When 2013 Wharton MBA graduates Dorie Golkin and Emelyn Northway met for the first time at Penn, they were wearing the same black dress.
This coincidence planted the seed for their fashion startup, Of Mercer, which seeks to change the status quo of female business attire by selling appropriate and fashionable workwear. Currently, the New York-based company apparel is available online and through trunk shows.
“We came to this idea because it was a personal problem that Dorie and I faced in our finance and consulting firm before Wharton,” Emelyn said. “We had a hard time finding clothes that were both stylish and appropriate and cost us less than a fortune.”
The two took their previous problems into consideration when designing their line.
“We make sure that the necklines [aren’t] too low, or pieces are too tight or show too much skin,” Dorie said.
They spent their first year at Wharton on research and development, creating focus groups made up of Penn students. The following summer, they launched their “beta line” — five sample pieces to test the water.
“There’s definitely a learning curve of getting involved in an industry that neither of us has been in previously,” Dorie said.
The first year was also about intensive networking, such as getting involved in the Wharton Venture Initiative, an educational incubator for student businesses. That year, they found their designer, Aja Singer, a graduate from Parsons the New School for Design.
Emelyn thinks that the changing environment at Wharton, which encourages more entrepreneurship, helped her choose to switch to the startup path.
“I think it’s really important to have people around you … also going that route makes life easier and a lot less scary. You are not the only one in your class deciding to go on your own,” she added.
Other Penn fashion startups include businesses like Warby Parker Eyewear, founded by 2010 Wharton MBA graduates Neil Blumenthal, David Gilboa, Andrew Hunt and Jeffrey Raider.
Dorie did not think that switching to the fashion business was a risky move after carrying out the initial market research.
“Everyone we’ve talked to understood why we are doing what we are doing, that this is a business that needs to be created — and professional women like ourselves are the best people to do it.”
Emelyn added that the biggest change from a traditional office job to a startup career is the need to multitask. “It’s so different from a corporate job where you have a function, and that’s it,” she said. “There’s no marketing or operating team. It’s just us.”
Dorie said that they even had to learn to code on the website, in order to change design and add content. “It’s easier, cheaper and faster for us to go there and do it,” she said.
To create buzz for the startup, the co-founders chose to go for the old-school way of marketing — delivering postcards with a lookbook to about 50 New York publishers in person.
“Given that these editors have inboxes that are massively full, it’s very easy to get lost in their sights,” Dorie said.
Neither one of the co-founders had prior experience in the fashion industry. Dorie studied civil engineering at Princeton University, graduated in 2008 and worked for Deloitte in strategy consulting before coming to Wharton. Emelyn graduated from Cornell University in 2007 with a degree in economics and psychology. She worked at Merrill Lynch and Liberty Partners and said that her banking experience has helped her embark on the startup. However, Emelyn added that her path is not necessarily the only one for starting a business.
“Some people might feel comfortable to skip that formal experience and go straight in,” she said. “It’s just different personal tolerance levels.”
Both agreed that seizing an opportunity and good timing is crucial for launching a startup.
“If you are in the middle of your banking job, and you come over an idea that you think will have an impact on a large population, that’s when you think about doing it,” Dorie added. “If not, just keep on learning and working.”