Introduction and interview by Kayla Westergaard, Penn State '20
As a Penn State student myself, I have experienced first hand the power of being a part of the world's largest living alumni network. Whether it's a trip to the grocery store, a summer vacation, or a trip abroad, there is no shortage of Penn State family members to run into. That's why I wasn't surprised when I connected with Penn State alumna Elizabeth Shirley, after I had reached out to Kyle Cavan about a possible Penn State collection. It was through our conversations about Penn State traditions, culture, and community, that I found my fit here at Kyle Cavan.
Elizabeth's transition from Penn State student to inspiring entrepreneur is a reminder to current students that your passion can drive you to great success. When Elizabeth graduated from Pennsylvania State University, she embarked on a successful decade-long career in marketing and advertising in New York City. She learned from her experiences on major campaigns for brands like Johnson & Johnson, Vera Wang, Peloton, and countless others. Her passion for entrepreneurship and creative perspective led her to team up with long time bestie Kyle, to bridge the gap in the college jewelry market. Today, Elizabeth has built exclusive jewelry partnerships, grown the Kyle Cavan community, and cultivated a brand that inspires and empowers women. I recently had the chance to learn more about Elizabeth's experiences as I interviewed her about starting her own company, as well as navigating business through the pandemic.
Elizabeth's transition from Penn State student to inspiring entrepreneur is a reminder to current students that your passion can drive you to great success.
What was the impetus in taking the leap to start your own company? I built my career in advertising here in NYC. I have always been creative; I grew up as a dancer, and I’ve always been a lover of art history and music. But I was also interested in the challenge of business, so advertising was a nice middle ground. During that time in my career I was able to work with all different types of companies; big CPG companies like Johnson & Johnson and P&G, start-ups like Peloton, and fashion brands like Vera Wang. I also helped build brands for celebrities like Carrie Underwood (CALIA by Carrie Underwood) and Jennifer Aniston’s Living Proof (now owned by Unilever).
It was the exposure to the leadership [C-suite level] at these companies though that made me hungry to build something of my own - not just for someone else. I wanted to be part of more than just the advertising these companies did. So when my best friend Kyle couldn’t find a cool piece of jewelry to represent her time at Duke, and had the idea to do college jewelry, I thought it was the perfect opportunity.
I was also inspired by women entrepreneurs here in NYC - Emily Weiss of Glossier, Jen Rubio of Away, etc. - these women were my age and taking on huge industries with amazing brands, design, communities. The college jewelry industry could definitely benefit from this type of innovation, so I felt it was a worthwhile risk and investment to tackle.
I was also inspired by women entrepreneurs here in NYC - Emily Weiss of Glossier, Jen Rubio of Away, etc. - these women were my age and taking on huge industries with amazing brands, design, communities.
I saw that you have exclusive jewelry partnerships – how did you develop the relationship with Rent The Runway? And how has that impacted your business? Networking is always important, but especially when you are starting a business! At the time I had a very good friend at Rent the Runway who introduced us to the team that we worked with on a collection for their ambassadors. That’s one of the cool things about what we do - we can make jewelry for all different types of companies, organizations. Our jewelry is meant to be a subtle, stylish way to represent your communities- let it be collegiate communities, or something else. Which is why we also work with university advancement departments, sports teams and major companies on custom collections.
We are also the exclusive jewelry partner to the Miss America Organization, which we discovered is the nation’s leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women, aligning well with our values as a company.
What prompted you to donate proceeds for the upcoming launch? Kyle Cavan is headquartered in Soho NYC, so when the pandemic hit we immediately started working from home and with that came a lot of uncertainty. The first thing we did was start talking to seniors about how they were feeling - with classes, study abroad, graduations canceled. It inspired us to design a special collection just for them - the Class of 2020 - called The MMXX Collection. We decided to use roman numerals because they felt cooler, more timeless. The seniors on our team helped design the collection and we thought what better way to honor this resilient class than to give back to our community that needs it. I also 100% subscribe to the idea of “paying it forward”.
The response to the collection has been overwhelming. We sold out of it twice already and since the end of March we have been able to donate thousands of dollars, the equivalent to over 20,000 meals, to No Kid Hungry.
Over everything else I believe professional relationships give you the greatest return in life and in business.
What is your biggest lesson learned? The power of networking and relationships! Over everything else I believe professional relationships give you the greatest return in life and in business.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Firstly, don’t worry about finding the “perfect” job post-college. Just get out there and start working, gaining experience, and network. The rest will follow.
Seek out the chance to intern and work in high school and throughout college. REAL life experience paired with education is the most powerful combo.
Save money and be diligent about understanding money and finances very early on. Be aware about what things cost even if you’re not paying for them.
What question didn’t I ask, that you wish I had?
How has starting a company changed you?
It has given me courage to take calculated risks I never thought I would be able to take. It has taught me that change is a constant in business and life and to learn how to ride it versus being surprised that change occurs each time. It has taught me that the rewards on the other side of risk are far greater than if the risk wasn’t taken. In other words, it has taught me to live fully - and to me that’s what life is all about.