Prof. Barbara Tannenbaum Discusses Communication and Identity for Entrepreneurs

Prof. Barbara Tannenbaum Discusses Communication and Identity for Entrepreneurs

From a student’s perspective, Barbara Tannenbaum is something of a celebrity professor here at Brown. Her course TAPS 0220: “Persuasive Communication” is famously overenrolled each semester; the classroom is flooded with students eager to snag a spot and even the top of the waitlist seems reserved for seniors. It’s not hard to decipher why. As a communication and public speaking consultant, Tannenbaum has coached high-powered executives and officials across all domains (technology companies, judicial bodies, and art museums to name a few) and on six continents. (Antarctica remains elusive.) 

With all this in mind, it’s a no-brainer that Tannenbaum has been a recurring guest speaker for our Breakthrough Lab cohorts here at the Nelson Center to provide the fundamentals of efficient communication as a young entrepreneur. Afterward, many members of this summer’s B-Lab cohort named Tannenbaum’s as their favorite, most useful presentation. “Yesterday’s talk with Barbara Tannenbaum: life-changing,” said Ben Gershuny ’21, one B-Lab student. “I’ve heard her name. She’s pretty special and everyone says that, and then you really have to see it and feel it to believe it. She got up there and held your attention like my attention’s never been held before. I’m seeing communication in a whole new light now.” 

One of the most striking aspects of Tannenbaum’s guest lecture was her reflection on how various identities can impact an entrepreneur’s public performance and reception. I sat down with her hoping to elaborate on these themes, and discovered that aside from her mastery of everyday communication, Tannenbaum has long been conscientious of how her own identities and society’s reactions to them has shaped her professional work. She’s in the business of perception, presentation, and self-identification. Being anything less than tuned in to the complicated nature of identity politics and dynamics in social settings was never an option. 

This interview was conducted in July 2019 and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

 

Interviewer: How do you navigate not wanting to seem “too political” in your work? 

Tannenbaum: It’s interesting because I did a lecture for a couple of hours [on science communication at URI]. The last question was, “Do you always get so political?” I think she asked a fair question. 

There’s no reason to alienate people who could still learn from me. And what I often say in class is, “There’s a difference between compromise and being compromised.” So the metaphor I like to use is: “At what point am I willing to change the key of my song so it’s less shrill and more people can hear it? Versus, at what point am I now singing somebody else’s song?” 

You’ve discussed growing up in an environment of activism during the 1960s and 70s. How does that remain with you in your work? 

After the civil rights movement, I was involved with the women’s movement. And I began to understand that the same things that had been said about people of color were exactly the same that was said about women. “You’re too angry. You have no sense of humor. You’re too emotional. You need to be more patient. You’re too aggressive.” When I heard the commonality, I realized that there was a power language. And what better way for people in control to stay in control than to have the power language, and when anyone else learns to speak it, to say – “Doesn’t sound so good on you, honey.” 

During your presentation to our B-Lab cohort, you described yourself as being a “nice girl in recovery.” Can you elaborate on that? 

To be clear, I don’t want people to be less nice. The “nice girl” was just so into pleasing everyone. Most of the time it is great. But sometimes you need to set boundaries, and I think my version of the nice girl had a hard time setting boundaries. Part of that was of course in the delivery: looking down, looking askance, not wanting to be fully present in a number of ways. It can be an abdication of power.

In that vein, you spoke about standing taller, speaking louder, not being afraid to take up space – especially relating to all the physical images of women we’re fed as being small, petite. Would you be willing to delve more into your personal experience with learning to reclaim your space? 

I may have mentioned [in B-Lab] that I was adopted by a family who is quite short and don’t look anything like me. My parents said, “Don’t ever tell anyone you’re adopted.” So I wanted to hide difference – I did that sometimes by trying to seem smaller so my difference might be less noticeable… We really didn’t look anything alike. So rather than saying I’m adopted, sometimes I say I was adapted. 

I also have always felt that being adopted allows me to better identify with more people because if the next family had picked me up, I’d have a different name and a different so-called heritage and different values, likely. So I’ve often been interested in what’s innate and what’s not. I do think it’s allowed me to be more of a world citizen because you realize how arbitrary a lot of this is – what you’re named, what your heritage is, where you live. It could’ve been easily the next family who took me. Eventually, I came to understand that the world interpreted me as me, not as an extension of my family, and that I was in control of many aspects of their interpretation – including how I take up space.

How does this all tie in specifically for people like our B-Lab cohort – young, college-aged startup founders learning to sell both their work and themselves as a team? 

The number one thing is to remember to be audience-centered and make the “what’s in it for me?” explicit. Some startup founders think only about the features they want to get across – “The product can do this and this and this.” Rather than what the audience wants to hear, which has to include the benefits. 

I have been involved with some of the startups at Brown. I remember being an early taster for Sir Kensington’s ketchup. We had five bottles in our kitchen of different recipes. And who was Sir Kensington? They made him up! Because they thought if they wanted to charge more for ketchup, they needed to have a higher sounding brand. Of course, there are data that say if you sell a product for too little, you don’t get necessarily the audience you want. So part of our appeal to any audience has to include the specific ways we use words and language to convey our value.

B-Lab 2019 Students Pitch at Third Annual “Bear’s Lair”

B-Lab 2019 Students Pitch at Third Annual “Bear’s Lair”

One panel of Bear’s Lair judges. Pictured L to R: Arnell Milhouse, Aneesha Mehta ’14, Bob Place ’75, Marcia Hooper ’77

Breakthrough Lab, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s eight-week accelerator for student ventures, concluded July 26 with Bear’s Lair, a pitch event similar to Shark Tank. Fourteen ventures presented to a revolving panel of four judges, receiving critical feedback and an “in or out” vote. 

 

B-Lab 2019

The B-Lab cohort of summer 2019 includes a total of thirty students and graduates from Brown and RISD, as well as institutions like UPenn and MIT. Academic disciplines span the breadth of the University’s offerings, and the ventures’ sector spaces display a similar diversity, running the gamut from food and beverage to surgical devices to mental health awareness. (Contact information for our students can be found here.) 

Their eight weeks of preparation leading up to Bear’s Lair comprised workshops and presentations from industry professionals on topics like venture financing, consumer marketing, early-stage team building, and customer acquisition; office hours with Nelson Center staff and guest advisors; ample time for working on their ventures in dedicated workspaces in our new building; and weekly sessions on crafting and delivering the elevator pitch. 

“Bear’s Lair was a test of everything we had learned up to that point,” commented Quentin Altemose MS’20, co-founder of Quark Labs. “It taught us that while we have made substantial progress, there is always something to learn.” Karina Bao ’22, co-founder of Lila, echoed this sentiment: “It really felt like the culmination of our whole summers, where we could apply what we learned about public speaking, market sizing, patents, teams, fundraising, and marketing to summarize our progress at B-Lab.”

 

Altemose and Khobi Williamson MS’20 pitch Quark Labs, a venture aiming to produce lab-grown, sustainable leather.

 

Victoria Yin ’22 and Bao pitch Lila, a superfood brand aiming to popularize Goji berries in food and beverage.

 

Bear’s Lair

The first panel of judges included Charlie Kroll ’01, co-founder and president of Ellevest; Karina Wood, executive director of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program at the Community College of Rhode Island; Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund; and Paulash Mohsen ’95, chief business officer at Yumanity Therapeutics.

The second panel included Bob Place ’75, managing director of the Clean Energy Venture Group; Marcia Hooper ’77, senior advisor at Bowside Capital; Aneesha Mehta ’14, principal at Bain Capital; and Arnell Milhouse, co-founder and CEO of CareerDevs Computer Science Academy and one of the Nelson Center’s incoming Entrepreneurs in Residence

During feedback rounds, the judges offered help in forming influential connections and searching for investors, as well as delivered some high praise for the ventures’ early-stage growth. “The most important aspect of any startup is the team,” commented Milhouse, “and the primordial mix of interdisciplinary academic thought-leaders within the B-Lab teams is powerful.” 

 

Julia Lemle, RISD MA’19 pitches Grand, a venture that creates elegant products for the elderly. One judge deemed her mission and eye for user design “Jobsian.”

 

“Presenting in front of the Bears was both fulfilling because it validated all the hard work we had been putting into [our venture] the last two months and informative because of the wonderful feedback and advice we were able to receive in that short 10-minute window,” said Megan Molina, RISD ’19, co-founder of BASA. “It was a positive experience and one I am excited to repeat at the showcase in September!”

The cohort will return to the Nelson Center on September 25 for the B-Lab Showcase event open to the public. 

 

Fernanda Bolaños, PhD’19.5 and Molina pitch BASA, a venture that designs STEAM curricula for underprivileged students.

 

ARMS: Bella Roberts ’20 (Not pictured: Beth Pollard ’21)

 

EmboNet: Gian Ignacio ’18 MD ’22 (Not pictured: Emily Holtzman, RISD ’18)

 

Intus Care: Samuel Prado ’21 and Robbie Felton ’21 (Not pictured: Teo Tsivranidis ’20)

 

La Pâte: Lucas Fried ’21 (Not pictured: Ian Chiquier ’21)

 

Mobile-Med Data Solutions: Sai Kaushik Yeturu ’21 (Not pictured: Mayank Mishra, University of Pennsylvania ’21)

 

Omena: Francesca Raoelison ’22

 

Pillar: Oscar Newman ’21, John Bitar ’21, Ben Gershuny 21

 

Primitive Labs: Noa Machover ’19.5 and Viirj Kan MA’17

 

ResusciTech: Abigail Kohler ’20 and Greg Fine ’20

 

SelectEd: Amy Wang MA’19 (Not pictured: Jessica Wang ’22 and Santiago Ibañez, MIT Sloan ’13)

Humans of B-Lab: Meet our 2019 Breakthrough Lab cohort!

Humans of B-Lab: Meet our 2019 Breakthrough Lab cohort!

The Nelson Center’s Breakthrough Lab cohort of summer 2019 comprises thirty students and graduates of various institutions working on fourteen early-stage ventures. “Humans of B-Lab” was an ongoing social media campaign aiming to capture the passion and individuality of each of these founders. 

You can find contact information for the ventures here.

Not pictured: Primitive Labs, founded by Noa Machover ’19.5 and Viirj Kan ’17, Master’s in Media Arts and Sciences

Photographs and interviews by Dana Kurniawan, with additional work by Vicky Phan

 

“Art to Reduce Mental Health Stigma (ARMS) is a Rhode Island-based nonprofit whose mission is to challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness, using art as a forum for self-expression, healing, and dialogue. We want to empower artists to share their narratives and their art, but also for the general community – people who are not familiar with mental health to have really vulnerable, honest conversations about the mental health stigma.

We’re not here as therapists, educators, or to target a specific mental health community. We’re really here to give everyone equal accessibility for starting conversations. We want to open doors for people who don’t know how to talk about mental health.

We’re currently working on a mobile app to track instances of externalized versus internalized stigma, and how their perception of mental illness changes after our events. So hopefully, this will contribute to research being done nationally and also give our organization the opportunity to tailor events to ways that are most effective for our audience. During B-Lab we’re going to build a more cohesive framework for ARMS.”

Art to Reduce Mental Health Stigma (ARMS)
Left: Beth Pollard ’21, Contemplative Studies
Right: Bella Roberts ’20, Literary Arts and Public Policy

 


“​We met coincidentally through an interdisciplinary exhibition. We spent hours talking about children’s education and how important it is to provide design and engineering skills to the children of today. Megan loves making children’s books and Fernanda and Rosinda Fuentes [co-founder currently based in Poland] are very passionate about teaching and have been looking for someone as creative as Megan to join the BASA team. After having our first sit-down conversation about the venture outside of the RISD library at the beginning of the spring, we thought, “Wow.” We all want to unleash kids’ potential and we share principal values, let’s do something together! 

Since then we have really connected. It feels like we’ve known each other for much longer. BASA is on a mission to empower the next generation of innovators by designing creative learning opportunities for the children of today. We aim to prepare children and teens for the challenges of the 21st century and build a lifelong community of learners passionate in STEAM, by offering a variety of playful educational resources.

We believe that all children, no matter who they are, where they are from, or the communities they are engaged in, deserve the opportunity to develop the skills they need to build a creative, meaningful life. As we design BASA, we are making conscious decisions to ensure every kid will have access to our resources.”

BASA
Left: Fernanda Bolaños, PhD ’19.5
Right: Megan Molina, RISD ’19, Illustration
Not pictured: Rosinda Fuentes, University of Edinburgh PhD ’18

 

“We met in the capstone course for Biomedical Engineering Design and Innovation. Doctors came and pitched a need, and we formed a group around doctors for cardiovascular surgery. Basically during surgeries there is a risk of brain damage due to complications, which can be alleviated by collecting embolic debris. From there, we decided to create an embolic protection device, which involves collecting and retrieving embolic debris in the aorta during surgery. 

After shadowing doctors, looking through the procedure at each part, we tried to figure out the entire process by which the embolic debris gets to the brain and how other devices that people have tried have not succeeded in that. But a lot of people have had issues with trying to retrieve it once they’ve collected it around the aorta. We thought, “Let’s try to find a solution that way.” With Emily’s textiles expertise, we tried to find a potential solution for retrieval. We both got to watch open-heart surgery in real life. When I was there, I was like, ‘I’m in arts school. How did I get here?’ [Emily]

I think the networking from B-Lab will enable us to reach broader audiences to get more funding … Because it’s pricey! It’s not just people who have strokes for whom this is applicable, we can apply this to other types of surgeries as well. B-Lab will also help us develop our business skills, and hopefully bring our product up to scale.”

EmboNet
Left: Emily Holtzman, RISD ’18, Textiles
Right: Gian Ignacio ’18, MD’22
Not pictured: Celina Hsieh ’18, MD’22; Ileana Pirozzi ’18, Stanford University PhD ’22

 

“I’m interested in developing products for the elderly population that don’t seem cold or clinical, but instead speak to higher-level needs — self-actualization, self-expression, personal style. We all have those needs throughout our lives. But for some reason, products designed for the elderly seem to address function alone. I had a very stylish grandmother, and she absolutely hated using canes and walkers because of the way they looked, and the way they made her feel. I think all of us have someone in our lives who is dealing with the physical challenges of aging. It’s quite universal.

Right now my focus is on canes, which are near and dear to my heart. I am also pursuing cane accessories and accessible clothing closures — buttons, snaps, and zippers — which are pretty difficult to use if you have limited manual dexterity. Particularly in the elderly population, there is a high incidence of arthritis which affects fine motor skills. I’m making things that are accessible but still fun and exciting to look at, an augmentation rather than something to hide.

The closures in particular are a great example of universal design. So much of clothing is not designed for ease of dressing, whether or not you have any physical challenges. And so by creating closures that work for people with arthritis, you’re also making something that makes dressing easier for a ton of other use cases — people wearing winter gloves, for example, or firefighters in a high-stress situation, or children. Designing for inclusivity is a business opportunity.”

GRAND
Julia Lemle, RISD Master’s ’19, Industrial Design

 

“Intus Care is a mobile platform that connects homecare providers to patients, providing an organized, high-quality, cost-effective way for home healthcare companies to manage and monitor care providers, patients, and appointments.

We’re at a point where we want to start testing out product, so being together in Providence is good for being in close contact to work on it as things change. We’re hoping to gain some mentors who are experienced in this field and meet other co-founders who are in similarly related fields.

By end of B-Lab, we want to get through testing and encryption, making sure we’re HIPAA compliant to be responsible for people’s data and finances.”

Intus Care
Left: Robbie Felton ’21, Public Health
Center: Teo Tsivranidis ’20, Computer Science
Right: Samuel Prado ’21, Economics and Public Health

 

“We are a mobile crêpe vendor and supplier, La Pâte! Locally, there are no options for hot desserts on Brown’s campus that can be made fresh quickly and taken to-go. Very few stores around have convenient, eco-friendly packaging for this purpose. By serving crêpes, we address the first issue with a hot dessert that’s made in front of the customer within minutes. With people constantly commuting somewhere on college campuses, the faster and closer the food option is, the better. 

We serve our crêpes in recycled cardboard cones, which avoid the styrofoam packaging or plastic utensils of many competing products around. We bought our first crêpe maker in September of 2018, and we’ve been working on logistics like food safety guidelines, as well as our batter and menu.

Food is a social activity, you enjoy it. We also get to fundraise, for example donating 15% of our proceeds to the gun safety movement, March for Our Lives, and promoting their Rhode Island rally. It’s important for any food business to be involved with its community.”

La Pâte
Left: Ian Chiquier ’21, Applied Mathematics
Right: Lucas Fried ’21, Public Policy and Economics

 


“The original idea for the venture started when I was traveling in Western China. We stopped by the side of the road and these farmers were selling black goji berries — they dropped some in my water and it was incredible. Over winter break, I shared this with Dan and we decided to start this venture.

We learned more about the people who work in those farms. It’s a very disadvantaged part of China, there are school-age children working in those fields, and they’re not paid well. It made us feel a sense of urgency to build this venture. Specifically, we’re working with suppliers and farms who are paying people fair wages.

Lila enables tea newcomers and daily tea drinkers alike to discover novel flavors, healing experiences, and beautifully shareable moments through a wide array of loose-leaf, zero-waste teas from across the world, starting in China’s remote Ningxia province.”

Lila
Top left: Karina Bao ’22, Applied Mathematics-Computer Science
Top right: Dan Wang ’17, Applied Mathematics-Computer Science
Bottom left: Victoria Yin ’22, Economics and Psychology

 

“Last summer, I became an EMT, and I noticed that there was a huge need for better communication between ambulances and hospitals. I also saw this when I was shadowing and observing emergency medicine both here and abroad. There was always a lot of chaos, most often caused by a paper-based system, and I wondered how much it could be improved by technological advancements. So, I got together with my co-founder Mayank — we went to the same high school together in Colorado, and together we made a web application that allows ambulances to communicate with hospitals. 

[Ambulance care personnel] input information that’s necessary for the hospital to know into our program with their personal phones, which eliminates the need for extra infrastructure. By creating a low infrastructure solution, our service can be universally adopted with little extra cost. The hospital will receive the information, and be able to add any information they see fit for the patient’s care. Basically, Mobile-Med will improve patient care for emergency medical situations and reduce how long patients stay at the hospital.”

Mobile-Med Data Solutions
Sai Kaushik Yeturu ’21, Chemistry
Not pictured: Mayank Mishra, University of Pennsylvania ’21

 

”Back in my country, the only form of abuse that I could recognize was physical abuse. Once in America, I learned through my training as a [Sexual Assault] Peer Educator that violence often begins with emotional and psychological abuse, gradually increasing to violent physical abuse. Through my research, I discovered I was not the only one with a limited definition of abuse. It was such an eye-opener for me, and I started being passionate about the subject.

I have a vision of creating an interactive and fun educational platform that will teach school students ages 6-12 about what I believe is the opposite of abuse: emotional awareness, body safety, and healthy relationships. That’s how ‘Omena’ came about.

Omena is a Malagasy pun. ‘Omena’ means to ‘give’ or ‘provide.’ And ‘mena’ means ‘red,’ so in this context, to provide tools and education for students to help them spot red flags ahead of time. Red flags being signs that one is in an unhealthy relationship.

Omena ultimately aims to promote healthier relationships and communities in Madagascar.”

Omena
Francesca Raoelison ’22, Business, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations

 

“At Pillar, we are attempting to build a platform to connect people to causes and charities they care about.

People’s charitable giving, especially when we look at younger generations, is completely disorganized. We give, but we do so reactively – when we see a friend organizing a fundraiser for their birthday or when we get solicited on the street. This leaves us with a scattered sense of our impact on causes around us.

We want to help people to give proactively, so that their giving can reflect their identity. Instead of the money being dispersed randomly, people should be able to distribute their money towards causes and charities that reflect their values, thereby making a real impact on what is important to them.

This all started during freshman year, when we started meeting in the basement of our dorm and brainstorming ideas together. Since then we have cycled through various projects, which have forced us to learn numerous lessons, which we credit for bringing us to where we are now.”

Pillar
Left: John Bitar ’21, Computer Science
Center: Ben Gershuny ’21, Computer Science
Right: Oscar Newman ’21, Computer Science

 

“The production of leather and fur around the world results in substantial pollution, and many people consider the ranching and slaughtering of animals to be cruel and unethical. From this need, we are developing laboratory leather, a modern approach to materials for animal lovers.

Our mentor Professor Harry suggested we connect to be able to help each other and see what we can do in terms of research and development. I’m very interested in business, but particularly towards startups and entrepreneurship. I can’t imagine a better place than Brown to do that. [Khobi]

I have a lot of scientific background, but I was looking more for the business aspect and the benefit of being able to work on a project I’m passionate about. What we’re aiming to do is use humane, reverse stem cell engineering techniques to grow real animal skin and furs in a lab. [Quentin]”

Quark Labs
Left: Quentin Altemose ’20, Master’s Biomedical Engineering
Right: Khobi Williamson ’20, Master’s PRIME

 

“We met in ENGN 0030 in freshman year, starting a club together called H-Tech, which is a humanitarian engineering club. The first idea for our startup came from a class, ENGN 2910G where I had planned on making a pressure-sensing surgical table for a project. So we started off thinking about doing that, and then moved on from pressure-sensing to CPR. 

Currently, CPR only has a 40% success rate, primarily because of failure to follow CPR guidelines. Rescuers are often stressed and become fatigued as they are performing CPR, making it difficult to maintain the required compression depth and frequency.

By developing a wearable CPR device, ResusciTech aims to improve CPR outcomes by using a proprietary design and simple user interface that is streamlined for rescuers to use in emergency situations. This will result in higher rescuer confidence in their performance of CPR as well as increased quality of care and survival rate for victims of cardiac arrest.”

ResusciTech
Left: Abbie Kohler ’20, Biomedical Engineering
Right: Greg Fine ’20, Electrical Engineering

 

“SelectEd is a digital platform that helps Chinese students who want to study abroad find qualified tutors in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Our tutors are current students and recent graduates from the very schools and majors Chinese students are interested in, so Chinese students and families who are unfamiliar with the application process can learn whether a particular university is a good fit for the student or not.

Santiago and I met in Fall 2018 when I was a second-year PhD student at Brown contemplating a career change and seeking entrepreneurial advice; Santiago was an MIT grad and Techstars alum. Driven by a passion for education, I left my doctoral program in December and invited Santiago to work on what later became SelectEd. I approached fellow Brown student Jessica at a career fair after she expressed interest to recruiters in becoming an educational consultant at an American consultancy based in China. When I told Jessica, who has herself worked with educational consultants and created a similar website matching volunteer tutors with low-income students for the city of Dallas, about the idea of creating a platform to provide international students access to high-quality educational consultants, she was immediately on board.

Post B-Lab, we hope to raise money to hire staff to work full-time on marketing in China, so we can focus on growth and expansion into different degree-level applications from different countries.”

SelectEd
Left: Jessica Wang ’22, Economics
Center: Amy Wang ’19, Master’s Political Science
Right: Santiago Ibañez, MIT Sloan ’13

The Heart of the Problem: Alumni Feature on Jessica Murphy ’00, Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer of True Fit

The Heart of the Problem: Alumni Feature on Jessica Murphy ’00, Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer of True Fit

Image courtesy of True Fit

Jessica Murphy ’00, co-founder and chief customer officer of True Fit, discusses pitfalls and pure entrepreneurial joy with B-Lab 2019 cohort

Jessica Murphy ’00 spends most of her time racing from airport to airport on her way to solve problems on a global scale for True Fit Corporation. Understandable, considering the company boasts offices from Boston to London to Mumbai. 

True Fit began as an idea during Murphy’s time as an MBA candidate at Babson College, prior to which she studied international commerce at Brown and spent a few years’ stint as a buyer for Filene’s (the department store later succeeded by Macy’s). After enough time on the work force and in business school, Murphy was ready to go “all-in” with True Fit. She threw everything she had at the idea — including $5,000 in repurposed student loans — and chose to forgo the typical post-MBA route. 

It paid off. True Fit came into its own as one of the first data platforms for enhancing style and comfort in the retail clothing experience. Most recently, it secured a Series C round of funding for $60 million, no doubt due to Murphy’s combination of business acumen and pure grit. 

Murphy visited the Nelson Center’s new Thayer Street building last week to deliver the keynote presentation to this summer’s Breakthrough Lab cohort on the opening day of the program. 

Her extensive technical knowledge was evident as she fielded questions encompassing everything from the viability of startups in nascent markets, to evolving your solution through countless iterations. Yet the key takeaway of Murphy’s presentation was what appears to be the secret to her success: a seemingly innate understanding of the emotional workings of both consumer and employee. 

“What is that pain point you’ll be focusing on?” she asked the audience of young venture founders. The pain point. The issue that ruins your customer’s whole day. The heart of the consumer’s problem that you can’t lose sight of. 

The pain point at the center of True Fit after all these years? To “help people find clothes and shoes they’ll love and keep.” It’s a broad stroke mission statement that speaks to how shoppers’ self-image is affected by the struggle to fit into inconsistent, unrealistic sizing. Perhaps it’s this human desire for affirmation, granted by True Fit, that has enabled it to grow to its current user base of over 100 million worldwide. 

Jessica Murphy ’00 with our 2019 Breakthrough Lab cohort

“I’m here to be transparent with you,” assured Murphy. And that she was. Moving on from her self-described “brag slides” that list the impressive numbers behind True Fit, Murphy described both joyous accomplishments and dark days as a leader responsible for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees. “It had to work,” she stated. “I had no choice.” From forgoing a salary for years to the challenges of attracting early investors for survival, there was no hardship of the entrepreneurial lifestyle that could not be broached. As a result, Murphy’s audience hung onto every word, eager for more of her candor. 

In response to one B-Lab founder’s question, Murphy transitioned to personal challenges. She discussed the culture shock of arriving at Brown, feeling unprepared coming from a single-parent household, often moving from apartment to apartment while growing up in a blue-collar Massachusetts town. Today, these difficulties serve as reminders of where her family came from — something deeply embedded in the fabric of True Fit. Murphy shared, for instance, that her sales presentations to retailers often begin with a photograph of her grandfather who migrated from Colombia to Central Falls, Rhode Island, to work as a loom repairman. Her anecdote illustrates a lineage of builders adept at piecing solutions together — whether that solution is a piece of machinery or a way of reimagining the modern fitting room experience. 

Murphy also keeps her immediate family close amidst the ever-present puzzle of work-life balance, another hurdle for entrepreneurs she touched upon. She lovingly refers to her husband (then-boyfriend) as her “first angel investor,” and jokes, “True Fit is my first baby. And then I had three real ones.” When asked what will come after her first brain child, Murphy said, “After True Fit’s eventual end… I will never not be an entrepreneur. It’s just too fun.”