Lisa Morales-Hellebo is a disrupter and a well respected supply chain expert. Not a newbie to the fashion tech scene, Morales-Hellebo is a VC, entrepreneur, seasoned product strategist, creative director and founder of New York Fashion Tech Lab, which she launched in 2014. A Carnegie Mellon University alumni, Morales-Hellebo previously participated in TechStars in 2012 and is active in the startup community.
Becoming The Disrupter
Everyone knows that the startup life can be brutal. This is why it is not something you should enter into lightly and I am sure that most entrepreneurs will agree with this. Being a founder has been one of the toughest roles that Morales-Hellebo has experienced. She understands first hand how when a door closes, a window opens. “After having participated in Techstars Boston in 2012 with my fashion tech contextual search engine, Shopsy, we ultimately failed,” confessed Morales-Hellebo.
She continues: “The day after I pulled the plug on the website, I got a call from ASOS’ head of Global Innovation asking me what happened, saying they were following me and that I made something they needed and have never seen before. ASOS helped me to see that even though VCs didn’t comprehend or buy into my product, that did not mean it had no value.” Adding: “Instead Of Going Into A Founder Depression, I Decided To Help Other Fashion Tech Founders Connect With The Brands And Retailers They Were Looking To Serve.”
Her experience so far has taught Morales-Hellebo that fashion tech companies have an additional hurdle in their uphill battle of raising venture. She shared, “Innovation drives growth and the fashion tech space has been starving for capital since its inception”. Adding: “Fashion tech and the fact that female founders only receive 2% of all VC funding and the outsized opportunities for a female, technical operator/entrepreneur to deploy capital in this underfunded, yet massive space, became crystal clear”.
It was a realisation that led to the entrepreneur wanting to help other fashion tech founders connect with the brands and retailers they were looking to serve. She explained: “I shared my vision for the first fashion tech accelerator to partner with big brands and retailers with Springboard Enterprises and they offered to get the first two brands on board and be the fiscal sponsor so we could launch at light speed.”
It was because of this drive to help others, Morales-Hellebo designed and launched New York Fashion Tech Lab in 2014. The program drew a lot of media interest and received quite a lot of interested applicants. Explaining it further she said: “It entailed getting the ten Founding Member brands and retailers on board for funding, to dedicate their C-suite executives to hand-select the startups that they saw adding value to their bottom line, and to give the startups access to internal operations at their companies to expedite getting the startups to a pilot or paying customer.“
Pushing The Limits of Zero Waste Production
Like anything new, the New York Fashion Tech Lab had teething problems in the beginning. Morales-Hellebo explained that for her the challenges where due to the fact that she was creating something that has never existed before. Her strength came from the fact that it is not her first rodeo. “The most challenging part was getting so many different organisations to align, coordinate C-suite internal politics, priorities, and calendars, and sign off on legal, all while raising my own compensation as I went,” admitted Morales-Hellebo.
Another thing that Morales-Hellebo has knowledge on is how the fashion industry can go about achieving zero waste in production. “We are at a unique moment in time where we no longer have the luxury of incremental change. Climate Change has imposed a timeline of ten short years before humankind will be faced with massive, forced migrations and crop failures due to severe weather and rising ocean levels”, said Morales-Hellebo.
When it comes to textile waste, she believes that now is the time for paradigm shifts. She sees localisation as being the catalyst for sustainability, circularity, and transparency using on-demand manufacturing. She remarks: “The new normal requires agility and resilience, which is now possible because we can build cyber-physical systems. All future-ready supply chains will consist of distributed, collaborative systems that are both digital and physical.”
She continues: “What does that look like in layman’s terms? It could be a shared new infrastructure of distributed, collaborative micro-factories doing small batch, quick turn, cut and sew like Suuchi.” Adding: “[Its] all connected via a shared data intelligence layer for real-time throughput, capacity and load-bearing. This “hive” would share regional logistics, and raw materials would become the new “volume,” rather than the finished products”.
As innovations continue to evolve, we are being introduced to things like digital weaving and circular textile regeneration, like Evrnu. Morales-Hellebo teaches: “Ultimately, if adopted, we could produce and recycle much of what we consume within 150-250 miles and digitally send purchased product specs to regionalised micro-factory hives that are closest to customers for localised production. Localisation, as I’ve outlined, will ultimately be faster and cheaper than trying to retrofit every node of the global apparel supply chain as it exists today”.
Fixing the Fashion Industry’s Supply Chain Problems
Picking the Supply Chain expert’s brain further, I wanted to find out whether she had any advice to bestow when it comes to fixing fashion’s supply chain problems. She first starts by stating, “The best way to reduce waste, is to focus on building out an on-demand supply chain.” I couldn’t agree more, but I wanted her to elaborate further. So I next asked her, how pivotal is the supply chain in creating an ethical fashion brand? She said: “Supply chains are like oxygen — you don’t notice it until it’s not there. Supply chains are the foundation for all future-ready, sustainable businesses”.
We are all aware that high street brands like Zara are capable of speed when it comes to reacting to our insatiable thirst for fast fashion. On this Morales-Hellebo said: “Even they [Zara] recognise that our supply chains must evolve to reduce the volume of production that goes to waste. ” She continues: “If you look at the stats behind personalisation and customisation driving higher price points, repeat purchases, and higher customer loyalty; it becomes a no brainer”.
When it comes to the role that technology plays in improving the supply chain Morales-Hellebo core vision of the future involves the technology being an enabler of exceptional consumer experiences. “Instead of technology being topical bells and whistles that have driven no long term value because they have been tied to static supply chains,” explained Morales-Hellebo. Next, I wanted to know what her thoughts on the role that AI/machine learning will play in the supply chain/production process. She said: “Everything can now speak to everything else”.
She continued: “We are at the inception of the Internet of Things applied to business, which is a massive opportunity that has never existed before this moment in history. Data is only as useful as the intelligence applied to it, so AI companies like Optimal Dynamics, which brings Hi-Dimensional AI to automating and optimising logistics and supply chains with IP that’s based on over 30 years of research at Princeton University’s CASTLE Labs; will be the foundation on which businesses derive actionable insights based on computations on the vast amounts of data that has been collected in the past, and that will be collected in the future”. I am sure that this will help to speed up decision-making and increase efficiencies across every node of every supply chain.
Looking to the future, Morales-Hellebo proudly shared that she is currently working with her co-founder, Brian Laung Aoaeh. “Brian and I, have been building The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation, starting with our first chapter in New York (The New York Supply Chain Meetup) in 2017. Since then, it has grown into the world’s first, largest, fastest-growing, and most active network of grassroots-driven communities focused on the supply chain, innovation, and technology”.
As the conversation drew to an end, Morales-Hellebo added, “Brian and I have proven to be a great team, and so we’ve decided to leverage our experience building a global supply chain ecosystem and launch REFASHIOND Ventures — an early-stage venture capital fund investing in startups that are refashioning global supply chains”.