Corie Hardee of Little Borrowed Dress

Like many women, as we grow older, we’re drawn to the idea of investing a bit more in our clothing. Gone are the days of entering the mall and heading straight to Forever 21 to see just how many items we can buy for x amount of money. And as we look at the investment pieces in our closets, one of them sticks out like a sore thumb. The bridesmaid dress (cue scene from 27 Dresses). The bridesmaid dress on which you were politely forced to spend hundreds of dollars. The bridesmaid dress you hold on to because you’re hoping to get just one more wear out of it, creating a little more justification for the cost. Yet there it hangs in your closet, mocking you months and years later. This is exactly what Corie Hardee was thinking when she dreamed up the idea for Little Borrowed Dress.

From a background in finance to her current position as Founder and CEO of Little Borrowed Dress, a company that rents bridesmaid dresses, (genius idea if you ask us), Corie Hardee certainly did not take the road most traveled to get to where she is today. And over the years she has learned a great deal from her atypical career trajectory. Since founding Little Borrowed Dress in 2010, the company has grown tremendously, thanks in large part to Corie’s persistence and belief that her company is one the wedding industry truly needs. As Corie puts it, “What has kept me going is knowing that this business deserves to exist. I really believe that in five years renting bridesmaid dresses will be the norm.”

We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to share Corie’s story with you today. Read on to hear about her anything but ordinary career path, and details on how she got to where she is today.

Full Name: Corie Hardee
Age: 34
Current Title/Company: Founder / CEO of Little Borrowed Dress
Educational Background: Bachelor of Science at University of Arizona (accounting & finance), MBA from London Business School

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it? 
My first job out of college was an analyst role at Deloitte, a position I landed through sheer grit and a little bit of luck. My dream was to move to NYC (I think I watched too much S&TC in college) and work in finance. Graduating in 2003 was not the best time to land a job in that already competitive field and graduating from University of Arizona put me geographically at a disadvantage. But I was determined – so I emailed the dean of the business program and asked for a meeting. I told him what I wanted to do and left his office with an impressive list of “friends of the university” who might help. I then emailed everyone on the list and asked for a meeting.

With one meeting firmly scheduled I booked a ticket to New York and gave myself three weeks to find a job. That one meeting led to others and eventually I ended up in the office of one of the partners at Deloitte. He suggested that I try consulting with an industry focus on financial services – that would give me the experience I needed to later shift into finance. He got me an interview and while they had technically already finished hiring the previous fall, the manager I interviewed with was from my hometown and we hit it off. I got an offer! It was a great place to start my career and NYC has been everything I dreamed it would be. 🙂

After working at Deloitte for three years, you decided to attend business school in London. How did you come to the decision to return to school? Was London a place you had always wanted to live?
I decided to go back to business school to switch careers into investment banking. When I was looking into schools, I came across London Business School. I hadn’t really thought of studying outside of the US, but the more I looked into the program the more it seemed like a great place to go. It had a much smaller class size which came from all over the world and a large focus on real world application. As I had studied business in undergrad, I knew most of my learning was not going to happen in the classroom. Living abroad gave me a whole new perspective.

Throughout your time in business school you held several jobs, including a Summer Associate position with GE Commercial Finance and a job as an Independent Consultant for Zain. While at Zain, you worked to develop a marketing strategy for a leading mobile telecommunications company that wanted to launch into the Ghanaian market. This involved two weeks of field research in Ghana. What lessons did you learn form working in these two positions?
Well the summer associate position taught me that I didn’t want to work in finance after all! While I really liked building financial models and learned so many new excel tricks, I missed the problem solving and collaborative working style of consulting.

The project in Ghana was a pivotal learning experience for me. It completely took me out of my comfort zone. I remember looking out the window on the plane there being terrified as I really had no idea what I was doing – on so many levels. I knew the theory behind the project we had been hired to do from class, but this would be the first time I put that knowledge into practice. We also hadn’t been able to do a lot of prep work before we left as there was very little market information available. We had a general plan laid out but I knew we would mostly be flying by the seat of our pants. Finally, I arrived two days before my project partner, so I was literally on my own. I had no idea what I would do if the driver who was supposed to meet me at the airport didn’t show up. Luckily he did.

We figured things out by trial and error and by quickly adapting our plans as things changed. For example we had put together a survey that we wanted everyone to fill out before our focus groups and we thought it would take about five minutes to fill out. It ended up taking the first group about fifty minutes to fill it out as English wasn’t many of their first language. That survey went out the window after the first group and we just incorporated the questions into the discussion. There were many other instances like that but what I learned overall through the experience is that you have to be ready to change plans quickly and then figure out your next move.

I’ve found that is the main skill that you need as an entrepreneur — to be able to work with uncertainty and learn quickly to adapt to an ever changing environment. I actually think that one of the best things I’ve done to prepare me for what I’m doing now is travelling and living abroad. When you land in a country where you know no one and don’t speak the language you just have to figure things out. Doing that a few times was the best preparation I could do to start my own business.

After graduating with an MBA from the London Business School, you returned to Deloitte, this time working in the London offices. Tell us about your job responsibilities there. How did your position differ from the role you held before going back to school?
My position before business school was operational consulting and after I did strategy consulting. The best distinction I’ve heard between strategy and operations is that strategy you decide what to do, while operations you figure out how to do it. When I was working in strategy my projects ranged from helping a global bank launch a prime brokerage business to helping two banks integrate their business after a merger. When I worked in operations we would go into our client’s offices, learn how they ran their business and then make recommendations on how they could do things better, faster and/or more efficiently. Both of these roles were extremely helpful for what I’m doing now.

While at Deloitte and living in London, you came up with the idea for Little Borrowed Dress. What was the inspiration behind this business concept?
The idea for my company came to me while standing in front of my closet wondering why the four most expensive dresses I own had each been worn only once. Not at all surprising, these dresses were all bridesmaid dresses. This got me thinking – why couldn’t I have rented these dresses? The more I thought about it, the more I wondered — why is outfitting your closest friends for the biggest party of your life not the most fun part of wedding planning?

In order to make Little Borrowed Dress a success, you had to first prove the concept was viable, and then find investors to back the business. Take us through this process; what steps did you take to prove your concept and find a team of great investors?
After I came up with the idea, I took a six week vacation from my job to prove to myself it was viable. As I was going to invest not only my own savings, but also the opportunity cost of not working somewhere else – I evaluated this business opportunity like any investor would.

I knew from my own experience and all my friends that women never wore their bridesmaid dresses again, but I also knew that the bride is the one who ultimately has final say over the dress. I spent a lot of time early on interviewing women who were in the middle of planning their wedding. I wanted to understand exactly what their motivations were when selecting a dress and the pain points they had with current options. The other main thing I wanted to prove to myself was that renting bridesmaid dresses was an economically viable business model. At that point I had no way of knowing exactly what the costs would be, but I made some assumptions to get me started. Building out the financial model of a company I have always found to be a very valuable exercise as you are able to get a better idea of the drivers of your business (e.g. the two or three things that really drive the profitability of your business). Knowing these you are then able to focus on getting a lot more information about them to reduce your risk. When starting a business there are so many different things that you can focus on that I’ve found it very valuable to come up with some framework to prioritize.

Once I convinced myself that indeed customers wanted to be able to rent bridesmaid dresses and that from a financial perspective this business could work – I set about building it. I learned the design and production process to create our first dress collection. Then I launched our website and set about getting an initial group of customers.

With a few weddings under my belt I approached investors to raise the money needed to grow the business. At that time I had no connections in the NYC tech community, but I had read a blog post about a woman named Joanne Wilson, an angel investor with experience both in the garment industry and in the tech startup space. I tracked down her email and pitched her my business. We met for coffee a few weeks later and since then she had been an amazing mentor to me and investor in Little Borrowed Dress. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to line up a great team of investors who really believe in what we’re doing.

What are your job responsibilities as Founder and CEO of Little Borrowed Dress?  How has Little Borrowed Dress grown since it was founded in 2010?
The CEO role should really be called the Chief Everything Officer as I get to do a little bit of everything! This involves everything from designing the collection to marketing to operations. Now that the business is off the ground my role has shifted to hiring and recruiting the best team possible and then making sure they have everything they need to do their job.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is when I stop to catch my breath, look around, and realize how much we’ve accomplished. That and also when customers send thank you notes back with their dresses or email us their wedding photos. I’m always so blown away by how creative and beautiful their weddings are.

Tell us about your past entry level/internship experiences that helped get you to where you are now. What role do you think your internships have played in the career you have today?
I think my first “internship” was when I was twelve! I opened a gardening business and managed the landscaping at a small commercial building. Because it was a business account I had to figure out how to create an invoice and manage billing too. That was a very lucrative summer – it certainly paid more than babysitting!

Since then I have done a lot of internships and projects that have prepared me for starting my own business. You really only learn how to launch a company by actually doing it, but I think any experience that really takes you out of your comfort zone makes you grow.

What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how were you able to overcome them?
The biggest challenge I faced was last summer when we had a big issue with our production. We were doubling the number of dresses we were manufacturing every month and in late June we reached a point where we had literally bought all the fabric our supplier had in stock of our colors. The normal four day dying process ended up taking over two weeks, which meant that our factory received the fabric the day that we were supposed to pick up over 200 dresses. I remember sitting in my office thinking there was no way we would be able to get these dresses made in time. That obviously was not an option so I went to work. I mapped out all our orders by geography and then re-prioritized our manufacturing schedule based on how far each dress needed to ship. I explained the situation to our factory and he agreed to keep their shop open overtime to help us. I then enlisted a few friends and family members to help pack boxes so that we could get the orders out as quick as humanly possible. That experience really taught me the value of building very strong and solid relationships with your suppliers and to always leave a few days of buffer for when unexpected things happen!

What advice can you give Everygirls looking to start their own businesses?
Look for a problem to solve that you really believe in. Starting a business is really hard work and requires a tremendous amount of persistence. I read somewhere that the key to successfully starting a business is just not giving up and from my experience, I couldn’t agree more with this statement. What has kept me going is knowing that this business deserves to exist. I really believe that in five years renting bridesmaid dresses will be the norm. Over 80% of bridesmaid dresses are never worn again – this is terrible for the environment and just a waste of money. It just makes sense to rent!

What is a typical work day like for you?
I usually wake up around 7 and check emails quickly before hopping in the shower. About once or twice a week I’ll have a breakfast meeting to either catch up with friends in the wedding industry or friends who are also founding companies. It is always great to bounce ideas off each other and I’ve found that breakfasts are the way to go. Trying to schedule anything post-work tends to be difficult as we are all at early stage companies where schedules can change at a moments notice.

I get into the office around 9:30 and catch up with the team to discuss priorities for the day and/or any potential issues. After that every day is really different! In the morning I could be at our factory ensuring our production is on track, by lunch knee-deep in excel putting together forecasts and end the day meeting with our pattern maker to discuss new dress styles to add to our collection. That is the best part of my job – every day is completely different!

I try to leave the office by 7 or 7:30. Three or four nights a week I will have something to do post-work – either a networking event or meeting a friend for dinner/drink. The nights I’m home I try to decompress by going for a run or cooking a nice dinner. Unless it is Thursday – that night is reserved for watching Scandal!

Best moment of your career so far?
There have been so many amazing moments, but I think the best was the first time one of our customers emailed us her wedding photos. There was one photo of the bride with all her bridesmaids where they all looked so happy and absolutely beautiful. It was so humbling to know that we are a small part in such an important moment in our customer’s lives.

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
To take more risks and stop being afraid of breaking the rules. I’d also tell myself to learn to code and to negotiate my salary!

Corie Hardee is The Everygirl…

Morning or night?
Morning!

Best advice you’ve ever received?
What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

Perfect Sunday?
A lazy brunch followed by renting bikes and riding along the Hudson River.

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Kristen Wiig from Bridesmaids! She seems like a beer and burgers type of gal.

Aidan or Big?
Big!  

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