Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake Talks About Leading A Public Company & Her Upcoming Maternity Leave

Photo: Courtesy of Stitch Fix.
The last time we spoke with Katrina Lake, the Stitch Fix CEO had recently taken the online personal styling company she founded public, a feat that made her the only woman to lead a tech IPO in 2017.
Despite a rocky start — the company didn't IPO at the price Lake wanted — the months since have brought a series of wins: The release of two new product divisions (Extras and, soon, Kids), a 30% increase in active clients, and two consecutive quarters of beating Wall Street's revenue expectations. There have also been some growing pains: Stitch Fix shares fell slightly in late May after Lake said she didn't see Amazon's new foray into fashion, Prime Wardrobe, as a threat at the Code Conference.
Last week, we spoke with Lake about her role since last November's IPO and the competition she's facing from Amazon. During our conversation, Lake also exclusively told Refinery29 she is pregnant with her second child, a son, who is due in November.
Lake's decision to take a 16-week maternity leave will likely make headlines: As the CEO of a public company, motherhood becomes newsworthy and often — fairly or unfairly — ignites a national conversation about working mothers. The highly publicized (and scrutinized) pregnancy of former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer comes to mind: She drew criticism when it was revealed she would only take two weeks of maternity leave, and sparked more controversy when she built a nursery at the office and banned working from home.
Lake says she'll be taking a full maternity leave in hopes of setting an example for other female CEOs, as well as her employees, the majority of whom are female. Ahead, Lake opens up about her company, her maternity plans, and why Stitch Fix can take on Amazon's Prime Wardrobe.
You've been the CEO of a public company for eight months now. How does that differ from being the CEO of a private company?
"I talk about how I have to rehire myself for the job every year and that’s undoubtedly been true this year. By definition, a lot of the things that we do are more public. In some ways, it’s made it better. We’ve always been a disciplined company— we built a $1 billion revenue company with $43 million in capital — but in ways that are good, it forces us to be even more disciplined.
"I spend my time in different ways, too. We kind of had this luxury of having just two main investors historically and now we have many, many more. It means I spend a lot more time with investors, but it also means I learn a lot more from investors and people who have a different point of view and are looking at the business in new ways.
"There are definitely some elements that are pretty different from before, but enough of the business has stayed the same and stayed consistent that it feels like a new job, but it doesn’t feel like a new company or new strategy. It just means I’m spending my time in slightly different ways."
Do you miss being on the ground floor on a day-to-day basis?
"I don’t. Seven years ago when I was on the ground, packing fixes and emailing clients directly, it was almost not even in the peripheral vision that someday we would have the honor to be a company that everyone could hold shares in. This was the remote, maybe someday in a million years goal.
"You can certainly look back with nostalgia — it was fun and crazy when we were all packing fixes together, but there were also times when we were eight weeks away from not making payroll. There were times when we were wondering if the company would be around in a few months. Now, we have the great privilege to be a public company and have shareholders who are rooting for us and are supportive of our business. We're so lucky to get to be here."

"We haven’t seen Prime Wardrobe or much of what Amazon has been working on as being competitive to [Stitch Fix's] discovery element."

Katrina Lake, CEO, Stitch Fix
Where do you see Stitch Fix today in comparison to where Amazon is with Prime Wardrobe?
"Prime Wardrobe makes it easier for people to buy and return things and I think that’s very consistent with what Amazon is good at, which is really the logistics and making sure people have access to things that are cheap and fast. That works great when you know exactly what you want to buy. So, if you buy replacement garbage bags for your diaper can or you’re buying a refill for soap, cheap, fast, and easy delivery is what you’re looking for.
"But at the end of the day we solve a very different problem than Amazon does. We’re in the business of discovery and helping people weed through the millions and millions of SKUs out there to figure out exactly which ones are best for them. We haven’t seen Prime Wardrobe or much of what Amazon has been working on as being competitive to that discovery element. At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a pair of jeans that fit you, even if [Amazon] makes it easier to buy and return things, you are still trying to figure out which ones are best for you out of the millions of pairs of jeans available in the marketplace. That’s a very hard problem to solve, and that’s the one that we solve.
"At a high level, I think it’s great that Amazon’s growing. In overall e-commerce they have a huge amount of share. In apparel they have about 8%. At Stitch Fix we have less than 1%. They’re growing a lot, and we’re growing a lot. I think we’re taking share from very different sides of the market. The reality is, 91% of the market is still in traditional channels and is ripe for disruption.
"We certainly keep an eye on them, but as we think about the ways we differentiate and what are the things that are right for the business it doesn’t change our strategy."
Why was Kids the logical next step for Stitch Fix and how does it fit with the company's data driven approach?
"Kids has been an aspiration since the beginning. We started out in Women's but there was always a broader goal that it wouldn’t just be women, and we could help all sizes and types of people. I think our littlest client will help us complete the puzzle and complete the household.
"With Men's, we started to see an element of the household using Stitch Fix. We would see women who were referring men in their lives. We got lots of requests for kids from parents. I actually got one handwritten note from a kid.
"You think about our value proposition of helping people feel their best and also doing it in a way that is convenient, and easy and fits into their lives. I am the mother of a toddler myself and soon to be mother of another little boy in November."
"Thank you! Between my own experience and having four nieces and nephews, I know [Kids] is something that can really benefit parents and also be a fun experience for kids. From a timing perspective, we want to make sure we’re early to the market and take advantage of the fact that there is a lot of interest and a lot of demand.
"There’s two big buckets Kids takes advantage of that we’re already good at. First is our client base: We have 2.7 million clients and over half of them are parents. Parents are the decision makers and we’re really in service to them.
"The second is around the capabilities of personalization. Our Men's business got to be just as good in terms of success with clients within six months of launching it. We started cold — we didn’t know anything about men — and within six months we were styling just as well for men as we were for women. Plus size took a little bit longer, but within a year it was also at parity.
"We can do this. We’re good at this. We can build this muscle around personalization and we can do it quickly."

"I am not the first public company CEO to be pregnant and I’m certainly not going to be the last."

Katrina Lake, CEO, Stitch Fix
When you had your son in 2016, Stitch Fix was still a private company. Now that the company is public, do you think there will be more scrutiny around you taking a full maternity leave?
"It’s a really good question and I think the answer is I don’t know. We tried to do a little bit of research around what have people done in the past, and we weren't very easily able to find lots of examples. In a lot of ways, I feel like I'm figuring this out for the first time. I am not the first public company CEO to be pregnant and I’m certainly not going to be the last. My hope is there are going to be many, many women after me who are going to be thinking about how to do this.
"I don’t think there’s a lot of great precedent of how to do it and I think I have an important role in setting what that precedent looks like for the many female CEOs of child-bearing age to come.
"When we were a private company, I think [my maternity leave] went pretty smoothly. I more or less didn’t show my face in the office for 16 weeks; I had a team that took on more and absorbed some of my responsibilities to help me be able to have that time with my baby, and it worked really well. This time around, I think we can use that as a model. There’s a very small set of things that only I can do — some responsibilities around board communication and hiring. But for a lot of the operational, day-to-day responsibilities, the reality is that when you have a good team, when you have a business that is humming, I don’t need to be there day-to-day for those things to happen."
Beyond setting a precedent outside the company, why is it important for you to do so internally?
"We have a lot of people at Stitch Fix who are of the age where you’re going to have children. It’s a very meaningful part of our lives and we really want to be a place where you can cherish that and also be good at your job. There are an innumerable people who are out on maternity or paternity leave — what we call it is primary or secondary caregiver leave — at Stitch Fix at any given time, and the intent of those leaves is to give people the time and space to be able to bond with their children.
"I have to model that. They always say culture comes from the top. The way you act as a CEO is going to reflect on how people at your company think that they should be acting. So if I see my job as one that I'm not going to take the full leave or I’m going to do a halfway thing or I think my job is too important to do it, the message I’m sending to others is that to be successful here they also should be forgoing their leave.
"I really think the leave is important. I think it’s important to have the time to bond with your child so that when you come back to work you can do it in a way that’s going to help you be your most productive and most committed to work. The best way to retain and recruit new employees is to have a place where people can live their life outside of work and their life at work both in a way that feels successful."

"We can do this. We’re good at this. We can build this muscle around personalization and we can do it quickly."

Katrina Lake, CEO, Stitch Fix
Do you see Stitch Fix’s maternity leave policy as one that is different from other tech companies?
"I think that what we’ve done is definitely competitive. I think what is differentiated is the support that you have when you’re a new parent and you’re here as an employee. The mother’s rooms we have here, the hallway conversations that people have around when did you stop breastfeeding or how do you do your pumping when you travel — there’s this great community that inherently comes from the fact that we have an employee base that is diverse and has lots of women." [Stitch Fix's San Francisco headquarters have three lactation rooms for mothers, each of which includes a comfortable chair with pillow for back support, a laptop table and charger, a refrigerator, a blanket, and a mirror.]
How are you planning to manage your maternity leave this time around? Will you be staying out of the office?
"Like last time, I do plan to be out of the office [for 16 weeks]. When I took my first maternity leave it was just me and my son. I didn’t have a nanny for that. I really was working 40 hours a week — more than that really — being a cow and changing diapers. I plan to replicate that. It’s a hard time as a new parent but it’s also a valuable time and I plan to take full advantage of it."
This interview has been edited for length and style.

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