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A better internet? What this alum is doing to make it happen

Structure, science fiction, and serendipity: alum Shirley Chen discusses how her company Narrativ is building a better internet, how the novel “Dune” has impacted her life, and what part sheer chance has played in her career.
Shirley Chen, founder of Narrativ, sitting at a desk

Shirley Chen (NYO 09-09, 10-12) has only cried at the office once.

It was a few months ago, when she learned that her startup Narrativ, which aims to democratize the internet for e-commerce consumers, publishers, and retailers, was one of 61 companies worldwide to be honored as a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer. The honor is reserved for companies that the WEF judges to be truly innovative, that have visionary leadership, and that possess the potential to have significant long-term impact on business and society.

A Better Internet? What This Alum Is Doing to Make It Happen

“I was so surprised,” Shirley says. “We're still in an early stage, and to join the company of previous honorees such as Google, Palantir and Wikimedia is truly remarkable."

The company may be early stage, but it is already punching above its weight: using its own SmartLink AI tool, Narrativ has repaired a billion outdated and broken links in the past two years.

Shirley sat down with us to explain and discuss the company’s aims, what role serendipity has played in her career, what she learned from her grandfather, and why the science-fiction novel “Dune” is important to her.

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How does Narrativ work, and how would you describe its impact so far?

Narrativ's mission is to create a level playing field for online consumers, retailers, and publishers. It's powered by SmartLink AI, our patent-pending technology that creates a real-time marketplace around links in commerce content, an editorial category that drives about $60 billion in consumer spending each year.

These can be links in articles in publications such as The New York Times, Allure, Vogue, GQ, Buzzfeed any publisher that drives or writes recommendations about what consumers shop for. Amazon has hardcoded almost all the links that come from content into their site. The problem is that this creates static links, cripples publisher profits by about a third of their market value, and reduces consumer choice. Those static links also lead to out-of-stock or dead pages about 40% of the time. Prices change every day online, but they're not being reflected.

Narrativ tackles all of these dynamics. We rewire publisher content and unlock the economic value behind these links.

In terms of impact with retailers, we're on pace to drive about $600 million of revenue this year for our retail partners, which include Macy's, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Ulta Beauty. On the consumer side, we've fixed about a billion links, updating them to the best price and repairing broken links. We think that shoppers should never experience dead links, and that they should always have accurate pricing information.

Being named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer means that the WEF believes you to have an impactful global vision. What is that vision?

The central mission of the World Economic Forum is to build better communities, and the use of technology for global benefit is a core reminder of why we're building Narrativ.

It’s not about making a marginal improvement in an existing ecosystem. W; we want to rebuild the commerce infrastructure – the fundamental roads and bridges of how consumers, shoppers, media, and retail connect. What's interesting is that technology has previously been the barrier in terms of fixing link decay and 404s.

I think that repairing links is our generation's responsibility. It's a broader question of sustainability. There's a mass production cycle in the media today, whether on social media or editors of online publications being tasked with putting up 20 to 50 articles in a week. But what about all the content that already exists that is valuable to consumers, that they're actually seeking out and still reading? Why throw away that valuable content when you can fix the links in it to make it sustainable and continuously helpful?

What was the impetus that pushed you to start the company?

I left McKinsey and joined online fashion retailer Moda Operandi [co-founded by fellow alumna Aslaug Magnusdottir] when we were growing from about $4 million to $45 million, and I was tasked with driving that revenue growth as the director of marketing.

It was there that I had a revelation – I saw that consumers trusted editorial content in a way that they didn't trust other marketing channels, but that brands were not owning their content and their customers at scale.

Funnily enough, when I had this “eureka” moment, my gut inclination wasn’t to build a startup. Instead, I pitched the idea to a Senior Partner at McKinsey, with the idea that they could suggest it to one of their clients. And the question he posed back to me was, "Why aren't you building this on your own? What is preventing you from going out and building on this vision?" It took me aback, but it became very clear that if my vision was that this product could build a better internet for shoppers, then I should go ahead and do it. That mentorship was the real launching point for Narrativ.

What is the most valuable lesson you've learned in building an organization from scratch?

Founders have a natural bias for action. As I cross the 30-employee mark, I'm constantly reminded that execution is key. Execution doesn't mean doing everything on your own; it involves process, culture, and your team.

For me, this means moving away from doing everything myself to empowering others. My favorite part of my job today is when someone comes up to me and has a completely new idea and execution plans that I have never thought of before about how to grow our business. That's been a really valuable lesson as we've grown as a company.

What advice would you give to other McKinsey alums who are interested in launching their own venture?

From a fundraising perspective, the bar for starting a company has never been easier. If you have an idea, you can probably get something off the ground fairly easily. But I want to posit the flipside, which is unless you have 200% confidence in your mission and in your ability to bring value to the ecosystem, you should not start a company.

Sometimes the question is if you really want to have the biggest job in the room. You can be a very successful person without taking the amount of risk you need to in order to be a founder.

How did your time at the Firm prepare you for what you're doing now?

I didn't realize to what extent McKinsey had influenced me until after I left. McKinsey is radically nonhierarchical. You're judged and viewed purely on the discipline of your thinking and the strength of your value system.

I've had a lot of people ask, "Well, how did you know you could do that?", and I think what they meant was, "How did you know you had permission to do that?" This was instilled in me at McKinsey. A good deal of my boldness comes from spending time in an environment where I never felt limited.

What is something that people might be surprised to know about your career?

I think the most surprising aspect is the randomness and serendipity of how different events led to building this startup. I'm not the kind of person that walks around with a ten-year plan. The turning points in my life have had an element of luck.

In college I decided to go to a Broadway show. When I was in Times Square trying to buy tickets, a Teen Vogue editor asked me to be a seat filler for a movie screening of “Marie Antoinette.” Saying yes to being a seat filler led to an internship at Vogue, which eventually turned me onto working at McKinsey.

Going from the McKinsey path into working at Moda Operandi and ultimately getting that launching point to build Narrativ has been a very serendipitous path. I did not and could not have imagined ten years ago that this is what I would be doing or loving.

Is there any book, movie, or piece of music that you've been thinking a lot about lately?

Yes. The book “Dune,” by Frank Herbert, brought my fiancé and I together. Because of our upcoming wedding in October, “Dune” has been top of mind for me. The plot of the book involves a fight for resources not dissimilar to the current environment. If we're talking about resources, whether it's data or infrastructure, the idea of bringing people together and building a team and moving toward a mission really resonates, no matter if it's a piece of science fiction written almost 60 years ago or something that I'm living out today.

A Better Internet? What This Alum Is Doing to Make It Happen

Who inspires you?

My grandfather is a core figure in my life. I grew up in Beijing and learned from him by example that the way you do anything is the way you do everything.

He instilled a sense of discipline and rigor into the smallest actions. One day he heard me sigh deeply while doing work and my grandfather said, "Hard work is a gift. Thank yourself. These are gifts." It is that texture that he brought into my everyday life.

What do you want to see when you look back on your career, years from now?

Hopefully I'm six to seven decades away from the end of my career. I want it to be an action adventure with lots of laughs!