‘What a MESS!’ Podcast episode 7: Interview with Stephanie Benedetto, the ‘Queen of Raw’ Alexandra Wagner July 19, 2021 Be Featured, Creativity, Features, Interview, MESSFashion, News, Podcast, Stories, Sustainability, Sustainablefashion, Trends, Women We had the amazing opportunity to sit down with New York City native Stephanie, entrepreneur and CEO of ‘Queen of Raw’, a global marketplace that helps brands manage and reduce their deadstock. Having won the WeWork Creator Award grand prize in 2018 for her brilliant idea, here is what inspiring advice she had to give us. Stephanie: “We are a global marketplace, so anyone from a student, maker, crafter or quilter to the biggest brands and retailers in the world can buy and sell their unused textiles, keep them at a landfill and turn what would be pollution into profit. And we’ve already saved over a billion gallons of water doing it. Never doubt that you can change the world.” Q: Your family has been in the textile industry for over 100 years. You mentioned in another interview that your grandfather was a great inspiration. Can you elaborate on this? Did you always know you would follow in their footsteps? A: As you mentioned, I did come from a background of over 100 years in fashion and textiles. I was very fortunate to grow up about a block away from my great grandfather, and he lived to a beautiful age, 105. And so I got to hear the stories of the old school ways of doing business and it truly was an inspiration for me and how we think about Queen of Raw and leveraging technology to solve some of these world challenges. And, of course, typical girl: I didn’t do the family roots initially, I actually ended up on Wall Street as a corporate attorney and wanted to help businesses grow; help them go public. How people get hired and raise dollars. It was a really exciting time when I was there, but then the market crashed in ‘08 and ‘09. So then Wall Street and the world, kind of what we’re going through today, it got a bit dark. And talk about seeing the height of waste, greed, and excess. I kind of took that as my opportunity to get back to my family roots and my inspiration and build a business to change the world and I never looked back. Right after I left corporate law I ended up in a sustainable textile manufacturing company that I co-founded with a friend. She had invented this incredible leather alternative that really hit a note in the market way back when, when sustainability and innovation in textiles were just getting talked about. I was really proud of the work we were doing there, but we were still manufacturing something new. And I would go to all these mills and factories and warehouses and I would see all this perfectly good stuff, beautiful textiles just sitting in warehouses collecting dust, or gonna be burned or sent to landfill and I said, you know, this just doesn’t make any sense. This stuff has a need, has a purpose. It’s in mint condition, it just needs technology and the hands of designers and makers. Q: You were a corporate attorney on Wall Street for six years, representing fashion, technology and start-up clients. What made you then start your own business? A: I grew up in a predominantly female household. My mother, my sister, my grandmother, all were great influences on me and going to an all women’s school for 13 years we were really encouraged to find our voice, and started early on taking public speaking, and were really encouraged to think differently and try to go build businesses and really solve world problems and change the world. So that was always sitting inside me, and when the market crashed, that was when I said ‘okay, now is time to get back to what I want to do and change the world’. Also having children – I have now a 5 year old and a 1 year old. That experience of having children is – it’s not just about you anymore. It’s about my children, my children’s children, and their future. I want them to have clean water to drink, clothes that aren’t toxic to wear, a planet to live on. And I know I can be a key part in making that happen, and that’s what inspires me every day. Q: What made you take the leap into fashion sustainability? A: Fashion is one of the most powerful industries in the world, connecting very complex supply chains. But in so many ways it’s still doing things the way my great grandfather did business in 1896! Right? Good old pen and paper, and maybe they’re a bit better on Excel spreadsheet, and this is how massive multi-dollar fashion corporations are operating their supply chain to their business. So obviously that’s a huge challenge, but I believe in that huge opportunity. Because although by some accounts fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world of clean water globally, it also means that fashion and textiles and rethinking the supply chains and business models have the power to solve the world’s water crisis, if we think differently about it. So obviously fashion is a huge consumer of textiles and that’s where we are focused on to start. I saw this huge opportunity to think differently, but we come at it from a very unique point of view. Sustainability matters so much for people on the planet. And it’s at the core of why we do what we do. But it also has to mean economic sustainability. It has to make sense for a business’ profit. And I think that’s where a lot of business models in sustainability are finding it challenging. Because if it doesn’t make economic sense, why would a major corporation adopt this? They have investors and stakeholders to answer to, their customers… So that’s where we’ve really taken time to position our business model. This is of course about people and the planet, but it is also about your business’ profit. And by finding this waste in the supply chain – waste is really expensive, it takes up valuable warehouse space. Having all this waste looks really bad to the public so it also hurts our top lines and consumer loyalty. So by finding this waste we allow businesses to sell it and make money. And the good news is they can take all this money and actually turn around and put it back into doing good work in their supply chain: they can pay their workers more; use more innovations in technology to make their supply chains more efficient and digitised; they can use more sustainable textiles and materials, and they can do all that without their overall expenditure going up. And I think that is so important in how we think about building for the future – it has to make economic sense. And just to throw some numbers in there – one of our largest enterprise customers, they actually saved 15% of their bottom line just by finding and selling this waste. And then by talking about what they’re doing with deadstock and sustainability, now that they have the metrics and the data and the numbers from us, they actually got three times the conversion rate in their online direct to consumer business. So this drives real economic value while also being good to the people and the planet. How do you say no to that? Q: What is behind the name ‘Queen of Raw’? A: I love this question! Queen of Raw was the first name I ever thought of. And it was available as a ‘.com’, which we know is really hard to get, and social media as well. I talked about it to my co-founder and family and friends, and they all at first hated the name. They thought it was either the raw foods movement or pornography. And the more I thought about it, we tried all these different names, and none of them resonated. Because to me my family always called me ‘the queen’, and I want to empower others to feel like the kings and queens of their domain, and also ‘raw’ for ‘raw materials’, right? The word ‘sustainable’ is such a loaded word, but to me ‘raw’ felt so real and at our essence and core of why we do what we do. So the name still stuck and I thought: the raw food movements sells, sex sells, I’m going with it. I trusted my gut, and you know what? It’s a name people have not forgotten. So it has served us very well ever since. Funny little side note – we went through the Techstars Accelerator at the beginning of growing our business, and they didn’t love the name either, they wanted us to change it, but learning to trust your gut as an entrepreneur, right, – I knew there was something that resonated and that would build a strong brand that hopefully people would remember, too. So the next day I gave the founders of Techstars the shirt that said ‘Queen of Raw’ across the chest and I said ‘look, it’s a name you’re never gonna forget, and I’m not changing it!’. They haven’t forgotten it yet. Q: How did you end up in Techstars Accelerators? A: Early on in the business, this was 2018, you have to figure out how you’re gonna start on day 1. You have this idea, we had a website at the time, but not a ton of products to sell in the marketplace yet. But we were starting to learn about our customers. Programs and accelerators and competitions – they’re great places to start, right? To get some capital, but also to get a network, a community of partners, of like-minded individuals who can serve on your board of advisors, who can help bring early customers, who can help you build up the business model, the KPIs and metrics that you’re tracking. So it was an awesome mini business school, condensed in a couple weeks, to kickstart your business and get going. So being a part of Techstars as well as winning some awesome competitions and awards, they gave us a great jumpstart, and from there we just kept growing. Q: But usually these competitions or programs do not really believe in sustainability, so I was surprised. A: You’re right. When we positioned this, and now Techstar has become very strong in sustainability, and they really rebranded. But at the time, we didn’t even know sustainability was a very big part of our story. There is this economic business sense of why our business model works, why certain companies like ThredUP, Poshmark, Depop, all of them work, and we were applying that model to the raw materials side, and adding our own software and spin on it. So technology, at our core, and a strong business model helped us early on. Q: Can you explain the concept of circular fashion for those who are not too familiar with it? A: If you think about the way our supply chains in business models have been for so long, it was very linear, very straight. You take some materials and resources, you make something out of it, and then you throw it away when you’re done with it. And the idea, first as an industry in the world we started introducing recycling. And that’s a great, powerful first step. But that’s also one piece of turning that line into a circle, right? And thinking about how we can reuse, repair, recycle – all of these ‘res’, they keep these materials and resources in the chain of supply and demand for longer. And the more we can keep these materials and resources going around and around and around for infinite supply chains, the more we can drive value out of it, and the more economic sense it makes. So I actually think, as opposed to the word ‘sustainability’, circular economy is a much stronger word. Because the second word in it is ‘economy’, it’s an economic principle. The longer we keep resources in circulation, in supply and demand, in that circle, the more value we can get out of it and the more it brings down our cost, quite frankly. It makes things more efficient. Q: How big of an impact do you see circular fashion making in the next 10 years? A: I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t think this could have the most massive impact in the world. If you think about it, many people may know this statistic, but one t-shirt takes an average 700 gallons of water to produce it, and another 700 gallons of water to wash in its lifetime. That’s one shirt. Over 2 billion shirts are sold around the world every year, so by small actions that the fashion industry can take, and then doing this at scale by reusing, repairing, recycling, with these materials, and keeping these shirts and textiles in circulation longer, the numbers are just staggering, how powerful this can be. As a startup, my company has already saved over a billion gallons of water around the world, and we’re just getting started. That’s actually enough clean water for 1.3 million people to drink around the world for 3 years. So I think we’re truly at a tipping point in the most awesome way of where the world is and where the world can be. And for fashion, these supply chains are truly gonna become more in demand, more local and more sustainable. And we can all be a part of that, even for the end consumer – ‘simple little tidbit’ I always say – check the label on the clothes you buy. Just like the food we put in our body, the ingredients and the materials that touch our bodies and our children, family and loved ones’ bodies all day long, we should be able to pronounce and read what’s on the label. If you can’t, you probably don’t want it touching your skin, and it’s a simple, easy thing that can have a massive impact if we all did the little changes. Q: What do you think people can do in their everyday life to change something step by step? A: Reading the label is a great first place to start, a lot of people also say ‘I don’t know what companies are sustainable’. The good news is that with technology like ours now, for that exact shirt or jacket that you’re wearing right now, you can scan a QR code and literally see at point of purchase, the amount of water, the toxins, the carbon emissions you’ve saved by that purchase. So that’s really awesome, to have that at point of sale, but if you’re ever not sure about what a brand is doing or whether it sits with how you feel and believe about sustainability, you can check awesome online resources, one is called Good On You, and it will tell you in plain English, here is how the brand is doing. And then you can make a decision! Are they good, do they care about people and our planet, and does this align with my views? The other thing is too – obviously we’re going to buy. And unless we’re gonna go naked, we’re all going to consume fashion. Just how we consume it, what we consume, when we consume it, what it’s made of – that’s what’s changing. And simple things like even buying one less shirt, or buying some companies like ThredUP, these little acts, when we all take them, add up and do make a big difference. A: Is there such a thing as a 100% sustainable brand? Q: I like this question too! Because the ‘s’ word means so many things to so many people. For my business, we have to take a very broad view of sustainability. Anything that is already existing in what we call ‘deadstock’ and is in a warehouse collecting dust for a certain time period, or gonna be burned or landfilled, we rescue and resell it. Even if it’s synthetics or leathers and skin. And maybe that doesn’t fit with your definition of sustainability and that’s totally okay. I can quantify and measure the impact that rescuing has as opposed to making new, so it matters to us. But you don’t have to buy that on our platform! You can stick to the more innovative, sustainable fibers on our platform and buy those. But inherent in the production process of making something, 99% of the time, there’s going to be some form of waste. But there are cool new innovations and opportunities for what we do with that waste, so 100% sustainable, it’s awesome that these massive companies like Zara and others are saying are gonna get there, and putting a stake in the ground, but I do think we have some time to get there, but the future is ours, so we can start making differences today. The ultimate goal can be 100%, but even if we just get 1% with some of the world’s biggest companies, that can have a massive impact on the world. So I don’t want people to get stuck thinking it can only be 100 or 0, anything towards that 100% to me makes a big difference. Q: Is it difficult to build a marketplace that builds sustainability? Because the fashion industry is a super difficult industry to enter. A: Well, marketplaces. In so many ways, the most powerful businesses in the world. AliBaba, Amazon, they’re marketplaces. When they take off, they are the most powerful. But you are 100% right. To get them going, supply and demand, especially in the fashion industry, it is absolutely a challenge. So some of how we were able to do that early on is to have some really incredibly strong partners. The UN, MIT, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, NYC Government, have all been incredible collaborators and partners of ours, so that helps build trustworthiness in your community. The other thing is that although sustainability is a big part of our branding and our story, at the end of the day, buying from a marketplace makes economic sense. You can get readily available textiles, digitally added discount, located away from areas impacted by disruption, at the right price and quantity that you need with a low minimum. So there’s that economic advantage while also being sustainable. So as a consumer, how do you say no to that, right? And that’s where we really positioned ourselves, and for anyone who is interested in the technology side, in addition to our marketplace, we’ve built some pretty powerful software and tools, leveraging fun stuff like blockchain and machine learning AI that live behind the marketplace, and that really helps with those networks effects, when you’ve got sticky technology that helps support your community even more, you get adoption quicker too. Q: Queen of Raw attempts to bridge the gap between supply and demand. What methods does Queen of Raw propose to carry this out? A: That is key to why we do what we do. The first thing we did when we launched the marketplace early on through Techstars – we didn’t even have a lot of supply there, we wanted to build a community and the demand. Show that people actually wanted this stuff, because if you build the demand and you’ve got buyers (and now we have over 350k around the world), then supply will come, right? They’re gonna go where the demand and the money is, so we built the community, the network and the demand, and showed people were searching and wanting this stuff. And then we turned our focus and our attention to the supply. We looked at what people were searching for, where in the world they were searching, what quantity… and we started finding the supply that matched that demand. And then to truly automate in scale the demand, we built the software and tools. So that now we can, quickly and easily, for the world’s largest brands, from fast fashion to luxury, find all this waste, and through our automated technology we can pull it into Queen of Raw’s marketplace. Now that we’ve got all this supply we can start using intelligence to figure out: where does it sit? What is it made of? Who out of our buyers would want it, and we can start matching it to that demand. And as you’ve said, that is 100% the key to growing any marketplace. Q: You utilize AI, blockchain and automated machine learning to find the root cause of deadstock waste. What insights have you discovered so far? Any shocking discoveries? A: When we first started the marketplace, we focused in the United States, on inventory in the US and buyers and sellers in the US. We very quickly learned that these supply chains are global, the communities are global, and this problem is global. There’s supply all over the world, but the good news is, there’s also demand all over the world. And now, our solution is totally global on every continent and growing, and we’re building up in certain key regions. What was interesting is that when you build a marketplace to sell waste, any marketplace – that’s great, but if you think about it, that’s kind of just slapping a band aid on the problem. You have waste? Go sell it in this marketplace. Our ultimate goal is: how do we get to the root of the problem and figure out why we have all this waste and how we can intelligently minimize it going forward. And that’s why with our software and tools we’ve been calling the data and seeing – for every individual seller, where in a tier 1 to a tier 14 supplier does this waste sit? Why do you have it? Are there any patterns that we can see within those tiers of who and how and why you have this waste, what kind of waste it is, and who is actually buying it. So finding really interesting patterns, but a lot of it is very seller specific, because everyone in the supply chain is so unique and has their own intricacies and data and intelligence. But this stuff was all dark data! Like we mentioned, my great grandfather’s days, stuff that lived on pen and paper, suddenly now a business can see this and understand it, and do better going forward. So we will be publishing some really cool new insights coming soon, for right now, those who are interested can check out circularnyc.org, that’s where we published a white paper with NYC government, H&M and a bunch of other big companies, and we showed that by adopting circular solutions and circular marketplaces like ours, what the end result would be. How many good jobs could be created, how much money could be saved and made and some cool case studies in there, so feel free to check it out. Q: Have you seen significant improvements since launching Queen of Raw? Do you feel that people have a higher awareness of the amount of deadstock that goes to waste every year? A: Yeah. So when we started this business, obviously like any startup, we were seeing something early on that not everybody understood. And so we would go to a lot of the big brands and retailers – we were in NYC, right by the fashion district, and for a lot of them it was a nice-to-have, but not a have-to-have. And we talked mostly to the sustainability departments who were great, they’re your brand champions – but when you’re trying to get industry wide adoption, and disrupt a way of doing things, especially leveraging technology, you need the CEOs who set the corporate agenda. You need the CIOs and the COOs who manage the tech and the intelligence and operations. You need the design and supply chain of the CFO to feel this financial ping. Now we are talking to the C-suites, and it’s become, according to the latest McKinsey report, a top three priority for every major enterprise corporation. So a lot of those noes have fortunately turned to yesses. The challenge has been through COVID. We’re currently experiencing a crisis of supply, more unused inventory than ever before, because of all the closed stores, canceled orders, missed seasons and collections… So unfortunately, or fortunately, the volume has more than doubled of deadstock. We have gone from 120 billion to now over 288 billion in deadstock around the world. But the good news is that the demand has also more than doubled, because everyone’s supply chains were disrupted through the pandemic. But they still need to make products for their consumers to have a business! And so we could with deadstock offer big brands and retailers something that was economically advantageous and available, and also gave them a sustainable story to tell. Q: Are you planning on working with some bigger fashion retailers in order to have them reduce their deadstock? A: Absolutely. We can track on a business or individual supplier level, month over month and year over year whether the amount of their deadstock is increasing or decreasing, and this can help them know how to do better as a business. And it also helps us have alerts, because people often ask us: how do you know this is deadstock and they’re not just making it to sell on Queen of Raw? Well, through our technology in leveraging blockchain, we can track and trace this. We know what was made when, pursue it to what order, what sustainability or testing certifications are ascribed to a particular product, and how much overtime is being increased or decreased. So we can actually create alerts and verify, and provide integrity to the data or intelligence. So, yes, our ultimate goal is to slow down the volume of waste and the textile production for stuff that isn’t being used so that our resources can go into what is needed and where there is demand. It’s also intelligence that we can feed into forecasting tools. Now you know what wasn’t sold and what was sold and this is data that can help you as a business to do better for your end consumers. Q: What are the fashion brands that currently have the biggest amount of deadstock? Who is the least sustainable? A: Going back to the very broad position that we take on sustainability, I also don’t rate brands against each other. Because I find that in the sustainability community, when people do that, you’re de-incentivizing people to take good actions, because they’re afraid of how they’re doing compared to others or that they’re going to misstep. What I do want to say is: McKinsey put out a report on the fashion industry, of who dominated in value creation from 2018 through the pandemic. And if you look at that list of the top 20 brands and retailers, Nike leading, LVMH, Richemont, Kering, H&M, Zara, Inditex – those companies are surprisingly or not surprisingly the ones who are looking at sustainability and addressing these issues in some form. And of course we all can do better, but I think it speaks volumes for who is taking action, who is appealing to the end consumers, especially the millenials and Gen Zs for whom this matters, and who is going direct to consumers with these solutions. So I always want to say, look at these as case studies for any brand or retail out there. I actually love working with the hot messes, I love going after the ones who are doing nothing because we can have the biggest impact on them and make such a difference, but to me it’s not surprising that the ones we’re working with and more and partnered with are the ones in that list and dominating in value creation because they’re just thinking differently, and about the future, and they’re gonna be the ones who not only survive today, but truly flower tomorrow. Q: Why do you think so many brands are reluctant to join the cause, even though it’s a serious and imminent threat? A: I think brands want to, I think a lot of them just don’t know where to go or what to do on day 1. There’s also technology out there that promises to track and trace your whole supply chain – but if you hear that as a major brand or retailer who is still using pen and paper, Excel spreadsheets – you’re going to be paralyzed, right? How do you know, where do you go and what do you do on day 1? I think that’s the challenge. That’s why the way we’ve positioned our solution is: here’s where you start on day 1. You’re sitting on waste that we can find, we can monetize it and we can help you minimize it. And from there let’s grow up and down the supply chain and help you continue to do better – towards that end goal of 100% sustainability. But you have to start somewhere on day 1. So I think that’s where we can get rid of this paralysis and help brands and retailers take action with everything going on, and also do things automated and at scale. For so long, for big companies, I think they’ve seen that sustainability, they can’t take action, it’s not going to be something that they can do. It’s good for little pilot projects or eco-conscious collections, but what we’ve tried to show through our software is that this can be done to the biggest companies in the world, the most complex supply chains, all automated and at scale, and save you valuable time and resources. And when you position it that way I think it helps with the adoption as well. And also – how to speak. How to articulate the numbers confidently. They’re afraid that if they misspeak, they’re going to get in the press – forget about it, this negative backlash and cancel culture. Now, with blockchain and other tools and software like ours, you have a record. You have proof. So when you speak about the water and the toxins and the carbon emissions you’ve saved you can say it articulately and confidently, because you’ve got it and you can back it up. Q: You very well deservedly won the WeWork Creator Awards grand prize in 2018. How was it to meet the Dalai Lama? Did he give you any valuable advice? A: It was, if you ask yourself years ago, that you would actually be on a stage, in a platform, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I can’t say it was something I would have expected. It was an incredible experience, very humbling. I’ll be totally transparent – I am a humanitarian at heart. Obviously I said I do what I’m doing for my children and future generations, but I am not necessarily the most spiritual person. I am a New Yorker! But speaking to His Holiness, you could really find the heart in the humanitarian reason of why we do what we do. And my big key question to him was, with everything going on in the world right now, that can feel like a lot of overwhelming darkness, stress, anxiety and depression – how do you find happiness and joy and laughter? And I think from that kind of a question, it’s something that can leave us all with what is the opportunity here to do better, and to find happiness and joy and laughter in who we are and why we do what we do, together. He said that he spends a lot of time looking for the heart of things, and finding a positive in every negative. He actually calls himself a master of laughter – expert at laughter. So finding ways to laugh – and he’s really funny! He tells jokes, he was joking with me on the stage, right? And I think that’s something that sometimes we get very caught and wrapped up – both as an entrepreneur and as an individual in this world today. But in the seriousness of it all – to be able to laugh, to tell a joke. Find a human element. And he did that, even with some of his strongest opponents, and even with everything he got through being ostracized and kicked out of his society and community. And overcoming that adversity and still being able to laugh and find joy – any of us can do that. Q: What is next for Queen of Raw? What projects do you have up your sleeve? A: Well, we’re really excited to be growing our software and tools and our marketplace globally, and want to reach more people, everyone across industries and around the world ultimately can benefit from this. So in the future, this isn’t just fashion, although it’s where we started, it’s incredibly powerful and a great place to start – but textiles touch everyone in the world every single day. It’s your clothing, the material of your chair, the inside of your car, the carpet on your feet. And how we can leverage other industries to support each other in this use of resources and the buying and selling. So that’s where we’re growing and going, and excited and happy to help anyone in any way. Q: What is your dream or wish? A: For me, I wish that we can solve the climate crisis and I think that starting for me, water was a key place to start, and a lot of people ask me – what happens when you write yourself out of a marketplace business because you’ve solved the world’s waste problem? And I tell them, well, then I have solved the world’s water crisis too, I’ll have everyone on my software, and I’ll move on to the next big challenge. But we’ve got a while to get there, and so let’s go build powerful businesses and solutions that solve for people, for planet and for profit, because together we can and will change the world.