Heller Profiles

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Brenna Schneider

USA • Founder and CEO, 99Degrees Custom

MBA '12

A Q and A with Brenna Schneider, MBA '12, founder of 99Degrees Custom

Company was awarded $100,000 as one of the top five prize winners in the MassChallenge global startup competition

Q: How did you get interested in manufacturing and economic development?

Brenna: Soon after I was born, my mother left her career as an art teacher and started a manufacturing and design business. I grew up in the business. I named thread colors as a kid, became a production embroidery machine technician in high school, and after college, I worked as the company's Director of Operations.

Because I had so much exposure, this industry felt too close to home. I studied economic development with an international focus at Washington College in Maryland and studied abroad in India. I was passionate about international development. Returning to India as an American India Foundation/Clinton Fellow, my passion for economic development and my background in manufacturing came together because I was placed at a nonprofit that was transforming struggling craft businesses into a regional industry.

Q: How did you select the Heller MBA?

Brenna: When I was an undergraduate, I was an international studies major. I had heard of the Sustainable International Development program at Heller and considered applying. But I was in India when I had this moment of clarity when I knew that the skills that would best support my career goals were business skills. I had never considered that before. I was surprised to see Heller on the list of MBA programs. After reading a bit more about it, I felt like it was a perfect fit because Heller aligned with my international development interest and also offered a competitive MBA curriculum. It was clear that social and economic justice was at the core and allowed me to combine my passion for social impact with hard business skills. The financial management curriculum, case studies, internships, and the Team Consulting Project (TCP) capstone empowered me to take on the challenges of entrepreneurship. 

For what I am interested in, one needs a special kind of MBA that helps you to build a profitable business and skills that enable you to balance social impact. Complex decisions arise daily in double- and triple-bottom-line business. You can never be fully prepared to launch a startup but I can't imagine another MBA that could better prepare me to pursue the path of social entrepreneurship.

Q What inspired you as a student and led you to start 99Degrees Custom?

Brenna: Among the many highlights is the community at Heller. This is important. You learn how to collaborate, work in teams to address complex challenges, and to lean on each other. This approach to business education has proven invaluable. And I think the Heller spirit is evident in the way I am trying to build 99Degrees Custom and its community. 

My openness to diverse perspectives and critical feedback has saved 99Degrees Custom time and money and has allowed us to pivot effectively and quickly toward growth. At Heller, I learned that I loved using numbers to make decisions. I loved financial modeling and accounting and I loved operations.

Q. How did you start your own company and how have you kept the ties to social justice?

During my last semester at Heller I took a position as Vice President of Operations at American MoJo, a social enterprise apparel manufacturing company in Lowell, Massachusetts, that empowered single moms. The company, unfortunately, closed in September 2012 and I was left with a lot of questions about the market for U.S. apparel manufacturing and its ability (or inability) to generate the kinds of jobs that we need in post-industrial cities.

I applied to the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, a new business accelerator in Lowell, to determine if there was a market opportunity - what it was and how large - and if any jobs created would have impact. In evaluating whether this entrepreneurial idea was one I was willing to pursue, I started with impact because this vision of upward mobility in struggling cities gets me up in the morning. Even if there was a huge market opportunity for US-made t-shirts, but T-shirt manufacturing jobs offered dead-end employment, it wasn't enough to tip the scale for me as an entrepreneur to pursue that opportunity.  So I spent a month and a half looking into skills gaps, labor supply and demand in the Merrimack Valley to understand what the labor force needed to achieve careers that can support a family and that are relevant to the future US economy.

Then I spent another month and a half digging into the market - the rising me-commerce market - and I saw a win-win. And that's just what I needed to see in order to pursue this idea.

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