- Cami Tellez, 23, is the cofounder of the Gen Z-oriented underwear company Parade.
- The company was officially launched in October 2019 and has since raised $8 million in funding.
- In an interview with Business Insider, Tellez recounts her business journey, why she decided to open an underwear brand, and shares some of her favorite advice.
- Tellez made the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 list for her work in retail and e-commerce.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
At first, it wasn't easy for Cami Tellez, 23, to find funding for her company. Her pitch to help revolutionize the underwear industry was surprising to many of the older investors she approached for funding — and, simply, she says, they didn't "get" it.
"I knew that there was tremendous, massive untapped potential in underwear," Tellez told Business Insider in an exclusive interview, noting that underwear in the US is a $7 billion market. "I felt that underwear was really about self-expression. It wasn't just about sexiness."
Tellez is the daughter of Colombian immigrants and cofounder of the Gen-Z beloved underwear brand Parade — a company that's raised $8 million in funding since its launch in October of 2019 and has hopes of becoming a billion-dollar brand that gets people to rethink what underwear can become.
"The goal was to create a bold, expressive brand."
She tells Business Insider that she had become very interested in the cultural impact her generation, Gen Z, was already having on the world. This prompted her to team up with a friend — now-cofounder Jack DeFuria, a student at New York University at the time — to create a brand that could have a lasting impact on their generation.
The goal, she says, was "ultimately to create a bold, expressive brand that was seeking to rewrite the American underwear story" and give people "better underwear" for their value.
Tellez started seeking funding for Parade in 2018, shortly after she decided to launch the brand. At the time, she was studying at Columbia University, but had been working in venture capital and at various startups since she was 17.
But finding funding wasn't so simple, she says, especially as a young woman and college student, and as someone who was seeking to create an underwear company targeted toward Gen-Z women. "At the very earliest parts, it's difficult for older, white male investors to really understand what you're building when it's such a personal, emotional category for such a young consumer," she said.
That's why Tellez made sure to market herself as the next big thing: a young entrepreneur at the forefront of the second wave of e-commerce disruption. She knew she could fill the market gap for consumers between the ages of 18 and 25 who weren't interested in the seductive looks from Victoria's Secret.
Parade, she says, represents "the new breed of brands that are more focused on Gen Z and more focused on values and self-expression."
Her pitch landed with some investors, and she was able to pull through seed and angel funding from heavyweights including Neil Blumenthal, the CEO and co-founder of Warby Parker, and Andy Dunn, the CEO of Walmart's e-commerce subsidiary, Bonobos.
Today, the brand is known for its inclusive sizing, colorful garments, and themed collections. Its ethos is of sustainability, and it donates heavily to various social causes and charities, such as Planned Parenthood and Feeding America.
"The underwear space is broken in so many ways, from celebrating only certain kinds of bodies, to fit and fabrication problems, redundant styles, and exorbitant pricing," Dunn told Business Insider. "Parade changes all of that. The inclusivity of their visual imagery is what drew me in. When I spoke to Cami, it became clear to me that she is a force of nature."
For her strides with Parade over the last two years, Tellez made the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 list for her work in retail and e-commerce.
'So much of this category for decades has been led by a top-down approach, having celebrities and models telling you how to look.'
Tellez dropped out of Columbia this January to focus more on building Parade and says that her revenue has grown almost 600% since then. Her small team of just 20 people has been focused on trying to grow sales while also educating their customers on topics such as sex education and sustainability.
For example, the brand has amassed 116,000 followers on Instagram and features photos such as a woman wearing a bra made from tomatoes, along with photos encouraging its followers to vote. Having a brand that gives back to charity, and is rooted in a purpose and mission, Tellez says, is probably what has helped to grow her base so quickly.
"One out of eight people post photos in their underwear and we've been lucky that, because our mission is centered around self-expression and not just sexiness, it can now become a creative act to share a photo of yourself in your underwear," Tellez said. "All of our really unique creative, artistic expressions have become these incredible jumping-off points for our Gen Z community to create content."
Attaching a social purpose to a product has also helped grow her consumer base, she says, because customers feel as if they are becoming part of something meaningful that has the ability to "influence people around them toward a broader cause beyond just buying something."
"So much of this category for decades has been led by a top-down approach, having celebrities and models telling you how to look," she said. "But [that's not] the future of this category. Women and fem-identifying people are bold and dynamic and they are looking for brands that stand for their values, day after day, month after month."
'The most important piece of advice I received was to stay true to myself.'
As her company continues to grow, Tellez says there are a few pieces of advice she always finds herself going back to. One, she says, was given to her by Ben Lerer, cofounder of the publication Thrillist and CEO of its digital holding company Group Nine. He told her to always stay true to herself.
It's a piece of advice she now shares with other founders and young entrepreneurs, especially women and people of color. Tellez says they should use their unique lived experiences to venture into the markets where people have always undervalued and underserved their customer segments.
"There's tremendous power in galvanizing all of your lived experiences to use that to show that there is no one better than you to run a business," Tellez said.
Perhaps the biggest lesson Tellez has learned over these past two years is that she has to get comfortable taking risks and "swing for the fences." She says it's important to have a deep conviction about what you are doing, and every day she thinks about how she is laying the groundwork to make Parade a billion-dollar brand.
"My parents are immigrants and they always used to tell me that America is one of the only countries in the world where failure isn't looked down upon," she said. "You can't be afraid to fail and you can't lead from a place of fear. You have to be fearless, for your team and for your investors."
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