How the Polsky Center Helped Zelia Bridge the Gap Between Fashion and Tech

AI is seemingly everywhere, so why not your closet?

Zelia, an AI-powered personal stylist and shopper, aims to bridge the gap between the fashion and the tech worlds. Through its app, Zelia can curate the perfect outfit for any occasion using items you already own, along with hyper-localized purchasing recommendations. All you need to do is ask.

“Users chat with our AI assistant and can ask anything. If you ask ‘what should I wear for a gloomy day in Chicago?’ you’ll be given a number of recommendations based off your current closet along with hyper-localized purchase options based off your style,” said Laura Mattos, founder and CEO. “We offer everything that you can imagine in the style sphere.”

On the brand side, Zelia offers the opportunity to connect directly with its target customer, providing a great opportunity for emerging designers and large retailers alike.

Laura Mattos

“We serve as a data powerhouse that allows us to work with brands to understand what their customers are wearing and why they’re wearing it,” said Mattos. “This is something people in the fashion industry typically need to hire consultants for, but we can do it in a scalable way in real-time.”

Zelia currently has 13 brands as part of its pilot program, serving more than 50,000 registered users. As more users and brands are joining the platform, the company is starting to gain more recognition, including being named to the Poet & Quants 2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups.

The team is in the process of raising its pre-seed round of funding and was recently accepted to the Dorm Room Fund, a $10 million venture capital firm focused on student-run startups. With plans to launch globally, the team hopes to connect designers and retailers with anyone who’s looking to transform the way they get dressed.

Since its launch, Zelia has participated in several programs at the Polsky Center, including the Entrepreneurial Internship Program (EIP), the New Venture Challenge (NVC), and the Launch Accelerator, as well as currently being a part of the Polsky Founders’ Fund (PF3).

Before all of that, however, Zelia started as a simple idea.

“I was packing for my honeymoon and needed to fit everything in one suitcase. After five hours of struggling, I thought, ‘I wish I had someone who knew what I like to wear and could match all my garments to make it easy and efficient,’” said Mattos. “My husband thought it was a great idea, so I spent the next few days looking to see if it existed and I didn’t find anything.”

Mattos was starting her MBA at Chicago Booth at the time and asked her classmates if they had the same problem. After learning she wasn’t alone, she became motivated to start her company and created the prototype of Zelia.

Mattos applied to be a part of the EIP, which provides first-year Booth students who are interested in entrepreneurship the opportunity to gain experiential learning that is critical to becoming a successful entrepreneur. During the program, Mattos started a blazer collection and offered it through Zelia to understand how the process would work.

“The EIP helped me a lot because I was in the ideation stage and wanted to test a lot of different things,” said Mattos. “It allowed me to experiment, take calculated risks, and learn how sales and scaling worked. It was a great starting point.”

During this time, she met fellow UChicago student Ella Anderson. The two bonded over the concept and Anderson joined as cofounder and CTO. The team then applied to be a part of the 2023 NVC, of which it was not only accepted but ultimately finished in sixth place.

“I can’t stress enough how amazing the NVC was for our company,” said Mattos. “I’m from Brazil, so at that time I had almost no connections in the U.S. It didn’t end up being a big problem because all the NVC advisors opened up their network to us. Many of the investors we’re having advanced conversations with now, we met through the NVC.”

“It helped us understand the pace that a startup needs to move, get honest feedback from real VCs, and understand how the entire startup industry works,” Mattos continued. “It was incredible and I carry the experience with me through everything I do.”

Following the NVC, the team was accepted to the Polsky Center’s 2023 Launch Accelerator, which allows students to spend their summer fundraising and further defining their venture.

“Our cohort was so supportive of each other and it was really helpful to be in an environment where we could exchange ideas, talk about problems we were facing, and get through things together,” said Mattos. “The mentors we had gave great advice and helped us improve Zelia.”

The Launch Accelerator also connects startups with UChicago undergrad students who are interested in receiving hands-on experience. This connection was particularly important for Zelia.

“The most special part of the accelerator was the level of talent we received from our two UChicago undergrad interns, who are still with us today,” said Mattos.

Each of these programs helped propel Zelia into its next phase. Following the Launch Accelerator, the team was accepted into the Techstars accelerator at Dartmouth and is currently in the Polsky Founders’ Fund Fellowship Program (PF3), a resource available to graduating UChicago students who are committed to growing their company after graduation. With a goal of providing entrepreneurs with funding to sustain momentum, PF3 is particularly important for Zelia given the current economic environment.

“It’s a crazy fundraising environment right now, so it’s great to have the support of PF3 both from a financial and a community support perspective,” said Mattos.

Since its founding in 2021, Zelia has grown tremendously through utilizing the resources available to students through the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, and the Polsky Center.

“We owe a lot to the University, not only because of the investment but also everything that we’ve learned in our time here,” said Mattos. “My MBA experience was pivotal in giving me the tools and skills to start a company and keep it going. We are so grateful to be a part of the community and proud to be alumni.”

Article by Darwin Minnis, associate director of media relations and external communications at the Polsky Center. Darwin has a passion for telling the stories of the people, products, and companies that are making a positive impact on their communities. Reach Darwin via email.

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