Jess Lee, Co-founder and CEO of Polyvore on transparency as an asset to being a tech leader

Jess Lee headshot

Straight out from college, tossing the cap and gown and heading into the workforce, college graduates face the real world with excitement and anticipation of what’s to come. When Jess Lee graduated from Stanford University, her first step was not the norm. She obtained her first job at the tech giant: Google as a product manager. After four years, she would leave and later become a co-founder and CEO of Polyvore, a fashion commerce site that provides users with the latest trends in fashion, beauty and home.

Jess recently sat down with Dress for Success to discuss her willingness to be open about her ideas and pursuit for a challenge, that has led her trajectory to the top.

As a product manager for Google, Jess worked on Google Maps, a web mapping service that offers satellite imagery, street maps and 360 panoramic views of streets. She launched features such as “My Maps” which gave users drawing tools and location pins so that they can create their own maps.

The work at Google provided Jess with great responsibility and a supportive network. It was where she met Marissa Mayer, presently CEO of Yahoo. Marissa served as a mentor to Jess, encouraging her to challenge herself, to seek opportunities that lead to growth.

“I was very happy working on Google Maps. I became Google Maps’ Program Manager at age 22. The work was fun, challenging and very rewarding. I wasn’t looking for a new job but a great opportunity fell in my lap that I felt I had to take,” said Jess. In her blog, “jessblog,” she said that leaving Google was a difficult decision.

Her next venture in the tech space would be Polyvore. Polyvore is known as the platform to find the latest in fashion trends. It has a global community of stylists that share tips on how to mix and match looks, in addition to predicting trends before they hit the mainstream. Through Polyvore, users can arrange images of clothing into outfits and sets of outfits.

Jess admired the platform as she often browsed through the site creating different sets of looks. However, Jess had some reservations. What could be implemented into the site to improve it? She sent a detailed email to the team at Polyvore with praise but also feedback about how to improve user experience of the site.  Her ideas included image rotation as opposed to loading images in the search results and adding a lightweight method of bookmarking items for future use.  She added that the terms “Fgnd” and “Bgnd” in the site should be changed to “Send to front” and “Send to back” because it was more user-friendly. The email of suggestions led to a coffee meeting with one of the co-founders, Pasha Sadri. After their coffee meeting, Jess was hired at Polyvore first as a product manager, all the ideas she had were put into place. From product manager, she went on to become the Vice President of Product. Soon after, Sadri along with all other company co-founders, asked her to be recognized as an honorary co-founder due to her continuous innovation and passion for the company.

“I knew I wanted to help build a platform for others to creatively express their style and set trends around the world. One of my favorite things about Polyvore is that we’ve built technology and a platform that’s similar to a blank canvas, all our members fill it with their creativity” says Jess.

As a co-founder and CEO, Jess describes her leadership style as transparent. She’s open, direct and encourages her employees to feel comfortable coming to her with ideas to make things better.

“It’s important to me to be an approachable leader. I want people to always feel comfortable coming to me with their ideas, and feel like they can tell me the hard truths, because I can only fix problems that I know about.”

Aside from leading a company, Jess has been invited to several high profile events often serving as the keynote speaker. She’s spoken at the San Francisco Technology Summit and the CMX Summit, the premier conference for tech founders. Though she admits she doesn’t enjoy public speaking, she’s often willing to offer advice and encouragement, especially for women. She proudly served as a keynote speaker at Montgomery Summit: The Rise of the Female Entrepreneur. By speaking at these events and through her experience in leadership, she wants to inspire women with an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I’m not extroverted. I’m not male. I’m not white and my path to CEO was a bit unusual. So I think my success represents that there are a lot of different types of leaders and you can be a successful leader even if you don’t fit the classic mold of a CEO. I hope that inspires other people to try to start their own companies.”

Jess aspires to do more as Polyvore is well in demand with over 20 million monthly subscribers. Last year, Yahoo acquired the fashion site for around $200 million. Jess hopes to continue to use the platform to change the way trendsetting happens across the fashion industry. She also has great aspirations for her employees, that they go on and become founders too.

“We’ve already helped make a few founders and CEOs and it’d be great to see even more!”

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