She Cofounded a Startup While Trying to Cure Cancer

March 17, 2015

2:00 pm

Before Boston startup Wardrobe Wake-up shut down last week, Barbra Dickerman’s daily to-do list might have looked something like this:

  • Pick up dry cleaning
  • Class at Harvard
  • Pack for New York
  • Work on curing cancer

Founding a startup and going to Harvard are probably two of the hardest jobs you could give yourself – separately. But Dickerman took them on together, wearing the dual hats of Wardrobe Wake-up cofounder and graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health, pursuing a Masters in epidemiology with a focus on cancer, for around two years.

1. Pick up dry cleaning

Wardrobe Wake-up aimed to make designer clothes accessible and affordable for young women. The premise was simple: rent an item (which would normally retail at $200-700), keep it for as long as you want, and then buy it or send it back.

And the person buying and sending out all those clothes behind the scenes? That was Dickerman herself. She personally went to trade shows to source designer garments, matched them to users depending on their style, then packed them up and shipped them out at the post office. When the garment came back, she was the one taking it to the dry cleaner’s to get it ready for the next user.

Wardrobe Wake-up had a waitlist of over 1,000 people, but could only admit 50 – Dickerman only had so many hours in the day to shop, ship, and dry-clean. According to Boston Business Journal, part of the reason they shut down was because they couldn’t raise funding, which would have allowed them to hire buyers and stylists to take some of the work off Dickerman’s hands.

2. Class at Harvard

Dickerman worked out of her apartment, so when it was time for class at Harvard she could just head straight over. Both her startup and her Masters degree were hatched around the same time – in 2012, she was laying down the foundations for Wardrobe Wake-up and sending in her grad school applications. She knew it would be a full plate, but she couldn’t deny either of her interests.

With 16 hours of class a week, Dickerman takes home endless readings and studies for exams just like any other student. She learned to manage her time as an ICU nurse in Seattle, where delays can be deadly and you have to constantly think on your feet. That helped her get in the habit of planning far in advance, anticipating the worst, and multi-tasking like crazy.

3. Pack for New York

About three or four times a year, Dickerman traveled to a different fashion trade show to find new styles, meet designers, and add to Wardrobe Wake-up’s inventory. She went to one show after NY Fashion Week in February, for example, where designers showed off their ready-to-wear collections.

4. Work on curing cancer

Of course, Dickerman is doing a Masters, which means research in addition to her classes. She started the year off with a one-week research trip to Finland, to meet with scientists about a famous cancer study on twins. Back home in Boston, Dickerman still has phone meetings with her Nordic counterparts and plans to return to the region for a longer visit in the summer.

As a scientist, her job is to analyze a problem, collect lots of data, and come up with creative solutions – the same thing she did at Wardrobe Wake-up. It may seem like a strange combination of interests and a way-too-full schedule, but Dickerman enjoyed it while it lasted.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of bridging multiple worlds,” says Dickerman. But “none of it would really work if you don’t have the drive to do it, which has to come from a true passion for what you’re doing. It is a lot of work, and if you’re not really into it, you won’t be able to keep up the momentum.”

Of course, there are other reasons that startups can lose momentum, like working tirelessly and pouring money into the business without figuring out how to turn a profit. It’s always sad to see a startup close, but I expect we haven’t heard the last from Dickerman – the cancer researcher or the entrepreneur.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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