Business by design

While the W. P. Carey School of Business is most often associated with economics, finance, management and other left-brained pursuits, its programs also benefit artistic-minded students. We spoke with three entrepreneurial alumni who have used their business smarts to help their creative spirits soar.

Eddie LeVian

Although the jewelry tradition in his family can be traced back to 15th-century Persia, Eddie LeVian (B.S. Business Administration ’80) is a man with an eye toward the future.

Eddie LeVian is a man with an eye toward the future.

“My family’s history in fine jewelry spans centuries, from ancient royalty to today’s red carpet,” he says. “Our plan moving forward is to compel every household to own a Le Vian.”

He’s been CEO since 2000, but he earned the privilege of running the family business by starting from the ground up. First he interned during summers off from school in the 1970s, then he moved on to stone-cutting and traveling sales. In 1981, a year after graduating, he became a designer and director of the American division his late father, Abdulrahim Ephraim LeVian, founded in 1950 after emigrating from Persia.

“The lessons I learned at ASU have been the cornerstone of what helped me build the Le Vian brand,” he says. “The ASU strategy of making sure graduates have a broad background when studying business … gave me the depth to understand the world better and to understand all facets of running a modern business.”

The company designs some 40,000 original pieces each year, many one-of-a-kind or limited editions. The rings, bracelets, brooches, necklaces and pendants are clustered into brands, including Le Vian, which features the Strawberry-n-Vanilla® collection with Vanilla Diamonds® (white) and Strawberry Gold®.

There is also Le Vian Couture®, Le Vian Bridal®, Le Vian Time® and, perhaps most famously, Le Vian Chocolatier®, featuring the company’s natural-colored Chocolate Diamonds® (a selection of the highest quality brown diamonds) from Australia that are exclusive to Le Vian.

The artistry of the brand has attracted a loyal following of jewelry collectors who are dazzled by the innovative designs and exotic gemstones the company is known for. And celebrities — Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron and other A-listers — regularly choose Le Vian designs to help them sparkle on the red carpet.

“The challenges of a family business are that it may not be a well-funded business run by experts,” LeVian says. “The advantages of a family business are that people genuinely care and are passionate about what they do, and you don’t have to answer to outside shareholders and boards or worry about short-term strategies because of quarterly earnings reports.”

Eddie LeVian and television host Mario Lopez at JCK Las Vegas.

This has given him both the impetus and the freedom to think outside of the box. At JCK Las Vegas, the largest jewelry tradeshow in North America, Le Vian goes above and beyond the competition every year by hosting a much-anticipated, invitation-only fashion show/trend forecast event. The 2015 show held in June marked new territory for the company: models were decked out in Le Vian from head to toe, from “the dress to the shoes, from jewelry to the timepieces, from the scarves to the pashmina, everything was Le Vian,” he says.

This served as the U.S. launch of Le Vian Luxury, the legendary company’s first step beyond fine jewelry and into accessories, including handbags, shoes, scarves and small leather goods, some of which will feature gemstones and precious metals. The items will be offered at a price point meant to “strengthen the base of the brand,” he says.

This year also marked the opening of a store dedicated exclusively to the new brand. Called Le Vian by Jared, it is a boutique dedicated to Le Vian creations, both the fine jewelry they are known for and the accessories that offer just a glimpse of LeVian’s vision for the future of his family’s company.

“The opening of the first Le Vian by Jared store in New York in May was our first foray in turning the storied jewelry brand into a lifestyle brand,” he says. “The future of the jewelry business is not to be an island but to speak to the woman in a language she understands.”

Lily Kanter

The lessons Lily Kanter (B.S. Accounting ’87) learned at W. P. Carey have been invaluable in her role as CEO of Serena & Lily, a lifestyle brand offering a wide range of items for the home and the people who live in it.

Lily Kanter, CEO of Serena & Lily

“I use my accounting degree on a daily basis and feel it’s a great academic background for any entrepreneur,” she says.

After graduating, her degree served her well in traditional accounting and technology roles at Coopers & Lybrand, Touche Ross, Deloitte & Touche and Microsoft Corp. Then she decided to combine her corporate experiences with the “retail pull” she’d felt since college and dive into entrepreneurship in 2000.

“I’ve always had entrepreneurial interests,” Kanter says. “In every position I held in the corporate world, I carved out a new niche and created something. During my time at Microsoft, I wrote the business plan to convince Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer to open the first Microsoft retail store.”

Her interests also leaned toward little ones. First, with Baby & Kids, a children’s clothing boutique she founded in Mill Valley, Calif., then with the company she co-founded with Serena Dugan, a decorative painter and textile designer who walked in the Baby & Kids door one day in 2003. Within 24 hours of meeting, the pair decided to join forces.

“We both saw a clear void in the marketplace and shared an exciting new vision for the nursery,” Kanter recalls. “We launched Serena & Lily as a wholesale brand selling our baby products through 600 specialty stores, including Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus, before launching our own site. Serena, two administrative assistants and I managed everything for the first few years. We worked very long hours and wore every hat.”

Headquartered in Sausalito, Calif., the company currently has more than 100 employees, so Kanter and Dugan have more time to think about the big picture and grow the business in a way that remains true to their aesthetic. They still sell baby-related items, but have expanded to include some fashion items and a wide range of items for the home.

Lily Kanter is expanding baby retailer Serena & Lily to include fashion for the woman, as well as the home.

“In terms of strategy, we take an integrated approach in every category,” Kanter says. “It may start with the textiles we design ourselves, then we look at what that gets layered with. Are we staying true to our aesthetic or does something feel out of place? Every new initiative addresses a void we see in the market.”

This has been a successful strategy for the online marketplace, so they expanded their reach with a retail location in the Hamptons in May 2013. Called Beach Market, the store was a “major step” for the brand in that it allowed customers the opportunity to touch, feel and otherwise interact with the products, rather than rely only on photos and descriptions.

More recently, in May 2014, the pair opened Design Shop in San Francisco, which Kanter describes as a “reimagined showroom experience” with key silhouettes, rugs and swatches of fabrics and wallpapers that allow shoppers to mix and match, try before they buy and get expert advice as they go.

Two more stores are scheduled to open this year, one in Los Angeles, the other in Connecticut, and more are planned for 2016. While exciting, growth has its challenges, too.

“The greatest challenges have been managing the funding needs and the ever-changing human resource needs as we have grown over the years,” Kanter says. “The greatest rewards have been seeing the baby grow up through the years and creating an amazing workplace for our employees. We believe every company is built differently and we are headstrong on being true to ourselves as we evolve.”

Jennifer Boonlorn

For most women, handbags are a must-have for toting around daily necessities and expressing individual style. For Jennifer Boonlorn (B.S. Marketing ’02), they are much more than that. As the creative director of Soul Carrier, she designs handbags meant to “inspire and encourage people to be who they are, to be unique and authentic and have the inner courage to be bold and live the life they want to live,” a quest she herself has been on since graduation.

“I lost both my parents in a car accident in college,” Boonlorn says. “I was determined to go to law school to fulfill my father’s dream of me being a lawyer. But it wasn’t my passion. My passion has always been art and design.”

So she followed her heart and enrolled in some design classes where she learned about color theory and the history of fashion. There she found “pure joy.” That led to two years at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, internships at Oscar de la Renta, Women’s Wear Daily and backstage during New York Fashion Week, and, after graduation, jobs at the design center for American Eagle Outfitters then at Aeropostale in pre-production. Her goal was to eventually land a product development position at the Ralph Lauren Corp. or Marc Jacobs. But then she got an idea.

Jennifer Boonlorn, founder of SoulCarrier handbags. Photograph by Nicki Escudero.

“Gossip Girl” was a hit television series at the time, and girls in New York were buying up the elaborate hair accessories worn by the show’s main characters. Boonlorn started making headbands and barrettes, and Henri Bendel bought the collection. She had made it in the Big Apple and was loving every minute of it, but the pull of home was strong.

“I did all these things in New York that were amazing, and I can say my stuff was on a mannequin in the window of Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue. I felt very complete and knew I wouldn’t feel like I missed out if I went home,” she says. “I’m an Arizona girl at heart and I wanted to be around to watch my niece grow up.”

Once back home in the sunshine, one of her close friends from ASU, Bob Wilkinson (B.S. Accountancy ’96), encouraged her to continue designing. Phoenix wasn’t the market for the hair accessories, so she started designing handbags out of rag rugs, and Soul Carrier was born.

“I started this without a business plan,” Boonlorn says. “It was just the artist in me wanting to create something. For a while I thought of myself as a designer and an artist, but I’ve been trying to shift to ‘I’m a design entrepreneur,’ because that keeps me focused on building a viable, profitable company. I want to become a benefit corporation, I want to give to charity, I want to make a difference.”

Jennifer Boonlorn designs bold handbags for her company Soul Carrier

As sole proprietor of Soul Carrier, Boonlorn has leaned on the help of consultants and contractors to help build the business. She has also enlisted the help of interns from ASU, including marketing students from W. P. Carey to spread the word via social media, and film students to produce a video for a Kickstarter Inc. campaign she launched in mid-June to debut “Conscious Intentions,” her third collection of handbags.

“With the online platform it’s cool to be able to get my product in front of a global audience in a matter of seconds, and it cuts out the middleman so I can do production in Leon, Mexico,” Boonlorn says. “If I went overseas for production, I could probably have bigger margins, but I want to do it close to home. I want to work with family artisans, I want to know the people I work with and make sure it’s done in an ethical manner. If I can go to bed at night knowing I ran my business in a conscious, ethical manner, that’s success.”

This story was first published in the Autumn 2015 issue of the 
W. P. Carey magazine.