Powered by UVA i.Lab and Effectuation, Startup Opens Resale Market to Clothing Retailers

By Whitelaw Reid

Three summers ago, Sara Whiffen was in a local shopping center when she noticed a new clothing store she’d been meaning to check out had already gone out of business.

“It happened so quickly,” Whiffen recalled.

It got Whiffen, a longtime guest lecturer at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, thinking about one of the big challenges retailers were facing on the ground: competition from consignment stores.

Whiffen wondered if there was a way for the original retailer to benefit from the resale market.

Soon after, Whiffen — working out of the W.L. Lyons Brown III i.Lab at UVA, which is operated by Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation with guidance from acclaimed Darden Professor Saras Sarasvathy — created Rohvi.

The company, whose name is a combination of the word “rotate” and the Latin root “vi” (“a means of”), provides a platform through which retailers can offer to take back items that their customers have already purchased from them in exchange for store credit towards something new. Rohvi then either resells, repurposes, or donates the items for the retailer.

As a business-to-business platform, Rohvi (pronounced ROW-vee) does the brunt of its work behind the scenes, in close consultation with retailers.

In fact, many shoppers don’t even realize it exists.

But Whiffen said when you receive a personalized email from a retailer with a specific buy-back offer for an item you purchased from them, it could be powered by Rohvi.

Using a proprietary algorithm, Rohvi is the first company to build a platform specifically to leverage recommerce for the originating fashion retailer, according to Whiffen.

“We provide a turnkey solution for high-end brands to participate in the recommerce market,” Whiffen said. “The platform can align with a retailer’s brand and marketing strategy. The end result is greater brand loyalty and customer retention.”

Shortly after coming up with the concept for Rohvi, Whiffen (whose husband, Christopher, is a UVA alumnus) added UVA alumna Jane Jackson to her team.

“Sara said, ‘Let’s make retail relevant again’ – and I loved that,” said Jackson, who previously worked at Forbes, HBO and Morgan Stanley.

Rohvi drew its startup playbook from Sarasvathy, whose 2008 book, Effectuation: Elements of Entrepreneurial Expertise, has become world-renowned. Effectuation is a way of thinking that allows entrepreneurs to identify and create new opportunities, partnerships and ventures.

A few years back, Whiffen was having a frustrating go of things with her first start-up when she came across a flier about Sarasvathy speaking at Darden. Whiffen, who had previously worked at Toyota and Lexus, figured she could learn a few things.

That she did.

“It was mind-blowing,” Whiffen said. “Everything she was saying was the exact opposite of what I had been taught to do on the corporate side.

“In corporations, you’re tasked with planning new products, predicting what will happen, and avoiding risks as you bring your vision to market. With effectuation, you start with the means you have at hand and co-create. You make your next move based on the ability to secure commitments from others – not knowing exactly where you’ll end up – but knowing that with each new step, you have stakeholders with you who are co-investing with you in creating the future.”

Whiffen and Sarasvathy stayed in touch. Eventually, Sarasvathy asked Whiffen to give lectures at Darden on effectuation within corporate environments – something she has now done for the last seven years.

In Rohvi, Sarasvathy believes Whiffen really is on to something.

“I think Rohvi combines a real need in the market with technology that can bring a unique solution to fulfill that need,” Sarasvathy said. “I admire Sara’s ability to take lessons from research into practical tools and techniques that resonate with students as well as her stakeholders in Rohvi.”

Whiffen hopes Rohvi breathes new life into retailers while also improving consumer experience and promoting sustainability around the world.

This story was originally published on UVA Today.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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