"You have to stay hopefully in the low times, and humble in the high times?" Those are the words on which Steven Izen, 23, founded Lokai in 2013. I sat down with Steven to learn about his personal journey, Lokai's beginnings, and the bracelet he hopes will inspire others.
Where did you go to school? How did it prepare you for Lokai?
Steven Izen: I graduated from Cornell University's undergraduate business program, where I learned "there are no shortcuts to success." Coursework and case studies were helpful, but I've learned the most from the real life experience of building Lokai. I was working with my advisors to create a schedule where I'd have days without classes so I could take the Cornell Bus into Manhattan and meet with web designers and other team members.
What was the inspiration behind Lokai?
I came up with the idea after freshman year of college. I was on the beach with family and friends, and thinking about how lucky I was to be there, while at the same time I had just found out that my beloved grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. That was a really tough time for me, because I had always been extremely close with him -- I credit him with instilling an entrepreneurial spirit in me; he also taught me how to play pool, golf etc. The feelings of helplessness towards my grandfather's diagnosis were in stark contrast to the happiness and gratitude for my life that I felt that day on beach. I realized that life is a cycle of highs and lows, and it's important to remain humble and grateful at the same time as you're experiencing everything.
I love the notion of preserving feelings and memories through physical objects. (I collect memorabilia from all of the places that I travel to, including Tanzania, England, Hong Kong.) So, I was thinking about how I could take the contrasting feelings I had from that day on the beach, and translate them into a tangible object. I thought about incorporating elements from the highest and the lowest points on earth, Mt. Everest and the Dead Sea. My dad, who's also an entrepreneur said, "Great idea. Now go execute it."
I decided to make a bracelet, because it's something you can wear and take with you. There are two beads at either end of the bracelet. The black one is injected with mud from the Dead Sea. The white ball is filled with water from Mt. Everest.
How did you gather the natural resources, and produce the bracelets?
Setting up a company to source materials from such far-reaching places in the world while pursuing my degree wasn't easy, but I was very motivated to make Lokai a reality and I looked at these challenges as opportunities. We work with local organizations and community members to collect our resources, including native Sherpas from Mount Everest.
We give back to these communities, too. Lokai donates 10 percent of its net profits to various charities. This past April there was an avalanche on Mount Everest, and 16 sherpas were buried. It was the biggest tragedy in the mountain's history, and we were able to donate money to the Sherpa Family Fund and help them quickly reach their goal.
How did you get the product to market?
When we first launched, it was all word-of-mouth, talking to friends, friends of friends etc. Then, I literally took a display (pictured at top) around to retail stores and said, "Hi, my name is Steven Izen, and I would love to tell you about my product, and I think it would fit well in your store." It was hard at first. I only got 1 out of every 30 stores to take a chance. If I didn't believe in Lokai, it would have been easy to let the discouragement get the best of me. It was the passion that kept me going. It's amazing how much you can get done, if you make the right connections and just go for it. Everyone you speak to is just a person like you. If you're passionate about what you do, people will listen. And now we're in over 88 countries, and 300 boutiques around the US.
What was a pivotal challenge you faced?
As we are young and growing fast, it seems there's a new challenge every day to address. As an example, once there was an unprecedented flood of website traffic, it crashed and people weren't able to place orders. I had to scramble to find a solution, but those are the challenges that really excite me about being an entrepreneur--even if it is a rocky path.
What caused the site crash?
A few celebrities, like Ashley Greene, have drawn attention to Lokai. This is a good problem to have, but you still have to deal with it right away.
What do you attribute the company's early success to?
I think one of the reasons Lokai has been successful is that we're not afraid to ask for help as a company. For me personally, I'm 23 years old, and this is the first real company that I've started. I think one of the smartest things you can do is to recognize the areas you're not well-versed in, and be able to ask for help when needed. I've had an amazing team around me that has lent their maturity, experience and creative expertise, and I learn from them every day.
What's the next step?
Things have changed so much in the past year, I don't think I can tell you exactly where we'll be a year from now! But I can say that we're working extremely hard to get our brand and mission out, and we couldn't be more excited for what's ahead. We plan on creating other products and building the brand, while staying true to our core message.
Learn more about Lokai at: mylokai.com
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