Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Ishwari Thopte is the Fashion Tech Project Officer at CFE and manages their FashTech programmes and events. With 10+ years of experience spanning various aspects within the fashion industry, Ishwari works at the confluence of fashion, technology and digital, by creating a thriving cross sector community in London and helping CFE lead the fashion tech revolution.
What does your current job role in Centre for Fashion Enterprise entail?
I head all the fashion tech programmes and events at CFE. From spotting the most exciting upcoming fashion tech businesses and curating the best mentors, experts and speakers, to tailoring the programmes to address bespoke business needs - I run the FashTech pioneer programme and FashTech Meetup events on the Fashion Tech Emerging Futures project.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
I think London is one of the best cities to gain knowledge as well as expand your network. I worked hard during my masters, not only to excel academically but also to expand my work experience. I used to juggle three internships alongside my full-time MA course at LCF and wrote my dissertation while working a part-time retail job. But those 2 years of intense work really paid off when I landed my first part-time internship at CFE. I joined as an agency intern (the agency later morphed into what is today known as the Fashion Innovation Agency) and started experimenting with new ways of tackling existing issues. I’ve always been entrepreneurial and working full-time at CFE never stopped me from exploring new sectors and coming up with creative ways of solving problems. Over the last 6 years, I creating 3 different jobs for myself at CFE, which has been quite an exciting journey. I believe every industry is as hard or easy to crack depending on your passion and people skills. If you have those two in abundance, nothing can stop you.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
Even before I started my masters at LCF, I had 3 years of work experience in design and styling. However, I was always more interested in the business of fashion, which is why I came to LCF to pursue a degree in design management and marketing. It’s taken me 6 years of hard work, dedication, non-stop networking and an insatiable hunger for innovation to get where I am now. Over the course of those years, there have been a number of obstacles but the biggest challenge has been when I lost my motivation due to some unavoidable external factors. Working at a non-profit organisation often means working with very limited resources and that can sometimes dampen your spirits. But we prevailed and things worked out within a few months so I’m glad I stuck it out.
What are your projects you are currently working on within CFE?
Oh! That list is too long but these are the top 3: We just selected our next intake of fashion tech SMEs on the pioneer programme and are preparing to interview for the very first FashTech Accelerate programme which will house 3 previously supported pioneer SMEs at our Mare Street co-working studio. I’m also planning and curating speakers for our next meetup (due on 27th April) and working with FIA, SET team at LCF and SET squared on the upcoming Fashathon in June.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur and / or woman in wearable tech and fashion tech industry?
I think it’s a great initiative to motivate more women to work in tech, collaborate and learn from each other. Unlike most other male dominated industries, fashion tech in particular is uniquely positioned to attract more women given its close ties to the fashion and lifestyle products and services. But we often come across poorly designed products aimed at a market that the makers or engineers have no idea about. Hence it is incredibly important for women to be involved in the process right from the beginning.
However, being an entrepreneur is hard, irrespective of your gender and that is why organisations like the CFE, CENTA, Small Business Centre etc are important as they support young startups at a time when they are incredibly vulnerable and lonely.
Another thing that needs changing is the lack of female investors. Majority of early stage investors in the fashion and tech sectors are middle aged men who don’t often understand the products or services provided by fashion tech startups and it gets really hard to convince an investor who is not even close to your target audience, how and why their idea is unique, scalable and worth investing.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Being a published author in an academic journal; launching the fashtech meetup series with my friend Ricardo in 2014 which has turned into a great inspirational community of thought leaders and delivering the pilot CFE FashTech accelerator programme in 2015 which was instrumental in securing our current ERDF project funding.
I feel very lucky and blessed to be in a position that brings about positive change, working for an organisation which such a fabulous track record of supporting creative talent and having a job that aligns with my life purpose.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and fashion tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Traditional fashion business models are not working anymore, so there is an urgent need to find disruptive solutions that empower young businesses to thrive. Co-creation, crowd-sourced design and funding will continue to flourish. Storytelling has become increasing important in order to connect with your customers on an emotional level so businesses are using AR and VR more and more to create immersive content. I’m also very interested in exploring how we tap into our senses and emotions through tech while AI will continue to dominate and lead all tech trends.
Can you name any prominent women in this industry that you admire?
Angela Ahrendts and her trailblazing track record from Burberry to Apple; Kathryn Parsons for her daring venture of trying to teach people to code in a day (and eventually turning coding into a super cool thing for the millennials) via Decoded and Martha Lane Fox for creating one of my fav travel deal sites (lastminute.com) that survived the crash, sold for a whopping £577 million and working tirelessly to modernize the government and to encourage the public to become more computer literate. She became the youngest female member of the House of Lords in 2013! I mean can you get any more kickass?
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in wearable tech and fashion tech out there?
Sort out the ‘why’ of your business and the rest will all fall in place. Believe in your instincts, be strong, be humble and most importantly support other women. Sometimes I feel women can be too unnecessarily extra-competitive with each other and that needs to change.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and fashion tech?
Christina Mercando d'Avignon, CEO & founder, Ringly (Master storyteller), Yasmine Mustafa, Founder, Roar For Good (using profits to fund non-profits aiming to fix the root cause), Lynne Murray, Holition, Digital Anthropology Lab (Brilliant vision for AR and non-conformist views on fashion future exploration).