Claudia Huapaya is the VP of Customer Experience & Retail at Rent the Runway—a subscription fashion service that powers women across the country to rent unlimited designer styles for everyday and special occasions. For over two years, she has been responsible for leading the strategy for the customer experience and retail teams. What does that entail, exactly? Well, Claudia is very, very busy. She’s not often in the same place for a long period of time and her main priority is to innovate Rent the Runway’s customer experience programs. Her operational mindset has gotten her through some challenging doors.
On paper, Claudia is an experienced leader with a demonstrated history of adaptability and delivering results. In real life, Claudia is an all around BOSS in her field and she has the credentials to prove it.
Although many are interested, the fashion industry isn’t an easy industry to excel in. It is notoriously known for being cut throat, hard to penetrate, and superficial. However, blood, sweat, and tears don’t seem to be the key ingredients to her success. Her diligence and networking skills are what prompted her success in the industry.
We spent time with this badass VP to discuss what inspired her career path, professional growth, and learned what advice she’d give to fellow women of color trying to find their way professionally.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your upbringing.
CH: I grew up in a small town north of Boston in a big family. I’m the youngest of six kids and the only girl so I was pretty well protected to say the least! My mom grew up in New Jersey and my father grew up in Lima, Peru.
How did your upbringing influence your career interests?
CH: My parents made me a very organized and detail- oriented person.
My dad taught me how to use Excel in elementary school. I was ahead of the curve years later when they started teaching “Computers” in school. Yes, I’m old enough to remember those old school computer labs!
My mom raised us while also teaching and keeping the most immaculately clean house. I don’t know how she did it, my siblings and I were a wild bunch.
Two of my brothers are close to me in age. We were all in high school at the same time, sharing that common experience was like having built-in best friends. They definitely gave me a hard time but growing up with them also taught me to speak up for what I want.
What was your first job?
CH: My first job was in the 6th grade as a “Mother’s Helper.” I looked after an art teacher’s daughter while she taught her classes. I did this all summer long and I made $600, which felt like a lot of money at the time!
I was also pretty entrepreneurial in middle school. I sold my easter candy to the other students and never shied away from the odd jobs: ice cream scooper, apple orchard attendant, donut dipper (when they come out of the fryolator, someone has to coat them in cinnamon and sugar while they’re still hot), waitress, preschool teacher…you name it, I did it.
How did it challenge you and what did you learn from those challenges?
CH: There’s something to learn from every job you have.
When I had to work at 5am to polish apples, I learned endurance. I am not a morning person but I followed through on my commitment. As a waitress, I learned about customer service and memorization. No matter what you do, there will always be a wrong order or a tough customer. It taught me the power of humility, a positive attitude, and the importance of building rapport with your regulars. As a preschool teacher, I learned patience and discovered my own passion for teaching others.
Tell me about an experience you that didn’t quite go the way you expected it to. What did you learn from it?
CH: During my sophomore year, I applied to lead orientation at Boston College. The OL (“Orientation Leader”) program was prestigious and coveted—sophomores rarely get the position. That said, I was very involved in the Student Admission Program and knew older OLs so I grew a little arrogant and despite the odds being against me, I totally thought I would get the position…but I didn’t. This was a big and important blow to my young ego. I learned that no matter how prepared or qualified you are, you should always have your backup plan. You shouldn’t take anything for granted.
I decided that even though I didn’t get the position, I wanted to stay in Boston for the summer and get work experience. I applied for a bunch of internships on Craigslist and monster.com. I lined up tons of interviews for paid and unpaid internships and I was so nervous! I actually had to skip a class to go to my first interview but it was so worth it. It was a small online ticketing startup and I spent hours there that day. I even met the CEO (not that hard in a 15 person company) and they offered me the job on the spot!
Looking back now, this aha moment taught me to put myself out there, and take risks.
How did you land your current role at Rent The Runway?
CH: In college, I thought I wanted to become a lawyer. I was Editor in Chief of the Pre-Law Review at Boston College, took the LSAT, and was even applying to law schools.
I worked in marketing for several years after school—which is what I ultimately got my degree in. I realized I was very interested in the operational components: the project management, the scalability of each campaign. I was lucky enough to have an incredible boss and mentor, who put me in touch with several leaders in his network, including a woman named Maureen Sullivan. Fast forward 8 years and she was the COO of Rent the Runway. We actually met a few times to talk about this amazing company.
I had spent the past few years in Business Operations at various digital properties and wanted to try something new. It’s hard to make a leap from digital to consumer goods but I was hooked when I first went to the DFC (Rent the Runway’s Dream Fulfillment Center)—it’s the physical manifestation of our business. It has coats, dresses, and bags going by on miles of conveyors. RTR is actually the largest dry cleaner in the world so it was really an awe inspiring site and I just knew I wanted to be a part of it. Fast forward two years, and I was leading the launch of our newest DFC in Texas!
I got my foot in the door at Rent the Runway by forming strong relationships and networking. On my first day at RTR, I ran into an analyst I worked with back in 2012 at another company. It’s a small world and the interpersonal relationships make all the difference in making professional connections!
Today, I lead our Customer Experience and Retail teams. It’s been so incredibly rewarding to come back to my roots in a customer facing role. After working with our Operations team for so long, it’s great to be a bridge between the two.
Describe a typical day at work for you?
CH: I work across many locations: our 5 stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, DC, and New York; our DFC’s in New Jersey and Texas, and our main office in New York. I try to spend as much time as possible in-person with each team. I’m not often in the same place and I spend more time than I’d care to admit on phone and video conferences.
My day is a mix of working with my Customer Experience (CX) and Retail teams, as well as other stakeholders as we strive to constantly innovate our customer experience. RTR is a technology + fashion + logistics company, and all that goes into bringing the closet in the cloud to life. The ability to pivot from one topic to the next and to thread them all together is at the core of my work.
How did you navigate working in different industries?
CH: To go from a marketing role to an operational role, or from a business backed by digital advertising to one that’s based on fulfillment of physical goods, were both huge pivots for me and, frankly, a bit scary. But a lot of the core skills are the same: attention to detail, foresight, clear communication—these are universal truths. I’m an avid reader and pretty curious person, so a willingness to learn new things has been key.
Was working in a fashion space a long-term goal for you? Do you see yourself continuing to work in fashion long term?
CH: I’ve been in New York for about 10 years and my wardrobe was pretty much head to toe black before coming to Rent the Runway. Since joining, I’ve learned so much more about fashion, design, supply chain, and sustainability. Not to mention trying so many brands and styles I’d never worn before. The fashion ecosystem is fascinating and going through such disruption right now so it’s an exciting space to be in.
Long term, I want to continue working on high-growth consumer brands and I’ve learned never to limit myself or my scope for the future. You never know what exciting opportunities are going to come your way!
What advice do you have for young women of color who are working towards advancing their career goals?
CH: Work hard, be nice, and be vocal!