Company description: Infant bedding manufacturer
Founder: Renee Pepys Lowe, 38
Year started: 1998
Location: Costa Mesa, California
2003 sales projections: $10 million
If a company as big as OshKosh B'Gosh offers you their license, you have only one option: Take it. Fortunately for Renee Pepys Lowe, whose sales and marketing skills had contributed to much of the success of her mother's infant bedding business, entrepreneurship was already in the blood when OshKosh B'Gosh called in August 1998. Knowing that Pepys Lowe's mom was selling her business, which left her daughter (by then well-known in the industry) open to new possibilities, OshKosh B'Gosh left this voice-mail message for her: "We hear you're starting your own company. Are you interested in the OshKosh license?"
"I didn't know I was starting my own company," Pepys Lowe says half-jokingly from behind an understated desk at CoCaLo Inc., her $5.3 million Costa Mesa, California, manufacturer and distributor of children's bedding and accessories. Nonetheless, it didn't take long for Pepys Lowe to get cozy with the idea. In January 1999, she started selling a CoCaLo-designed line of OshKosh B'Gosh products in Babies "R" Us; Burlington Coat Factory; Buy, Buy Baby; and small specialty stores nationwide.
Word of the successful OshKosh B'Gosh placements spread to the makers of Baby Martex and Eurobaby (which CoCaLo no longer sells), and soon Pepys Lowe and her team were cranking out designs for the three brands. The acquisition of infant bedding company Kimberly Grant & Co. in 2002-combined with placements of Expectations, an exclusive line in Target stores created by Baby Martex, and the introduction of a CoCaLo line-have left Pepys Lowe confident that the 18-employee company will bring in $10 million this year.
And though she gets calls "every day" from potential licensors, as with everything Pepys Lowe does, it's about quality, not quantity: "When I do something, I do it the best I can." -K.E.S.
Entrepreneur: What did you learn going from being an employee to being the boss?
Renee Pepys-Lowe: I always had my mother to lean on [while working for her]-that was a big change. A lot of people say it was the best thing that ever happened to me. At the end of every day, I guess the scariest part for me is that I'm responsible for every single person here, [along with] finances, loans... You really have to take a lot of risks. Like when I got these phone calls [from licensors]-I did a lot of soul-searching, and I thought, "Let's just go for it."
Entrepreneur: Will you ever reach a point when
you'll want to stop growing?
Pepys-Lowe: I want to have a five-year plan. I don't want to feel like I'm going to pass this on to my children-that's too far down the road. Last year when the Target opportunity came about, I thought, "This is the perfect segue [to the] next step for us." My philosophy is, if I wake up every single morning and I want to go to work, then I'm going to keep doing it. If I get to the point where I'm feeling burnt out, then I'll need to really look at what I'm doing.
Company description: Web-based software products and services for colleges
Founder: Ling Chai, 37
Year started: 1998
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
2002 sales: $50 million
Ling Chai has no qualms about going against the flow. Take, for example, her leadership role in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement, which landed her on the Chinese government's most wanted list; or perhaps her escape from China to freedom, hidden inside a cargo crate; or her two Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
All things considered, you might find it surprising that Chai got her entrepreneurial inspiration as an MBA student at Harvard. After listening to Chai, it's apparent that her spirit and resolve are not so much learned as they are core elements of her very being.
This drive has enabled her to conquer both the political and entrepreneurial fronts with remarkable results. Chai attended Beijing University for her undergraduate degree and Princeton for her master's degree, but it was being a guinea pig of the e-learning system at Harvard Business School that sparked her entrepreneurial flame. "It transformed my educational experience," says Chai. "I became convinced that every student in the world deserved to have this e-learning environment."
Wanting to provide Web-based software products and services for colleges, Chai founded Jenzabar-loosely meaning "the best and brightest" in Chinese-in 1998, entering an already competitive marketplace. Now, five years later, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based venture has weathered the dotcom storm, watching numerous contenders fall by the wayside.
Jenzabar's products and services are used in one out of five universities in the United States, with some penetration of the international market. Despite 2002 sales of $50 million, Jenzabar is not all about the money, Chai says. "Every day, we're supporting millions of students, faculty and administrators on campuses to connect and improve their productivity, learning experiences and communication with each other," she says. "That gives us a great deal of satisfaction; that's what brings us back to work."
The rigors of running a successful company have not weakened Chai's political endeavors, however. Says Chai, "I hope by further learning leadership skills, I can someday contribute to rebuilding China." -April Y. Pennington
Entrepreneur: How did you go from being a political activist to becoming an entrepreneur? And are there any similarities?
Ling Chai: I have never changed. I was writing a business plan in China before the Revolution broke out. I was dreaming of starting the biggest child education center in China. I came over to this country to get an education at a teachers' college and go back. China's democracy movement disrupted our life and our plans; it was calling for us to do something for us for the country. The calling changed my life for ten years. Once I was able to escape China and come to this country, I was fortunate to be able to fulfill my duty for the democracy movement and get education and live my dream of entrepreneurship through Jenzabar.
Entrepreneur: You fled China in a crate through
Hong Kong and France and ended up in Harvard Business School? Tell
me about that experience. What was your goal at that point?
Chai: My hiding was 10 months, a horrendous journey, and the last hundred five hours was in a cargo crate, with a cold piece of bread and a bottle of water. Our goal was to live. It was five days and four nights, and finally I came to America, the land of freedom, and started to rebuild a life here-going to school, having job experiences, and eventually landed in Harvard Business School. After that I started Jenzabar.
A lot of people dream to live the true American dream. Sometimes Americans don't appreciate that. But it's such a true inspiration for people around the world to be able to come to America and live in a democratic system with free entrepreneurship. I'm fortunate to live in this dream. In many ways, Jenzabar's success today had a lot to do with that inspiration.