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- UPenn’s Wharton School is the oldest and one of the most famous business schools in the world.
- With its rich history, network of notable and inspirational alumni, and entrepreneurship-geared resources, it’s prime breeding ground for new business ideas.
- 9 notable online retail startups – including the first to set the direct-to-consumer revolution in motion, Warby Parker – were founded by Wharton grads.
Founded in 1881, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is the world’s oldest collegiate business school. Its 98,000 alumni around the world include the C-suite execs and founders of companies you recognize and know well – from tech giants like Google to consumer product leaders like Johnson & Johnson.
Its recent grads are also starting to make waves in the world, particularly the world of online retail. Given the school’s emphasis on and nurturing of entrepreneurship, it’s not too surprising to find that many of the most successful direct-to-consumer startups today are the brainchilds of Wharton alumni. Some even began as class projects, proving that classrooms do have practical use.
If you’re pursuing your bachelor’s or MBA degree from Wharton, you never know if the person sitting next to you could be your next cofounder of the next big startup.
These 9 direct-to-consumer retail startups have roots in the number one business school in the country.
- Warby Parker/Facebook
The four cofounders of Warby Parker, the glasses startup that now serves as one of the foremost examples of early direct-to-consumer innovation, met as first-year MBA students. With the question, “Why do glasses cost so much?” they went from finalists in the Wharton Business Plan Competition to leaders of an e-commerce company most recently valued at $1.75 billion.
You can pick out five frames of its eyeglasses or sunglasses to try on at home, and frames start at just $95. From its inception, part of Warby Parker’s mission is to provide vision care and glasses to those in need. It has distributed more than 5 million pairs of glasses through its Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program.
One of the Warby Parker founders, Jeff Raider, eventually left the company to create another startup success, Harry’s.
Since 2013, Harry’s has been making affordable razors featuring very sharp and durable German-engineered blades. It eventually acquired its German blade manufacturer and has expanded into skin care and shower products, and accessories like travel kits. Through its convenient Shave Plan, you’ll get ongoing refills of blades and shave gel at a frequency that works for you.
In 2018, Harry’s spun off a new women’s brand called Flamingo (its general manager also went to Wharton), which is making better shaving and waxing solutions for women. Both Harry’s and Flamingo products are available at Target, where both brands are top-rated best sellers.
Husband-and-wife cofounder duo Andres Modak and Rachel Cohen met as MBA students at Wharton, but it wasn’t until they moved to New York together after graduation that their business-school education really kicked into gear. As they shopped for their apartment, they noticed their home design taste was underrepresented at traditional retailers, so they launched their own brand, Snowe.
Snowe is where you can find luxurious and durable home essentials such as sheets, towels, and dinnerware at accessible prices. To make your home makeover transition as easy as possible, it offers pre-curated bundled sets, or you can create your own to assemble your perfect bed, bathroom, and table. Make sure to shrug on its fluffy, top-selling bathrobe as you settle in.
The founders of Cotopaxi met at a UPenn reunion, where their similar backgrounds in entrepreneurship and passion for helping others led to the founding of Cotopaxi, a B-Corp that sells sustainable outdoor products, puts on adventure scavenger hunts around the world, and provides targeted grants to poverty-eradicating nonprofits.
In promoting the joy of exploring the great outdoors, it’s well-known for making smartly designed travel packs and comfortable jackets. On the social impact side, it donates 1% of profits to three pillars linked to poverty alleviation: health, education, and livelihood.
Stephen Kuhl and Kabeer Chopra first “founded” Burrow as a project for their entrepreneurship class at Wharton. Prior to modular, sofa-in-a-box companies like Burrow, buying a couch was often too expensive. Add the hours-long pain of moving and assembling it, and you have a piece of furniture no one likes shopping for.
Through Burrow, the founders introduced comfortable and affordable seating options that you can put together in around 10 minutes (even its King Sofa only takes up to 20 minutes). You choose the fabric color, wood color, and arm style, and it’s easy to add or take away seats. Plus, shipping is free and only takes up to five days.
In short, Burrow is the sofa Kuhl and Chopra wish they had while in school.
Stone and Strand
- Stone and Strand/Facebook
While pursuing her MBA at Wharton, this jewelry startup founder began thinking of ways to discover and shop for fine jewelry, without the stuffiness of the traditional experience. Stone and Strand both curates exciting new brands and offers its own minimalist, ethically sourced pieces.
As part of the Wharton startup incubator Venture Initiation Program, the company proved early on that there was indeed a place in the online marketplace for hand-picked, on-trend, and appropriately priced jewelry. Led by an entirely female team, it also regularly pushes female designers to the forefront.
Christina Carbonell, a cofounder at online kids basics brand Primary, received her bachelor’s degree from Wharton, then went on to Harvard Business School. Along with her former coworker and fellow mom Galyn Bernard, she started selling soft, durable clothes in a large variety of colors (but with no obvious patterns, textures, or characters) for kids through age 12.
Nearly everything from the brand costs less than $25, so you’re never overpaying for kids clothes, and all the styles are gender neutral. Even as traditional retailers like Gymboree are closing up shop, Primary is thriving because of its simple, curated, and affordable approach to dressing your kids.
Alex Friedman was working on an early concept for Lola, a startup that sells tampons, pads, and other feminine-health products, at Wharton when she met fellow Dartmouth alum Jordana Kier through mutual friends.
A discussion of what tampons were made out of sparked the idea of more transparent period products (Lola’s contain no toxins, dyes, or synthetic fibers), delivered more conveniently. In 2018, it expanded into sexual-health products.
Lola is also making periods better for people who usually lack access and has donated more than 1 million tampons nationwide since 2015.
At Wharton, Koio cofounders Johannes Quodt and Chris Wichert bonded over their love for high-end sneakers, both spending “much of their young adult lives saving up to purchase luxury sneakers when they went on sale.” The disconnect, however, between the price of these shoes and how little they were actually worn every day led them to turn their passion into a business.
Koio’s Italian-made leather sneakers, the work of a manufacturer who produces for luxury brands like Chanel, Hermes, and Saint Laurent, range from about $180 to $300, and are comfortable and versatile enough to wear often.