Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In the Mind of an Entrepreneur

Many fashion brands founded in Florence are world renowned, sought after and exclusively available in this area. In fact, “Made in Italy” alone suggests quality, craftsmanship and elegance in all that bears the label. Despite the prestigious distinction, even this phenomenon cannot withstand volatile economic conditions and the forever-evolving business practices without some reinforcement. Just as the Renaissance shed some well-needed light on the outdated medieval paintings and lifestyle, this new transparency era has opened the blinds on outdated business processes, marketing techniques and manufacturing policies. There has been a shift from a blindly hooked consumer to an aware and outspoken one, a satisfied and qualified employee to an individually ambitious one, minuscule costs to outsourcing costs, big profits to bigger socially responsible ones, and strategic management to creative leadership.
“Money Wall” in Florence
During my stay in Italy, I had the pleasure of meeting and picking the brilliant brains of two very unique, passionate, and courageous entrepreneurs (small business owners), Sara Amrhein and Elisabetta Renzoni. Both women have distinct backgrounds, business models and byproducts of their innate talents. I was so impressed with their designs, drawn to their tenacity and moved by their passion; I knew I had to share each of their unique stories.

Sara’s studio is a comfortable artistic playhouse where the only thing brighter than the aura around her as she talks about her art is the playfully colored jewelry she creates with polymer clay showcased throughout her space. I met Sara the day I visited her studio regarding an internship opportunity she posted online. The second I walked in, I was in awe at how the simplicity of the white walls are accented by the beautiful artwork and jewelry she creates. A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to sit down with her over some espresso in her studio where I picked her brain and was moved by her story.

Sara next to her contemporary jewelry collection.
Sara completed her formal education at University of California, Santa Barbara where she majored in art history and spent a quarter abroad in Florence. Having grown up in a household where creativity, art and fashion exploration were encouraged by her mother, Sara acknowledged that being surrounded by the Renaissance masterpieces in Florence felt like home. The young artist knew she had to pack her bags and say arrivaderci to Los Angeles only one month after her graduation. Fast-forward 14 years, Sara is sitting in her lovely studio, creating beautiful jewelry and artwork and networking with other great artists and designers scattered throughout this creative region of Tuscany. 

Sara’s first entrepreneurial endeavor was in high school selling bracelets and necklaces to classmates. Now, she sells directly out of her studio, partners with and works with two local concept stores to sell her wonderfully crafted and unique products. Sara’s biggest challenges during the first year of opening her studio were marketing and increasing brand awareness. “Selling your product just doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just open your door and automatically people are rushing in and buying everything off your shelves,” she says. I wonder “how couldn’t they?” Her necklaces are aesthetically daring, colorfully welcoming and make their presence felt in an effortlessly flawless way. Who would be bold enough to wear these statement pieces? “Somebody who is after something different, always going to make a statement,” she says. “Somebody cultured and willing to seek out the handmade.”
Sara brings a flavorful product to the market, satisfying niche consumer needs by simply exercising her innate ability to create. Check out her website and enjoy the sight of her inimitable accessories yourself!

FLO Concept Store
My Fashion Entrepreneurship class of eight was surrounded by the blue-green fluid walls and custom clothing of Flo, a concept store boutique founded by Elisabetta R­­­enzoni.  Elisabetta, president of Flo, gracefully shared her entrepreneurial journey before store opening hours one Thursday morning, keeping all us students engaged and enthused with ears and eyes wide open. Her chic and welcoming demeanor coupled with her warm tone complimented the Flo philosophy of “quality and ethics traveling on the same track without sacrificing elegance.”

Elisabetta Renzoni, President of Flo Concept Store

Elisabetta shared a little bit about the business model and vision of the Flo Concept Store. Flo is founded on unique products and social responsibility based on concepts such as solidarity, sustainability and awareness. This organization grants disadvantaged and distressed individuals the opportunity to work or design products which are then sold in store. Elisabetta acknowledged that this socially aware model was inspired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus, the “Banker to the Poor,” a Bangladesh social entrepreneur who has established the Grameen Bank providing business loans to aspiring entrepreneurs with little to no collateral while teaching these clients basic financial principals to get their business up and running.

Elisabetta is a professional, inspiring and brilliant business woman who sees the talent in people and strives to bring out the best in them, while making a profit and sharing a beautifully crafted product with the excited end consumer. For more information on the Flo Concept Store and to check out the one-of-a-kind assortment of products, visit

Without a doubt, Sara and Elisabetta have given Made in Italy a completely new meaning. The poise, dedication and pure joy these two women radiate is both admirable and hopeful. By dedicating this post to the 2014 graduates, I want to leave you all with one message: Whether you want to open your own business, work for your dream company, save the world one city at a time, or still have no idea, I hope these two stories fueled your passion, motivated you to execute and be the driving force behind your OWN defined success.

Live and Learn...and Live.

Europe has spoiled me with enlightening adventures one beautiful city and culture at a time. Wonderful memories such as the incredibly friendly locals of Amsterdam, the breathtaking view of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City and the rustic gondolas floating on Venice’s water canals can all be easily revisited by browsing through my Instagram photos and camera roll. Despite the artsy candid photos and clever captions, I must admit, behind every photo is a lesson that can’t be relived through a camera lens, but can be shared through a story. Experiencing such a variety of newness and stepping outside of my comfort zone daily is exhausting, but so rewarding. As an independent traveler, I’ve been able to reexamine my experiences thus far and reflect on some of the key takeaways from my travels.

In March, I traded in ciao for bonjour as I recalled some of my high school French while taking a scenic stroll down the Champs-Élysées. With the spring-time air, dark blue skies and the hourly Eiffel Tower’s glisten, I couldn’t help but notice the countless couples soaking in Parisian romance. Lovers were everywhere shoulder-upon-shoulder, lip-on-lip and palm-in-palm, and all I can think was, “Wow, Paris truly is the city of amour.” It must be something about the crisp air, aesthetically perfect buildings and the spark of energy on every corner that enables these hundreds of couples to love as loudly as they do.
I was simply an onlooker navigating Parisian social dynamics and adjusting my visions to this new never-before-seen footage . Traveling with an open mind and no expectations is the best way to immerse oneself into a new culture and atmosphere,  even if it means casually walking past some PDA alongside the Louvre. What I say to my fellow lovebirds, continue spreading the joy of lip lock while I enjoy the baguette and Nutella crepes under the tower’s twinkle.

I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Rome, the big, big city swimming in historical currency and an overwhelming amount of tourists. The impressive Roman Forum has a somewhat mysterious and eerie quality that keeps one mesmerized, fascinated and questioning ancient Roman moral conduct. Our lovely tour guide walked us through tsunami like crowds as she pointed out special areas and historical monuments throughout the city, including the Fontana di Trevi, famously giving birth to the “Lizzie McGuire Moment.” It was in this rich city that I had a poor experience when I was almost pick-pocketed by a young boy on the subway. Constantly monitoring your surroundings is absolutely crucial when traveling, no matter how easily distracted you are by the crowds of people and beautiful buildings. Needless to say, after this incident, my survival instinct is at its peak and my ninja reflexes have never been this agile. Violence is never the answer; however, I do have a few self-defense moves up my sleeve if I need them.

Crystal-clear sea water splashing through rocky coasts, narrow streets winding through hundred-foot cliffs, and colorful three-story homes tiered with Tetris like precision all make up the lovely Amalfi Coast and Salerno. One sweaty cab ride, a 45-minute train ride and shuttle bus-ride later, I went from my hotel room on the tip top of the hill back to the rocky beaches of Amalfi. After enjoying some Mediterranean sunshine at the entrance of an abandoned grotto and eating some nice southern Italian gelato, I was ready to call it a day when the only bus leading back into town never showed. Two and a half hours later, I was able to bypass the frustrated mob of Italians and make my way towards the only bus that drove about 60-plus tourists and locals back to the nearest train station. Squeezed in an aisle of what should be a 30-person shuttle, I watched the sea water splash along the shore as the driver fiercely drove down the windy narrow roads with Ferrari intricacy. “At least I’m holding on for dear life while watching a gorgeous sunset over the Mediterranean,” I optimistically thought to myself. Rest assured, I made it safely back to ground zero with some new Italian friends and new fixation for sunsets. Having the ability to anticipate abnormalities by observing non-verbal expressions and doing a little research on logistical information, such as public transportation, is absolutely critical when traveling. Despite day one’s transportation hassles, day two in Amalfi was a piece of cake as I hopped on and off trains and buses like it was my job. Still I can’t take all the credit; it helps when bus drivers arrive to and from bus stops on time like it’s their job.

I developed a new traveling mantra: Everything in life must be done twice: once to learn and another to live. It’s important to experience frustration, losses and uncertainty to better live excitement, achievements and confidence during your travels. After all, nothing about traveling is easy, but everything about traveling is worth it!

Last chance...

“This is my last chance to study abroad,” I thought to myself last March as I hit “enter” on my laptop screen, submitting the deposit to what has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. Being part of the university and Business Honors programs for four years, successfully completing three summer internships, and being an active student leader on-campus, I had very little flexibility in my schedule to leave the country for five months. With one year left of school, I was able to strategically organize my class schedule, and all that remains is a global business course – so convenient. Now, I’m studying halfway across the globe, and I see more clearly than ever why studying abroad didn’t work out any of the four years prior.

Eli’s view from the Rose Garden in San Gimigiano.
Lorenzo de’Medici offers more than 400 courses ranging in disciplines from art and business to fashion, language and culture. Some unique courses linked specifically to the historic country and city include Italian Culture through Music; The Genius of Michelangelo; Lost Symbolisms: Secret Codes in Western Art; Corporate Social Responsibility; Wine Business and Marketing; Peace Studies – the list goes on and on. Needless to say, because of my new flexible schedule and curious nature, I completely nerded out and wanted to take them all! I had so many options to choose from with only one real “mandatory” course – let the fun begin!

Global marketing management. This three-hour course shed light on the theory behind why and how companies “go global.” The course dissects financial implications, cultural nuances and political factors, and each play a huge role in how companies market products and services in a foreign country. My brilliant and challenging professor, in her adorable Italian accent and traditionally fashionable Italian outfits, lectures via PowerPoint adding in several two- to five-minute informative YouTube videos pertaining to whatever topic she discusses that day. I’ve watched relevant clips about international patent laws and the way Oreo’s packaging is tailored to specific countries and regions all over the world. Our in-class case study discussions are my personal favorite, similar to what I experienced in MGMT 449 with good ol‛ Dr. Leibson. We analyzed the global expansion of several companies and the various challenges that arise when deciding to go global. Big established companies such as Ikea faced political unrest and were almost forced to operate in a bribe-infested business culture when expanding to Russia. When Starbucks expanded into Australia, the coffee giant failed to understand the Australian consumer preferences and completely underestimated the necessity of adaption when introducing its product in a competitive and saturated market. With these observed challenges, we also discussed the success of one of the strongest and most recognizable brands in the world: Coca-Cola. Its brand identity implies that no matter where in the world I am, I can count on having a trusted tasteful glass of America’s history to quench my thirst. Coca-Cola’s nearly flawless strategy to adapt to the ever-changing domestic and global environment in a socially relevant way that resonates with the loyal Coke consumer is a key factor in its successful global reign. Interesting stuff.  Now, I’m finalizing two projects: a research paper on Singapore, where I’m assessing the business marketing opportunities by analyzing its culture, current marketing practices, and its financial and currency market; and my partner, and dear friend, and I are developing  a full-length hypothetical business plan: “Studamo Bene: a coffee house study lounge” targeting college students, since no such space exists in Florence … sounds like first-mover’s advantage to me. I promise learning is fun; all one needs is to be engaged, challenged and openly curious.
Window display on Luisaviaroma, a Florentine boutique.

Fashion means business: One of my professional and very personal aspirations in life is to open my own fashion retail store, where all of the merchandise is sourced from ethically sustainable vendors with a precise moral compass. I really do believe I can leave this world better than I found it, and I hope my generation is able to find a solution to the human injustices the apparel manufacturing industry has grown so fond of. The industry is unfortunately plagued with a benchmark for unapologetically harvesting unsafe working conditions in poverty-stricken countries, where labor is conveniently cheap and human lives are reduced to profit-generating machines. Fashion means serious business, and it’s time we start taking this $1.7 trillion global industry more seriously. Let’s think: What other product forces one to express his/her innate personality daily resulting in social capital based on what the individual wears or doesn’t wear? It’s an evolving, fast-paced and interesting industry that relies on innovative technology to develop textiles, a futuristic approach and anticipative skill to forecast trends and a loyal informed customer whom now more than ever seeks transparency and honesty in the brands he/she hangs up in the closet. My first goal is to become aware and educated about the ever-changing and exciting industry, which is exactly what I’ve been doing in and outside the classroom.

In the voice of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” I must proudly say, I don’t usually take fashion courses, but when I do, they are in the country which is home to prominent global fashion brands including Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci and Roberto Cavalli. I enrolled in three fashion courses, Fashion Marketing, Fashion Entrepreneurship and Retailing Management. Each course is taught by experienced women, who have worked in the industry for 10-plus years, two of which own their own business and share valuable insight and experiences with the class every week. Each professor has a distinct personality, career path, style of teaching, and of course, style of dressing. I am surrounded by fashion every single day, whether I’m learning about the business of fashion in the classroom, casually passing by Gucci and Zara on my way to the Rose Garden, or observing the fabulous yet effortless street style of Florence walking past the duomo, it’s a great environment to be in for all lovers of fashion.

Needless to say, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my classes at LdM. I’ve made some great lasting friendships with international classmates, built relationships with my sassy professors and am immersed in an industry that completely fascinates me. The last semester of my undergraduate career has been full of hard work and artistic business inspiration that I can’t wait to bring back to the States. Being an international business student in a city synonymous to art and creative freedom has been stimulating, eye opening and absolutely necessary. After all, accounting and finance professionals can be creative too, you know.

*This post has been shared on the Mihaylo College of Business & Economics website.

Farewell In-N-Out, Buongiorno panini

Ciao ragazzi! I’m now a little over halfway through my stay in Florence, and I must say, the concept of time truly amazes me. How have I been spending mine? Leisurely reading countless books on my growing list, befriending some phenomenal individuals from all over the world and most importantly, immersing myself in the unique culture Italy so proudly holds on to.

Florence has a unique atmosphere and historical richness that keeps me mesmerized and curious. The city’s historical significance is most notably attached to the Renaissance; however, Florence was also once home to Europe’s strongest banks and still thrives off of the profitable textile and fashion industries. This beautiful city is undoubtedly founded on artistic innovation and creativity, which brings a great abstract perspective to my business studies.

Italian lifestyle is very relationship driven: calm, cool, and somewhat collected. As an aspiring entrepreneur with a capitalistic mindset, this was VERY new to me. I was shocked to find out that most stores in high traffic areas close at 7 p.m. when there are STILL hundreds of potential customers willing to spend more money. Italians believe in a little something called “going home in time for dinner is more rewarding than earning a few extra bucks.” I had a lot of assimilating to do, so I decided to temporarily replace my “go, go, go” non-stop mentality with a new “slow down and open your eyes” frame of mind. With so many peaceful areas of the city to experience – my favorites being Piazzale Michelangelo and Giardino delle Rose – switching lifestyle pace was less conscious and more of a natural transition. Enjoying beautiful scenery while sunbathing, studying for midterms or having a nice picnic overlooking the Florentine clay tile roofs has been an enriching experience. I have learned to appreciate the simplicity in Italian lifestyle thanks to a much broader global perspective and openness to change.

My favorite aspect of Italian culture has to be the amount of walking I do. I walk to my classes all over the city, passing through cafes at every corner and luxury fashion brands through the center. I walk to the grocery store daily, to group meetings, to choir, you name it. I think I forgot what it’s like to be behind the wheel. (Warning: Stay off the road for a few weeks after I’m back folks!) This independent method of transportation has really helped me naturally become one with the city and its vibrant atmosphere.
Eli Garcia enjoys walking through Florence’s beautiful historical gardens.

I wouldn’t be experiencing Italian lifestyle if I didn’t indulge in the food culture. Heaven is now synonymous with cappuccino, caprese salads, panino and pizza. Although this sounds generic, you truly haven’t experienced Italian cuisine until you’ve sat down at a Trattoria to enjoy fresh soft bread and rich thick pasta that settles so perfectly on your taste buds; you’ll wonder how Olive Garden has survived for so long. As for that delicious Italian wine, I don’t usually go wine tasting, but when I do, I’m in the beautiful hills of Tuscany enjoying fresh cheese and meat slices to complement the smooth sips of Chianti wine.

Adapting to and living through a completely different culture has truly been an eye-opening and self-reflective transition everyone should experience. Being flexible enough to observe and react to my current surroundings by taking calculated risks in school, work, and life in general is a skill I have developed through this global experience. Italian culture is wonderfully traditional, and although it has not by any means been all rainbows and butterflies, I have adopted my favorite aspects and hope to continue them back in the states. On that note, I must say, I miss the Fullerton sunshine, lunch breaks at The Habit and casual small talk with my business peers in the Mihaylo hallways. For now, I’m enjoying rising temperatures, reading in the rose garden, lunch breaks at Panbrianco (best panino in Florence) and casual small talk with my new European friends and East Coast roommates. Thirty-six more days before graduation, 35 more days before my flight back, and 34 more days of learning and growth in beautiful Florence!

*This blog post was shared on The Mihaylo College of Business & Economics blog website.