In 2017, three young women saw a gap in the college jewelry market. Staid class rings and stuffy cufflinks weren’t going to cut it for a new generation of college go-getters. College jewelry had to be reinvented. It had to express the true spirit and individuality of all those who identified with womanhood – for the fighters, the dreamers, the top-floor execs, and movers and shakers of the future.
A year later, and New York-based startup KYLE CAVAN has expanded to offer 20 university collections and counting. I interviewed two of the founders, Kyle Garcia and Elizabeth Shirley (pictured above), and managed to get an insider view on female powerhouses in the industry. I found out how you can start your own business using their guidance.
1. So, how does one go about starting a business? What inspired you to start one?
KYLE: I first realized there was an opportunity at my 5-year college reunion a couple years back. My friends and I were having the best time reliving school together, and I thought it’s such a shame that we don’t have something stylish and cool to wear post-college that represents such an important time in our lives. After that trip I started researching, and I learned that the class ring was originally designed for men graduating from West Point in 1835. If you look at some of those old designs, the ring hasn’t changed a lot. I was like – it’s the 21stcentury, more women than men are going to college now, and there is nothing better than this? That was the beginning of it all.
2. Were there any particular pitfalls or hardships?
KYLE: Of course, with any new start-up or business there are going to be mountains to climb and challenges to meet. For us, the biggest hurdle in the beginning was getting big corporate college licenses to give us a chance. We didn’t have the big budgets, marketing team and overall bandwidth to compete with more seasoned companies launching into the collegiate licensing market. But what we didn’t have in structure on the business side, we made up for in our product. It was important to us when creating the first pieces that we were designing a collection that was fresh and new and exciting. When we first started showing sketches of our designs, licensing companies expressed their excitement about what we were creating. Having that little bit of confidence in the beginning was so important for us.
3. How do you "stand out" from your competitors?
ELIZABETH: For us, one of the biggest advantages is our female perspective. Our competitors aren’t listening to college students like we are. When we first started with product development we spent a lot of time listening to and connecting with college students and alumni to find out what sort of pieces they cherished most, what trends they followed and how they liked to style their jewelry. From these conversations, we knew we wanted to create something that was modern, meaningful and, most importantly, wearable. Our collections speak to how college students and alumni accessorize today, and we’ve created a product that until now didn’t exist before.
KYLE: Our Architecture collection is also a major point of differentiation for us. It’s a less obvious way to commemorate your school. I love architecture and its ability to transport you to another place and time. I was really keen on capturing this in our collections as a piece of campus to take with you always. Students really gravitate to them - our tiny building necklaces have been such a hit.
4. How does one best transition from college to the world of business?
ELIZABETH: My best advice to a college student just entering the professional world is to be proactive, always push yourself and ask what else can be done. Being extra motivated and showing early on that you are a self-starter will not go unnoticed by your co-workers, including your boss. Enthusiasm goes a long way no matter what field you are in.
5. What challenges are faced by women in the business industry?
KYLE: When we first started out, it was definitely daunting to speak to some of the big corporate college licenses. They were mostly older men who looked at us with skepticism. But we learned early on that we had a really special product and kept pushing. What kept us going was actually the encouragement and support we received from other women entrepreneurs. The network of amazing women who are changing the way we think and shop and interact and are out there creating these really cool companies really blew us away and served as the best inspiration
6. Any crazy stories from your time at KYLE CAVAN?
ELIZABETH: One of our first big deals was with a university advancement team. It was for over 250 pieces that were going to some of the biggest donors in Boston. We didn’t receive the completed order until the very last minute - it was late in the day and the order was due in Boston the following day. With FedEx and UPS out of the question, the next morning I ended up driving to Boston from New York City and then back again in one afternoon to drop them off personally. I even made a pit stop along the way to finish packaging the pieces at a rest stop. Looking back, I can remember how stressed I was and freaked out that the order wouldn’t make it in time. It’s a moment that I will never forget from our early days.
7. Tell us about KYLE CAVAN. What is its mission?
KYLE: Our mission is to bring deeper meaning to what it means to wear college jewelry. With our collections we hope to connect students and alumni across schools and generations, who share the same pride for their alma mater and their achievements as we do. Our brand is about more than just class jewelry, it’s about creating a community of connection, conversation and creativity. On our website we talk about the Class of Now - this is who we are designing for, women who are fearless dream-chasers and change-makers and who inspire us every day.
9. If you had to leave potential future business owners / students with one word of advice, what would that advice be?
ELIZABETH: Take up yoga now. Just joking! Sort of. Starting a business is HARD but it’s the most rewarding work we’ve ever done in our lives. We feel like stronger, smarter, more resilient versions of ourselves.
THE DARTMOUTH SPECIAL JEWELRY COLLECTION INSIDER VIEW
Aside from signing with Givenchy, walking with Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, and Ralph Lauren, Natalie also works hard as a student here at Dartmouth College. Kyle Cavan allows her to show off school spirit while also being an independent young businesswoman.
You go Natalie!