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Wharton grads create hybrid retail apparel business, hiring to grow national presence

Stephan Jacob began his Wharton MBA with a specific plan. The day he decided to start Kembrel, an online retailer that now has a brick and mortar presence, was the day he applied to Penn. "For me, those two years were about finding partners I could trust to start a business," says Jacob of Cherif Habib and Aymeric de Hemptinne, Kembrel co-founders and fellow MBA grads. Kembrel recently raised $1 million in startup funding from MentorTech Ventures, Blazer Ventures, and private sources.

Jacob, who grew up in Germany, came to Philadelphia with a degree in computer science from the University of Mannheim. None of the founders was born in the United States.

"I was not at all into fashion," admits Jacob. "Fashion as consumer, yes. But I was more into web and software development. It's been an interesting learning curve, understanding how the industry works in the United States, identifying the supplier network."

Jacob credits Wharton with essentials like connecting Kembrel with advisors and investors, and even the company name, inspired by Wharton's Vice Dean of Student Life, Kembrel Jones, AKA Dean Of Happiness.

The retail operation launched its first beta version in April 2010. "It was a business with a plan, not just a business plan," says Jacob. "We dedicated that summer full time to the business and launched in September of 2010 with the vision of being a marketing platform for consumer brands that reach the college demographic."

With 32,000 online subscribers and 400 members who have signed up for the newly introduced  VIP level, Kembrel has a national reach, with a presence on over 2,000 campuses. The greatest activity is at Penn, University of Texas, University of Cincinnati, Northeastern, Harvard, Florida State, Ohio State, and University of Michigan.

Kembrel just opened up a store at 1219 Locust, which is also the company headquarters and fulfillment center. "We've only been open since Nov. 18, and it's interesting to see the cross conversion. It's something we are still experimenting with, how we can create a consistent experience for our customers in store and offline." The ability to stop in and try on clothing alleviates the fit problem with online purchases, Jacob adds.

Jacob agrees that Kembrel must compete with the big brick and mortar players who already have an online presence, but that Kembrel represents more aspiring, less known labels and young designers who are not in national chains.

The company, with five full time employees and under $50,000 in monthly sales, is hiring on the buying and merchandising end, and is now looking into growing its national physical presence.

Source: Stephan Jacob, Kembrel
Writer: Sue Spolan
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