Alumni profile: Claudia Laurie, A.B. '18
Using design, tech background to help optimize e-commerce
Claudia Laurie learned first-hand how challenging running an e-commerce business can be when she was an undergraduate student at Harvard. She founded Bell Apparel while studying computer science and architecture, offering upscale clothing embroidered with various college names and logos.
“It was more about understanding how brands were built direct-to-consumer, and less about turning a profit or building a big business,” said Laurie, A.B. '18. “It was certainly an eye-opening experience.”
That experience stuck with Laurie through the rest of her time at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Once she went to work for Uber as a product manager after graduation, she saw how useful technology could be in growing the kind of loyal customer base e-commerce businesses rely on.
“I worked on the marketplace side of the business, which is all around dynamic pricing, balancing supply and demand,” she said. “I realized through building Bell Apparel and talking to a lot of friends in similar spaces that they did not have access to the same tools that tech companies like Uber and Amazon were using to really grow their businesses.”
Laurie has spent the last two years trying to provide those tools and technologies for retail businesses. She co-founded Prive in 2021, offering a software platform to help smaller, direct-to-consumer businesses optimize their revenue and increase their customer base. Xfund, a venture capital fund closely tied to SEAS, was Prive's first investor.
“They want to build a strong relationship with their end consumer through their own channels,” Laurie said. “We give them the tools to achieve that without them needing to hire an engineering team to build that tech themselves.”
Born in Australia, Laurie moved to the United States when she was 7 years old. She quickly developed an interest in fashion, but that was never her only passion. Once she started looking at colleges, Harvard’s broad range of academic options quickly drew her attention.
“I was interested in architecture and art history and fashion and economics and computer science, and really wanted to go to a place that invested in the liberal arts education, while also having really strong schools in specific domains like SEAS,” Laurie said. “I was really interested in exploring my chops in computer science, but also had a really strong passion for all things design. I realized they didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, that there were a lot of ways to apply tech to things that were historically design-oriented.”
Laurie’s activities at Harvard reflected her desire to never sacrifice an interest in technology for an interest in design, or vice versa. She was an executive producer for the Identities Fashion Show, but also a board member for HackHarvard, an annual multi-school hackathon.
She continued to merge design and technology in her work at Uber, but then the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Laurie’s workplace shifted to her home and, with much of the world stuck inside, e-commerce exploded, its annual sales almost doubling to $815.4 billion from 2019 to 2020.
Laurie already had plenty of retail experience, both through her own company and an internship with PVH, which controls brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. With more time at home, and having never lost her interest in retail, Laurie had more time to think about how she could use her education to impact the world of e-commerce.
“When we chatted with brands that were moving from brick-and-mortar to 100 percent direct-to-consumer e-commerce, we asked them about their issues,” Laurie said. “Two issues kept coming up over and over again. The first was how we unlock more sustainable revenue, and how we build longer-term relationships with our customers. Another issue was just getting smarter about business, such as optimizing revenue, experimenting with pricing, and pulling on the different strings that more mature tech businesses take for granted.”
Prive offers solutions to both those problems. Prive has already proven successful with a number of independent brands and retailers whose products include everything from diapers to skincare to snack food.
“Coming from an engineering and product background was really our superpower,” she said. “When we get on a sales call and do a demo, our customers tell us we’re ten times better than anything they’ve seen. For a start-up in the e-commerce and payment space, our product and engineering chops are unparalleled, and Harvard really contributed to that.”
Along with her work at Prive, Laurie is also the technology advisory group chair for the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. That organization uses a number of tools and technologies to combat the kidnapping, trafficking and sexual exploitation of children around the globe, and since March 2022 Laurie has helped develop an overall strategy for the deployment of that tech.
“They were really looking for a group of operators to help them with their technology roadmap and really make sure their incredible data and tools are being used in ways that are most effective for the populations they serve,” she said. “I was brought in because of my experience with building early-stage products and technology. I do that everyday with Prive, but now I’m able to flex those skills in a very different but incredibly important space.”
Prive’s success is due to Laurie’s ability to blend technology and design. Without her experience at Harvard, she might never have learned how to make that possible.
“The systems design courses that I took at Harvard are super important for me to understand what’s going on,” she said. “Not only do I firmly believe that my education really influences my day-to-day activities, but I’m able to draw on specific insights and teachings from throughout my four years. Looking back, I couldn’t have imagined how incredible the experience was and how rich the experience was.”
Matt Goisman | firstname.lastname@example.org