Guilt-Free Shopping

Two Harvard women graduate from B-school, create a business, and start a revolution.

At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, October 7th, at a Harvard Women in Business Event, two impeccably dressed blondes spoke to a crowd of around 250 Harvard students packed into the seats of Emerson 105. 10 hours earlier, in that very same room, the seats were similarly full, as students listened to a lecture on the intricacies of market demand. This night, though, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson ’99 and Alexis M. Maybank ’97 discussed a different sort of financial asset.

GILT-Y PLEASURES

On November 13, 2007, Wilson and Maybank founded Gilt Groupe, a Web site that offers invitation-only access to men’s, women’s, and children’s luxury brands. The catch? These items are only available during a 36-hour time period, where members must click and purchase before the goods run out. Daily sales, featuring items from designers like Burberry, Alexander McQueen, and Oscar de la Renta, start at noon.

That pressure to log on to the Web at noon separates Gilt from other online shopping sites, like BlueFly and ShopBop. “People are trained to make purchasing decisions within minutes, which I think leads to some of the excitement,” Wilson says. “Sometimes it can be a little nerve-wracking,” she adds.“It’s very hard,” says Jonathan R. Meminger ’12, a sophomore who shops with Gilt. “If you’re an hour late, all the hot items are gone.”

A new iPhone application keeps Gilt Groupe members connected. “I actually just took it off my phone because I’ve been spending a little too much money,” Meminger says. But this ticking clock only amps up the Web site’s allure. “I usually check out Gilt every day,” Katerina P. Stavreva ’10 says. “I shop everywhere, but Gilt is pretty much my favorite one.” Stavreva’s recent purchases include a pair of Sergio Rossi high heels. “They’re amazing,” she adds.

Gilt Groupe’s appeal, in the Harvard community and beyond, seems inextricably linked to the Web site’s 36-hour shopping window. It was this, the idea of a time crunch, that allowed Wilson and Maybank to assess a growing industry, and carve out a niche in a popular market. That model has been expanded to other Gilt Groupe projects, like Gilt Fuse, the Web site’s younger, hipper sister. But enough economics, it’s time for a history lesson.

GILT BY ASSOCIATION

Maybank, an Enviromental Science and Public Policy concentrator, and Wilson, a Romance Languages and Literatures concentrator, met in a Portuguese class (“Of all things,” Maybank says). Though Maybank was a senior and Wilson was a sophomore, both lived in Lowell.  “I loved my time at Harvard,” Maybank says. “I had a great social experience here, a great social life, and then did a little bit of homework too along the way.” That bit of homework led Maybank to a finance job in New York City, and then later to Harvard Business School where she bumped into Wilson.

After graduation, two took off in separate directions—to separate coasts, in fact. They met in New York, sometimes, to shop special sample sales. The sample sale, according to Maybank, is an invite-only sale hosted by luxury brands during the day. Maybank explains that the sales take place at slightly out-of-the-way locations.

“But it’s great inventory and almost always 75% off,” she says. “So a lot of men and women will sneak out of their office during the day just to attend one.” Maybank smiled. “It creates this kind of hysteria.” The sample sale—and its hysteria—inspired Maybank and Wilson to start Gilt Groupe.

“We wanted to take that idea and take it online to a national audience, but have that same sense of event-based shopping, urgency, people dropping everything to be there.” All they needed was a name.“We chose the name Gilt because it had some double meaning,” Wilson says. “So obviously you feel guilty when you shop, but Gilt also implies being covered in gold and sort of luxurious items like that.”

This feeling is perpetuated by the aesthetics of the Web site itself—a classic black and white backdrop, accented with gold.  Surveys confirmed the name’s popularity. “We realized that Gilt was such an easy name to remember both for men and women,” Wilson adds.

So Gilt Groupe was born as the first online, nation-wide sample sale. Maybank and Wilson launched their company with seven employees and now, nearly two years later, Gilt Groupe encompasses a staff of 300.

Tessa K. Lyons-Laing ’11, HUWIB Intercollegiate Business Convention Chair arranged for Maybank and Wilson to return to Harvard and share their business experience. “I thought that they would be really inaccessible and sort of beyond wanting to engage with college kids,” she said. “So when they were really excited for the event and willing to even fly in from New York themselves, I was amazed.”

INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GILT-Y

In Emerson 105, Wilson and Maybank spoke about the obstacles they faced as women in business, stressing the importance of finding strong mentors.Alexandra D. Daum ’10, a former Crimson business executive, spent the summer working at Gilt Groupe in New York as a merchandising assistant.

“I’ve always known I wanted to go into business,” she says, “I’m just excited that I finally figured out what kind.” Maybank offers some final words of wisdom to all Harvard students, and not just those interested in business or fashion. “Don’t necessarily do what you should do,” she says. “Do what you need to do,” she says. “You don’t need another name or brand on a resume. Follow your passions.”

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