2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Zelia, University of Chicago (Booth)


University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

Industry: AI (Fashion Tech)

Founding Student Name(s): Laura Mattos

Brief Description of Solution: Zelia is an AI-powered app that predicts users’ wardrobes, curates event-specific outfits, and provides personalized shopping recommendations. We like to say it is a 24/7 personal stylist that fits in your pocket!

Funding Dollars: $199,000

What led you to launch this venture? I had the idea for the app while packing for my honeymoon. I was visiting two different places: the beach and the desert, but I could only take one suitcase. After five hours of packing, I was intrigued by the complexity of assembling outfits and how changing just one garment could maximize the number of outfit combinations. That’s when I realized that we could use AI to solve this problem.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? In less than 1 year, we scaled our MVP to over 49,000 registered users with less than $8,000 of marketing spend. It has been an amazing journey!

What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced in creating your company and how did you solve it? Most tech companies that incorporate machine learning have the advantage of starting their ventures with well-established models and comprehensive datasets, thanks to the prior work and advancements made in their respective sectors. These resources have been cultivated and refined over years, if not decades, allowing these companies to build upon a solid foundation.

However, the scenario is different in the fashion industry. Despite being a dynamic and expansive sector, fashion is only recently exploring the potential benefits of machine learning in a truly impactful way. This means that many of the established models and datasets that other industries take for granted are not available for fashion-based ML applications.

For us, this presented both a challenge and an opportunity. Without the advantage of leveraging pre-existing resources, we had to start from scratch. This required a deep understanding of our objectives, a hands-on approach to data collection, and the need to design and refine our models iteratively. More than just a technical undertaking, we had the unique task of determining the exact direction and vision we wanted for our data-driven initiatives. This not only gave us full control over the direction and nuances of our project but also a clearer understanding of the intricate relationship between fashion and technology.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? My MBA was pivotal to Zelia’s journey. Everyone talks about Booth’s flexible curriculum in terms of, “I’ll be able to choose which classes I want to take.” For me, it made all the difference to have flexibility not only in WHICH classes I would take, but also in WHICH ORDER I took each class. As someone who was laser-focused on building my company from day 1 of my MBA, this allowed me to take courses that helped me in real-time with the challenges I was facing with Zelia (so, for example, when I was designing our algorithm, I took an AI class; when I was studying fashion supply chain, I took a supply chain class, and so on). The professors were also incredible and always open to helping me, clarifying doubts, giving advice, and sharing experience. Lastly, the Polsky Center, which is Booth’s entrepreneurship center, and the New Venture Challenge (Booth’s startup competition) were also essential in positioning Zelia where we are today!

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Luiza Trajano is one of my role models. She transformed Magazine Luiza from a small retail chain into one of Brazil’s biggest retail giants. But most importantly, she didn’t just stop at business: she’s constantly pushing for women’s rights and social issues in Brazil, showing that real leadership goes beyond the boardroom. Every time I think about her journey, I’m fascinated by her blend of determination and genuine care for community.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Given that Zelia operates in a highly competitive landscape, understanding the dynamics of platform competition is vital to our success. In this context, Platform Competition, taught by Professor Austan Goolsbee, was instrumental in deepening my understanding of the challenges faced by ‘challengers’ in an industry and the typical responses from established incumbents. The most profound insight I got from this course – and I often say to the team that we should print this on a t-shirt – is that technology, by itself, is not a long-term sustainable competitive advantage. This realization prompted me to closely reflect on how we could create moats around our business model that extend beyond just technology and to prioritize their implementation from the outset.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? When I reflect on my time at Booth, Professor Mark Tebbe’s influence is undeniable in my entrepreneurial journey. His course, Entrepreneurial Discovery, was among the first I took at Booth, and it greatly influenced the culture we’ve cultivated at Zelia. Professor Tebbe emphasized the significance of truly understanding the pain points of consumers. He advised against becoming overly fixated on ideas; instead, he championed the approach of building companies around iterative cycles of customer feedback and swift development. Beyond his teachings, Professor Tebbe was always available for strategic discussions about Zelia. He provided invaluable insights and never hesitated to offer direct recommendations about our direction.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? I am very fortunate to have integrated Zelia into two of the biggest startup ecosystems in the US: Chicago and New York City. In these cities, our local connections allowed us to expand our network and meet a myriad of incredible individuals: potential customers who influenced our product design; professionals in leading fashion companies; and investors with a deep understanding of our niche. Leveraging these networks has truly elevated Zelia. Furthermore, the university setting was instrumental in helping us attract top-tier talent, building the amazing team we have today. In essence, being part of these vibrant startup communities has significantly advanced Zelia by linking us with invaluable people, resources, and opportunities that we might not have encountered otherwise.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? My vision for Zelia is to become the worldwide leader in AI-driven fashion innovation. We’re dedicated to empowering individuals to articulate their identity through clothing, maximizing the versatility of their existing wardrobe, and guiding them towards sustainable purchasing choices in the future. As someone who has experienced the problem we’re solving first-hand, it is very exciting to be creating this future for the fashion industry!


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