Johns Hopkins alumnus Deepa Gandhi began her career as an equity trader at Lehman Brothers. But Gandhi, who graduated from Krieger School in 2007, quickly realized that the finance path was not for her and decided to take an unconventional leap into retail. In 2013, she co-founded and became COO of Dagne Dover, a mission-driven handbag company that “makes bags for humans to get the most out of life.”
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Since then, Dagne Dover has doubled its revenue almost every year, and it is one of the fastest growing brands for Nordstrom. Celebrity fans range from Yara Shahidi to Jessica Biel and, inspired by COVID-19, they recently added a philanthropic component to their business model.
Where did the idea for Dagne Dover come from?
After a few years working as a merchandiser planner at Club Monaco, I decided to return to Wharton School for an MBA because I was interested in entrepreneurship. At the time, I had a friend who wanted to innovate and revolutionize the handbag industry. We thought: Why can’t we create a product designed by women, for women, focused on fashion, functionality and smart design, and all at a more affordable price?
We teamed up with an enthusiastic young designer and got down to business.
How did the transition from finance to retail go?
It was very different. First, the dress code was a change. I could bring more of myself and my personality to work, so I felt more confident and at ease. Fashion was an environment in which I could thrive. When I arrived at Club Monaco, I discovered that I could really take advantage of my financial acumen and analytical skills. I think having a different perspective laid the foundation for my entrepreneurship and leadership now.
At Dagne Dover, I love being able to harness data to understand the psyche of consumers and bring other people’s ideas to market. I’m not a designer – you don’t want me to design your products! – but I’m a great partner for creatives and designers. Every day I bring my left brain and my right brain to my work.
Tell me about the launch of Dagne Dover.
Launching a new idea is an intense roller coaster. It’s overwhelming, so it helps to be around the right people. In the beginning, we were bringing products to the market and also trying to set up a supply chain overseas. When we saw the initial success and proof of concept, we knew moving production overseas would help us increase capacity and generate better margins. But that meant we were all over, New York, Asia, while I was finishing my MBA. I felt like I was trying to start several businesses at once!
Your perspective on growing the business is unique. Why did you choose this route for Dagne Douvres?
Our thesis is that building a brand is a long process. You need to find the right team members and the right investors, ideally those with patient capital. We always ask ourselves what is the right decision for the brand in 10 years, and not just to generate exponential growth in six months? We often find ourselves saying no if the opportunity is not conducive to our long term growth.
What advice would you give yourself in 2013, when you were starting your business?
The most important thing is that courage and resilience are extremely important. And that means not only having the energy to move forward and take the next step, but being able to stay energetic to make better decisions in the future. You don’t have to rush to a specific date. Instead, stay aligned with your partners and investors on your ultimate goal.
What did you learn that helped keep Dagne Dover afloat during the pandemic?
We quickly pivoted our voice, our marketing campaigns, and our product roadmaps. The way people live has fundamentally changed and we sell products for people on the go, but people aren’t going anywhere! However, they still find things they can use from our brand, like fanny packs instead of work bags. COVID has reinforced the idea that we should have a complex and diverse strategy, and it has given some of our products a second life.
We also know that our customers come to us not only for our products, but because our values are aligned with theirs. We are focused on fairness and have launched a coalition called Brands x Better to support those affected by COVID through every purchase they make. We try to amplify the voices of various creators and we support quality causes with donations. I think we’ve really found our voice, and I’m proud that we’ve built a brand that stands for something.