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Building a Network that Matters, with Avani Patel

Building a Network that Matters, with Avani Patel


Episode 32: Building a Network that Matters, with Avani Patel

Avani Patel is the Founder and CEO of Trendseeder and the Director of Start Up Studio at Harvard Business School in NYC. After six years of practicing law, Avani decided to quit and go to Columbia Business School to follow her passion for the fashion industry. She went on to start her own business to help pave the way for entrepreneurs within the fashion, beauty, health & wellness industries. In this episode, Avani talks about the importance of building your network, dealing with failure, pivoting, and how important self-awareness is for success.


Episode Transcript

00:14 Kristy Wallace: Hello, and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is Kristy Wallace, and I'm joined today by Maricella Herrera. Hi.

00:20 Maricella Herrera: Hi Kristy, how's life?

00:22 KW: Life is great. I'm doing fantastic today.

00:25 MH: That's awesome.

00:26 KW: So, I'm also... Well, one of the reasons I'm doing fantastic is I'm here to tell you about our next guest, Avani Patel. So we've had so many unbelievable women on this show, I'm sure that many of you listening have heard the interviews with them, and they're spectacular, and Avani is no different than that. She, in one sense, talked to me about how she just on a whim decided to apply for law school, and scored well and got into a great school. But she's very humble, she's very genuine, and has some great insights to share. So, I'm excited to tell you about Avani, she's the Director of Startup Studio in New York City at the Harvard Business School, and she's the founder and CEO of TrendSeeder. So lots of interesting information from her. And she's also a friend of yours, Maricella, is that correct?

01:19 MH: She is. She's a good friend of mine from, actually, Columbia Business School. I don't know what she's doing at Harvard.

01:25 KW: Yes. Don't worry, I gave her a hard time about that.

01:29 MH: But she's great. She is extremely smart, and probably has one of the best wardrobes I've seen.

01:37 KW: Well, fashion.

01:38 MH: Yeah.

01:39 KW: Law and fashion, right?

01:39 MH: She loves fashion.

01:41 KW: But yeah, so I'm excited that you will all be hearing from her. Before we get to the interview, we've got two quick announcements. One, Maricella's gonna share with us a fun Ellevate fact. As many of you may know, and if you don't, I hope you will soon take advantage of it, we have a daily newsletter called The Morning Boost. It provides some fantastic articles, events, polls, spotlights with wonderful women, trending news and information, and a whole lot more, so please go to EllevateNetwork.com and signup for our newsletter and take advantage of our polls. Let your voice be heard, we wanna hear from you, and we'll be sharing that information on the podcast every week.

02:26 KW: Also, before we get to today's poll, we love to hear from you, we wanna hear from you, so share your insights, your feedback with us, and more importantly, please share us with your friends, rate and review the podcast. That is so important to us to help us keep going and knowing that you like it and help raise awareness about the Ellevate podcast with others. So really, really appreciate it, personal request from me that you rate and review the podcast. If you wanna give us the most stars, we would appreciate it. But now, we're going to hear from Maricella about today's poll.

03:02 MH: One of the things you talk about with Avani is about networking, and trust me she knows tons of people. Realistically a lot of what she's doing is about building those relationships and cultivating them, and really using them to further and help other entrepreneurs. So, we asked our members, "What's the most important aspect of a professional network?" Almost half of them said quality and having relationships that can really help further your objectives.

03:31 KW: Top quality network.

03:32 MH: Yeah. 26% said that it was more about having a diverse network, and knowing lots of different people from different areas. 25% said it was depth, so really, the actual quality of each relationship that you build, making them stronger. And actually only 3% said size, knowing a lot of people is what's important. And I actually find that really interesting because a lot of what you hear, and Sallie mentions it quite a bit, is that you're more likely to get an opportunity from a loose connection, than from a close connection, so having that large network and lots of little tentacles everywhere, I guess also the diversity of it, is super important.

04:16 KW: Yeah, I'd say this would be a really hard one for me to answer because I'd probably want an "all of the above" option. Certainly having a large network has helped me as I've transitioned into other industries and functions, and being the leader of our company, I'm often tapping people from other industries for advice and insights, but I really believe in having good connections. You don't have to be best friends with everyone but good enough so if someone says, "Hey, can you introduce me to so and so?" You can, because you know them. And that's kind of the in-between of how do you know a lot of people and keep those relationships moving forward, and it's not easy.

05:00 MH: It's not. And absolutely, I agree with that, it's about actually being able to foster the relationship. So they don't need to be your best friend, but someone that you can reach out to. For me, I think I would choose diversity, honestly, knowing lots of people in different areas, and that's what I've learned from Ellevate a lot. How we see women in different industries, in different regions connecting and making it really powerful.

05:24 KW: I love that. Now let's hear from Avani, and what she thinks about networking.

[music]

05:43 KW: Avani, you are the founder and CEO of TrendSeeder, and you currently also serve as Director of the Harvard Business School Startup Studio. Tell me a little bit about your journey, 'cause I know that this is... You have not followed a linear path, and I love that you have not done that. And I'm really excited to hear how you got to where you are today.

06:03 Avani Patel: It's definitely not a linear path, and I will say, though, I don't think I would be here if I hadn't done every part of my journey. So when I was in law school, I started my first fashion label. That was my first...

06:17 KW: Because law school is not hard enough, right?

[chuckle]

06:18 KW: I mean, in the extra hours, you're just like, "Let me start a company."

06:21 AP: You know, I could watch TV or I could do something more productive. And I decided I was gonna start a fashion label, and honestly it wasn't... I actually didn't start it because I got into the idea of starting a fashion label, it actually started out of a necessity. It was more so, I went to law school right off of Michigan Avenue, and developed a bit of a shopping habit...

[chuckle]

06:45 AP: Like the rest of us, it happens. But the offering in Chicago wasn't quite what it is in New York. And so, after a while I got bored of what was being offered, and my sister and I decided to just start making things for ourselves and we kept getting stopped by people. And initially, it was, "Well, we're in Chicago, we're doing something a little bit unique, it's not that big of a deal." But then we were on Rodeo Drive and we got stopped again and that's when the first seed was planted of, "Well, maybe there's something bigger here."

07:21 AP: And neither of us knew anything about the industry, but we kinda jumped in and learned everything there was to learn about the fashion industry, and launched the company. It was fun. We learned a lot along the process. We did everything from design it, to market it, to wholesale the company. At that time, e-commerce didn't really exist, so I'm dating myself a little bit, but it was a fun journey, and I learned a lot about entrepreneurship. I also learned a lot about the industry. And what happened there was, I just saw a lot of inefficiencies, and I thought that was really interesting. And to me, one of the other things that I learned was, I wasn't really that interested in the design side of this business, but it was more so about scaling and the business side, and how do you create something that is innovative and unique, but still profitable in this industry.

08:16 KW: And had you been making clothes prior to this?

08:19 AP: Not at all.

08:19 KW: Okay.

08:19 AP: I actually knew nothing about fashion before I got to law school.

08:22 KW: Which is interesting, so I was trying to get at, is this, was this something like a passion project, or was it something that came out of necessity? And so it sounds like you were saying you weren't finding what you were looking for, more of a necessity, which is interesting. 'Cause it's like, "Well, I'm not finding what I want, so I'm just gonna do it. Even though I know nothing about it, I'm gonna do it."

08:41 AP: That's right. It was really about solving that problem for myself and then realizing I wasn't the only one that was interested in this solution. If I look back now on my childhood, I should've known I should've been an entrepreneur, I just didn't really know what that meant at the time, right? But I remember even being younger, and I have a younger brother and sister, and I would every summer it would be like, "Oh, we're gonna start a business selling this thing," and dragging them along that journey. And I just found it really interesting. I think I've always been a person that likes to solve problems. So, for me, it's not just about finding the easiest solution, but it's finding the right solution, in a creative manner.

09:27 KW: So, why law school?

09:28 AP: Why law school? 'Cause I didn't wanna go to med school. [chuckle] Actually, I was pre-med in undergrad. [chuckle] Yeah, I know, I know. I've taken the MCAT, the LSAT, and the GMAT at this point.

09:42 KW: Can you spend some hours with my daughter, please?

[laughter]

09:47 AP: So, yes. I was pre-med in undergrad and I really... I had spent, actually, I'd spent all my summers working in pharmacies. I had worked at hospitals and I really, really enjoyed that side, but as I was getting closer and closer to going to med school, I started to think about it more practically, and in this day and age, it was... A lot of that business is run by the insurance companies, and I just couldn't personally... For me, it wasn't going to be the right path if I was going to be to be told by an insurance company how to do my job, or how my practice was going to be run. And so, for me, I really very last minute had decided I didn't wanna go to med school anymore, and at this point I had already applied and gotten in and had gone through that journey. And so, a friend of mine said, "Well, I'm taking the LSAT, in a month or so. Why don't you just take that with me?"

10:54 AP: And so, not having anything else to really do, I was a sociology major. I had always... I was sociology and chemistry, and I had spent all of my time working on the medical side of things, and I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with my life. And so decided I was gonna take the LSAT and did pretty well, and so decided that I was going to apply to law schools and take it from there. And I think that also will tell you a little bit about who I am as a person. I'm not really a planner, I don't necessarily plan out the entire journey. I don't think that you can plan out the entire journey, you almost have to be open to what's out there, and it really does develop your life in certain ways.

11:39 KW: Yeah.

11:42 AP: If it wasn't for her, I don't know that I would've even thought about law school, and I did. And one of the things I learned about myself in taking the LSAT, was that I'm super analytical and I love connecting the dots. For me, the logic portion of the LSAT was really easy, which is the portion that most people struggle with, and so I realized that that was one of my strong suits. That connecting the dots in ways that maybe other people don't, and the way that I function and the way I think is a little bit different, and so it ended up being a great fit. So I went to law school and I went to Northwestern, which was great because at the time our dean, actually, was really focused on the business side of law, which was great for me...

12:27 KW: Sure.

12:29 AP: 'Cause that's what I really enjoyed. So when I got to law school I focused mainly on corporate, so all my classes were on the corporate side, besides of course the core classes that you have to take. And that's where I launched my first company, my first real company, 'cause they did have a small business clinic that did help me through that process, and so it's interesting how it all comes about.

12:53 AP: So my sister and I actually ended up running this company for a few years, but by that time we both had graduated from school. She, at that time, had been in pharmacy school, I was in law school. She went on to do marketing, I went on to be an M&A attorney, and we were running this business on the side and we were producing out of India. So I'd come home at 2:00 in the morning and call suppliers, and as I got more senior I was like, "This is just not sustainable."

13:20 KW: Yeah.

13:21 AP: It was fun! I mean, we even got to make a pair of pants for Prince and we did a fashion show at Lollapalooza, and we were selling to all of these boutiques. And it was a great journey and I don't regret it at all. But the other thing I learned was, I'm not a designer. I love it, I love aesthetic, I love design, and I love dressing myself. I'm not a designer, I'm just not that person who thinks in that way. So my sister and I both decided, well, we wanted to focus a little bit on our careers, and then that we were just gonna shut down the label 'cause it was never gonna be our full-time jobs, at that point.

14:00 KW: So you practiced law for a few years?

14:02 AP: Mm-hmm.

14:03 KW: And then what happened?

14:04 AP: So I practiced law, and then we... As I was getting more senior, the partnership discussion was going to be coming up, and I knew that was never my end game. As much as I enjoyed it, I loved the people I worked with, I was one those people who had a rare great time practicing law, I know a lot of people don't love it, but I loved the people I was working with. But I also knew that wasn't my end goal. I didn't wanna be a partner at a law firm, I didn't wanna practice forever. I knew I wanted to go back into the fashion industry, again not from the creative side, but more so from the business side. And so, around the time that fashion tech started to become a sector here in New York, I decided that was a good time for me to leave and start working on a few ideas I had. So I quit, which people thought was crazy after six and a half years of practicing, 'cause you've gone through the hard part.

15:04 KW: Wait, what year was that?

[chuckle]

15:07 AP: It was 2009. [laughter]

15:08 KW: Okay. I'm like thinking through the whole economy, particularly as it pertained to law, and I'm sure that there's a lot of people that thought that was a crazy time to leave.

15:19 AP: They did. And I will say, I do contribute a lot of what I've been able to do, to my upbringing, I think. My parents have always been supportive. One of the things my father has always said to me, he's like, "What's your worst case scenario, what are you worried about?" He's like, "You'll always have a place to live and you'll always have food on your table, so why are you so worried? You'll figure it out." And so, for me taking that risk, it wasn't as crazy as most people would probably think it is.

15:54 KW: Sure.

15:55 AP: Because I think when you view life from that standpoint, you're like, "Okay, well, I'll do it and I'll see what happens, and if the worst, worst, worst case scenario happens, I always have my family to lean back on." And I started to work on my ideas and one of the things I realized was, I didn't have the network in fashion anymore, and especially things like fashion or beauty it really, a lot of what happens in that industry is still relationship based. And so I made the decision to go back to business school here in New York, so that I could...

16:34 KW: Because you can never have too much education.

16:37 AP: No, I think... [laughter] You know what? [laughter] I don't even think I'm done. [chuckle]

16:39 KW: And what business school did you go to? Because I think this is very important.

16:45 AP: I went to Columbia.

16:46 KW: Okay. We'll make sure, Maricella, who many of you heard at the beginning of the podcast also went to Columbia, so this is...

16:52 AP: She did.

16:53 KW: An important point that I needed to make sure I brought up.

[chuckle]

16:57 AP: Yeah. And I loved it. I loved the people that went to Columbia with me, I loved being able to work on my startup there. It was such a great experience, and I met so many amazing people while I was there. But one of the things I was able to is, I was in New York and I was working on my company TrendSeeder at the time, and I was very, very focused on building out that network, because I knew that's one of the things I needed to make this company successful, and I was able to do that because I was in New York City.

17:30 KW: So, networking tips, for our audience. Can you share some of your best tips?

17:37 AP: I think be genuine. That is probably tip number one. To me, it's not networking, it's more relationship building. If you look at the list of mentors, the people we engage with, most of them, I probably know their stories, their lives. I meet with them as much as I can, it's not... I can't meet with everybody every day, I can't meet with everybody even once a month 'cause life is so busy, but it's a real relationship. For me, it's not transactional, it's more emotional. And I think for real network, that's what you want. I think the other tip is, it's not... It's give and take, it's like any relationship, right? And for me, it's not, "What can I get out of this network?" It's more so, "How can I help the people that I'm working with? How can I add value to people's lives? How do we grow together?" Versus, "What can I get out of it?"

18:38 KW: So you started TrendSeeder, and then what happened?

18:43 AP: So we started TrendSeeder, right out of business school. So I graduated in May, launched it the fourth of July.

18:50 KW: Did you have a co-founder, or was it you?

18:53 AP: So my brother was helping me at the time...

18:54 KW: Yeah, so you're really into these family businesses.

18:57 AP: Yeah, really into family businesses. At that time, besides him, no, not really, didn't have a co-founder, launched it as more of a solo founder. It was something I was working on throughout business school and not everybody has the same risk appetite. And so never really found a co-founder for what I was doing, but launched it. And very, very quickly started to learn a lot of things, and I will say one of the biggest mistakes first time entrepreneurs make is waiting too long. Because your business will morph and it will continue to morph, and it changes as you learn and as you listen to the market. Even from day one, after launching, it was like, "Oh, wait, we should do this or we should do that." And there were a lot of learnings had along the process of launching it. It's not a linear journey, it's... It will change and, like I said, you have to be open to that and you have to... You have to be open to it and you have to learn to fail fast. If something's not working, find the next solution. But make sure you are self aware that, "Okay, this isn't working, what do we do next?" Right? Failure can be, "Oh, this didn't work." Or failure can be, "Okay, I'm glad that didn't work because that led us to this." And...

20:24 KW: Absolutely.

20:24 AP: This is what's going to be the big idea, or this is what's going to really make us that billion dollar company or whatever it might be.

20:32 KW: Yeah. So today, you wear many, many hats, all these hats. So you're still the founder and CEO of TrendSeeder, and how's that going?

20:43 AP: It's great. It's been busy.

20:44 KW: You wanna tell us a little bit about the business?

20:46 AP: Sure! So, TrendSeeder now, when we originally launched we were more of an e-commerce platform for emerging fashion companies, just from my previous experience in launching a fashion label. And that pivoted into what it is now, which is more of a platform for emerging fashion and beauty companies, where we provide education, mentorship, business development and investment support. And it's funny because, again, it comes down to, as an e-commerce platform it was great and, like I said, I enjoyed fashion, but what I'm good at is that relationship building. It's connecting people, and that's at the core of what TrendSeeder is now. And it's funny how that happens, it's... As you figure out, "What am I good at and how can I add value in this process?" It comes together. And so that's what we do now. We've been in fashion, we're launching into beauty this year, and then next year we'll be launching into health and wellness as well.

21:52 KW: I know you're also the Director of the Harvard Business School Startup Studio, tell me about that.

21:58 AP: What was interesting for me about what Harvard wanted to do was, they really understood why we were doing what we were doing with TrendSeeder. They understood that the core thesis behind the entire program for TrendSeeder was to provide support to the entrepreneurs, by bringing the right people to the table, by bringing them the access to the types of people that we wanted them to reach, so that they could grow more efficiently and effectively. And so the ability to be able to build that for someone like Harvard Business School was great. I think the fact that they were so forward thinking about putting something like that here in New York City to support their alumni entrepreneurs, to me, was really exciting. Because a lot of academic institutions tend to not be super forward thinking.

22:53 KW: Yeah.

22:54 AP: It's a slower environment, for very good reasons, it's not a startup. They've got a lot of legacy behind them, and to see that they really believed in what was at the core of what I had built for TrendSeeder and that they were thinking about it in very similar ways, that I could help build that for them was a very exciting opportunity. And to be able to do it outside of fashion and beauty, 'cause it's meant for any and all of their entrepreneurs based in New York who are alumni of Harvard Business School. They have access to the programming and the mentored network and everything else that we're building there. Harvard has definitely... Its alumni are very, very much focused on entrepreneurship, and we're seeing more and more of that.

23:48 KW: That's great. So what's next for you?

23:52 AP: What's next? I mean, well, right now I'm a little bit busy building the Harvard Business School Startup Studio. We're building TrendSeeder, so we're actually launching a professional development/education platform for executives in the fashion and beauty industries. So that's really exciting. I think, honestly, eventually the idea is to raise our own fund.

24:18 KW: That's exciting. Well, when that's time, let me know. I've got my network I'm happy to connect you to. I'm sure you have your own, but then you can come back in and tell us all about that. Because...

24:28 AP: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that.

24:30 KW: You're doing great things and it's exciting to see, and it looks like you're having a really fun time with it.

24:36 AP: Thank you. Yeah, I love it. I mean, like I said, how can I not? At the end of the day, my job is to help people live their dreams and to fulfill their dreams and help these entrepreneurs. It's so exciting.

24:51 KW: Great. Well, thanks.

24:52 AP: Thank you so much for having me.


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