University of Virginia, Darden School of Business
Industry: Sustainability, Fashion, Retail
Founding Student Name(s): Elizabeth Blankenship
Brief Description of Solution: By Eilly is ending textile waste in luxury fashion through custom-made, zero waste clothing. We save the leftover fabrics from leading luxury brands, diverting them from landfills and the incinerator, and turn them into new clothing and accessories produced on-demand in New York City.
Funding Dollars: $95k, all non-dilutive, and primarily won through UVA pitch competitions.
We won $25k from UVA’s Entrepreneurship Cup, received $10k funding from UVA’s Batten Institute i-Lab incubator, received $25k as the Kathryne Carr Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence recipient 2022 (a non-dilutive grant given to one venture each year in memory of Batten’s former head of i.Lab), and I received a $20k scholarship from UVA Darden as the 2021-2022 Lee R. Johnston Entrepreneurial Scholar.
I also put in $10k of personal funds, and my sister-in-law and brother gave me $5k.
What led you to launch this venture? I was working in a dye house in Downtown Los Angeles, developing a denim line for my last company, when a technician came running towards me, hands waving in the air. He was frantically trying to tell me something while simultaneously pushing me outside. Through our significant language barrier, he was able to communicate that the chemicals being used to dye our batch of denim skirts were so toxic when breathed in that I, as a woman, would risk becoming infertile. There we were, less than a mile from the dried up Los Angeles river, working with such toxic chemicals that one couldn’t go inside without a full hazmat suit. No garment in the world is worth that harm to both people and planet.
It was a wake-up call that shepherded me to reassess both my personal and professional footprint on the world. I sat down one night and googled “fashion industry carbon footprint” because even though I had two fashion degrees and six years of hands-on experience, I had no idea just how wasteful the fashion industry could be. As I dug in deeper to the research, I read a fact so shocking as to be unbelievable: the equivalent of one garbage truck full of fabric is landfilled or burned every single second. Every single second! Once I read that, there was no turning back.
What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with the venture? We just surpassed 180 yards of fabric saved from landfills this year which, by our best calculations, stopped ~4,203 pounds of carbon from entering the atmosphere. Those tangible environmental metrics are what excites me and keeps me going, way more so than any MRR or ARR figures.
How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? I already knew fashion – I was immersed in the luxury fashion industry for 7 years already – but I didn’t quite know how fashion fit into the rest of the world. I was singularly focused from the age of 16 on being a luxury fashion designer. That also means that because I studied design at The Fashion Institute of Technology and then Central Saint Martins that I hadn’t study all the “typical” subjects like math, economics, science, etc. since high school! I decided to pursue my MBA to gain those quant and analytical skills, both hard and soft, but I came away with so, so much more than that. Darden allowed me to take a step back, truly understand how the world and the markets work, and then understand my place in that world. I wanted to change the world, and Darden gave me the toolkit to get started.
What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? I heard Muhammad Yunus speak at my brother’s Vanderbilt graduation one year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which offered micro-loans on easy terms to the poorest people in Bangladesh, something no other bank would do. I was 16 at the time, and right there in front of my eyes was someone who changed the world. It has been almost 15 years now, but I can still easily recall Mr. Yunus speaking of the idea for Grameen Bank growing out of a need he witnessed his friends and neighbors have, and a desire to give these people back the dignity that every person deserves. He saw a problem in the world and figured out how to fix it, improving lives in the process. That is something that has never left me, and inspires me to this day.
Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? There is a class at Darden called Venture Velocity, which is application only and only offered in the second year. However, the professor, Damon DeVito, found me within a month of getting into Darden, and jump started my education before I even started classes. In our first meeting, he challenged me to do the hardest thing first: call up the luxury brands and ask them to give me their fabrics. He does this often for two reasons: he wanted to weed out the ‘wannabes’ from the real deal entrepreneurs, and to get people to find out at the beginning whether their idea will work. If the brands said no, my venture idea was toast and I would need another one. If they said yes, then the hardest part was behind me.
Damon is a mentor in Techstars, angel investor, and the most frustrating combination of encouraging and challenging I’ve ever met. He can read through your words to understand your heart and motivation. He created Venture Velocity to be a semester long version of Techstars Mentor Madness Day, and in the process cultivated an environment that fostered both fun and real venture acceleration. The other students in Venture Velocity became my closest friends and confidants, and the fact that three of us went on to work full-time on our ventures says it all. It’s hard to turn down a consultant or IB salary, but Damon got us each to a position that made the decision easier.
How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? The UVA startup community is truly my family – always there, a bit annoying sometimes, but consistently encouraging. The amount of support I’ve gotten, both emotional and monetary, cannot be matched elsewhere. I chose Darden because of the blossoming entrepreneurial ecosystem and focus on supporting female founders, and I am so thankful that I did. In the first month of school, a few other women and I founded the KPI club, a female founder accountability group. We met bi-weekly for our entire two years in school, and shed competitiveness to choose support instead. I recently returned to Darden grounds alongside a fellow founding KPI member to relaunch the group. Eleven new women have joined already: 9 first years and 2 second years. UVA is a blossoming home to entrepreneurs, and Darden is unwavering in their support of female founders. It’s the most encouraging family to be a part of.
What is your long-term goal with your startup? End all fashion trash – yes, I’m serious. Once we can solve pre-consumer textile waste, through circular and then regenerative processes, we will turn to post-consumer and post-production waste.
DON’T MISS: MEET ALL OUR MBA DISRUPTORS OF 2022 or WANTED: STUDENT START-UP IDEAS TO COMPETE FOR A $50K CASH PRIZE IN OLIN BUSINESS SCHOOL’S BIG IDEABOUNCE® ELEVATOR PITCH CONTEST
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.