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Q&A with Heidi Zak (ThirdLove)

Published By Duke FORM / published on: February 7, 2020

In this interview with Duke FORM, Heidi Zak '00 describes how she has shifted the women's undergarment industry for the better through her company ThirdLove.

Innovating a Market to Empower Women with ThirdLove

Major: Economics; Minor: Political Science

Heidi Zak graduated from Duke in 2000, where she majored in economics and minored in political science. After graduation, Heidi worked in investment banking and management consulting before transitioning from the service side into a retail operations role. From there, she would go on to work at Aeropostale and Google. In 2012, frustrated by the inconvenient and unsatisfying bra options available, she and her husband, David Spector, founded ThirdLove, a direct-to-consumer bra and underwear company on a mission to make women feel comfortable and confident in their daily lives. ThirdLove is now one of the fastest growing and most disruptive companies in the industry. We called Heidi to discuss the ThirdLove ethos, the realities of entrepreneurial work, and the critical convergence of tech and retail at a direct-to-consumer company.

In this Who is DEMAN Interview, Zak explains to Duke FORM how her goal to make women feel confident led her to creating the powerhouse company ThirdLove.

How did the idea for ThirdLove come about?

HZ: When I was in my early thirties, I needed a new bra, so I went and did what I had done since I was 14 or 15, which was to go to a mall and go to a Victoria’s Secret store. You guys have been there, right? All pink and feathers and just overall not a great shopping experience. I did what I normally do: tried on 20 bras, got one that didn’t really fit but seemed good enough, and bought it because I needed a bra. I walked out not happy, and stuffed the Victoria’s Secret bag into another bag I was carrying because I was kind of embarrassed to be shopping there at my age. And that was really the moment for me. Why am I spending my money on a mediocre product from a brand I don’t believe in? Also, why am I in a mall? The world has changed a lot, even in the past seven years, and more and more companies are selling products and building brands online. In 2012, you could buy a lot of products online, but there was no bra company that made it easy to buy online.

So that was the genesis of the idea. Seven years ago at a Victoria’s Secret store, I thought, how hard could this [bra shopping] be? Then I roped my husband into doing it with me, he got excited about the opportunity and that was that.

“Something that has been really amazing to see over the past 20 years is the number of female entrepreneurs leading in their industries. While there is still work to do, there are women across the industry that you can look up to as role models.”

Where did the name ThirdLove come from and what does it stand for?

HZ: It is about creating a third option for women. In the bra category, it seemed there was no option that offered both style and comfort. Beautiful bras were uncomfortable and comfortable bras were not exactly stylish. We created a third way, that doesn’t require women to compromise. We took a similar approach with sizing. The industry standard is that you are either an  A, B or C cup, but we wanted to create bras for everyone, and we knew from our research that lots of women were in-between cup sizes, so we created a B1/2. Today, we are the only bra company that offers half-cup sizes.

What does ThirdLove’s motto “To Each Her Own” mean to ThirdLove and to you?

HZ: At the core of ThirdLove, we want to help all women feel comfortable and confident in their daily lives. And what I truly believe and hear from our customers is that if you have a bra that doesn’t  fit, is itchy, uncomfortable, or doesn’t offer the right kind of support, then you are more fixated on your bra than you should be. You should put it on and be comfortable; you should not have to think about it until you take it off at night. Women have better things to do than worry about their bras.

The ethos of ThirdLove is really about the beauty of individuality and the collective community that women can fulfill by being open, inclusive, and supportive of one another. The way each woman chooses to represent herself and chooses what she wants to do with her life is completely her own. And that’s what makes us all amazing people — that’s individuality.

Photo from CNBC Article 'Google alum turned start-up CEO: This tough moment helped me find my voice'

Your marketing and products emphasize inclusion and diversity in a market that has historically promoted unachievable and narrow beauty standards. Could you talk more about your size inclusion initiatives?

HZ: When we started in 2012, inclusivity wasn’t something that anyone talked about. The world has drastically changed over the past six years, and I think that ThirdLove has a tremendous amount to do with that. Victoria’s Secret, for example, is not doing their fashion show anymore and has pledged to be more inclusive in the future. A lot of that change comes from the pressure we’ve created.

Inclusivity brings two things to mind as it relates to being a brand that sells physical products. Inclusivity is how you present yourself to the world through imagery and messaging. We’ve built an inclusive brand by showing different body types, ethnicities, and ages in our campaigns. When we launched our extended sizes earlier this year, our photoshoot included real women of every single size and shape.

We created a photo grid of dozens of different women of all different sizes. We wanted to send the message that no matter whether you wear a size 32B or 36A, you’re going to see yourself represented. But it’s not just about the marketing; it’s also about having  the product to support it. What I see these days is a lot of companies putting out the idea that they’re inclusive, but when you go to purchase from them, they don’t have a wide range of sizes. I think as a company, if you’re going to say that you are inclusive, you need to have the product to back that claim. That means having a wide range of products and lots of options for women or men of different sizes, shapes, and colors.

Photo from Huffington Post article 'Women In Business Q&A: Heidi Zak, Co-Founder, ThirdLove'

What was the process of finding real women like for these campaigns?

HZ: When we wrote the ThirdLove manifesto, we filmed a commercial that closed with the phrase:  “To Each Her Own.” When we set out to film the commercial, we initially considered going the traditional route of using models, but we wanted to be really real. And so we decided to cast women that weren’t models instead. We went onto the streets of Brooklyn and found real women who were willing to be featured in our campaign. We met some really exceptional women in the process, like Janice, a 60-year-old part-time yoga instructor. You would expect a lot of women to say no because they wouldn’t want to be in their bras on TV, but actually a lot of women are like, “I’m comfortable with my body —  I confidently wear my bathing suit around — so what’s the difference?”

What does diversity look like at a women-led company in Silicon Valley?

HZ: Our first employee was our chief creative officer, who was the woman behind the bras. She’s a bra designer. She’s been with us since day one. Our entire design team and most of our marketing team are made up of women. But we’re really proud of the men here too. And when I think about diversity, I don’t think you necessarily want a company that’s 100% women. I think that eliminates another point of view that is important to have. So while we are really proud of having lots of female leaders and a company that is majority women, especially in Silicon Valley,  the men who work here are feminists. They work for a bra company because they believe in our mission, they believe in what we’re building, and they believe it is important to womankind.

“The ethos of ThirdLove is really about the beauty of individuality and the collective community that women can fulfill by being open, inclusive, and supportive of one another.”

Does ThirdLove consider itself a technology company? If so, what unique perspective does ThirdLove bring to the tech scene?

HZ: ThirdLove is definitely a blend of retail and technology. We are not 100% a tech or software company, but the technological elements of what we’ve built and the data behind our business are incredibly important. At ThirdLove, it’s not just about the bras. Although producing amazing, great-fitting bras is central to what we do, what sets ThirdLove apart from other bra companies is how we help women find their size. Our “Fit Finder” is powered by an algorithm developed by our data science team—which is a tech-heavy part of our business. Fifteen million women have used “Fit Finder” to determine their size online, which is a radically different approach to finding size than getting measured at the store.

And then, of course, we sell our products online. Apart from our new store in Soho, we’re completely online, direct-to-consumer. For most people, the only way to get our product is through our website. As funny as it sounds to call e-commerce technology, a lot of big retailers struggle with building e-commerce functionality.

As a recent grad, did you ever envision yourself becoming an entrepreneur, or is this something that happened organically?

HZ: Definitely not. If you would have asked me [then], I would’ve said, “Not in a million years.” I think there are a few reasons for that. One is that  when I was in school, entrepreneurship was not as mainstream of a concept as it is today. I probably wouldn’t have even been able to name one female entrepreneur back then. Something that has been really amazing to see over the past 20 years is the number of female entrepreneurs leading in their industries. While there is still work to do, there are women across the industry that you can look up to as role models.

When I moved to San Francisco and I started meeting  people who were founding their own businesses, I had an epiphany:“If all these people can build businesses and impact the world in a really meaningful way, why can’t I?” At that point I was further along in my career, and felt pretty confident that I could do it. So it happened kind of naturally, [even though] I never could have predicted it.

Do you have any other advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

HZ: I think it’s about really knowing, really taking a step back and saying, “Is this something that I’m excited about? Am I excited enough about this to do this for 10 or 20 years? Am I passionate about the idea, the sector, about what I’m building?” Because it will be hard. Sometimes it will be fun, but sometimes it won’t be.

What do you love most about your job?

HZ: There are two very different pieces that are really important to me. One is the impact that we have on millions of women and hearing from them. Every day, every week, I meet somebody or get an email from somebody about how happy they are with ThirdLove and what a positive impact we’ve made on their life.

Second, I’m really proud of the team at ThirdLove and the opportunities we’ve created for leaders to grow and develop. I have certainly learned a tremendous amount over the past six or seven years, and I’m still learning every day, but to see other people on our team who have grown into these amazing leaders over the past five years is incredibly rewarding.

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