Mitali Rakhit is the CEO and Founder of the Globelist, a fashion technology company that provides distribution and marketing services to reach consumers around the world. Currently focused on bringing women’s plus size clothing to the Gulf Cooperation Council markets, Globelist plans to expand to Southeast Asia next. Mitali has incorporated a culture of active philanthropy into Globelist’s mission, outreach, and partnerships, and is also a strong advocate for women’s development and education through her second company, The Brown Girl Boss. Below, she discusses her interests and strategies in founding this startup, as well as her hopes for the future of Globelist:
How did your background lead you to become the founder of a fashion technology company?
My background is in healthcare and comprises the vast majority of my experience. My extended family had a business in textiles in India so I was exposed to that part of the fashion industry from a young age, but I wouldn’t say that it was a pervasive force throughout my life aside from the fact that I was always interested in it. My story is kind of interesting because I decided to start my company after being rejected from a consulting firm that I really wanted. It was winter in New Haven and there was nothing to do. I was kind of stuck at home and getting depressed so I asked myself: how could I channel this energy into something positive? I really like fashion, I needed to go to a wedding in India in a few weeks, I had nothing to wear, and all the e-commerce websites that I went to for ethnic wear didn’t have any delivery times less than 4 to 6 weeks, which I thought was ridiculous.
This was my original idea–to get e-commerce for South Asian ethnic wear. So I went down that road and ended up going to this networking event in New York. There was this mean-spirited guy I met there who assaulted my appearance and motives. He basically said something along the lines of, “Look around you: how many people in this room would be customers for your product the way that it stands right now?” I was so taken aback and flustered at the time. I was then thinking on the train back to New Haven that there were constructive points to what he said. My markets would be really small; maybe there was something bigger I could do.
I changed my strategy to focus on emerging markets, as opposed to just ethnic wear and just South Asia. This opened many doors for me, as it was much easier to get things moving. As I started building out this product, my cofounder quit, so there were some immediate obstacles. In May, I went to Singapore for a trade show and tried to recruit designers to sell on my platform but kept getting the same answer: that they were interested but it would be difficult. I finally passed by an Indonesian swimwear brand with black forest cake on the table–and I love cake. I started talking to these people and they were excited that I was from New York. They started chatting with me as I shoved cake in mouth. Eventually, I ended up telling them about what I’m doing and they replied, “What you’ve been doing is cool; however, if you built this other service, it is something that everybody needs and we can guarantee you its success.” I listened to them and to their rationale. For the next day, I went around asking everybody about this new idea and the response was overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming. I had to sit and think about what we were going to do: were we going to pivot the company and throw out the three thousand dollars that we had put into the original idea? At that point, I had just found a new cofounder who was going to be the new CTO, so I had to run it by him. Long story short, we switched the entire model and trashed the old product. We are now conducting successful transactions and growing our business every day with new partners.
How did you find and build your team? You talked about your original cofounder leaving and then finding someone new – what was that process like?
It’s really hard. It is so hard. I honestly got really lucky with my new co-founder and CTO, Adam. I found him at a conference that we both heard about through Cofounder’s Lab. He is from Budapest so we have been working remotely. We are meeting up in London in a few weeks to talk about strategic partnerships. We are in constant contact but we don’t live in the same city. It is very good because we have the same values and the same expectations. We complement each other’s skill sets very well. I don’t know much about technology and he doesn’t know much about business or fashion, and he is trying to be more educated in it. I think our temperaments are also complementary because he is much more nurturing and I am more objective so we put our strengths together to manage the rest of the team.
As far as the rest of team goes, I hired a bunch of interns by posting on Intern Match and at first there was a lot of attrition and a lot of turn over. One intern was very passionate about the company’s mission and she stayed on. Since then she has been in control of the hiring, which has been very effective since she has gone through the process herself and understands the unique challenges of the role.
How big is your staff right now?
Right now it is me and my cofounder and the intern who is no longer an intern. We have someone who runs the content and we also have three people spread out throughout world. We have someone in New York, South Asia, and someone in Singapore so it is about 6 people.
What are your plans for launching the business?
Right now we are invitation only and aren’t open to the public because we are testing a lot of features out. We also want to make sure that we are bringing on high-quality brands with a reputation of success in their home markets. We are really trying to vet the people that we have because in fashion it is all about who you know and about building a trusted network, so we want to make sure we have deep relationships with everyone on the platform.
How do you decide which fashion and beauty companies to meet with? Do they approach you initially or do you reach out to them?
It has been both ways. People have reached out to us, and we have reached out to others. When we decide what countries we want to enter, it is a result of a lot of background and industry research. We ask ourselves: where is the market doing well, where is it not doing well, and I write a lot about that as an exercise. I make my entire team write an article every week about something relevant in the industry because it makes them more educated and allows them to speak more professionally when they meet with people and network. Secondly, it is really important to synthesize a lot of the knowledge that you need through writing. If you don’t write, you don’t absorb all the information you read. I have been writing and reading a lot from the market research. We do primary market research too, so I travel and speak to people. We know that there are a couple of markets that are hot for certain industries. For beauty, the Middle East is a prime place since the growth rates are very high. We consider the Middle East to be a major target market because it is growing so fast and there is a lot of need for this kind of thing.
What are your marketing strategies? How do brands in emerging markets typically discover Globelist?
As far as marketing goes that has been interesting because we haven’t done any official online marketing. I’ve been traveling, so I went to Singapore, the Middle East, and India. It is a lot of me traveling because I have to vet the brands in person and look at the product. Somebody has to see, touch, smell, and feel the product. Without those quality assurances in place you can’t just approve someone online. It is very hard to do that. The retailers that we are trying to connect them with need to have some assurance. This is one of the biggest problems we are facing right now–how to build the trust in an online environment. There have been some successes in marketing in terms of just getting the awareness out. I had a group from Qatar email me because they saw our blog on WordPress, which is crazy because the blog was just something fun that I was doing. But it actually worked.
What is your vision for the future of Globelist?
Our plan is to raise funds in the next 6 months and to acquire more professional staff. If you’re a company in fashion, you need to focus on your image and branding. This is just as important as whatever product you put out there. In fact, people are more willing to be patient on technology than they are in terms of what you look like and how you present yourself. This is something we need to invest more in. As far as technology goes, there are a few logistics tools that we are creating so building out the capability for that is something we hope to do in the future. We also hope to expand our geographical presence to Jordan and Egypt. That is our 1-year plan.
How has your experience as a woman in the business world impacted you?
I am in a lot of female founders groups and am passionate about women’s development and economic empowerment. When I started this, and after meeting the not-so-nice guy in New York, I expected a lot of the pushback of being a female founder to be from men. The opposite has been true; it has been mostly from other women. When I travel and I tell a woman about what I am doing, the response is typically, “But you’re so young! That is so cute!”–but a man has yet to say something similar. They have the utmost professional and respectful conversations. I don’t know what they think after our conversation, but the treatment from women has been very surprising. Even domestically and within my own team, sometimes I see that people are more responsive to my cofounder than to me when I say something. That has been challenging to deal with on a personal level. It is not what I expected at all and something that I hope to change in the future.
How has the development of the Globelist surprised you and what are the major challenges that you have faced?
I didn’t think that we were going to have to pivot so early so fast. The other surprising and challenging thing has been how hard it is to find a good team. It is really hard to motivate people. Keeping people motivated and in tune with the mission and producing consistently high levels of work is something that isn’t commonplace. I think when you’re at a place like Yale it is easy to lose sight of that. Once you step out into a global marketplace, you quickly realize that it is not reality. You have to be patient and adjust your expectations accordingly. You cannot get distracted by media and all the people that claim that they are multibillionaires at the age of 24.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who face similar challenges as they build their startups?
I think the number one piece of advice I would give is to be patient. It’s really hard to be patient in this environment. It is really hard to stay focused when you feel so frustrated that nothing is happening. Either you aren’t able to find a cofounder or another staff person or you’re not making sales. There is always something that is going to go wrong. Patience and persistence, actually persistence more than patience, are key to being successful because there will probably be a million people who tell you no, but you have to remember that there are 7 billion people on the planet. Whatever you are building there is probably a market for it somewhere. You just have to decide how badly you want it and go after it.