Profit Minded

At 20, a Student Entrepreneur Already Has a Million-dollar Business Idea

Nicole Kelner is one of those people who can make you feel exhausted just by listening to them talk about their day. An energetic advertising major at Penn State University, Kelner, 20, is not only an honors student with a 4.0 GPA, she’s also the president of the Penn State Entrepreneurship Club, editor of the university’s largest co-ed service organization, and is the owner of her own start-up company, Nicole Kelner Designs, a maker of fashion accessories for mobile tech.

Oh, and Kelner is the entire manufacturing staff for the SmartPurse,™ a wallet/handbag she designed that does double-duty as a waterproof cellphone carrier and was featured in the April edition of Vogue UK magazine. To launch her business, Kelner stitched together 400 SmartPurses in her dorm room in her spare time.

It’s this indefatigable enthusiasm that helped Kelner win the EmpowerWomen mentorship contest sponsored by global e-commerce website Alibaba.com. Earlier this year, Alibaba.com organizers invited female entrepreneurs to join the contest by explaining their innovative business ideas and their unique approaches to entrepreneurship. Kelner, who was chosen from a field of more than 140 candidates from around the world, will receive all-expenses-paid trips to visit and exchange ideas with five successful women business owners in the U.S. and U.K.

Alizila managing editor Jim Erickson recently talked with Kelner about her business background, the perils of launching a start-up while attending college—and the importance of time management for someone who can't sit still:

Alizila: What's up with the sewing? Isn't that kind of a vanishing skillset?

Kelner: Well, my mother always told me that my grandmother was a really great seamstress, but I didn’t start sewing until I had this idea for my business. I started teaching myself how to hand-sew, and I really started liking it so I bought myself a sewing machine after I broke my mom’s. It was my first investment in my business.

Another skill you seem to have is time management, what with school, sewing, running the business, writing blogs. Got any time management tips for the rest of us?

I am not much of a procrastinator, and that's really crucial. I know people who work really well under deadline but I am not one of them. I think I work best when I have a lot of things I need to do. My daily routine is, I get home from class and I sew, and then I have meetings, I go to sleep. I sometimes even wake up to sew before class. I actually have a 4.0 [GPA] this semester, even though the business is driving me the most. When I am the busiest, I seem to do my best.

Explain how you got the idea for not-quite-wearable technology. Was it a bolt from the blue, or a notion that grew into a plan?

I left my purse on the back of a chair at a Chipotle, but took my phone, and I kind of realized I was having trouble remembering to bring all my stuff when I was running around. I wanted to make it easier to keep my phone and purse together, by finding a handbag with an exterior phone pocket. I Googled it and found out they didn’t exist. So I went out and found a waterproof drypack and stitched it together with a small clutch. That was my first prototype.

I knew I had a product when friends and family and strangers kept telling me that they loved it. There was a lot of trial and error. I started out thinking I should be selling in flea markets and to friends, family and co-workers. But once I started getting online sales, that was a turning point—I realized that I had my company.

Why do you think you developed this interest in running a business?

Both my parents are actually entrepreneurs. My dad started a software company, and I’ve always loved the idea of having my own business. But I never thought I would do it at such a young age. I couldn’t be happier. I fell in love with everything about the start-up community, and the people I met through it. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to start at this age and I think it’s the best time to start.

Was there anything your parents said to you, any specific advice that you think is helping you at this stage when you are just now starting out?

My dad always told me to under-promise and over-deliver, so I kind of pin that in my mind. Since I started my business, I always tell my customers their parcels will arrive in 14 days and try to get them to them in 7. That’s my way of interpreting that.

The job market for graduates is pretty grim these days. You've said you want your business to be making $1 million a year by the time you graduate. That's one way to avoid a job hunt. Why so ambitious?

I don’t see the point in having small goals when you can dream big. It’s really a “why not?” kind of mindset.

Why graduate? Some of the world’s most successful people, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, dropped out of college.

A summer ago I was at a day camp and doing business on the side, and I did consider dropping out. But my mom pushed me to stay in school and I’m really glad I did. In school I’ve gained such a valuable network and support system, and I really do love learning in an academic setting. I really want to soak that in while I can. I think I can do both business and college.

Do you think it would have been possible for you to accomplish so much at your age, say, 15 years ago?

I don’t think so. The technology wasn’t around. I wouldn’t have been able to sell through Etsy. I’ve gotten a ton of orders selling online, that’s really what’s allowed me to start my business.

What about attitudes towards women in business? Have you run into any resistance?

I do feel like there are a lot of issues with women in business. Just yesterday I went to an event at Microsoft, and one of the angel investors there basically told me because I was a woman I wouldn’t ever get money from an angel. I was really taken aback he would ever say that and it made me want to prove him wrong.

If forced to narrow it down to one or two things, what are the ingredients that all successful businesses share?

I think creativity is the common denominator. Forward thinking and creativity are what paved the way for huge companies to change the world.

Any advice for other women who might be thinking about starting their own businesses?

I just say go for it. One of my favorite quotes is from Harriet Tubman: "Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."

Originally published by Alizila, the e-commerce news website of Alibaba Group.


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