For two female MBAs from two of the world's top university's for business, fashion was the unlikely medium with which to launch a startup together. The Fold, which designs, produces and retails fashionable clothes for women to wear to work, is the brainchild of London Business School MBAs Polly McMaster and Cheryl Mainland, the latter a former Harvard graduate.
You may have heard of the women's-only business brand before, but three years on, and the clothing startup has grown at an expediential rate. It is no surprise that The Fold is headed from London, the culture capital of England that has just seen the industry's top designers flock to SS14 for London Fashion Week.
But The Fold was created to address a need, rather than a trend. Most women in business will know that, before The Fold's creation in 2011, there was no single-stop-shop to pick up clothing designed for women to wear to work. Polly tells me that she doesn't see one single brand their main competitor; The Fold is unique.
It is perhaps coincidental that these MBAs created a business in London to address a lack of work-friendly women's clothing, when Britain's gender balance in executive positions remains stubbornly low. The proportion of women executive directors is at just 6.1 per cent, and figures show that it would take 195 years for the FTSE 100 to have an equal balance of female and male executives.
But Polly and Cheryl were inspired to create their fashion brand because they know the difficulty women face in dressing for the modern business world. "As a woman, in my previous fields of work, it was very difficult to dress appropriately, as there isn’t the same kind of 'uniform' for women in those roles that men have," Polly explained.
"When I went to business school I thought more about it, and thought it could be a good area, as a lot of other women have struggled with it as well. We thought of a need in an area relevant for working women, and put together a plan at LBS."
Polly's previous career path couldn't have been further from fashion. Before studying an MBA at LBS - number-one in the UK's MBA Rankings - Polly was a consultant at LEK Consulting for two years, followed by a Senior Associate position at Apax Partners, working in private equity. An MBA was initially her tool to further a finance career. "They proactively encouraged me and sponsored me to go to business school," she said.
"They felt you would be more likely to climb the ladder all the way to the top with an MBA. Apax were extremely supportive of it and most senior people had MBAs."
Polly's academic background was even further afield; she has a PhD in Virology, Philosophy, from the University of Cambridge. Co-founder Cheryl studied East Asian studies at Harvard and while both are not lacking in academic excellence, their meeting in London, coming from non-analytical study backgrounds, is surprising.
Polly picked the MBA program at LBS because of its study flexibility. Although a Cambridge PhD, business was always on the agenda. "I very much enjoyed my time during the PhD but consulting was the perfect way to keep my hand in the scientific world but learn more about business," she said.
"I got a flavour for business and I enjoyed the strategic questions. The industry you end up in isn’t as important of loving the concept of building something up, and dealing with challenges that are thrown at you."
Polly was torn between studying at a top business school in the US and staying in Europe. "What swayed my decision in the end was that I wanted a career in Europe," she said. "I didn’t want to uproot my whole life and move across the Atlantic.
"The LBS course was flexible, I could finish it in eighteen months, twenty-one months or two years, and I liked the idea of having a summer in-between to try something new or get different experience."
Many entrepreneurs ponder whether an MBA is truly necessary for creating your own successful startup. But Polly would never have met her business partner had she not studied at LBS, and thinks that b-school gave her the mental space needed to let the creative juices flow. "I would say an MBA was definitely necessary: LBS has a lot of entrepreneurship programs so we used a lot of those options and classes to really test lots of different startup ideas," she said.
"What the MBA did was give us the mental space to think creatively and come up with the idea, and also test it in more formalised business way. You also meet lots of people with different backgrounds and the faculty have industry knowledge and experience. We were able to bounce ideas off each other.
"It also gave us the time to develop the idea, so I think it was fundamental. We gave ourselves the best chance of success by starting in that environment."
Since the company's launch in 2011, The Fold has seen a "200-300 per cent" growth year-on-year. Since an initial test-launch during their MBA at LBS, where Polly and Cheryl tried out real products on customers, The Fold has become ever popular among women in the working world.
Their goal is to become a global brand, and the MBA pair hope to take the concept to international markets. "My business partner moved to the US and we want to grow it internationally at some point," Polly said. "We've had fantastic growth and raised angel financing, and have seen the business grow year on year. From a business perspective I think this is a great international opportunity, and hopefully we grow to be recognised."
The Fold seeks to be the go-to brand for women's business clothing, and the founders' want to inspire their community of inspirational working women. Thanks to an MBA from London Business School, Polly and Cheryl have the best chance of making that happen. After b-school, they have a platform to leap-frog onto the international stage with a truly unique business idea.
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