In a special feature of Pioneers, we are thrilled to sit down with Lior Cole, a trailblazer in the tech-driven fashion realm, widely acclaimed as an accidental founder turned industry innovator.
Lior is building ShopARI, an AI-personal shopper. With a journey that started in grade school entrepreneurship and evolved through the ranks of high fashion and AI development, Lior’s breadth of experience has not only carved out a unique career path, but also actively redefined the intersection of technology and style.
Here’s the insider view she shared with us. But before we dive into today’s Q+A, we encourage you to listen to the full deep-dive interview here:
Q: Your journey from a second-grade entrepreneur to fashion-tech pioneer is quite the story. Can you share how you transitioned into founding your own company?
Lior Cole: I often consider myself an accidental founder, but perhaps it was meant to be. As a child, I had a knack for entrepreneurship—waking up at 5 a.m. to hit yard sales, buying items, and flipping them on eBay. Fast-forward to my time at Cornell studying computer science, I stumbled into the fashion world. In a chance encounter, I was scouted in Washington Square Park to model for a Vogue runway shoot. That kickstarted my modeling career, leading to a contract with IMG and walking major shows like Proenza Schouler.
Parallel to modeling, I nurtured a passion project—an AI venture akin to ChatGPT, but with a twist, targeting a Jewish demographic. This project garnered significant media attention, including from BBC and Vogue, which married my tech background with my newfound fashion exposure. This fusion revealed an untapped potential at the intersection of fashion and AI, which eventually became the bedrock for my company.
Q: It's fascinating how your path organically led you to where you are now. Could you describe where your company stands today in the tech landscape?
Lior Cole: We're in an exciting growth phase. We've raised about half a million dollars through inbound interest alone and recently onboarded an incredibly talented CTO. We’re also approaching a milestone with our private beta set to go live by the end of December. It's an exhilarating time as we're seeing the concept come to life and gain traction.
Q: Considering the competitive nature of fashion technology, what gives your company an edge?
Lior Cole: The real game-changer has been my personal journey through modeling and tech. The insights gained from both worlds allow us to create an AI experience that goes beyond traditional retail. Our focus is on the human aspect—creating an AI that understands not just product tags but the emotions and sentiments behind user requests.
Q: How does this human-centric AI approach translate to tangible benefits for your users?
Lior Cole: Our approach is about understanding the nuance of style. It's the difference between searching for a 'black button-up shirt' and 'something to wear for a friend's wedding.' Our AI goes beyond product features to grasp style sentiments, a capability previously unavailable in the industry.
Q: Transitioning to the business side, how do you engage with fashion brands and integrate their offerings into your platform?
Lior Cole: It's all about leveraging relationships. My modeling career has opened doors, making it a straightforward pitch to brands. The excitement to innovate within the space is palpable, and our platform, which I liken to a digital Nordstrom, brings together a curated selection of both prominent and niche indie brands. This diversity allows us to cater to style over brand loyalty, democratizing the fashion landscape.
Q: Personalization in fashion is crucial but comes with privacy concerns. How do you balance creating personalized experiences with ethical data practices?
Lior Cole: Our strategy begins with refining data collection to enhance personalization while respecting user privacy. We've employed models that enrich data labels, allowing our AI to provide more accurate recommendations without compromising user security. It's a delicate balance, but one we prioritize.
Q: Sustainability is a significant concern in fashion. How can AI lead to more ethical practices?
Lior Cole: AI can radically transform the industry through automated, on-demand manufacturing, reducing waste by producing items only when there's a buyer. In the most advanced scenarios, we're looking at digital clothing, which could revolutionize how we perceive fashion consumption, aligning with sustainable practices.
Q: With a competitive landscape, how do you plan to maintain a unique position in the market?
Lior Cole: Our core strength lies in the data and the emotional bonds users form with our AI avatar, ARI. Like Pinterest's tailored experience, ARI grows with the user, creating a personalized journey that's hard to replicate, reinforcing user retention.
Q: Inclusivity is critical. How does ARI cater to a diverse global audience?
Lior Cole: While ARI maintains a consistent identity, we're exploring how to make the shopping experience resonate with users' diverse identities. We're conscious of not altering ARI's appearance but rather providing a shopping companion that understands and respects cultural and individual diversity.
Q: There's a fine line between personalization and generic representation in advertising. How do you navigate this in your platform?
Lior Cole: It's a complex challenge. The fear is that hyper-personalization might prioritize clicks over representation. My hope is that representation won't be compromised and that we'll find a balance that celebrates diversity.
Q: Do you foresee a future where AI avatars adopt more colorful and potentially extreme personalities?
Lior Cole: In theory, diversity in AI personalities is welcome. However, the potential societal impact is concerning. There's a need for careful regulation to ensure AI doesn't amplify harmful ideologies.
Q: With AI's evolution, what's your prediction for the fashion industry's future?
Lior Cole: I envision a future where AI empowers creativity, enhancing recommendation systems and providing new avenues for expression. The transition may be disruptive, but the long-term outlook is one of increased creative freedom.
Q: New York City is a hub for fashion and tech startups. What's it like building your company there?
Lior Cole: The city is a powerhouse of energy and networks, which fuels motivation and breeds innovation. The downside? The sheer number of ideas can be overwhelming, and finding the right talent is fiercely competitive.
Q: As a successful young entrepreneur, what's your advice for aspiring founders?
Lior Cole: Believe in your vision and don't measure yourself against others. We're all part of the same ecosystem, striving to innovate and shape the future, irrespective of the size of our ventures.
Q: How can our audience connect with you and learn more about ARI?
Lior Cole: I'm active on social media under my name, Lior Cole. For ARI, follow @ShopARI on Instagram and visit shopari.com for updates and beta access.