Fashion Holds a Growing Appeal for MBAs

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Adam Kalamchi, an MBA student at Columbia Business School, looked to his pants for inspiration when he first started thinking about where to intern during the summer after his first year of business school. The pants were from Bonobos, an e-commerce men’s online fashion startup founded by two MBAs. Kalamchi, 29, who’d previously worked as a business analyst at consulting firm McKinsey and in private equity, was looking for a change. He contacted Bonobos Chief Executive Officer Andy Dunn and snagged a summer internship working in the company’s finance and analytics group.

“I’d been a customer of Bonobos for a long time, so it has been really cool to actually see how the pants are made and to be thinking day in and day out about a product you actually like and use,” says Kalamchi, who began his internship this May.

The fashion world is holding a newfound appeal for a small but growing number of MBA students who are increasingly less enthralled with traditional consulting, Wall Street, and Fortune 500 jobs, and looking for employers where they can have more of a hands-on impact. In the past few years, the technology and retail worlds have collided, leading to more opportunities for MBAs in a sector that traditionally hasn’t been open to recruiting or hiring business school graduates. Many traditional fashion houses are looking to expand their online presence and are becoming more savvy about how they use social media and market their brands in an increasingly competitive marketplace. At the same time, dozens of recently launched e-commerce fashion startups are hungry for top MBA talent to help their companies grow to the next level, says Rebecca Joffrey, director of career development at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

“Students interested in technology are seeing the trends in technology move to e-commerce, and students who are interested in consumer goods more broadly are all taking a renewed look at retail because it is growing, changing, and exciting,” Joffrey says. “There’s definitely increased interest.”

According to Joffrey, postings for full-time jobs in fashion and retail are up 40 percent from last year at the Tuck School. For the first time this year, the school organized a fashion trek to New York, visiting such e-commerce companies as Bonobos, Bluefly, and Gilt Groupe, as well as more traditional fashion companies including Nicole Miller and J. Crew, she says.

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business is witnessing a similar trend. The school’s fashion and retail club organized a job trek to New York this year to visit five fashion companies. Last year just three students went; this year 25 attended, says Jack Oakes, the school’s assistant dean for career development.

While these companies may not have the recruiting manpower of larger banks and consulting firms, many are sending job postings to MBA programs, inviting students to visit their companies during job treks and reaching out to students via alumni networks, according to several career services directors.

Bud Konheim, CEO of luxury fashion brand Nicole Miller, says he has hired a handful of MBAs for internships and full-time jobs during the last two years and has been impressed with the work they’ve done to improve the company’s online presence. “We really didn’t know too much about how to measure our results on the Internet, but the MBA we hired used data analytics and other Internet tools in a way that really helped change our business,” he says.

Across the pond, leading U.K. retailers are reaching out to London Business School students for internships and full-time job opportunities at companies such as John Lewis, a chain of upscale department stores, and Marks & Spencer, a major British retailer, says Fiona Stubbs, a senior sector manager at the school’s career services office. Cocosa, a luxury fashion website, recently contacted the school about hiring an MBA for a full-time opening and is considering bringing on other students as interns, Stubbs says.

The success of e-commerce companies started by MBA students in the past five years has inspired many B-schoolers to take a stab at starting their own online retail operations, says Kelly Goldsmith, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. In the last two years, students coming through Goldsmith’s marketing research class have started about half a dozen online retail sites. For example, a group of Kellogg MBAs started Sleeve Candy, a vintage T-shirt company, while others launched 5th & Lamar, a company that makes super-slim shirts for men, she says.

“It is such an interesting and funny way for them to be entrepreneurial, and when we see companies like Bonobos having such success coming out of business school, it seems to be something that is captivating people’s curiosity and attention,” Goldsmith says.

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