Talks Tech #40: The Future of Digital Fashion in the Metaverse

Talks Tech #40: The Future of Digital Fashion in the Metaverse

Written by Katherine Manuel


Women Who Code Talks Tech 40     |     SpotifyiTunesGoogleYouTubeText

Gabby Hall, Social Media Manager at Women Who Code, interviews Katherine Manuel, Chief Operating Officer and Board Director of House of Blueberry. They discuss the importance of networking for beginning, changing, or expanding your career path. Katherine shares how the pandemic influenced her drive to enter the gaming industry, leading to House of Blueberry.

Tell us about your first exposure to tech.

I’ve had twists and turns in my career. Technology has always been a focal point. My parents met working at IBM. My mother was a systems engineer, so technology was part of my growing up. I got away from it as many girls do, and then found a career where I found roots in technology in my first job.

You had that experience very early on of seeing a woman in tech. How do you think that shaped your perception or understanding of the capabilities of being a woman in that industry?

My mother didn’t work when I was young, but we always knew that that was what her training was. She was a Chemistry major and was very comfortable in STEM fields. I had no realization or recognition that that was somewhat unique or rare. I also was fortunate that I only had one older sister. In my house, it was very much that girls could do anything. The conversation in the place was always about my sister and me being bright and analytical. There was a lot of importance around intelligence, but also no categorization around what was ours and what wasn’t based on gender.

When did you know that technology was something you wanted to do?

I joined Accenture right out of undergrad. I had to do a lot of computer programming. We did a boot camp where they taught you how to program C++. I had fun doing it. It was like solving a puzzle. I enjoyed the opening of that realm. I did what I had to for work but wanted to get more into the business strategy. I went back to get my MBA. Following that, I joined Thomson Reuters. I was in a rotational program, and the head of engineering in the healthcare business was looking to do a massive transformation of the engineering, the way products, and the technology side was built. He asked me to meet him for breakfast to talk about it because he was interested to see if he could find somebody new to the company that understood enough about the technology they could run this extensive transformation program for him. I always understood enough about technology and a lot about business so that I could be that bridge between teams. I leaned in and realized that it was a space that I liked and was pretty good at.

What was it like when you first took on a leadership position? What advice would you give to people who are taking on leadership roles?

The most important thing to realize as a leader is that your job is to support the people that work for you. If you have a functioning organization, your job is to unlock barriers for your team to do their jobs as well as they can. I like to be pretty transparent with who I am. My leadership style is probably to share a lot about my family and personal life with my employees so that they also feel comfortable sharing their lives.

What kind of challenges have you faced as a woman leader in tech?

People sometimes will underestimate my technical capabilities because I have gotten away from coding and building out systems. You look at many CTOs that are men, and they haven’t been coding and programming technology for a long time. You turn more into a people manager. I do think that women are seen as less technical. You have to continue to remind people that you do have that background.

What is your preferred work style?

I love when people take the initiative. I never pretend that I know everything. People will bring experiences or perspectives that always make whatever I’m thinking better. I like ideas shared. The only thing I don’t tend to like is when it’s done in secret. I like when my team brings ideas forward. I like the back-and-forth. You can then ensure that people aren’t going so far in a direction that isn’t necessarily good for the business, but you still allow people to show how they shine and what they’re interested in. They’re able to bring their ideas and their passions into the work.

What has your relationship been with fashion and design throughout the years?

This is a new space for me. I understand how to operate a business. I know the structure and the regulatory context of setting up this business, the House of Blueberry. The fashion side of it is very new to me. I have friends that have worked in fashion for a long time and have been real resources to me to help me figure some of that out, but also just getting into it and asking the questions and being in the room when people are talking about the next drop. Going to conferences and learning more about it has been fun for me. Digital fashion is such a new space. There is a vast realm of space that is online or digital fashion per se, and we’re a fashion house, so we’re designing clothing for avatars, and that’s just neat and cool.

Have you always had a personal love for fashion and design? When did it become clear that this is something that you wanted to pursue?

It’s the gaming aspect of it that got me the most interested. During the pandemic, I watched my two kids play games to have their play dates. They weren’t able to see their friends, so they were able to go online and play. They chose to play Minecraft, FaceTime with their friends and play Minecraft together in an ordinary world. I remember walking into their room, and they were playing with each other but also with other friends remotely. I remember realizing the power of what the community space creates online in a whole different way than I had realized before. I got into this because I understand business, strategy, and innovation and can do everything. I set as the anchor because I wanted to get into gaming. I just looked at my LinkedIn and looked at everybody that I knew that worked for any gaming company. I reached out and was like, “Let’s catch up,” and I just started talking to people who would then introduce me to more people, and eventually, I got introduced to House of Blueberry.

Can you tell us a little about the current state of fashion and virtual reality?

So many different opportunities and start-up companies are coming into this space. Many of the games or online communities have opened up something called user-generated content or UGC, which enables creators to come and share their assets for sale in these marketplaces that are online. House of Blueberry is a collection of creators. We have some of the best 3D fashion creators in this business. We want to be on every platform where digital identity matters. We are continuing to grow. We just got another round of investment last December. We want to partner with the game studios and show how incredible some of the fashion can be. Our fashion is the best of what I’ve seen in games. We hire and recruit the best fashion designers on these different platforms to set the mark of what’s possible and set prices that are not like NFT. They’re not unattainable prices. We want to be an accessible brand with which kids or adults feel very comfortable.

What are some of your current collections like, and what were their inspirations?

I am not on the creative team. I have to be very clear. I run the business. I know our Chief Creative Officer would be rolling her eyes as I try to explain this, but I have learned. I’m learning in this space. We have inspiration for many of our designers. One of our designers wanted to do a magical collection. She likes science fiction, so you can go into our store and buy this magical, almost fairy-like clothing. We’ve done some collaborations with fashion designers, so we did a partnership with Natori. We have some dragon hoodies, cool joggers, and fun accessories you can wear worldwide. We’ve collaborated with Leah Ashe, a Roblox influencer, and did some enjoyable work with her. Our team is incredible.

I would love to get involved in this field. Where do I begin? How would I start it?

Make sure you understand what you like. There are tons of capabilities or things that you can learn on your own to know how to do 3D design. Blender is a tool that our creative team uses that allows them to do these incredible 3D designs. You can follow so many Discord channels and people you begin to see on Twitter who will share their work. Our community likes that we’ll share our works in progress so they can see early designs and even share how they like that design to come to fruition throughout the process. If you’re interested in working in this space, the nice thing is that there are tons of opportunities. I think Epic Games just announced that they will launch a huge marketplace. If you want to be a creator, you can discover how to do it, teach yourself, and then play around and see what sells. You can set up your ability to sell your designs and ideas.

Do you have any advice for women in tech, women leaders, or women who want to pivot at some point in their careers?  

Reach out to people and let them know you’re interested in forming a relationship with them or seeking their advice. I find it incredible how many women help other women. Some men also support women in this space, but I found that some of my strongest allies are other women. I’ve discovered incredible relationships in this space. Ensuring you’re creating those personal connections with people is incredibly important. Then, it’s wildly important to pay it forward to ensure that when younger women or women that don’t have the same experience as you come in, you’re willing to make the time for them.

Guest: Katherine Manuel, Chief Operating Officer and Board Director of House of Blueberry
Twitter:  @kgmanuel

Host: Gabby Hall, Social Media Manager at Women Who Code
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Press and Digital Content, Women Who Code