Interview with Alexandra Wilkis Wilson

March 21, 2011

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

Inspired by a love of fashion and the excitement of a New York sample sale, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson founded Gilt Groupe to share her love and excitement with a larger online audience.

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson

With over twelve years of international experience in luxury goods and retail, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson is Founder and Chief Merchandising Officer of Gilt Groupe, an innovative company that has revolutionized the fashion industry and ecommerce in general. Each day, Gilt offers its members insider prices for a curated selection of highly coveted merchandise, including apparel, accessories and lifestyle products for women, men and children, home entertaining and decor, along with luxury travel packages and fantastic offers on local services and experiences. Since Gilt Groupe’s November 2007 launch, Alexandra has been featured in Forbes, Fortune, Crain’s, The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Wear Daily, InStyle, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Observer in addition to on-air appearances on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and FOX. Prior to co-founding Gilt Groupe, Alexandra oversaw retail operations at Bulgari, managing 15 North American stores. Before that, she managed Leather Goods Sales Planning for Louis Vuitton North America. She began her career working for three years in investment banking at Merrill Lynch predominately based in London. She subsequently worked as a consultant for retail guru Marvin Traub at Financo Inc. Alexandra holds a B.A. from Harvard College where she graduated Magna Cum Laude and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. Alexandra speaks five languages. She lives in New York City, her hometown, with her family.

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson

Transcript: 

An Interview with Alexandra Wilkis Wilson Founder and Chief Merchandising Officer, Gilt Groupe

Date: March 21, 2011

NCWIT Entrepreneurial Heroes: Interview with Alexandra Wilkis Wilson

[intro music]

Lee Kennedy:  Hi. This is Lee Kennedy, board member of the National Center for Women in Information Technology, or NCWIT. I'm also CEO of Bolder Search. This is a part of a series of interviews that we're having with fabulous entrepreneurs, women who have started IT companies in a variety of sectors, and all of whom just have terrific stories to tell us about being entrepreneurs. With me here today is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.



Larry Nelson:  Hi. I am so happy to be here. This is going to be an excellent interview. I know my wife in particular, who is also my business partner, is very anxious to hear this interview.

Lee:  Great. Today we're interviewing Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, who is the founder and chief merchandising officer of the Gilt Groupe. It's an innovative company that's revolutionized the fashion industry and e‑commerce in general. Alexandra has been featured on "Forbes Fortune," "The Wall Street Journal," and many times on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox. Welcome, Alexandra. We're thrilled to have you today.

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson:  Thanks for having me. Lee:  Before we start, Alexandra, can you tell us a little bit about the Gilt Groupe and what's new there?

Alexandra:  Sure. We launched Gilt Groupe in November 2007. We were inspired by a love of fashion and the excitement of the New York City sample sale. We wanted to bring this excitement online for the first time in the U.S. Today, three and a half years later, we have really grown into a lifestyle business where we sell, on our website, every single day, beautiful merchandise, curated by our teams of buyers and merchants across many categories. We sell women's, men's, home decor, children's, beauty. We have a set called Jet Setter, which is all about luxury and high‑end travel around the world. Our newest launch is called Gilt City, where we offer local experiences. We are live there in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Boston, Miami, Chicago, and also in Tokyo, because I forgot to mention we have Gilt Japan as well.

Lee:  Wow. That is exciting.

Larry:  Great. Alexandra:  We've been busy.

Lee:  We'd love to hear how you first got into technology, and then what technologies do you think are cool today?

Alexandra:  Prior to founding Gilt Group, I had never worked in technology officially, in any capacity. I had been working for Bulgari and Louis Vuitton after business school, in much more of a bricks‑and‑mortar environment. My co‑founder, Alexis Maybank, is the reverse of that. She had worked at eBay. She was a very early employee there, and scaled from about 40 to 5,000 employees over the five‑year period, so she had terrific e‑commerce experience. However, I would say I've always been a pretty early adopter of using new technologies as a consumer.

Lee:  It sounds like you two had a good combo in your backgrounds.

Alexandra:  Absolutely. Lee:  The second part of the question was, what do you think is really cool in as far as technology, gadgets?

Alexandra:  There are so many technologies that I think are cool today. Probably my most recent purchase is Apple TV, which I just love. It's a chance to bring together a lot of different forms of media together from having our photographs, to Netflix and movies and music, all kinds of different sources that we use on a day to day basis, whether it's on the computer or TV. It's all in one place. Of course, I have an iPad. As soon as iPad launched, I had one, and actually I'm proud to say that when iPad launched, Gilt had a great app from day one. I love this app. If you haven't taken a look at it, you should download it. It's free, and it makes shopping on the go a lot easier. We also of course have an iPhone app, an Android, and we have mobile as well. Lee:  Cool.

Larry:  Wow. We'll make sure that we put a link to that app, how's that? [laughter]

Alexandra:  That would be great. Thanks.

Larry:  All right. Why are you an entrepreneur? What is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?

Alexandra:  Sure. Prior to founding Gilt Groupe, my resume didn't look like an entrepreneurial resume, but I think that is something that is innate and something I was born with, in terms of my creativity, my spirit. My father's an entrepreneur. I was the little girl growing up in New York City who loved to have lemonade stands. While I'd have a lemonade stand, I would sell the bracelets that I made off of my wrists because someone would tell me that they loved that bracelet. I was always into little business ideas from a very young age. I had a babysitting business that I built. So I think it's something that comes from within. Something that's important to think about is there's so many different types of entrepreneurs. There are the people with the big ideas, and then there are the people who can take an idea and really run with it and execute it. I think both types of entrepreneurs are equally important in creating a startup that can really become successful.

Lee:  It definitely sounds like it was in your blood.

Larry:  Yeah, that's a fact. Lee:  When you think back about your career path, who's really been a role model or influential in supporting you in this career path?

Alexandra:  My parents have always been very supportive and involved in my education, and after my education, in my career path and the different choices I have made along the way. I definitely spoke a lot with my parents. My husband also played an important role. I think he is the one who helped give me that confidence to push me forward and take a risk and do something I have never done before. So I think it begins with family, absolutely. But it's also important to have mentors and a figurative personal board of advisers of people that you can go to for advice, to brainstorm ideas, to have sometimes a sanity check. As I've seen my career progress over the years, I think that personal, figurative board of advisers actually does evolve over time, and at different stages in one's career, you need different bits of advice. You also meet a lot more people along the way.

Larry:  Boy, I'll say. With your brick‑and‑mortar background, along with your high‑tech‑ness today, what is the toughest thing that you've had to do along the way in your career? Alexandra:  I think that's a hard question. I'm only 34, and I expect to have a long career ahead of me. I think there are always tough moments, from some difficult days and being exhausted to making big decisions of when to move on from an opportunity, when to launch something, start something new. There have been many moments where I've had to seek guidance. Right out of business school I was very focused on working in luxury. I worked for Louis Vuitton in their management and training program. I literally was, for a year, standing on the shop floor, on the sales floor, working directly with customers. Sometimes that would be very humbling and I would wonder if it was a crazy decision to be doing a job like that, or if maybe it was really smart to understand retail from the bottom up. Today I think it was smart, but at the time, I certainly did question myself.

Lee:  It kind of leads into our next question. If you were sitting here with a young person and giving them advice about entrepreneurship, what advice would you give them?

Alexandra:  Well, I love speaking with entrepreneurs and people who are considering doing something entrepreneurial, so there are a lot of tidbits I would share. One is to figure out what you're really passionate about, what you're good at, what makes you so inspired and excited that if you were doing something from a career perspective 24/7, what would make you jump out of bed in the morning and run to work and it wouldn't really feel like work? I think when work feels like work, it's not as fun. I think it's important to have fun on a job, to learn on the job, to be around people who you respect, who you can learn from. I think learning is so important, no matter how old you are and how experienced you are. I think it's important to be OK with failure. I think if you're so worried about, "Well, what if this fails? What do I do if this fails?" then that's just setting yourself up for not a good situation. It's OK to fail. Some entrepreneurs learn their most valuable mistakes from having a rough start. You can always start again and do something different. So go for it, but make sure you have a great team of people you really trust, that you really know very well, because when times are tough, you see people's true colors. You want to make sure that you really are close with the team that you start a business with.

Larry:  I can relate to everything that you have said so far. My wife and I, we started 12 companies over the years, and we've always told people we've learned more from the failures than we did from the great successes.

Alexandra:  I believe that. Larry:  Yeah. Just a little introspection here. What are the personal characteristics that you think that you have that give you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?

Alexandra:  There are probably a few things, I would say. One is I'm a very hard worker. I'm very dedicated. I'm responsible and reliable. I've always had this sort of fire in my belly, whether you want to call it ambition or drive or just enthusiasm for something when I'm really passionate about it. I think those are all important qualities to have. I also love people. I think I can read people pretty well. I speak several languages. I really speak several languages. I speak English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, but I can also speak in a nuanced way, different languages. Which, what I mean to say is I can be equally comfortable speaking to a CEO as I am speaking with the CFO, the CMO, a very junior person, a designer, someone in marketing, PR. Really, at all levels of a company. In terms of what I had built with Gilt Groupe and convincing thousands of brands to work with us, I've relied on this ability to communicate with different people, different levels of people, different backgrounds, different mindsets, and being able to adjust my message and my positioning based on that person or that company's point of view.

Lee:  That definitely helps.

Larry:  Yeah, you bet.

Lee:  When you think of your long days and struggling through different challenges in the startup you've been in, how do you bring balance into your personal and professional life?

Alexandra:  Well, I'm still learning how to do that, so if anyone has advice, I'm always open to hearing how other people do that well. But I'm very organized, and I think that's important. I'm also a new mother, so that forces me to be even more organized than I was in the first place. I think it's important to take time for oneself, for family, for friends. But there are always going to be moments where things are a little bit out of balance. There are going to be time periods where I have to work really hard, I have to travel. I'm not going to be able to spend as much time with my family. That's OK, and I'm OK with that, as long as overall, I can find that type of balance. I certainly rely on technology in terms of communicating with the people that are important to me.

Lee:  That's inspiring. You've started this company and you've had a baby.

Larry:  Speaking of that, you've got a new baby, you've already accomplished a great deal at your young tender age. What is next for you?

Alexandra:  I'm still having a great time. I'm learning a lot, and I think as long as I'm continuing to learn and interact with people that inspire me, I will keep going as is. I love what we're doing and creating with Gilt Groupe, so I think I'm here for a while.

Larry:  All right. Sounds wonderful. Lee:  Thank you so much for interviewing with us today. We've enjoyed hearing your story, and we look forward to having it up on w3w3.com as well as ncwhit.org. Please pass this along to friends and family and anyone that's interested in becoming an entrepreneur. Larry:  Isn't that a fact. In fact, some of the parents who are raising their children to give them a little entrepreneurial shove.

Alexandra:  Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

Lee:  Thank you, Alexandra.

Larry:  Thank you, Alexandra. [music]