Julie Bornstein, Founder and CEO of THE YES, is a pioneer of the e-commerce era. After working in politics, nonprofits and fashion, she found her way to investment banking in the late 1990s. Spoiler alert: She didn’t like banking, but the career was a gateway to the new world of commerce. “I was working on the IPO of Bebe and the sale of Seattle’s Best Coffee to AFC, sitting across the table from these management teams, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do; I want to be on the retail side of business,’”' she says. At the very same time, a little startup that would shake up the commerce world was only just emerging. “The day that Amazon went live, I remember exactly where I was sitting when my brain exploded,” she says. “I thought, ‘If you can do this for books, you can do this for fashion.’” A fashion devotee herself, Bornstein could not wait to join the next evolution of shopping. She hustled her way into business development, landing a job at Starbucks. After two years at the coffee giant, Bornstein convinced Nordstrom.com CEO Dan Nordstrom to hire her. Full of ideas, she wanted to reimagine the retailer’s online presence; during her tenure from 2000 to 2005, sales soared from $10M to $350M per year.
From Urban Outfitters to Sephora to Stitch Fix
Bornstein kept evolving along with the capabilities of technology. She was the Head of E-Commerce at Urban Outfitters, and CMO and Chief Digital Officer of Sephora, always “advocating for the importance of the digital business,” she says. After Nordstrom, UO, and Sephora, Bornstein had seemingly done everything but join a digitally-native startup when Katrina Lake asked her to join Stitch Fix as COO in 2015. “I decided, I'll either stay and run this company when Katrina decides to leave, or it will really give me the experience that I need and want if I’m going to start my own business,” she says. She ended up falling in love with the ability to move fast and innovate. “I loved the pace, working with the investors, and being able to start from scratch building things the right way." Bornstein was acquainted with e-commerce platforms, but Stitch Fix took retail tech a step further. “The added layer was working with the data science team to see how they were building these models to learn about the user,” she says. She saw a unique opportunity for THE YES to serve a segment of the market spending a disproportionate amount of their wallet on fashion. “Stitch Fix was a great training ground, because I learned a lot of things that I would do differently,” says Bornstein. For instance, Stitch Fix had separate teams for data science and engineering, but building a real-time experience and model for shoppers really required a collaborative combination of both. “Our engineers needed to be machine-learning engineers, who are building these things into the customer experience,” she says. As she was leaving Stitch Fix, Bornstein was being recruited by several big retailers to be the CEO. But after decades in and around e-commerce, she’d seen it all: the inefficiencies of searching for the exact right product on a traditional platform, the problem with the collaborative filtering used by giants like Amazon, the drawbacks of legacy tech and talent. “I just realized it would be better to start from scratch than to build [THE YES] off the back of a bigger business.”
Saying YES to a New Idea for Ecommerce
Bornstein had a vision to deeply understand the entire apparel category, taking into account the nuance of what a consumer might like—a small puff sleeve versus an exaggerated puff sleeve, for instance. “We needed a system to understand all the dimensions of a product, so that as we learn about the user, that matchmaking can happen,” she says. “We spent two years developing the most extensive taxonomy there is. We are building scalable systems that are highly intelligent to adapt to your shopping." Bornstein first toyed with the idea of starting a company following her tenure at Sephora. “But I talked to an investor friend of mine, who told me I was too old to start a business,” she says. “He said, ‘You need to be young and scrappy and hungry.’ And I got in my head about that, though I later decided, ‘I may not have youth, but I have so much experience. I have seen so many things; my pattern recognition of problems is so strong.’” Launching a startup is super-scary, she says, but her focus and passion for the space made her so well-suited to start her own business. “If anyone was going to start a technology and AI-based fashion business, it’s me,” she says. At heart, Bornstein is the YES consumer: fashion-forward, brand savvy, knows what she likes. She also loves introducing others to just the right bag or perfect pair of shoes. “I’ve always loved shopping for people,” she says, mentioning she just found her sister the perfect navy heel. "You have to know all the brands.” THE YES was practically written in Bornstein’s DNA: “I was like, 'Why can’t I build that vehicle for the world?'” And so, she did.