Talking Innovation with President Wendy Raymond
The Founders Porch webinar series returned to the virtual airwaves Oct. 23 with two alums joining President Wendy Raymond to share insight into their unexpected career paths.
Innovation is the development and implementation of breakthrough ideas that address society’s pressing issues or disrupt established practices and commercial sectors. But what that narrow definition does not capture is the amount of work, chance encounters, and willingness to change course – and, yes, fail – that stand behind the innovations that reshape our markets and modern world.
“Sometimes, it is really about putting one foot in front of the other in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles,” says Melanie Travis ’08, the founder and CEO of Andie, a sustainable women’s swimwear company committed to race, size, and generational inclusivity. “I think if you see a big brick wall in front of you, you have to figure out how to go around it. It’s both incredibly simple and the hardest thing to do, just not giving up.”
Appearing from New York via Zoom on the evening of Oct. 23, Travis shared with the Haverford community her journey from coffee runs on the sets of reality TV series to becoming a successful e-commerce entrepreneur as part of Founders Porch, the recurring online series hosted by President Wendy Raymond. Founders Porch invites alums to share how the College shaped their lives.
Travis was joined from Washington, D.C. by Ted Love ’81, who recently stepped away from his role as president and CEO of San Francisco-based Global Blood Therapeutics to chair the world’s largest biotechnology trade organization, and Shayna Nickel, associate program director of Haverford’s Innovations Program. Throughout the expansive conversation, President Raymond asked Travis and Love to share their respective stories and provide insight into how they built successful businesses.
Love credits Haverford with establishing the foundation for his career, even though it didn’t unfold precisely as he envisioned. Growing up in Alabama, he began dreaming of becoming a doctor in fifth grade, he says, and wanted to return home to provide care for his community after completing his education. However, his community did not offer the best public education, and he says he arrived at Haverford feeling overwhelmed and unprepared.
“I was quite behind, and I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it, honestly,” he recalls. “But I had great teachers.” One of those was the late Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Claude Wintner, who encouraged Love to work harder than everyone else and taught him effective studying routines.
“He taught me to not give up,” Love says. “A lot of what he taught me was just basic stuff. But I’ve used that basic stuff to get through medical school, do very well there, and get through pretty grueling medical training at Yale and later at Mass General.”
After practicing internal medicine for nearly a decade, Love’s mentor at Harvard Medical School joined biopharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb and tried to recruit him. Though he opted not to join the company, Love realized he could leverage his medical training to help discover cutting-edge therapies for some of the world’s most problematic diseases. He would go on to spend more than 30 years in the biotech industry, even emerging from retirement in California’s wine country to take the reins of Global Blood Therapeutics as it developed its groundbreaking sickle cell disease treatment, GBT440.
“So I never really practiced that much medicine after that, but it was a complete accident,” he says. “I think I would encourage students: don’t be too prescriptive about what you want to do with your life. Be open to the possibilities.”
While studying comparative literature, Travis says she built a foundation similar to Love’s at Haverford, specifically regarding “learning how to learn.” After Haverford, she received her MFA in film directing from the California Institute of the Arts. She embarked on a short stint in television but quickly discovered it wasn’t for her. Instead, she opted for a reset and took an internship at Foursquare, the once-popular app that allowed users to check in to different locations, leave reviews, and even become “mayor” if they visited enough. With a dog that’s just as much a part of her family as presidential pup Peanut, Travis eventually found herself at the pet-focused online retailer BarkBox. It was there that the idea for Andie began to form.
When BarkBox’s leadership invited her to participate in a corporate retreat held at a lake, Travis says she looked high and low for a swimsuit she could wear around the company’s CEO that would feel good, be appropriate for the setting, and was also reasonably priced. She says she hated what she eventually purchased, and throughout the trip, her female colleagues expressed similar displeasure with their attire.
“So that was the light bulb moment, and I thought if every woman that I know hates shopping for swimsuits, there’s got to be a better way. So that’s what I set out to do about seven years ago,” she says. “It seems like I was, in fact, not the only woman with that trouble.”
Andie’s fashionable and ecologically responsible swimsuits can be purchased online or at select retailers nationwide. She’s raised more than $30 million from investors to support the company and can include hip-hop luminaries Jay-Z and Beyonce as the biggest on that list.
President Raymond remarked on the themes of change, flexibility, and openness to failure that emerged from Love and Travis’ stories and asked Nickel to highlight how the Haverford Innovations Program encourages students to develop similar mindsets. It offers workshops, hackathons, and grants that give students seed money to explore their ideas and, perhaps, forge innovative careers in the mold of Love and Travis. New ideas like an app that seeks to make fashion sustainable and a video game that makes learning English as a second language accessible are among the most recent student-led projects to emerge from the program’s summer incubator.
“What I really love about the program that I offer is that we have students who don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs, perhaps as change makers, but then we also have students who are really interested in dipping into these waters,” Nickel says. “[The program] provides the platform for them to do a little bit of testing and learning for what they want to pursue in the future.”
Watch the webinar below or view previous episodes of Founders Porch on the College website.