In the midst of the glamour and craziness that was New York Fashion Week last spring, Sauder BCom alumna Cathy Han took to the stage at the Lincoln Center.
But the crowds weren’t cheering her for a new line of clothing. It was her online business that was getting them excited.
Han, who graduated in 2011 was the runner-up in the Decoded Fashion Hackathon, a contest launched to inspire the creative cross-section of fashion and the online environment. Sharing the spotlight with her that night? No less than the fall collection of renowned American designer Marc Jacobs.
“It was phenomenal,” she reminisces of the experience, which catapulted her and her company “42” into the world of fashion.
The inaugural event saw programmers, developers and graphic designers being given the task – and 24 hours – to develop a fashion app to support the global growth of American fashion.
“We saw it as a great opportunity to penetrate a market that was directly relevant to what we were doing,” Han explains over the phone from Toronto where the company recently opened its second office. Their first is in New York.
Thanks to the exposure from Fashion Week, 42 is now working with several well-known American fashion brands, who will debut the use of the software in their stores in the spring of 2014.
“If you go out there and try something big and it doesn't work, the world still goes on. But if it works, the rewards are bigger and you can really have an impact.”
– Sauder BCom alumna Cathy Han
Han launched her start-up in February with fellow Sauder BCom alumnus Lucas Lemanowicz, Sarah Hum of Google and Nick Porter, formerly of Benbria, a mobile customer engagement company. 42 aims to improve traditional retail by customizing the in-store experience.
In a previous job working at Procter & Gamble, where many of her clients were large retailers, Han noticed that the retail market, although growing steadily, was slow in adapting to new technology.
“Look at Netflix, which has personalized TV,” she explains. “There is a trend towards personalization and it makes sense to us, with shopping being such a fundamental experience, to try and personalize that experience, as well.”
Her company’s enterprise software lets retailers interact with consumers after they have left the store. 42 takes data collected at checkout through transactions and transforms it into easy-to-read graphics, which allows retailers to instantly see what products are catching shoppers’ eyes, how their sales are doing and how they can be improved.
From the data, retailers can also develop customer profiles and identify which products are the the best fit for specific consumers. This allows them to email shoppers with tailored “You May Also Like…” recommendations for products that they might have missed on their last trip into the store.
Simply put, “42 brings online intelligence to offline retail,” says Han.
A recent trip to Italy assured her that the company is on the right track. The editor of Vogue Italia, who attended the same conference as Han, emphasized that technology is becoming increasingly important in fashion.
“I was very happy to hear that,” says Han. “It’s great to see that the industry is moving towards high fashion and high tech, which is essentially where we’d like to be.”
Her entrepreneurial path began at Sauder, where she became the president of Enterprize Canada, a student-run organization focused on young entrepreneurs.
“Without Enterprize, I would not have been exposed to the world of entrepreneurship,” Han says.
She was then selected from more than 1,300 undergraduates from across Canada to participate in The Next 36, a national program that aims to launch Canada’s next generation of entrepreneurs.
Han also attributes her entrepreneurial success to Sauder professors such as Daniel Gardiner, Jeff Kroeker and William Tan, who continue to act as her mentors.
Now, however, Han finds herself in the role of mentor for up-and-coming Sauder students.
“I have students calling me, saying, ‘I’m too young and inexperienced.’ I tell them, inexperience is the best thing they’ve got.”
Based on her own experience, she notes that the risks and expectations for those fresh out of the gate are much lower, which can be an advantage.
“If you go out there and try something big and it doesn’t work, the world still goes on. But if it works, the rewards are bigger and you can really make an impact.”
Han’s company is doing just that, next looking to expand into the European market.