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ABC-TV's "Desperate Housewives" and MIT Sloan may not appear to have much in common. But that changed late last year, when one of the characters on the show sported a "doorbell-friendly" robe designed by an entrepreneurial M.B.A. from MIT's Sloan School of Management.
"Doorbell-friendly" is a term coined by Juli Lee (M.B.A. 1995), founder and chief designer of Julianna Rae, a women's intimate apparel design and retail company. Julianna Rae has grown more than 300 percent in Internet sales alone since Lee launched it in 2004.
Lee attributes her success to both having identified an untapped market segment in intimate apparel--women ages 30 through 60--and to having honed her business skills through the MIT Sloan program and business experience.
While her career trajectory is remarkable, Lee's leading role in the style industry is not unique. In fact, her success reflects a growing trend--M.B.A.s and fashion industry executives are collaborating more as supply chain management grows as important as cutting-edge designs in the global fashion market.
And MIT Sloan itself has taken on the world of style. In 2004, a group of M.B.A. students founded the Retail and Consumer Goods Club to explore different facets of the industry. The club boasts a total of 60 students and such high-profile guest speakers as AndrÃ© Leon Talley, editor-at-large of Vogue magazine.
"I am surprised by the enthusiastic response we've received," says Moria Flynn, MIT Sloan M.B.A. 2007, who serves as co-president. "While the concept of hiring M.B.A.s is still fairly new, I believe that as the industry becomes more competitive, large retailers like Coach, Limited and Aeropostale are starting to appreciate us more.Â As a result, they are offering more attractive packages to recent M.B.A. graduates."
Lee's road to creating her own fashion line was much less straightforward. In 1989, she earned her undergraduate degree at MIT in computer science and electrical engineering, after which she worked in merchandizing and account management for a private label company whose sole client was Victoria's Secret. Frustrated with the lack of upward mobility, Lee returned to MIT to earn her M.B.A. at Sloan with a focus on strategy and operations.
Lee's M.B.A. led to retail and consumer goods account management, web site content development, data storage and business roles in technology startups. She then moved to clothier Robert Scott David Brooks to lead its private label division. "The fashion industry was still essentially a traditional, old-fashioned business where people worked their way through the ranks," says Lee. "In 1999 my manager asked me why I needed a computer."
Partnering with two business school colleagues, Lee next funneled all her M.B.A. and career experience into funding, building and marketing Julianna Rae. "A business school education definitely led to my creating a more efficient product development cycle," she says.
In a unique twist, she has used the knowledge of algorithms she gained at MIT to better calculate how women's bodies change through the years. Her intimate apparel is designed accordingly, eschewing the fashion industry's "next size up" mentality and instead grading sizes by proportions.
Lee's approach has paid off. Her garments have recently appeared in gift baskets at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, and one of her robes hung visibly in Donald Trump's penthouse in "The Apprentice". She recently signed a deal with The Cloisters Spa in Sea Island, Georgia, to create a signature line and has other deals in the works.