Changing the World Through Body Positivity, One Small Detail at a Time

I owe a special debt to buttons and feel a special admiration for them. Overlooked and under appreciated, dismissed as merely functional or simply decorative, they bring garments together in ways that only ever seem to get noticed once they have fallen off.

My grandfather spent decades working at a button factory. A Polish Jew, he fled Europe as a child before the Holocaust and stepped off the boat in Colombia without speaking a word of Spanish. Eventually, he went on to own the button factory that had long employed him, transforming it into a successful business that provided for my family and many others, as well. “Buttons: far more than a detail”, became the company’s tagline. It’s catchy, to be sure, but sometimes I think it undersells the button’s importance.

Details, I have come to believe, are what make all the difference.

The idea of Pepper came together in mid-2016, when my co-founder, Jaclyn, and I were talking about how badly our bras fit. There is always fabric in places there shouldn’t be, and nothing of substance in places where there should. Bra prototypes, we learned, are typically manufactured using a mold that’s based off of a woman with an “average” bust (36C). Then those designs are shrunk down to smaller sizes. Since the initial designs are made with a bigger shape in mind, it ends up creating numerous fit issues for women with less breast tissue, including falling straps, digging underwires, and, most significantly, a bra gap:

The initial body positivity movement has driven the long-overdue inclusion of expanded size offerings and representation of plus-sized women; however, women who fall on the opposite side of the size spectrum have been largely ignored and misunderstood by the bra industry.

Change for those women will start with companies taking the nuances of different body types into consideration from the design phase onward. Rather than forcing an arbitrary conception of “average” onto all women, companies should design based on what will look and feel best for each body type. For mass market companies, this is an inefficient way of doing business, because the goal is to sell to as many people as possible. Pepper, by contrast, believes that expanding the literal and figurative definition of body standards is the right, best, and only way to serve our unique audience.

As soon as we identified the problem we wanted to solve, we began working after hours and weekends (we both had full-time jobs at the time) to create Pepper, not just to meet the needs of an underserved, $4 billion U.S. market, but to combat unrealistic beauty norms and empower women to celebrate the bodies they have.

We knew, from talking to other women, that this was a problem worth solving. But we never could have anticipated the response we’d receive when we launched our first product, the Pepper All You Bra, on Kickstarter in April 2017. The bra features our Authentic Lift™ design, a style that that utilizes a lightly-lined demi cup, specially molded to be shallower in depth, and a durable mesh overlay lifts the cup from the bottom up for natural looking cleavage without the heavy push-up padding.

Initially, we had a goal of reaching $10,000 to meet the minimum production requirements in Colombia, where I had forged a partnership with a female-led, socially responsible manufacturing partner. We achieved that goal within the first 10 hours; after 13 days, we had attracted 952 backers and surpassed our goal by 370%. Our online pre-order store sold over $100,000 worth of bras, before we had even finalized our prototype. My co-founder and I invested $5,000 and turned it into a 20X return, and it was all because we took the risk to put our ideas, passions, and stories in front of everyone, even though none of it was even close to being perfect.

Kickstarter’s monetary success was not the only thing that convinced me that Pepper could change people’s lives. Our campaign was met by widespread, largely unsolicited excitement from major online publications like Huffington Post, MSNBC, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and more.

More importantly, we began to receive spontaneous messages, emails, and calls from women expressing how much it meant that there was a finally a brand that really understood them:

Pepper’s value proposition is to deliver a high-quality product at an affordable price so that body confidence can be accessible to all. After our re-launch, the All You Bra was priced at $49. We are now working hard to re-design every single bra a small-chested woman needs in her closet to feel beautiful — strapless, wireless, push-up, etc.

But our mission doesn’t end there.

As the next step to redefine body standards, we’re taking on tired, “flat as a board” insults and outdated notions of femininity with a a self-love swag shop. We want women to wear this swag loud and proud, to celebrate the bodies they have exactly as they are. Eventually, we plan to become the commerce, community, and content destination for this market. What sets us apart is our ability to authentically rally a community of women together to change the status quo, and turn these customer insights into must-have products.

What resources does it take achieve the mission of expanding body positivity to ALL women? First, the backing of an education.

When we launched Pepper on Kickstarter, I could count the people upon whom I could reliably depend on professionally with two hands. I started to sense that business school would be the best setting to take the momentum we had built and scale it. As a young entrepreneur, I planned to leverage an MBA program to help me refine Pepper’s business plan, build a robust team, and raise a Series A round to make my company’s vision a reality.

While my background at McKinsey and a technology startup had provided me with the client exposure, entrepreneurial mindset, and data-analytics skill-set I needed to lead a new venture, an MBA would strengthen my business background through foundation courses; help hone effective managerial and teamwork skills; and most importantly, connect me to networks of experts and entrepreneurs who shared my passion for innovation and commitment to making a difference through business leadership.

So I applied to NYU Stern School of Business, and I got in! Besides the cosmopolitanism of New York itself, I knew that Stern’s emphasis on diversity and holistic approach to community would an unparalleled opportunity to grow alongside global emerging business leaders.

The demands on my energy and attention from being a full-time student and founder have been numerous, unrelenting, and often in direct conflict with one another. But by focusing on what matters — by being selective, at times painfully so, about what initiatives I want to take on and when — I’ve found my path as an entrepreneur, and managed to make wonderful connections with professors, faculty, and my fellow classmates along the way.

Yes, that’s me (far right) standing next to Anna Wintour

But the truth is that approximately 80% of MBA’s end up pursuing high-paying jobs in consulting or banking. It’s hard for students to take the risk of devoting their full time to starting a company, a process that often requires significant out-of-pocket expenses, with no sure prospect for success. With the help of the Toptal Scholarships for Women, I’d be able to fund my education at Stern and cover the living expenses needed to continue to devote myself to Pepper. We are specifically looking for mentors to advise us on how to scale data-driven, tech-enabled consumer goods businesses.

With additional funds, we’d be able to bring our bra designer on full-time to develop more products to promote up-sell and customer retention; place additional manufacturing orders to buy more merchandise and prevent backorders; continue to validate our customer acquisition strategy using lessons we’ve learned from our Kickstarter campaign; scale our Facebook ads, referral program and content marketing; and hire content producers to create compelling content to engage our customers.

What inspires me about Pepper is that, beyond creating bras, it’s championing the conversation around body confidence for small chested women in a society where a woman’s worth is too often measured by their cup size.

Pepper is not reinventing the bra. It’s focusing on those specific details that make a big difference for women with small breasts. With bras, as with buttons, it’s the details that really matter.