Alumni Focus: Top-Drawer Entrepreneur | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Alumni Focus: Top-Drawer Entrepreneur

Lida Orzeck was a psychology researcher who started a values-driven lingerie business. Go figure

Conducting a study of hospitals’ emergency medical response times requires fluency with metrics and mathematical calculations, the ability to speak and write well, and a knack for gaining people’s trust.

So does selling lingerie to the stars, which may at least partly explain how Lida Orzeck (Ph.D. ’72) went from doing research for the Health and Hospitals Corporation to a career as CEO of Hanky Panky, a trend-setting firm that numbers Cindy Crawford, Julianne Moore and Rihanna among its customers and has been hailed in The Wall Street Journal for having “revolutionized the thong market.”

“It’s amazing — I’m really humbled by it,” says Orzeck of the success of the business, which has turned a profit in each of its 37 years in operation. “Most entrepreneurs fail within five years.”

Hanky Panky was born in 1977, when Orzeck received a handmade lingerie set crafted out of handkerchiefs as a birthday gift from her friend Gale Epstein. When the two recognized the design’s marketable promise, Orzeck — with the subsequent encouragement of one of her TC mentors, psychologist Morton Deutsch — decided to dive into the company’s creation. With virtually no business background, she showcased Epstein’s unique designs at major department stores in New York City and California and found takers at nearly every turn.

But it wasn’t until the launch in 1986 of a $15, one-size-fits-most lace thong known simply as 4811 that Hanky Panky began to achieve truly cult-like status. The company’s popularity further skyrocketed in 2004 when the Journal published a front-page feature that dished on celebrity clientele and quoted the owners of La Petite Coquette and Trousseau.

Hanky Panky’s panty line has been only the most visible part of its story. Orzeck and Epstein (the company’s President and head designer) channel a percentage of earnings into supporting nearly 60 nonprofits, including the International Organization for Women & Development and the Southern Poverty Law Center (Orzeck sits on the boards of both), Make A Wish Foundation, Disabled American Veterans, Planned Parenthood, the American Red Cross and Barnard College, where Orzeck earned her undergraduate degree.

Orzeck says that to be successful as an entrepreneur, “you need energy and the willingness to put in time and to call on people constantly for advice and counsel.”

And perhaps the ability to see the shape of things to come.

—Kelsey Rogalewicz

Published Friday, May. 30, 2014