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Innovator | Camille Fournier, director of engineering, Rent the Runway

Innovator | Camille Fournier, director of engineering, Rent the Runway

Posting in Design

The fashion start-up technologist breaks down the divide between geek and chic.

One could be forgiven, upon first impression of Camille Fournier, of a passing cognitive dissonance. With runway-model cheekbones and a chic David Bowie-like shock of white blond hair, the Rent the Runway head of engineering bucks the stereotypes of a software engineer, much less a back-end web architect, a field that is about 90 percent male. Fournier has spent much of her career explaining away other people's disbelief in her chosen field.

"You have to give an excuse as to why you, as a woman, are going into technology," she says. In the past, she found it easier to cite career ambitions, stressing the wisdom of going into an industry that every business needs. "Which is true," she acknowledges, "but it was always kind of a bullshit excuse. I'm a nerd, and I really like writing code, and I honest-to-god enjoy the process of engineering."

Fournier leads the 30 engineers at Rent the Runway, a 4-year-old (and $54.4 million strong) start-up that rents designer dresses for one-time use at a fraction of their store prices. She's putting the final touches on plans for an afternoon meeting with her full staff. It's her first day back full time at the office after her part- time pregnancy leave, and she's heading home for the lunch hour to feed her infant son. She packs up her things and walks to the elevator of the large loft headquarters.

The apartment Fournier shares with her husband and son lies about a mile northeast of her lower Manhattan office, and she heads there on foot despite the summer drizzle. She takes a studied path home, cutting diagonally through the neighborhood parks. Fournier says she's excited to be back in her role at the start-up, as it suits her "nerd" tendencies as well as her childhood interest in fashion.

Fournier's talents for both coding and leadership have been in demand, which is why she was recruited from Goldman Sachs to Rent the Runway in late 2011 and promoted to head of engineering less than a year later.

"Honestly, my attitude when I was first recruited was, 'I don't know about this.' You get this bias, like it can't possibly be a serious technical problem, it's just a Web site that rents dresses. Sure, it'd be fun to work with fashion, but is it going to be enough of a technical challenge? And as it turns out, yes, it is."

Her engineering team keeps track of a staggeringly large number of moving parts. They have to present all available dresses online, facilitate payment for rentals, coordinate dress shipment and re-receival at the company warehouse, monitor that each dress is dry-cleaned in house, and then account for time dresses need to spend in the care of a seamstress. And the only path to customer satisfaction, Fournier's found, is through perfection.

"If you are going to your senior prom and you rent the Golden Goddess gown or whatever," she explains, "you expect it to be there the night before your prom. And if it doesn't arrive, it doesn't fit you, or it's not perfect, your life is, like, over, right? So it's very challenging from a technology perspective to build a business that can fulfill that fantasy."

A delivery van blocks the sidewalk, and she squeezes between it and the adjacent building. In addition to her shoulder bag she she carries an insulated canvass pack for the milk she pumped earlier in the workday. "Just two bags and ice packs," she explains.

Another challenge she's encountered at Rent the Runway is the matter of clothing fit. Women rent the designer dresses, often for important events, without ever physically trying them on. The site offers sizes tips and and sends out two sizes at a time, but that can still feel like a gamble to some women.

"I think the male, or the analytical way I should say, of looking at that problem is, 'I’m going to build perfect models of women's bodies, I’m going to laser scan them and I’m going to measure and fit the dress to the body with this weird 3D model.' And I am sure that someday the technology will be there. But it's not quite there yet, and in the meantime you get sort of an uncanny valley effect.

"Whereas, when you think of the social value of trying things on," she continues, "you're going shopping with your girlfriends or you’re just trying things on and you want to be like, 'Hey, does this look good on me?' You want to show off how things look on you to help other women fit them." Acknowledging those tendencies, Rent the Runway has launched the feature Our Runway. Women of different body types have eagerly submitted photos of themselves in rented dresses so potential future renters can see how a particular dress fits on a frame similar to her own.

Fournier arrives at her co-op building and invites me in to the lobby.

"I feel like I'm kind of living my 8-year-old self's dream," she says of her career. "I'm at a fashion company, and I'm getting to do nerdy things, which I find fun. It's the best of both worlds."

She smiles as she heads to her apartment, where her husband and baby await.

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure