Work

This millennial founder went broke after her first business failed—then she went on to grow a $1.2 billion company

Raissa Gerona (L) and Michael Mente attend #REVOLVEfestival Day 1 on April 14, 2018 in La Quinta, California.
Roger Kisby | Getty Images for REVOLVE

In the summer of 2019, e-commerce fashion brand Revolve Group had one of the best initial public offerings of the year when its stock price rose 89% on its first day of trading and the company reached a market capitalization of $1.2 billion.

A large part of the success of the company, which was founded in 2003, has been the work of chief brand officer Raissa Gerona. The 37-year-old executive pioneered the use of influencer marketing, where companies partner with social media users who have a large follower base to grow the business's audience reach — and eventually, their sales.

But just a decade ago, Gerona had to close her first online clothing brand, Brigid Catiis, after she ran out of money at the height of the Great Recession.

"It was quite difficult for me in the beginning when that happened to me to say, 'OK, I failed at this and couldn't make this work,'" Gerona tells CNBC Make It. "That obviously takes a toll on your confidence and how much you believe in yourself."

She says it was important to allow herself to feel grief over the career setback. Self-reflection was the ultimate key in being able to restore her confidence and continue pursuing her ideas.

"It really starts with yourself, to pick yourself back up and know that you can continue to move forward," she says. "But I do think it's a process, and I think it's important to feel those feelings and just be like, 'All right, I'm done with it, and I'm moving on.'"

Another mindset that helped her move forward: "It's so hard to get over feeling like you failed at something, but truly, everything is temporary in that way."

Gerona and her team declined to comment on how much money was lost with the closure of Brigid Catiis.

When Gerona was ready to pick up the pieces of her career, she found a mentor in Revolve co-founder and co-CEO Michael Mente. (The two met when Gerona was selling her clothing line on Revolve's platform.) Gerona and Mente ended up launching a new brand together, which Revolve eventually bought in 2015.

Following the sale, Gerona became Revolve's chief brand officer. As a company executive, she sought to reach consumers directly on social media, which is when she pitched the idea to Mente and co-founder Mike Karanikolas to partner with bloggers-turned-social media influencers to expand Revolve's reach.

It's so hard to get over feeling like you failed at something, but truly, everything is temporary in that way.
Raissa Gerona
chief brand officer, Revolve

The strategy has proven to be a successful one. While the past few years have been an uncertain time for traditional apparel retailers, Revolve's influencer-driven marketing strategy and ability to connect with millennial and Gen Z shoppers had the company on track to hit $600 million in sales in 2019.

But along the way, Gerona once again had to find a way to feel confident in her role.

Earlier in 2019, Gerona joined Mente and Karanikolas to prepare to bring Revolve public, and she found herself in an unfamiliar position: in rooms full of mostly male investors.

"I didn't go to business school, I didn't go to an Ivy league school," Gerona says. "I never expected myself to be in a room where I'm pitching a billion-dollar deal to investors and talking about the power of influencer marketing and experiential marketing.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, am I cut out to do this?'" Gerona continues. "But after a day of meeting with investors, I was like, 'Absolutely. I'm exactly where I have to be.'"

She drew from her decade-plus experience in entrepreneurship, fashion, online retail and her ability to turn Revolve into a social-media power-house to ground herself in her business savvy and make the pitch.

"But that required a lot of hard work and self-talk for me to even get myself out of that mindset," she says. "And immediately when I changed my mindset, I felt even though I look different from everybody else in the room, there was a reason I was there."

This simple shift in thinking is something Gerona has carried with her since that first brush with failure, even if she couldn't fully appreciate it at the time. While she found support through friends and mentors to figure out her next career move, ultimately, she says, "You're your own best cheerleader, and you really have to just pick yourself back up."

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