A few years ago Kathleen Chan, the CEO and founder of Calico, launched a couple of small fashion companies, but as those companies scaled quickly with the help of Shopify and Facebook ads, she noted a lack of tools to help her manage the back office of a business specifically geared to fashion.
As she pointed out, she couldn’t afford to buy SAP or even NetSuite, so she was managing the business in spreadsheets. She longed for something that was purpose-built for what she was doing. So like any good entrepreneur, she set out to build it. Along the way, she managed to attract the attention of tennis star Serena Williams, whose tech investment firm Serena Ventures recently launched a new $111 million fund.
“Basically, I launched my third business, Calico, to create a solution that I wish I had. So very, very quickly we went to Forum Ventures’ accelerator, raised a pre-seed round, and now we are raising our seed with the help of effectively one of the greatest athletes in the world,” Chan told me.
The solution Chan came up with was designed to help brands manage their supply chain, starting with design and moving through manufacturing. “You can bring your own package on board and have a dedicated workspace to work together collaboratively to get a collection of products to market. Or if you don’t have one of those, we have a global network of the most coveted factories,” she said.
These factories work with some of the biggest fashion brands in the world, giving a small manufacturer the same access as these big brands. You can also filter factories by region, sustainability and so forth, and the platform will match you with a facility that meets your requirements. You can get bids and quotes from various factories to get the best price, and when you’re ready, they can begin production for you and you can manage the whole process inside of Calico.
Chan had the subject expertise to build her company, but she’s not an engineer, so she brought on Khalid Khatib from Freightos as head of engineering to help build the product she had envisioned.
It’s still early for the company, but it has a range of customers, from emerging small brands to larger entities. The startup recently more than doubled its employees, from four to nine. As she builds the company, Chan thinks a lot about how to build a diverse company, and that starts with the job posting.
“For me, it’s about the way we phrase the ad and what we’re looking for, how we recognize our own biases and how we move past that, and how we make sure that there are people who can access our postings to access the job opportunities we have,” she said.
Chan acknowledged that being an Asian-American, solo woman founder presents its own set of challenges when it came to fundraising. In fact, a report released by venture firm Work-Bench at the end of last year found that only 1.9% of venture funding is going to female enterprise founders.
She said going through the Forum accelerator certainly helped give her access to investors, and she was able to work the network she built and raise a $2.1 million seed round.
Williams was drawn to the company after experiencing this problem herself when launching her own branded apparel business, and that’s what attracted her to this investment. “From running my own brand, I have experienced the exact problem Calico is solving. It’s rare to see a founder and product that is so in tune with the industry’s challenges and current limitations like Calico is,” she said in a statement.
Her investors included not only Williams’ firm, but also Maple VC, Inovia Capital, Hyphen Capital and a host of industry angels.