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Stitch Fix’s Katrina Lake proved innovation in retail is still possible in an Amazon world

Lake is No. 9 on the Recode 100.

Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

In 2017, big retail industry bright spots outside of Amazon have been few and far between. That made the rise of Stitch Fix that much more surprising — and the unfortunately rare leadership by a female founder and CEO in Katrina Lake that much more refreshing.

The growth arc of the data-driven online retailer — from launch to IPO in six years — seemed like the model, modern-day VC success story. Except that’s not exactly the case.

For a company of its size at such a young age, Stitch Fix raised relatively little venture capital, forcing it to become profitable earlier than most, and fund much of its growth from cash flow. This was decidedly not the most common path taken by many fast-growth consumer-facing startups.

“We treated every single dollar that we got very preciously,” Lake previously told Recode, “because it was very hard to raise every single one of those dollars.”

The company’s IPO in late November came in at a share price below where Lake and her team wanted, but the stock has since rebounded more than 50 percent, valuing the company at $2 billion as of Dec. 5.

No matter the short-term results, Lake’s long-term vision is huge: Through a combination of data expertise and a human touch, Stitch Fix will deliver a personalized shopping experience that both surprises and delights and makes the try-on room a thing of the past.

Whether or not they get there, the stakes are sky-high; few, if any, big online retailers have had success replicating the serendipity and rush you get inside a store when you discover the perfect product you didn’t know you loved. Stitch Fix is positioned perhaps better than any clothing retailer to do that, if not improve on it.

It’s hard to overestimate just how big of a deal it would be if the company were to nail this personalization at scale. If you eliminate the brick-and-mortar retailer’s advantage of serendipity, consumer dollars will absolutely flow online.

Either way, Lake and Stitch Fix stand out for another reason: Lake is the only woman to take an internet company public this year as CEO, and the first in nearly four years to do so with a consumer web business.

As a result, many women in tech see Lake, Stitch Fix and its IPO as a rare milestone to celebrate. Now the hope is that it will help push the industry toward a place where someday it won’t be so rare.

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