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Today, ecommerce plus size fashion and styling company Dia&Co has raised $95 million, has a base of 4 million customers across 50 states and has a staff of 750 employees in four offices in New York, L.A., Dallas and Indianapolis. But four years ago, when Nadia Boujarwah launched the business with her co-founder Lydia Gilbert, she had zero retail experience.
So what gave her the confidence to launch? Boujarwah said that it was the potential of who their idea could reach — the 67 percent of women in the U.S. who wear a size 14 and above who retailers largely ignore — that helped her take the leap.
“I have been a member of that community all my life,” Boujarwah said. “Ultimately the ability to play a role in changing a set of experiences that have been so formative in my own life — and unfortunately in a negative way, in the lives of so many other women — was a powerful enough force for me to overcome the fear and risk [of leaving a] full time paying job to strike out on my own and attempt to build a business… I had to follow my gut and create something that helped women like me.”
But even if she and Gilbert knew they had a concept that would resonate and MBAs from Harvard Business School where they met and first, Boujarwah said that fundraising was among the most difficult hurdles they had to deal with in the early days of the business. Boujarwah recalled having a tough time getting buy-in from traditional investors who didn’t see the potential of their business.
“We were told ‘no’ by every VC we spoke to, and it was over a year before we heard a ‘yes.’ My co-founder Lydia and I spent the year bootstrapping, focused obsessively on proving to the world what I knew so well from my personal experience: that plus size women have the same desires to participate in fashion as our smaller-sized peers, we just have never been given a shopping experience worth our time or money,” Boujarwah explained. “The initial fear was that it was going to be hard to prove to people what we saw until someone gave us a chance.”
The initial capital they were able to raise came not from traditional investors, but from friends and family. But once they had that clear proof of concept, and gained more traction with investors, it still wasn’t necessarily clear sailing. “The vast majority of investors we met were male, and it was often difficult for them to conceptualize the need for something like Dia because they really didn’t have a reference point — in fact, many told us they’d ask their wives about it,” Boujarwah recalled.
Boujarwah said these experience taught her the importance of sticking to the company’s goal of championing this community and finding partners who believed in them and would help them scale at a rapid rate, without sacrificing core cultural tenets like trust and empathy.
“The fact that we serve an underserved customer was one of the obstacles [to getting funded] and that was just something that was non-negotiable,” Boujarwah said. “Advocating not only for her, the customer, in those conversations, but also for ourselves as female founders and waiting, making the hard decision to take money from friends and family, holding out so we could find institutional investors that really saw the vision that we saw and just focusing on the things that we had control over — which were getting the business off the ground, spending time with our customers. … Three years later, it forced a prioritization in the business around what we’re doing and why we’re here. That’s incredibly valuable.”
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