customers.
- Making frequent trips to Colombia to oversee the manufacturing process and insure quality control of Pepper garments.
- Traveling on the weekends to Pepper’s Denver warehouse to pack and ship customer orders.
- Securing a spot on the television show MSNBCs Your Business, to pitch Pepper to investors. Based on that appearance, Lia was one of a handful of founders invited to present before 2,000 leading influencers and bloggers at the prestigious SheKnows BlogHer conference.
- Competing as a semi-finalist in the $300K Entrepreneurs Challenge, NYU’s single largest and most competitive entrepreneurship initiative (Pepper was one of 40 selected out of a total pool of 220+ teams). Lia so impressed the judges in her room that when two investors heard them talking about her idea and polished presentation they asked for an introduction to the founder everyone was raving about.
- Closing a pre-seed round at $400K, exceeding their initial goal of $250K. To her credit, Lia has been cautious and selective about from whom she will accept an investment, exhibiting a discipline that is all too rare among founders of fast-growing startups.
- Becoming an outspoken voice in the body positivity movement. As the maker of bras for small-chested women, Pepper doesn’t just sell to its customers, it affirms them.
Lia is not only one of the best and brightest university-based founders, but she’s also one of the toughest and tenacious as well as one of the most enterprising and effervescent.”
W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs