Women In Business Q&A: Heidi Zak, Co-Founder, ThirdLove

Women In Business Q&A: Heidi Zak, Co-Founder, ThirdLove
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Heidi Zak is the co-founder of ThirdLove, an innovative bra and underwear brand that believes fit should come first. In addition to offering signature half-cup sizes to provide a more precise fit, ThirdLove has developed a patented mobile sizing app that empowers a woman to measure herself from home. Founded in 2013 and based in San Francisco, the company has raised over $13M from investors including NEA and Andreessen Horowitz. Prior to ThirdLove, Zak cut her teeth in retail at Aeropostale where she quickly rose to Director of the retail giant, before moving to marketing at Google. Zak holds an undergraduate degree in Economics from Duke University and an MBA from MIT Sloan.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think it is my nature to be tenacious, which I think is very important in leadership - I believe you must have strong determination and be persistent. When I was at MIT Sloan I wanted to get a job in retail for the summer. There were no retail companies that were coming to campus and there were very few retail companies that even took summer MBA interns. I knew that I had to get retail experience that summer, to have a chance at a great full time offer after school. I put together a list of the top 20 companies that I was interested in. I sent emails to HR and submitted my resume online. The response rate wasn't very good, I wasn't lining up interviews. I could have given up, settled, taken a job in another sector. Instead I sat down and started cold-calling each company one by one. And it worked. I was connected with an SVP at Aeropostale, eventually securing the summer internship, and then a year later a full time job.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at ThirdLove?
My background is an interesting blend of retail and technology. I spent 4 years at Aeropostale in New York City, launching and operating their international business, before coming out to San Francisco to take a role at Google focused on marketing to large retail companies. Both roles allowed me understand opportunities in traditional retail models that could be created by using technology to design better products and create a better shopping experience.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ThirdLove?
My proudest accomplishment is creating the 24/7 Classic T-Shirt bra -- it's a customer favorite, it's been featured by InStyle as one of their favorites, and I love hearing from women about how it is so comfortable they sleep in it. The biggest challenge has been to remain focused, to learn to say "no" and to prioritize and be as efficient as possible.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
The two most important qualities you need to be a leader are determination & flexibility. Determination to pursue your goals, and flexibility to roll with the punches! And as I mentioned before, be tenacious. Do your best to not take no for an answer without being annoying. I'd also say to build a solid network early -- that will be a HUGE help. Once you're in a leadership role, hire people who are smarter than you. It's all about building a strong, passionate and engaged team around you. You should spend your time on parts of the business that are your core strengths and fill in your team with others who bring a different perspective and different skills to the table.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
You can't do everything at once. There is a constant challenge of identifying the biggest opportunities and spending energy on the initiatives that really matter. We're focused on getting every woman into a great-fitting bra, so that's what we think about when making every important decision!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I would need MUCH longer days to feel like I could have it all, and we all make choices as individuals about what's important to us, what drives us, etc. For me, it's about figuring out how to balance being a mom, being a wife, being a startup founder, being a friend, and trying to do all those things decently well but also understanding on each of those that it's not going to be perfect and not every day is everybody in that group going to feel as much attention as they should be. I'm still coming to grips with that!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think that women often feel less qualified to apply for roles even when they have an identical background or skill set as a male who applies -- women seem to think that they need 100% of the listed qualifications to apply, whereas men tend to go for it even if they're missing a few. Both women and recruiters need to encourage females that they don't need to know everything to apply for a role -- and what can it hurt, take a risk!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has been very important to me. One of my earliest mentors was when I was directly out of college in investment banking. She's been a role model, a sounding board, a reference and a good friend. I've tried to pay it forward by doing the same for other young women -- I firmly believe that we must create a strong next generation of young women that have even more opportunities than we did to continue moving forward.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Definitely Jessica Herrin, the founder of Stella & Dot. She is also a mom and has shown that you can build a big business that positively impacts women, all while raising a family. She's been a huge inspiration and a great friend.

What do you want ThirdLove to accomplish in the next year?
Our best-selling 24/7 memory foam bra represents 35% of our sales and has a return rate of under 10%. Our customers tell us that this bra is "the one" they've been searching for. Our design team launched a new 24/7 collection that will include new styles, color and additional sizes, and we're continuing to build that out over the next year to be even more inclusive (we already carry 47 different sizes, from AA to F, with half cups in between!) We also have a lot of fun things in the works for the holidays, so keep an eye out for that.