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Why did this science undergrad launch a fashion startup – and which prof helped her succeed?

Entrepreneurship course inspired Arctic Trim CEO to fast-track her business plan

Undergrad student Esther Vlessing models one of her fur trims for parka hoods (photo courtesy Esther Vlessing)

Esther Vlessing says a lot of people ask her why a biotechnology student is building a fashion accessory business. Her line of removable fur “ruffs” and “cuffs” designed to refresh the Canadian winter uniform of black Canada Goose parkas doesn’t seem to have much cross-over with the field of science.

“My answer to that is that I’m not ‘going into fashion, I‘m focused on innovation,” says Vlessing, a third-year biotechnology and psychology student and CEO of Arctic Trim, a line of parka accessories sold in Sporting Life stores across the GTA. “When you see a gap in the market that can and should be filled, and there aren’t any competitors out there, why not go for it?” (Read more about Arctic Trim)

Vlessing’s openness to cross-disciplinary ideas is her strength, and a quality U of T is encouraging in its undergraduates, says Professor Cynthia Goh. Goh is the serial entrepreneur and chemistry researcher who taught Vlessing in the IMC200 Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship course. (Read more about U of T's entrepreneurship courses and programs)

“A good education is about opening your eyes to what you can do, not putting you in a rigid box,” said Goh, who developed the class for second-year students.

“Here is a young undergrad who has worked hard, been quite creative – she even filed a design patent, learned to source and manufacture her product, tackle marketing and distribution.”

The solution started with a real-world problem
Arctic Trim quickly grew from idea to startup to retail item at a major sports clothing chain. Vlessing says it all started when she bought a new parka decked with a fur border she didn’t love.

“I asked if I could buy a replacement trim and they looked at me like I was crazy. I thought, ‘Really, they don’t sell those?’”

When she noticed a friend had zipped the fur off her parka as well, Vlessing recognized a potential market. Previous summers, she'd worked at a food truck and shoe store, but she says she felt eager to be her own boss.

“Once I saw that this was a good idea, I thought, ‘I’m going to go with it. Take risks and see what happens.’”

The Ontario government’s Summer Company entrepreneurship program took on Arctic Trim, but by the end of the session Vlessing hadn’t made any sales.

“I had essentially given up,” she told Metro News. (Read the Metro feature)

That’s when Vlessing received an email about the IMC200 entrepreneurship course and decided to enrol.
Entrepreneurship course provided structure, real-life stories
“Going to Professor Goh’s class every single week, I was able to retrace my steps with Arctic Trim, look at what I did wrong… reanalyze everything. It was like a stepping stone, going from idea to product development and bringing it to retail.

“The most powerful part was the lecturers who came in to tell their own stories about how many times they failed, how many times they had to knock on doors and cold call buyers. Those lectures inspired me, telling me this is the time to try new things, it’s okay to fail, you’re young, so people are expecting you to ask lots of questions and not to know everything. It was unbelievably motivating.”

And it was cold-calling that locked in the first order for her product.

“It took a week and a half,” she said. “I called every single buyer in the morning for eight days.”

Vlessing says most stores do their shopping between January and March for products they’ll sell in the next winter season. When she approached Sporting Life it was already the beginning of October.

“I think they saw it as a great additional product to offer for the season and my turnaround time is really fast because everything’s made locally. So I told them, ‘You order it, and in three weeks you can have it on the shelves.’”
IMC200 is for undergrads... they, too, can be entrepreneurs
Professor Goh says Vlessing’s positivity and excitement impressed her, too. Goh directs the Impact Centre, an entrepreneurship hub for startups based in the physical sciences. Its summer boot-camp program, Techno, has churned out more than 40 growing startups, with featured companies such as Vive Crop showcased on the University of Toronto’s central entrepreneurship site. (Read more about entrepreneurship at U of T)

“In our Techno program, we build highly technical companies, which is why we work with scientists such as grad students and post-docs. But why should entrepreneurship be confined to that?” asked Goh. “IMC200 is for undergrads; they do not have deep technical expertise yet, but they, too, can be entrepreneurs.”

Vlessing says she’s cautiously optimistic about the growth of Arctic Trim. She’s closely monitoring sales reports as she continues to balance schoolwork with business.

Vlessing says she’ll continue to lean on the best advice she’s heard so far: “The most important thing in business is the relationships you have. Make sure you surround yourself with good people who share your vision and want to help you, especially when you’re starting out.”