Small Business Majority Blog

Small Business Matters

Olivia Ashjian James, owner of KEZI

The best pieces of art are often transformative. What starts out as one thing can take on a new shape, meaning or purpose for someone else. It’s the out-of-box creativity and perception of an artist that can take one piece and make it something wholly different and unique – an artist like Olivia Ashjian James, for example.

A studio art major at Clark University, James worked primarily in line drawings, but by her junior year, she was itching to be more active with her hands and turned to sculpture. One night, she was working on a sculpture of a bull that would end up informing her own handcrafted, intricate line of jewelry.

“I had just finished the [bull’s] leg, not yet attached, when I held it up and said to myself, ‘This looks like a necklace pendant,’” James recalled. “I proceeded to make four other shapes like it and created my first necklace.”

Taking inspiration from nature and ancient designs, James began experimenting in jewelry design, crafting original pieces for herself. “I noticed that whenever I wore a necklace I made, someone would stop me on the street and comment on it. That’s when I knew I had something to share with the world.”

In 2013, James founded her business, KEZI LLC, in Boston and developed an intricate, aesthetically divergent line of jewelry with more than 130 different designs. The name KEZI, derived from James’s Armenian background, means “for you” in the language. The tagline for her business – “For You. Be You.” – conveys embracing who you are so you can be the best you, according to James.

“KEZI designs give voice to beauty and strength that lies within. It is jewelry that embraces individuality and confidence, captured in my adornments for the body,” she said.

The meticulous craft and expertise behind James’s designs make her pieces eye-catching, but time-intensive. It can take her up to eight hours to make a necklace, and 14 to create a headpiece. But for a truly unique piece of jewelry, the special nature of each piece outweighs the time it takes to create them.

The Harvest Necklace, KEZI's most popular necklace sold

A sticking point of KEZI jewelry isn’t just to adorn oneself with exquisite jewelry to elicit the feeling and appearance of beauty, but to wear a statement piece that brings out the inner beauty of the person wearing it.

“I see that people are drawn to the idea driving my business: a desire for people to truly embrace themselves and feel beautiful. My designs speak to people in a unique way because when someone finds a piece they like, it has captured something about them in the lines of the design.”

With 50 designs ready to be added to her collection and plans to start a men’s line in the near future, James is expanding on the name and promise of KEZI to be for all of us.

“KEZI is my lifelong project. I see KEZI as a way of embracing beauty and uniqueness within you through adornment of the body. My jewelry is a way to show off individuality, and love the self.”

James clearly knows that when you look good and feel good, anyone can have the confidence, strength and ease to be themselves. Sometimes, all it takes is a pendant.

Owner Kristine de la Cruz

246 hours. For eight months, Kristine de la Cruz spent one hour each day working on a business plan. After 246 hours, Crème Caramel LA was ready to sell.

Crème Caramel LA, a custard and confection dessert bakeshop in Sherman Oaks, CA, may have only taken 246 hours to conceive, but the notion of owning her own business had been with Cruz for far longer.

“My passion ignited for owning my own retail business as a child,” recalled Cruz, who remembers her father bringing home blueprints for fast food Filipino-inspired restaurants as a child and imagining herself working as a cashier in those establishments when she got older.

“Playtime for me was pretending I owned a shop, bar and restaurant rolled into one, and my siblings were my customers,” she said.

Cruz had quite the reputable job working for a music agency in Beverly Hills, but the idea of owning a business was always in the back of her mind, to the point where she grew weary of always mentioning it but never acting on it.

“I got tired of talking about it and decided to take one hour each day for a year to work on either my business plan or recipe. I figured one more year of actually doing something about what I’ve always wanted to do would bring me closer to it or make me decide I didn’t want to do it at all.”

Turns out she only needed eight months. With a product, business plan and mascot in place, Cruz launched Crème Caramel LA.

Inspired by Filipino recipes and ingredients such as ube, a purple yam popular in the Philippines that creates a deliciously smooth and naturally sweet lavender-colored custard, Crème Caramel LA brings a welcome innovation to the crowded dessert landscape.

“We are targeting Filipino ingredients and recipes to help us stand out among our mainstream bakery competition,” she said.

Besides exotic ingredients like ube, Cruz’s other secret weapon to help her stand out in the crowd is Dapper Dan.

As the character mascot for Crème Caramel LA, Dapper Dan boldly and proudly declares his (and the shop’s) independence with the tagline, “I’m Not A Cupcake!”

“We started the business around the time that cupcake shops were springing up all over the country,” she said. “We knew we would stand out, but we wanted to not only stand out product wise, we wanted to shout out that we were different.”

All of these tactics have succeeded in carving out a niche and uniquely popular spot for Crème Caramel LA in the food industry, one Cruz notes can be a fickle one: “You can be the flavor of the month one moment and wondering where the customers are the next.”

But with top sellers like Crème Caramel, Upside Down Pie and Bread Pudding flying out of her shop and into the mouths of happy customers every day, Cruz needn’t worry about flaming out anytime soon.

“What’s great is that I get to do it all, the way I want to do it. It may not be pretty sometimes, but overall, we do everything with passion and gusto.”

Cruz may not have a set plan for the future of Crème Caramel LA yet, but give her an hour a day and see what eventual magic comes from it.

Churros Locos food truck

A vacation that turned out to be more work than play sparked a crazy idea for Isabel Sanchez and her husband, Daniel Huerta, that led to Portland’s red-hot food truck, Churros Locos.

During a trip along the Oregon coast, Sanchez and her husband met a gelato business owner who was lamenting about the lack of smell exuding from his shop to attract customers. In a flash, inspiration struck.

“My husband and I automatically thought of our childhood memories and our favorite dessert: churros,” Sanchez recalled, realizing that the powerful and nostalgic aroma of churros from her past could prove to be a bountiful business venture.

Both Sanchez and Huerta had full-time regular jobs, but the allure of the churro was something they knew they wanted to capitalize on. Instead of venturing out to open a traditional, brick-and-mortar churro shop, their wheels turned to a different track.

“We needed something that would provide flexibility, as well as minimal risk and investment at the beginning,” she said, highlighting the reasons why a food truck made the most sense for their churro business.

Isabel Sanchez, owner of Churros Locos

“We started small, slow, sweet and steady,” she said, noting that customers, friends and family slowly but surely began finding out and spreading the word about Churros Locos through social media, and their following and catering requests took off from there.

And while a food truck can provide some uniquely tricky obstacles like mechanical issues, especially for the dainty vintage truck that carts around Churros Locos, it’s been anything but a bumpy ride since Sanchez hit the road in 2013.

Should mechanical malfunctions arise, Sanchez breathes a sigh of relief that her husband is quite the handyman, lest Portlanders be deprived of their churros for too long.

The churro sundae in particular, a combination of piping-hot churros and cold ice cream, is what the people go truly loco for. Fans of the Portland Timbers and Thorns soccer teams have been indulging in these sundaes the most, as Churros Locos’ prime spot is the Providence Park Max Station just outside their playing field.

The famous churro sundae

“Looking at the demographics, we knew there was a market and demand for a familiar and cultural dessert in Portland. Our hope is to develop a strong demand [for churros] across generations.”

Ask Sanchez her favorite part of owning a food truck, and her answer is deliciously simple: getting to share the churro love.

“We love how a delicious dessert can reach so many and help everyone come together in various scenarios: weddings, birthday parties, and street fairs.”

That churro love has spread, too. Churros Locos was selected to participate at the World Street Food Congress in Singapore, bringing their churros to an international audience of hungry foodies. But Sanchez isn’t letting this honor make her forget about Portland.

“Locally, we want to continue sharing our churros with Portlanders via our Churro Mobile, and eventually open a permanent location.”

With that promise, Sanchez will continue to drive Portlanders crazy because Churros Locos is here to stay.

As we head into our 10-year anniversary, Small Business Majority is blazing trails like never before, and our team’s hard work is paying off in spades. In the past year alone, we have launched our entrepreneurship program to help strengthen our nation’s innovative minds and provide them with materials they need to launch their own businesses, our youth opportunity campaign to help get this nation’s unemployed youth back to work and an economic agenda to promote small business prosperity in the coming future.

These are just a few examples of the meticulous work, pioneering creativity and passionate dedication of Small Business Majority’s crackerjack team. And lately, people have been taking notice. Earlier this year, our very own blog was handpicked among many as a Business Blog to Watch in 2015 by Broadview Networks for being a knowledgeable and insightful destination for business analysis and trends.

Small Business Majority team

The Small Business Majority Communications Team was also nominated for the Nonprofit Team of the Year award by PR News, a national organization that serves the communications and marketing community for corporations, agencies and nonprofits. We were thrilled to be named as an Honorable Mention in that prestigious category. Most recently, Small Business Majority received the Award for Innovation in SME Growth & Business Excellence for Entrepreneurial Leadership by Acquisition International, a global business publication. This business excellence award recognizes outstanding performance, success, innovation and ethics across the business community.

We here at Small Business Majority could not be more honored and humbled by these accolades. As we gear up to tackle one of our biggest ventures yet, our first ever Small Business Leadership Summit this May in Washington, D.C., we will be unwavering in our pursuit to continue serving the small business community, and we look forward to making our tenth year the best one yet.

Michaela Hahn-Burriss, SBM's Ohio Outreach Manager

In workplaces around the country, and right here in the Buckeye State, laws protect employees against discrimination based on a whole host of things—including race, religion, sex, age, nationality and more. But in the 29 states that don’t explicitly ban it, Ohio included, people can still be legally fired or harassed just for being gay or transgender. Many small business owners in the state believe that needs to change now. This is why it’s crucial for the legislature to implement a uniform, statewide workplace non-discrimination policy that protects all Ohioans, and many small business owners agree.

Small Business Majority’s opinion polling found seven in 10 Ohio small business owners believe state law should prohibit discrimination against LGBT employees in the workplace, and the majority agree laws that protect against discrimination are good for their bottom lines. Many small business owners are surprised to learn that this kind of law is not already on the books in Ohio. In fact, 79 percent thought it was already illegal under state law to fire or refuse to hire someone for being gay or transgender.

Ohio small business owners believe laws that protect against discrimination can improve their bottom line and that these kinds of laws help employers attract the best and brightest employees, regardless of whether an employee is gay or transgender. Additionally, Ohio entrepreneurs strongly believe implementing a nondiscrimination policy is the right thing to do. Of employers who have a nondiscrimination policy in place for their businesses, the vast majority says it’s because they believe all employees should be treated fairly and equally.

Ohio small employers believe we’re long overdue for state policies protecting all workers from discrimination, and state lawmakers should take note. That’s why Small Business Majority is working with small business owners across the state to have their voices heard on this issue.

If you’re a small business owner in Ohio and believe it’s time for state lawmakers to pass a law banning discrimination in the workplace, we’d love to hear your comments on this issue. Contact Michaela Hahn Burriss at mhahnburriss@smallbusinessmajority.org.