This Entrepreneur Is Challenging Us to Rethink What's In Our Closets. Here's What She's Learned Along the Way.

Here are the three lessons Karla Gallardo, founder and CEO of Cuyana, shares on building a company that is challenging customers to build a smarter wardrobe.

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By Mita Mallick


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When I was growing up, back-to-school shopping was a big moment in our household. Once a year, my parents, younger brother and I would travel 30 minutes to a discount children's clothing store. There we would purchase all the clothes we needed for the year — and one special outfit for the first day of school. We were expected to take care of those clothes, and we'd sometimes receive hand-me-downs from the friends in our community as well. We bought only the things we needed.

"Growing up in Ecuador, my parents taught us to be intentional about everything we purchased. We fixed and mended items, and we kept things for years," shares Karla Gallardo, co-founder and CEO of Cuyana. "In our home, we were raised to believe that you don't just buy things, you invest in things, and the fewer things, the better."

Today, it is estimated that Americans buy a piece of clothing every five days. For years, the fashion industry has thrived on the fast fashion model. We no longer have to wait for trends to take a year to come from the runway to mainstream; we can have access to them in weeks. And because we don't always pay a lot for them, we treat our clothing as disposable. For every five garments that are created, three are disposed of, many of these items piling up in landfills across the world.

When Gallardo co-founded Cuyana with Shilpa Shah, their shared goal was to change that. The foundation of the company is rooted in what was instilled in Gallardo in childhood: fewer and better things.

"The problem with trends is that they go away really quickly, and we are constantly offered so many products," Gallardo says. "We end up feeling like we need them or that they are a good deal so we buy them. And then we accumulate all these things in our closet that don't mean much to us, and we wonder why we had them in the first place."

Gallardo is determined to change all of our mindsets, creating beautiful items that are appropriate for every season and throughout the year, with a focus on quality and not quantity. Here are the three lessons Gallardo has learned while building a company that is challenging each of us to consider what's in our closets.

Related: How This Entrepreneur Bootstrapped Her Business, Landed on the Shelves of Target and Ulta and Disrupted the Sunscreen Category

1. Be generous with feedback

"I loved my training at Goldman Sachs," Gallardo shares. "We were always solving super hard problems. It was the ultimate boot camp that helped prepare me for life as a founder."

As an 18-year-old immigrant college student moving to the U.S. from Ecuador, landing as an analyst at Goldman Sachs was "the dream job," Gallardo says. It was incredibly tough on top of having grueling long hours, but the experience strengthened her work ethic and her drive to always strive for great work.

"As an analyst, you don't get a lot of recognition. I always wondered, am I doing a good job or not? How can I be better? I hardly got any feedback," says Gallardo. As she continues to build Cuyana, she's now generous with feedback to get the best out of her team. "I want our teams not to work hard, but to work smart."

Along with balancing the feedback she gives, Gallardo is building a culture at Cuyana where all employees value kindness and innovation.

2. Remember that details matter

"When you have a shared philosophy of fewer, better, the details of course matter," Gallardo says. "Each piece is made with love, created by hand by skilled craftswomen and men. We share all of the details on our factories, our materials and our sustainability pledge with our community."

Even the details of what to name the company to represent the vision mattered: Cuyana means "to love" in Quechua, the language of the indigenous peoples in the central Andes. One of Gallardo's fondest memories growing up was of the pair of English loafers her dad owned. He would travel to Europe for work wearing them and had them for 10, 15, 20 years, changing the soles every so often. "Those shoes represent what we are building with the name Cuyana — to love and care for the items we use, and to cherish them."

Related: How this Founder and 'Shark Tank' Veteran is Fighting to Create a More Inclusive Coffee Category

3. Find and pitch to your customer

"From the time I left Ecuador, I always felt the responsibility to do something big and make a dent in this world," Gallardo says. "I had the desire to create something and start a business. I thought about Cuyana for four years before starting the founder's journey."

Cuyana was bootstrapped from the very beginning. Gallardo wanted to create MVP (a minimum viable product) and then test and iterate on the concept. She ensured she had a deep understanding of Cuyana's customers, repeat rates, and how the company was testing and expanding its supply chain before fundraising. She knew that the business model would be scrutinized because Cuyana held onto inventory and Gallardo had a vision for building a lifestyle brand.

"When we spoke to male investors, the feedback would often be: 'It sounds like an interesting concept. Let me talk to my wife and ask her how she shops, and I'll get back to you,'" Gallardo recalls. She remembers at times pitching to men who would be on their phones, paying zero attention, not understanding the vision of what they were building.

When they started pitching to women, it was clear that women investors understood Cuyana. "They dug into the numbers that mattered," Gallardo says. "When we pivoted and started pitching to investors who were our customers, we found more and more allies who believed in our vision."

Gallardo is excited to watch the landscape shift and to see more women-owned businesses backed by more women investors. "I'm excited to see more women betting on each other."

Related: This Entrepreneur Made a Splash in the $16 Billion Swimwear Market By Listening to Her Customers

Mita Mallick

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Head of Inclusion, Equity and Impact

Mita Mallick is a corporate change-maker with a track record of transforming businesses. She gives innovative ideas a voice and serves customers and communities with purpose. She is currently the head of inclusion, equity and impact at Carta and is a top LinkedIn voice of 2020.

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