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Meet the sisters self-funding a sustainable footwear brand, creating shoes that ‘celebrate every woman’s step’

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This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

Julie Kuo is a second-generation Asian-American and cofounder of the Los Angeles-based, female-founded sustainable footwear brand, Avre, alongside her sister, Connie. Both of the Kuo sisters learned the ins and outs of the shoe business early on, growing up in their family’s footwear company, East Lion Corp., which produces the Qupid line of accessibly-priced fashion looks. They witnessed first-hand the sacrifices and battles their parents had to encounter to grow their company into the multi-million dollar business it is today.

With their own brand, which launched earlier this year, the Kuos are also championing multiple social causes, striving to make their voices heard when it comes to women’s empowerment. Even the brand’s nam Avre—an acronym for “authentic, versatile, responsible, empowered”—embodies the brand’s platforms. 

Fortune recently spoke with Julie and Connie Kuo to learn more about their business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and plans for next year.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Avre cofounders and sisters Connie and Julie Kuo.
Photographs courtesy of AVRE

Fortune: What inspired the launch of Avre? Who is your target audience?

Julie: The desire in wanting to support woman from all walks of life and to be able to do this in a sustainable way all while being able to give back to our community was what inspired my sister and I to launch Avre. The very footing of each Avre shoe is to recognize and celebrate every woman’s step. Our family has been in the footwear industry for over 35 years and we understand women’s passion and love for footwear.

Understanding how certain manufacturing practices were damaging to our planet, and learning about recycled threads both Connie and I realized there was an opportunity to show the world they could have beautiful shoes that was also good for mother earth. We partnered with Repreve, one of the world’s leading certifiable recycled fibers. All of our shoes are specifically made with these threads made of recycled PET (Polyethylene terephthalat) water bottles and in doing so we not only reduce waste filling up our landfills, but emit fewer greenhouse gases and conserve water and energy in the process.

Our target audience is empowered women who want to take a proactive approach of living and knowing that the choices they makes as consumers can affect the world in a positive way. Being mindful and aware and making the changes in life for a sustainable future to help protect the earth for many generations to come makes all the difference. 

Being a minority woman in business isn’t easy and to be taken seriously and earn the respect of peers in a male dominated industry has been a battle, Kuo shares.
Courtesy of Avre

Retailers have taken quite a hit during the pandemic, so it must be daunting to launch a company of any kind, let alone an apparel or footwear brand, right now. What has it been like opening a direct-to-consumer business during a pandemic?

Julie: We are a business-to-consumer footwear business, and having to operate and run during a pandemic has definitely had its challenges.  The normal way of marketing and creating brand visibility has been very challenging for us as a new brand as one of our major ways of introducing the brand was through social events. 

With social gatherings not being allowed as well as people limiting contact in order to stay safe, some of the activities we had planned to build brand visibility had to be postponed. We’ve had to rely heavily on social media and organic growth with audiences falling in love with the message and our designs once they’ve received the shoes. 

What has it been like to work with supply chain partners and develop the initial collection?

Connie: We’ve been very fortunate with our supply partners in having a great relationship that has stemmed from years of working together from East Lion. We have always been pioneers in wanting to bring in new innovative ways to explore footwear. It is what led us to Avre, and that mindset was established long ago with our supply partners. 

Therefore, the transition to push our supply partners to open their minds to try newer technologies, methods, and practices has been a much easier process than others. Don’t get me wrong—we still deal with hesitation and push back. But we’ve established our goal since the beginning, and having that clear and direct communication has helped us to continue push Avre forward.    

According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, there are a total of 12.3 million women-owned businesses in the US. Of these businesses, 64% of the businesses started last year by women were started by women of color.
Courtesy of Avre

That said, what has it been like to secure funding for Avre? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?  

Julie: Funding for Avre is all self-funded by my sister and I. 

Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Avre in the market? 

Connie: We want to create Avre into a lifestyle brand in which we can incorporate not only footwear and fashion, but other products that have to do with health. We would expand this line to be inclusive of everyone in the family—mom, dad, and child. We would also love to incorporate and support more social programs that align with who Avre is.

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Champagne is too special to be enjoyed only on special occasions. Here are 5 bottles to pop anytime this winter

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Along with almost every major celebration comes a call to pop open the bubbly. Champagne has a long-standing reputation for being the go-to drink to celebrate or toast to any special occasion and is even a defining drink for New Year’s Eve. But there’s more to Champagne than the big countdown or that rare milestone. After this year, a lesson worth taking away is that you shouldn’t wait for the special occasion. Instead, make the occasion special on your own. Champagne is a sublime way to do that.

First, let’s get a few requirements out of the way. Remember: For Champagne to be true Champagne, it has to be produced in the eponymous northeast region of France. Everything else is simply sparkling wine—although there are many, many equally satisfying and sophisticated sparkling wines out there that go by other names, such as Crémant (made in the same style as traditional Champagne but produced in other regions within France), Cava (Spain), and Franciacorta (Italy). And word to the wise: Officially, there is no such thing as “American Champagne” or “California Champagne.” It’s simply sparkling wine here, too. Anything else is just marketing.

And then there are three primary grapes used to produce Champagne: white Chardonnay grapes and red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes; a blend of the three is what makes up most classic nonvintage bottles.

But there are many more styles of Champagne that deserve to be enjoyed just as often as any other wine. For those who are interested in the terroir (soil), a Blanc de Blancs is made using only Chardonnay grapes, a grape considered to be one of the most expressive of its terroir. While rosé has risen astronomically in popularity in the past decade, rosé Champagne has been produced since the 18th century. For the collectors, the Champagne houses also offer prestige cuvées, the finest Champagne the house produces and perfect for aging.

Here is a selection of certified Champagne wines in a variety of styles to consider popping open anytime this winter.

Beau Joie: Beau Joie specializes in zero dosage (no added sugar) Champagnes, aiming to appeal to a more health-conscious consumer. (That said, remember this is still an alcoholic beverage, and there is no such thing as a “clean wine” or a purely “healthy wine.”) Zero dosage allows the purity of the fruit to shine through without being masked by the addition of sugar. While it’s not easy to create such a delicately balanced bottle without adding sugar, as is common in the industry, consumer demand for this low-sugar approach has been on the rise for the past few years. Beau Joie’s bottles are extra special on the outside, too, as they are encased in an intricate suit of armor made from second-generation scrap copper, a functional design element that helps cool the Champagne quicker (ideal for impromptu celebrations) and keeps it colder for longer without the need for an ice bucket, which, shockingly, not everyone has at home. SRP: $69.

Champagne Henriot

Many wine lovers keep old bottles around for home decor, but Champagne Henriot takes it to the next level with its limited-edition Garden Box Rosé Kit: It not only includes a bottle of brut rosé but also can be used as a flowerpot. This copper pink–hued rosé blend showcases Pinot Noir grapes from the Montagne de Reims while retaining the fresh minerality of Chardonnay, with a palate of red berry fruits. SRP: $75.

Valentin Leflaive

Valentin Leflaive is the culmination of prolific Burgundy producer Olivier Leflaive and Erick de Sousa of Champagne de Sousa, from Avize in la Côte des Blancs. The result is a Champagne with unique minerality and complexity thanks to the Burgundy barrels. This Champagne rosé is made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes from the Montagne de Reims. The base wine (70% of the blend) is aged for seven months in stainless-steel vats. The 30% of reserve wine added was aged in Burgundy barrels, those used to make grands crus wines from Olivier Leflaive. Following the secondary fermentation, the wine was aged for 20 months in a cellar. Elegant and bright with red fruit flavors, the Champagne offers a fine mousse that supports the fresh and complex citrus notes with distinct hints of lemon, cherry, and strawberry. SRP: $75.

Ayala

The boutique maison, led by chef de cave Caroline Latrive (one of the only female cellar masters in the region), produces Chardonnay-focused wines that deliver immediate pleasure, freshness, and elegance. Ayala is, for the most part, an under-the-radar Champagne brand. But the 2013 Blanc de Blancs could change minds on that one. Produced only in exceptional years, this 100% Chardonnay wine is the ultimate expression of Latrive’s winemaking style. It offers remarkable minerality and roundness. And the flavors build as it sits in the glass—becoming almost velvety—with notes including passion fruit, citrus, white peaches, and honey. SRP: $110.

Pol Roger:

Pol Roger is one of the few Grande Marque (most prestigious) Champagne houses that remains family-owned and operated. It is known for its tradition of aging and hand-riddling every bottle in the 4.66-mile-long cellars under the estate’s château, situated on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, France. The house’s rosé exhibits a deep salmon-pink color with a fine stream of small bubbles. The nose has aromas of ripe fruit with elements of citrus (blood orange), pomegranate, and small wild red berries. On the palate, a deep mineral character; a fine, creamy ripeness; and a hint of vanilla. The wine is tender and smooth, with a balance of delicate freshness and refined elegance. SRP: $123.

More must-read lifestyle and entertainment coverage from Fortune:

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Apple is forced to include iPhone charger for not demonstrating ‘environmental benefits’

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Brazilian users could purchase an iPhone with charger included.

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The young and unemployed need better networks

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“It comes in waves,” said Isabelle Risse, a recent graduate of St. Michael’s in Vermont. Risse has applied to more than seventy jobs since graduating in May—with no positive results yet. “One week I’ll send out fifteen applications. And then the next I am so hopeless.”

Risse is not alone. Close to one in four workers between the ages of 16 and 24 is unemployed, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute. There is hope for young workers like Risse, but avoiding a career derailment and a lost generation will require young job-seekers and employers alike to focus more on connection.

More than half of the workforce finds jobs through personal connections. Decades of research has shown that people who use their personal contacts spend less time searching for jobs and end up in higher paying, more prestigious occupations. What’s more, while experienced workers are most likely to find their jobs through weaker ties—acquaintances, former colleagues, someone from the gym—that isn’t true for workers who are looking for their first real job.

Young workers are more likely to find a job through their closest connections, particularly their parents. This tendency is heightened during periods of increased unemployment, according to research by economists Francis Kramarz and Oskar Nordström Skans.

Still, despite the importance of turning to people who they know for help, young workers are less likely to use their personal contacts to look for work. A nationally representative study of unemployed workers by the Urban Institute found that only 23.6% of 16-to-24-year-olds looking for work reached out to family or friends for help, far less than older workers in a job search. There are at least three reasons why. 

The young are often reluctant to network

Risse eventually realized that if she wanted to find a job, she needed to do more than look on websites like Indeed and Idealist, but upon considering that notion, she says, she “was almost put off by it.” Similarly, Kaitlyn Zorilla, a 23-year-old living with her parents in Vista, Calif., said that between COVID, the election, and the holidays, “I’ve been reluctant to reach out to people that I know less. It’s just a burden to be asking people for help right now.”

Young or not, many people feel an aversion to the idea of “networking.” When 308 adults were asked to recall a time when they either networked for professional gain or just to socialize, participants who recalled a professional networking experience were twice as likely as their socializing counterparts to think of cleansing words like “wash” when presented with a word completion exercise (such as “w_sh”). The implication was that the sheer idea of networking made them feel dirty, according to the study conducted by Tiziana Casciaro of the University of Toronto, Francesca Gino of Harvard, and Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University. This difficult social moment we are all living through likely intensifies our moral aversion.

One way of overcoming this, according to the research trio, is to adopt a learning mindset and think of reaching out as an opportunity to grow. Another is to think of making these connections in terms of what you have to give. While the trio’s work suggests that less seasoned workers often feel as though they have little to offer, asking for help is giving someone else an opportunity to be of service and to tap into their own sense of expertise, even mastery.

Young people’s networks are limited in scope

But even when young professionals are able to overcome the drag of moral resistance, they face yet another challenge: Their networks often don’t have the reach that they need. “You’re on your own,” reflected Veronica Wells, 24, who had been working as a waitress prior to COVID. “I’ve been on my own for a while, since I was 17. I have to build up my own network.” 

Unsurprisingly, networks of the young and unemployed are often filled with other people who are the same age, also looking for a job. As Zorilla put it, “When all your other connections are also unemployed 22- or 23-year-olds, it doesn’t really help that much.” Moreover, in a recent study, my colleagues Balazs Kovacs, Nicholas Caplan, Samuel Grob and I found that networks have shrunk by more than 17% during COVID—shrinking just when young workers need them most.

The rate of joblessness among those under 24 is twice that of workers beyond this point, which is to say that if we want to lift the economy, young workers need help. Unemployment is “stunting social emotional learning and connectivity,” according to Marina Marmolejo, the executive director of Dream Kit, an organization that helps unstably housed youth find employment. “That means they don’t have people in their network that can help them to the next phase.”

Having a job makes you better at getting a job

This goes for recent college graduates as much as those who are low-income and job-insecure. Many of the skills that are essential for landing a job and succeeding in the workplace—the importance of listening, the power of knowing when to ask follow-up questions, the know-how to work in a team—are learned through social interactions on the job. This is where the young find more critical social connections as well. Mentors and sponsors are usually found at work.  

The network failures facing young people will have significant effects that extend far beyond the pandemic if they go unaddressed. Lisa Kahn, a professor at the University of Rochester, found that the economic consequences of graduating during a recession persist for more than 15 years—because young workers don’t have the opportunity to learn as they work.

Reasons for hope

Despite the seemingly grim circumstances, Marmolejo is “really excited about the future. Youth who weren’t able to access the job market can now access it through technology.” Young potential employees are bored and desperate to have the opportunity to contribute. “I sit in my room all day, sitting in the same position in bed, staring at my closet door for eight months,” said. Zorilla. “I’m willing to work as an office assistant now in a field that I’m not passionate about, just because I need a job.”

For companies struggling with online work, a large untapped pool of the digitally native should be viewed as a huge opportunity. Having Zoom meeting schedulers and greeters, talent who know how to market and deliver customer service online, and those with the creative drive to devise clever online alternatives to holiday parties or client mixers would make companies better and give young workers an opportunity to engage and keep growing. As Marmolejo argued, “There are opportunities to keep that learning cycle going. The virtual world is too accessible not to invite youth in.” 

Heading off the negative long-term implications of unemployment for young workers, starts with creating opportunities to connect. Young workers need an opportunity to meet people who can help them think through a career, not just give them a job. They need the chance to learn social skills that are critical for careers. For those who are firmly entrenched in a job, the young have a lot to teach employers too—about the virtual world and the real one as they see it. Solving this massive and multi-pronged problem begins with connection. If you are young and looking for work, I heartily recommend that you ask for help. If you are up the career ladder, stand ready to offer it.

Marissa King is professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, where she developed and teaches the course entitled Managing Strategic Networks. Her book, Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection, is coming out in January. Watch an interview with King here.

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