This is a man’s world, and Kit Hickey, is trying to change that mantra, one dress suit at a time.
“We invent apparel,” she tells me, as we start our casual phone conversation about her company, Ministry of Supply, which she started three years ago.
Ministry of Supply is the Boston-based company that Kit and co-founders Aman Advani and Gihan Amarasiriwardena started while they were MBA students at MIT. They use the same technology that NASA uses to develop its space suits, in creating dress shirts that are designed for a better fit and greater comfort. To be specific, their shirts minimize perspiration and odor, and are also wrinkle-free.
But for the co-founder of a company that recently raised $1.1 Million in seed funding, Kit owes her confidence in board rooms to growing up being the only girl in a room full of boys. At her high school right outside Boston, she recalls feeling like the outsider on her otherwise all-male ice hockey team.
“What’s a girl doing here?”
This was the standard greeting that Kit received from opposing teams when she entered the ice hockey rink. Rather than being known for her playing position, she was paraded as the team “mediator,” who the boys would call upon when they couldn’t agree. She quickly found that she had to play twice as hard to be recognized for her skill, something that came in handy years later.
After attending Colby College in Maine, Kit accepted a position working for a small investment banking firm on the West Coast. Working out of their San Francisco office, she lived on borrowed time — working anywhere from eighty to one-hundred hours per week. She would then spend the next three years of her life between San Francisco and London, solving financial headaches for companies big and small. Afterwards, she moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she worked for another investment bank, in exchange for climbing mountain ranges and running outdoors.
Regarding starting her own company, Kit says “I’m kind of driven not by being an entrepreneur, but by the problems [themselves]…rather than ‘Oh, I want to be a serial entrepreneur.’”
Problem-solver, mediator that she is, Kit initially started a non-profit that helped start-ups get access to big funding dollars. What began as a side-project suddenly transformed something much bigger, and she told herself “Wow, anyone really can start a company.”
With her active lifestyle in Boulder, she often contrasted the comfort and fit of her work out clothes with that of her investment banking business “uniform.” On a chilly summer morning, she remembers climbing Long’s Peak, a mountain range with elevations of anywhere between 9,400 and 14,255 feet. As the day wore on, and the weather warmed up, she thought about how her hiking outfit kept her “ready for anything” by releasing heat when she needed it to. Back at work, her office attire wasn’t nearly as versatile. That’s when the idea of a comfort-focused clothing line hit her.
After thinking more seriously about it, Kit started contemplating business school. She wanted to understand the basic framework behind starting a company, and business school seemed like the logical next step. So the following year, Kit enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in pursuit of an MBA.
On the first day of class at MIT, Kit met Aman Advani, her now business partner, when they were assigned to the same team project. Working late on a homework assignment, the two noticed that, “we had the same values, not necessarily the same exact business idea.” When they got to talking, they realized that they both wanted to improve the functionality of professional clothing, so they teamed up in real-life
So that was it — Kit and Aman began by soliciting 200 strangers — asking for their worst criticisms of business attire. They used the feedback to develop a business plan, which they then shared with MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center.
Surprisingly, Kit and Aman weren’t the only ones working on business clothing line. Gihan Amarasiriwardena (now third business partner) was already working on his own line, which had a similar concept. Rather than compete with him, Kit and Aman chose to integrate Gihan into their plan, completing what is now a three-member partnership. With the team in place, they created a small batch of outfits that winter, and again solicited as much feedback as possible before selling the clothes in the spring.
Using friends and friends of friends as guinea pigs, Ministry of Supply grew by word of mouth. Barely six months after the first test batches, the company was already generating real income. Knowing they were on to something, they spent the summer pitching the business to anyone with capital and ears to listen. By the time they finally stopped to take a breath, they had raised $430,000. Today, that number is over $1 Million.
It’s a lot of money to raise, for someone who spent years watching guys score points both on the field and in the investment banking offices where she worked.
“People always told me you need to have a stronger voice,” Kit says now. “No one ever asked, ‘Kit, what do you think? You had to be like, ‘this is what I think and this is why you should listen to me.’”
Last year, Forbes announced its list of 30 Women Under 30, and Kit’s company made the list. It’s been an incredible climb, and she is the first to admit it. Ministry of Supply, the business that she launched on a grad-school budget, doesn’t look like it’s disappearing anytime soon.
“It’s a man’s man’s man’s world” the song goes. There’s no denying it’s been that way for some time. But with the likes of Kit on the periphery, and companies like hers arriving on the scene, it’s getting hard to recognize this place.