Camilla Olson defies the norms. She relishes taking on big challenges and has a proven record of overcoming them as a successful serial entrepreneur. Olson talks with Lisa Van Dusen about what motivates her: solving big, consequential problems, creating companies, building teams and championing women —- ideally all in combination.
Her secret sauce is recognizing an opportunity to adapt a solution or technology from one market to an entirely new one. As founder and CEO of Savitude, Olson is currently focused on helping working women present their best selves while solving an immense problem in the fashion industry through a machine-learning, shape-driven shopping app.
Olson has been part of more than five startups and had two exits, including one IPO. It's the rare entrepreneur that goes from working at a startup to becoming a venture capitalist. It's even rarer for someone who hasn't been an entrepreneur to enter the venture world. Olson did just that, starting out in the corporate world, then becoming a venture capitalist (female, no less) before launching into the startup world. And she didn't drop out of college. She has a bachelor's degree, an MBA and an MFA.
Inspired, in part, by her high school homeroom teacher in the Washington, D.C. area, Olson realized at a young age that you could "counter the culture." Her lay teacher "didn't last long" at the all-girls Catholic school because she "spoke freely," Olson said, but she made a lasting impression on Olson. That exposure, along with living in a house of feminists at the University of Maryland, set Olson on a lifelong course of advocating for women.
Olson is motivated and frustrated in equal parts by Silicon Valley's treatment of women in startups, tech, venture capital — the whole eco-system. She personally experienced the nightmare of founding a company and being replaced by a male CEO by a venture firm.
Olson is resourceful, committed and laser-focused. She started her entrepreneurial career helping women lead healthier lives, especially in connection with pregnancy and neonatal care. This was catalyzed, in part, due to the unfortunate death of her first son as a result of a botched amniocentesis.
After a long run in pharmaceuticals and biotech, Olson went back to school to study fashion design in 2007. When she accompanied her daughter on a tour of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, she was smitten. Olson was the one who enrolled. After a jumpstart on the runway of Lincoln Center at during New York Fashion Week in 2010 featuring her collection that represented "women as rebels," Olson went on to design and sell her own clothing line — Camilla Olson — to serve working women in a real way.
Olson later shifted gears to create Savitude. She realized that retailers and brands were in a pickle: They were selling clothes without regard to women's body shapes, resulting in unhappy customers, high return rates and a frustrating retail experience for all sides of the equation.
According to Olson, "A $30 billion return problem, 30 percent of eCommerce clothing purchases, is killing the retail market, and the biggest reason is the concept of 'fit' or 'it doesn't look good on me.' Poor fit and perception may be based in measurements, and this is the approach of other companies, but more often it is due to poor choice of clothing silhouette or design elements."
Wherever she is, Olson excels at crafting business models, formulating strategies and executing marketing plans — all while solving gnarly pain points.
Since this conversation, Olson has been on a fast track. She's participated in an incubator for veteran founders, starred on the stage of TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in New York City, and joined Techstars Retail Accelerator in partnership with Target in Minneapolis.
What's underneath each of these endeavors? An abiding commitment to helping women move forward, an insatiable curiosity, a habit of careful observation of human behavior, and a keen sense for what's needed in the world and what comes next. There's also certitude that she can lead others — including men — forward to solve the next problem.
• Watch the video here.
• To watch previous First Person video interviews, click here.
Host/interviewer, Lisa Van Dusen
Video, Veronica Weber
Production managers, Ahana Ganguly and Lavanya Mahadevan
This conversation took place on Sept. 15, 2016 at Camilla Olson's home in Palo Alto.