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2021 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: SXD, Harvard Business School


Harvard Business School

Industry: design-tech

Founding Student Name(s): Shelly Xu

Brief Description of Solution: SXD combines trade secret design method and computer graphics to turn leftover fabrics into zero waste clothing. These minimal zero waste designs consume less raw material, costs about 55% less to produce, and looks better. Recently, SXD was featured in Harper’s Bazaar Japan as a company Redefining the Fashion Ecosystem. It also became the first fashion design oriented startup to win numerous prizes, including the Grand Prize at the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition.

Funding Dollars: ~$250K in grants and prizes

What led you to launch this venture? My own personal experiences. First, the playground that I grew up playing in in Asia is now a dumpster for textile waste. It’s my duty to change that.

I also remember attending this sustainability conference at school. A lot of the speakers were pointing out the young undergraduates in the audience as “the generation that will save us.” But then one of these undergraduate students stood up and asked, “What about those of you who are older? You have the resources and the experiences do make a real difference. So why don’t you do something?” As an older sister of a teenager, that really stuck with me. I feel that graduate students like us are privileged to have more experiences and connections to solve some of the biggest problems on our planet. I realized that I didn’t want to wait for the younger generation to carry that burden alone.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? We recently signed our first contract with an international luxury apparel brand. The collaboration’s zero waste product is launching later this year. The product design is unprecedented in its efficiency in taking out waste and significantly decreasing raw material use, all while looking great with a spacious silhouette. This is exciting because SXD can never change the multi-trillion-dollar industry alone. Collaborations like this allow us to multiply our impact.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? SXD would have never worked without the support that I got from my MBA program. As someone who come from a more creative background, I knew nothing about legal and fundraising. Through the MBA program, I’ve not only learned enough to be dangerous (or at least to be careful) but I’ve also built a community of supporters who can help me when I’m stuck. During my first year, we were all required to take Finance and Accounting, which helped me think through how I would structure SXD’s business. During my second year, I took this class called Law, Management and Entrepreneurship that even had a day on protecting IP in fashion! It was super relevant. I got trademarks for SXD right after that class.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Ole Kirk Christiansen, the founder of the LEGO Group. He created an innovative platform for people to play, despite all the hardships that he went through—Great Depression, bankruptcy, WWII, and factory fire. I also love what LEGO stands for today, which is a modular way for anyone to build incredible things. I am inspired by entrepreneurs who enable others to be geniuses. Similarly, I want SXD to enable designers to have fun while building better, more sustainable products.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Negotiation. I’ve never really had to do negotiations before starting SXD, so the negotiation class gave me much needed training for whenever I talk to potential collaborators and investors today. One of the biggest lessons was that differences can be opportunities for negotiation. “Trade on differences.” Because of this lesson, instead of disagreeing on a number, I try to seek win-win opportunities by identifying differences in our preferences and priorities.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? This is so hard because there are so many. During my second year, I got to do an Independent Project with Professor Geoff Jones. He advised me through SXD’s first manufacturing run turning leftover fabrics in Bangladesh into zero waste jackets while working with local climate refugees. Professor Anita Elberse helped me think through how SXD can better collaborate with artists and creatives. Professor Randy Cohen and Matt Sutton helped me think through my team and fundraising plans throughout my startup journey.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? SXD is now developing a software application to scale the zero waste design method across the industry, turning designers’ fashion illustrations into zero waste products. Apparel is a multi-trillion dollar, highly fragmented industry in which even the biggest players like Zara or Nike only have 1-2% market share. To shift the industry, we need to build an application that others can easily plug into.