Business Accelerated: Rachel Brooks and Citizen Made Bring Customization to the Masses

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Rachel Brooks worked in fashion and advertising before coming up with the idea for Citizen Made, a product customization tool. Working with her co-founder Bryn McCoy, Brooks graduated from the NewME accelerator program in early 2012 and the duo plans to re-release the product in early 2013.

“Citizen Made is B2B software designed to help brands that make custom products sell them effectively and painlessly online,” Brooks explained to Madame Noire. “You can think of it most easily as something like Nike ID, where you can design your own shoes. It’s that style technology, opened up to any product category, and affordably so.”

Having recently moved to New York, Brooks and Citizen Made have partnerships in the works with Shapeways, a 3D printing marketplace, and L’Oreal.

Madame Noire: What was your background before Citizen Made? You were in the fashion world?

Rachel Brooks: I’ve worked in design houses for product design here in New York and after fashion hit some hard times, a few years back, I moved to Chicago and got involved in advertising.

I left advertising to design a clothing line of women’s wear and men’s accessories that was focused on this idea of modular production, so people would be able to pick a shape or silhouette and also pick a textile that we had in inventory, and people could mix and match with clothing or accessories and design a version of the product that they would want to wear. We did pretty well. Within a year, we were wholesaling in three different countries and as far as Japan.

After that, I wanted to provide that experience of mix-and-match and design-it-yourself idea but I couldn’t create that experience online, where most of my customers are. I was introduced to my Citizen Made co-founder, Bryn McCoy, and she’s built configurators like this before and we just hit it off. We were both very much involved in the maker community in Chicago. And some of our maker friends heard about what we were doing and working on and wanted to get involved. So we thought, maybe we should make this available for anybody who wants it. And there, a product was born.

MN: You were a graduate of NewME Accelerator. What was your experience with NewME and how did that impact your growth?

RB: NewME was really important at an early stage for us because, coming from Chicago and coming from more of a physical product background, a very different background than computer science people, it became very apparent that we needed to develop a network that would be able to help us grow and scale and do the types of things that technology companies do.

That’s how we got on TechCrunch for the first time and on NPR Morning Edition. That’s how we got our first mentors; people like Eric Ries had dinner with us.

That’s how I met Brad Feld, who introduced us to some of our advisors. We started to spend time at Singularity University, which is an institute that is housed at NASA at San Jose and it is the most brilliant people in the world, who are brought together, to work on what they call exponential technologies to change the world, like artificial intelligence, 3D printing, nanotechnology, all these things to solve the world’s grand challenges. So now we’re working with some amazing companies and every day, it feels bigger.

We’re working closely with Shapeways, which is the largest commercial 3D print company in the world. We recently pitched, this past month, at Women 2.0, which is the largest women’s tech event, and we actually won the L’Oreal Women in Digital Prize, which was a cash prize and one year commitment to work with L’Oreal as a venture partner and some business partners.

MN: NewME is specifically minority- and women-focused. How important is that for the technology industry right now?

RB: I get that question a lot. It’s tough. I recognize the importance of providing access to folks who otherwise don’t match patterns that typically happen in some of the larger incubators and accelerators. My background does not match Mark Zuckerberg’s. My background and my experience doesn’t reflect what you typically see, however, that doesn’t negate the fact that myself and the team that surrounds me and Citizen Made is capable of changing the world. It’s a different lens.

I think it’s important that things like Women 2.0 and NewME accelerator and a lot of other things that are cropping up right now are really giving access and voice to people who typically don’t match what is seen as success in the Valley: getting coverage in the mainstream tech press and things of that nature.

It’s not always about race or gender, but it’s more about getting people who have different backgrounds and experiences—whatever that means—and getting them get into the tech industry. It’s good for innovation!

MN: What can be done to attract minorities and women to the technology industry?

RB: That’s the question du jour lately and there are a few things that can be done, but I don’t think there’s one easy fix. There’s a lot of this idea of encouraging STEM education or creating access to STEM education. People talk of this whole idea of a pipeline, with education and internships and all of that, to really provide exposure. I think that’s fantastic, but it also has to work in conjunction with money. People can have great ideas and work really hard toward other people’s projects. But when it comes to founders of color or women founders, there’s a fundamental difference in the funding that women or people of color receive. And it’s very difficult to grow a company without initial capital.

There are people like Tristan Walker, who is and entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz and is doing Code 2040, and essentially he’s creating a network of internships available to computer science students of color across the country at places like Facebook, so they have access to these more high-profile companies and jobs. Otherwise, they may not be recruiting or may be recruiting based on their personal network. So some kid from Chicago is completely off their radar. There are a lot of different things that can happen and that have to happen to make change happen.

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