Regret. It’s that feeling in your stomach when you buy the perfect Hawaiian shirt only to remember that you live in Alaska. It’s finding out post-purchase that your brand new vacuum cleaner received, at best, a two-star review. Thankfully, Fara Alexander is helping consumers diminish their disappointment with ReturnRunners, on-demand return service for retail merchandise. In this interview, Alexander talks about the importance of initiative, community, and strong role models.
According to recent studies, shoppers returned $351 billion worth of product in 2017. While Americans are spending a lot on returned items, they’re also spending a lot of resources -- such as gas, transportation, and time -- in their effort to send back undesired purchases. And let’s face it, in our busy day-to-day lives, it’s much easier to simply live with three toasters than it is to return the two that you don’t need.
It’s a problem that Fara Alexander, Co-founder and CEO of ReturnRunners, is all too familiar with.
“I was working long hours at my previous job, and also planning a wedding. I bought a number of items for related events, with the intent to try things on in the comfort of my home, and then return what didn’t work out, however, I was so busy that I didn’t have time to get them back to the store. Eventually, I just had so many things that I didn’t need or couldn’t use, but was forced to keep them because the return policies had expired.”
That got her thinking -- in this service economy, what if there was a platform that could return shoppers’ items for them in a quicker, easier fashion?
“I had this idea that maybe I could build a service to help people save time on their returns. I wanted to see if it would work at first so I started by emailing my family and friends and asking them if I could return their items to the store. Everyone was really excited about it, and I realized there was a demand and market for this service.”
Project Entrepreneur, an accelerator that provides women founders with access to resources and training, saw the potential in Alexander’s idea and accepted her into their three-day program, which began her official education as a founder and entrepreneur. After receiving validation from this business-minded and investor community, Alexander realized that building her company was a matter of now or never.
“I decided to leave my job and build out my idea at 1871. It was a pretty big decision at the time, but I’m glad I made it. There are always reasons for why you shouldn’t do something, but you can’t think about that. You just have to take the initiative and start somewhere, sometime, because there will never be a perfect moment where you’re completely ready. You learn as much as you can and then you get started.”
And it was a good decision -- ReturnRunners has seen rapid growth since its inception and Alexander is already looking to expand her company's offerings.
“Right now, we’re an on-demand return service for retail merchandise. Customers access our service through our app and we charge a per item return fee starting at $9.99. We work in mostly urban areas to help shoppers make better retail returns which saves them both time and resources. Ultimately though, our goal is to operate as a third-party provider for all retailers.”
To meet that goal, she sought out a community of like-minded individuals to share ideas, resources, and expertise. As a former reporter and private equity professional, Alexander had worked with powerhouse women and wanted to join a program that helped local women founders build their businesses.
“I believe that you surround yourself with the type of people that you become. I heard about WiSTEM through my peers and I joined so I could connect with other hard-working and ambitious women. It’s truly a great fit. I come from a long line of strong, independent women and it’s really important for me to reflect that in both my personal and professional life.”
And with two younger sisters that look up to her, Alexander takes every opportunity she can to set a good example. But as many entrepreneurs will probably tell you, it’s hard enough running your own business without taking on the mantle of a role model -- however, Alexander says that it’s in her blood.
“On my dad’s side, my grandmother was born in Italy in a very rural small farm town and came over to the U.S. as an immigrant, leaving a husband and two children behind. It was her only chance at a better life for her future family. She worked for several years to bring her family over and was never educated beyond the 8th grade. On my mom’s side, my grandmother was a teacher. She lost my grandfather when he died of an aneurysm at 41, leaving her with three kids. She worked hard, took care of them, put herself through grad school, and started the first special-education program at her school (Hibbard Elementary in Albany Park).”
Alexander’s grandmother is none other than Shirley Shechtman, who worked in CPS until she was 90 years old. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Shechtman is often referred to as Chicago’s longest-serving teacher. Alexander credits both her grandmothers as being a source of strength.
“They were relentless in their pursuit of the things that they wanted, and they were both the matriarchs and anchors of their families. They had grit, courage, and determination, but they were also very nurturing. They showed me that there is truly nothing that a professional woman or woman entrepreneur can’t do. They showed me that there’s no substitute for preparation and hard work, and they showed me that you get out of this life what you put into it.”
And for Alexander -- who has now worn multiple hats including that of a journalist, private equity professional, and most recently, entrepreneur -- it’s now time to pass those lessons down to future generations of women founders and professionals.
“My advice for new founders or people who are entering the job market is to constantly ask themselves what they’re doing. The career path I took has been more of a jungle gym than anything. I worked in lot of amazing roles, but they weren’t always a good fit for me. I’m really passionate about what I do now, but I didn’t figure it out overnight. To figure out what it is that you want to do, you have to spend time figuring out what it is that you don’t want to do.”
And if you don’t want to make an inconvenient run to return that ill-fitting sweater, don’t fret -- after all, there’s an app for that now.
Learn more about the WiSTEM program here.
1871 provides work space, education, resources, and curated connections to help Chicago's entrepreneurs build and scale their business.