MeUndies' Founder Went to Prison and Befriended a Bank Robber. It Was Great for Business.

Relationships and lessons learned behind bars helped drive the company's future success.

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MeUndies' Founder Went to Prison and Befriended a Bank Robber. It Was Great for Business.
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15+ min read

This story appears in the January 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It was too early. And too loud.

Shok -- as the founder of MeUndies had become known in federal prison -- shook himself awake, pissed. The 29-year-old from Beverly Hills had gotten used to sleeping in a cell, but actual sleep was sometimes hard to come by, given that his bed was across the hall from the “black TV room” (as everyone called it). Guys could get noisy in there. And on this morning, as the halls of the prison were still largely quiet, they were having a heated conversation about politics with the door wide open. So, scrawny as Shok had become behind bars, he got out of bed determined to shut their door -- even if it led to a confrontation.

What he found, in the middle of that room, was an intimidating dude named Grease, who couldn’t have been less happy to see him -- and who, to both of their great surprise, would help define a new direction for MeUndies. But at that moment, nobody was talking business. The question was which one of them would end up on a stretcher. And really, it wasn’t much of a question. Where to start. 

 

SHOK / Zip Code 90210

In early 1985, Jonathan Shokrian was born into a clutch of Persian Jews in Beverly Hills. Most had fled the 1979 revolution when Iran became Islamic, figuring they’d go back when it all blew over. But Shokrian grew up sensing the struggle of a community that realized they were stuck here. “There was a big identity crisis between the old world that our parents came from and this new world that we were living in,” he says. “I was told how I had to dress, who I could date. I was forced to take Farsi classes and groomed into taking over the family business.” He hadn’t even graduated college at Southern Methodist University in Texas when he started working for his dad’s real estate company.  

But Shokrian found that business cutthroat and impersonal. At the same time, he compared himself to his childhood friends, who were doing amazing things. Escaping like a heady steam from their tiny pressure cooker of a Persian Jewish community, they’d been launching some of the buzziest startups of the moment -- companies like FabFitFun, Alfred Coffee, and Sweetgreen. Shokrian could feel the intensity of their entrepreneurialism; it pushed them not only to be part of this American culture but to define it. “I had never been more excited by anything,” he says. “I started obsessively thinking about what my own thing could be.”

In 2011, Shokrian was packing for a European vacation with Sweetgreen’s cofounder Jonathan Neman and ran to Macy’s to pick up a pair of underwear. There in Dallas’s Northpark mall, he was embarrassed to have to ask a female employee where the men’s underwear was. (“I know it sounds silly,” he says.) Then he dropped nearly $30 for a pair of Calvin Kleins that turned out to be a bad fit. On the trip, he vented about it. “We were jetlagged, drinking coffee in a café in Amsterdam, and Jon’s like, ‘Someone should make underwear better and sell it online,’ ” says Neman. “And then literally right there, he logs on to the internet and finds the guy who had UnderwearClub.com and offers him, like, $5,000 for the URL. That’s how Jon works.” 

That deal fell through, and anyway, as they traveled, Shokrian decided that the name of his nascent underwear company should have more attitude. “I personally struggled with body image and confidence,” he says, “and every ad I saw out there was so alienating, like you had to have a six-pack or wings on your back.” He wanted to build a company that made everyone feel good in their skivvies, which meant the messaging had to be as comfortable as the fabric. He liked the cheeky way the English called their intimates “undies,” and because at the core the company would be about self-expression, Shokrian stuck the “me” in front. And there it was: MeUndies. 

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Back home in L.A., he found a student designer on Craigslist to sketch out prototypes. Then he set out to raise money. He’d previously invested in his friends’ startups, so they now returned the favor. He also took money from a new incubator called Science, which was helping to build some of the biggest direct-to-­consumer, subscription-based companies. Dollar Shave Club was starting there. So was DogVacay. Shokrian wanted MeUndies to run on a subscription model as well, which in theory would create recurring revenue while saving his customers from awkward trips to Macy’s. “When Jonathan showed me his artwork,” says Science cofounder Mike Jones, former CEO of MySpace, “it was like this beautiful blend of a non-gender-conformity-building, modern, fresh approach. It felt like the anti–Victoria’s Secret, the anti-Jockey. And that felt very next-generation.”

But Shokrian wouldn’t be the star of Science. That honor went to Dollar Shave Club, which quickly exploded in popularity (and would later sell for $1 billion). At MeUndies, six months after launching in December 2011, Shokrian’s team of three was cramped in his father’s office, out of cash and pretty much out of inventory. He considered quitting but decided to give it one last shot, taking a loan from his dad to buy more product. That tided them over into the holidays and led MeUndies to its first $100,000 month. And on that momentum, Shokrian went on another fundraising tour and found some interest. “The basics market was just stale,” says Tyler Winklevoss, who’d become an investor, “and didn’t speak to the modern consumer either in sensibility or purchasing channel. It was ready for a fresh newcomer.” 

Shokrian raised $1 million and moved MeUndies into its own warehouse. As he relentlessly pushed to sell product, his tactics were sometimes at odds with his ambition to build a body-positive brand. “Every major brand at the time used some form of sexualized content in order to drive attention,” he says. “In the early days, that’s all I knew.” And so MeUndies hired seductive models to flaunt its underwear and even launched its socks on a new high-end porn site. “Some of our early campaigns I’m really proud of and others, you know, I’m not,” he admits.

Say what you will, and people said a lot, the strategy tripled revenues. By 2013, the team -- now around 10 strong -- was relieved to be over the hump.

“And then EPA agents showed up at my door,” says Shokrian. “They told me they were prosecuting me.” 

 

GREASE / South Central L.A. 

While Shokrian was growing up in one of the world’s fanciest neighborhoods, a boy named Joe Nickson was coming of age in South Central L.A., infamous for gangs like the Neighborhood Crips and the Bloods, and crack.

Nickson’s father managed logistics for a security company; his mother worked as a home nurse. They split up when Nickson was about 6 but sent their son -- their only child together -- to school in suburban San Fernando Valley to keep him out of trouble.

Nickson loved his classes but felt torn between two realities. “I would go to different sleepovers, have different vernaculars,” he says. “I would hear about Tony Hawk in elementary school and when I went back home, the new Eazy-E and Snoop Dogg albums. I could relate to both worlds, but I never felt that I belonged to either. So in my adolescent years, I started acting out, just to try to reversely fit in.”

At 16, he joined the Neighborhood Crips and started “flocking.” It worked like this: Nickson, who inherited the street name Grease because he was too slick to get caught, would set out with his crew, dressed like basketball players selling candy, or they’d put on white shirts with black ties, get some pamphlets, and pretend to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then they’d “flock” to wealthy parts of town like migrating birds and knock on doors. If no one was home, they’d break in. It all ended rather abruptly, he says, when one of the houses they burglarized belonged to a district attorney. The laptop Nickson stole had a tracker in it.

Nickson was sent to fire camp, an alternative to prison for first-time offenders. He was there only a few months. On the day he returned back home, a member of the Bloods pulled up in front of him in a Camaro, rolled down the window, and tossed out an envelope. “When you ready to get some money, come holler at me,” the man said. The envelope contained $5,000 in cash. Nickson hollered and was soon robbing banks.

In four months, his crew hit more than 10. “We got out of hand,” he says. But one time really sticks with him: He was masked and armed, heisting a Bank of America on March 12, 2001. He’d already stuffed his long johns with cash and was heading away from a sign that said, of all things: “Easier Access: What are you waiting for?” Then, a kid -- maybe 4 years old -- popped up out of nowhere. “He runs up to me and he puts his hand like mocking a gun and he says, ‘Freeze!’ ” Nickson recalls. “And I say, ‘Little man, where’s your mommy?’ And she says, ‘I’m right here.’ ”

Nickson grabbed the boy by the hand and brought him to his mother. This was the first time he really thought about the people he victimized. And he said to himself, I’m not supposed to be doing this.

He quit hitting banks, but the police still caught up with him. Nickson was convicted of conspiracy and bank robbery and took a plea on three additional bank robberies. On June 6, 2005, he was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. He was 25. 

Related: Why Charities Are Launching For-Profit Businesses

 

SHOK / Dallas 

Shokrian’s run-in with the feds -- the reason the EPA showed up at his door -- went back to a critical mistake he made when he was 23. Before starting MeUndies, when he was working for his father, he convinced his dad to buy and fix up a huge, run-down 1950s shopping center called Fazio’s. The place was a wreck -- rats, holes in the roof, buckled floor tiles, asbestos allegedly in the glue holding them together. 

Some forms of asbestos are unregulated and don’t require the full, heavily controlled (and expensive) removal process. Shokrian’s construction consultant, according to court records, said the building contained this kind of asbestos. So, eager to make his dad proud and get the place renovated quickly, Shokrian outfitted his workers with masks and respirators, and went about renovations. But the project made news when workers used gasoline to clean the tiles, which caught the attention of the EPA. The agency decided to investigate and determined that the asbestos did need to be removed according to regulations. “I tried to tell them it was an honest mistake,” says Shokrian, “and that I would never intentionally put someone in harm’s way.” The Shokrians paid a $500,000 fine, took asbestos removal training, and started monitoring the workers for health issues. And everybody moved on. 

Except that, four years later, out of the blue, the case came back.  After the agents showed up at Shokrian’s door, he was accused of failure to notify under the Clean Air Act. “I never thought a judge in his right mind would send me to jail,” says Shokrian.  

But that’s what happened. “This was not a case in which [Shokrian] set about to injure the environment,” Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater said at his sentencing hearing in Dallas. But the law is the law: He sentenced Shokrian to federal prison for a year and a day. The founder of MeUndies had 45 days to self-surrender.   “We were shocked,” says Neman, the Sweetgreen cofounder, who flew in for support along with others. “It felt like a final supper.”

 

GREASE and SHOK / Terminal Island

Nickson was 12 years into his sentence and doing time at Terminal Island, in L.A.’s harbor -- transferred to the minimum-security facility for good behavior -- when Jonathan Shokrian showed up there to begin his own imprisonment. It was April 15, 2014.

Shokrian had left MeUndies in good hands. He’d chosen a CEO  to run the business and had taken his team out to dinner to buoy their spirits. He knew that, as a federal prisoner, he’d be prohibited from conducting business while incarcerated, but he planned to stay in as close touch as he could. At the office, the MeUndies staff set up a special Golden Eagle Trimstyle phone -- red for drama -- just for when Shokrian called. “I felt very confident the company would survive my absence,” he says.  

His own survival felt less certain. “I was scared,” he says. “I mean, I’m from this very sheltered Jewish Persian family in Beverly Hills.” He hired a prison consultant (an actual thing), who prepped him on how to stay out of trouble. And once inside, that’s what Shokrian did. The other inmates started calling him Shok, and he kept focused on journaling daily, reading, and, as soon as he could get sneakers, running 50 miles a week. 

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Shok thought a lot about MeUndies and was frustrated by not being able to contribute more. He could send emails via the prison-­monitored CorrLinks and make limited calls, but he had to be careful. “I was able to make suggestions and get updates,” he says. “But there was this very, very fine line I had to walk.” Shok’s first-ever hire, Noah Taubman, came regularly to the visitors room, with its sad vending machines. “Jon would always show up with a piece of paper and go, ‘How’s this going? How’s that going?’ ” says Taubman, senior project manager. “He would have us print out the MeUndies Instagram feed and mail it to him, then go through it and comment and mail it back. It was surreal to see his complete reversal. He always wanted to control everything, and he had controlled everything. Now he was in an off-white jumpsuit, three sizes too big. His hair was short. He had lost a crap-ton of weight. That was scary.”

But then, one fateful early morning, Shok said, Screw it. He’d had enough. 

 

The TV Room

Terminal Island is home to some 1,150 inmates, and, as is common in prison, they tend to divide themselves by race. Shok’s bed was across the hall from a TV room used by black men -- “like a barbershop,” as Nickson describes it, where the guys would hang out and converse. And they kept the door open so it wouldn’t get too hot.

“So one day around 7 o’clock,” Nickson says,

“Mr. Privileged comes in, looks around, and closes the door.” Mr. Privileged was, of course, Shok. And Nickson -- or Grease to everyone in prison -- reopened the door. From there, the men forget exactly how they nearly came to blows.

Grease: “I already have it in my mind that if he closes [the door] again, I’m going to smash the collarbone off his shoulders. Can you believe what his first words to me are? ‘All I hear is your fucking mouth.’ ” 

Shok: “Well, no. He said, ‘If you touch the door one more time, you little punk-ass bitch, it’ll be the last door you touch.’ And then I was like, ‘I wouldn’t be touching the door if I didn’t have to hear your loud-ass mouth.’ ”

Grease: “And as sure as the sun came up, he came in and attempted to [close the door] again.”

Shok: “I forgot where I was. I mean this guy’s like six feet and ripped. I’m like five nine, a skinny Jewish kid, and he’s about to knock me out.”

Grease: “I was going to beat the -- oh, yes, I was. And then one of the other guys, said, ‘Hey, man, come on.’ ”

Shok apologized, and the two ate dinner together that night. “The connection,” says Grease, “was instantaneous.” 

After that, they started walking the track, working out, and making special meals together. They talked about life, family, and integrity. If the two had led impossibly different lives, they shared a sense of being torn between worlds. Shok wanted to understand how a guy as smart as Grease was robbing banks. Grease wanted to know everything about MeUndies. “Grease’s energy was beyond anything I had seen,” says Shok. “He was passionate, full of life and ideas, resourceful. He was always laughing. We were very, very close.”  

One day Grease came racing from the TV room with news about a Dallas Cowboys running back, telling Shok, “Joseph Randle just got arrested for stealing underwear from Dillard’s. You have to do something with it.” Grease had a point; the player could have just bought underwear online! It played right into the MeUndies brand story. 

Back at HQ, the red phone rang. Greg Fass, senior brand manager, picked it up. “Jon was like, ‘We’ve got to reach out. We’ve got to get involved in the conversation,’ ” he says. 

So they jumped on it. Adam Schefter, NFL insider at ESPN, was tweeting about how expensive Randle’s stolen underwear was, considering the fine the Cowboys organization was about to slap him with. So using the MeUndies Twitter account, Fass tweeted back: “@AdamSchefter if you see him, tell Joseph Randle that we’ll pay his fine. We hate buying underwear from dept stores too #DirectToConsumer.” Schefter responded by putting them in touch with Randle’s people. 

MeUndies worked out an endorsement deal where it would help cover the $29,500 fine in return for Randle doing charitable appearances and donating $15,000 in underwear to those in need.

Back in prison, Grease and Shok ran to the nearest TV to watch their stunt unfold on the news. “I had to get him an honorary seat in the black TV room,” says Grease. Then they saw it, right there on the screen -- Grease’s idea, transported from behind bars and out into the world. It was nothing short of an awakening. “When I was robbing banks, I was doing it for the adrenaline rush,” he says. “This was that feeling times 10. I thought: This is euphoria. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” 

The Randle story quickly went viral. In the crush of media, MeUndies got slammed for sponsoring a thief. (And as it turns out, Randle has gotten in repeated trouble since.) But Shokrian leaned into the controversy. If MeUndies was under fire, it was also in the spotlight, and the team responded by emphasizing the charitable outcome. “It really proved to me the power of timing and going live with something that’s socially relevant,” he says. He also saw Grease’s potential and encouraged him to come up with more ideas for MeUndies. “Jon told me, ‘Bro, you got it,’ ” says Grease.  

Three months later, Grease spotted another opportunity on the news. With the Super Bowl approaching, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was fined for grabbing his crotch. Grease and Shok knew Lynch’s cousin from prison, and he got them an intro to the athlete. MeUndies announced it would donate $20,000 to Lynch’s charity to cover the fine plus $20,000 for every touchdown he scored at the big game. They ended up spending $40,000 total -- a pittance for Super Bowl exposure. “Those two campaigns,” says Shokrian, “put us on the map.” 

 

SHOK / MeUndies HQ

November 3, 2014, after 202 days inside, Shokrian walked out of Terminal Island, released five months early. His entire family was there to greet him. They gave him his cellphone, which had been off since April 15, and took him home, where he changed out of his prison sweats and had breakfast with some old buddies. A few days later, he was back at work.

The transition was easy, he says. Shokrian had stayed connected to everyone while locked up and even shared his journals with some of them, so there wasn’t much catching up to do. But he did carry a new lesson with him, hard-learned from the asbestos fiasco: He needed to think through decisions more carefully and get good expertise. “It’s on me to do the diligence and to slow down,” he says. “Now I go into everything asking as many questions as I can, so I feel confident in the decision we’re making.”  

This would filter into MeUndies at large. “It wasn’t like Moses came down and gave us the new values of the company,” says Taubman. But employees did notice a subtle shift. During MeUndies’ first years, Shokrian myopically followed competitors into sexy marketing and a lot of unoriginal branding. Now, says Taubman, Shokrian started thinking differently: “We can’t just be another brand that does the same thing, that has the same photo shoot, that pays the same influencers. It was like he was given the thumbs-up to do things another way. It was very slight but powerful.”  

Shortly after Shokrian got out of prison, MeUndies partnered with the edgy digital media platform Arsenic -- but when he saw the sexual content it was planning, he pulled out of the deal. From then on, MeUndies stopped going for the quick clicks. The company came out in support of the LGBTQ community and partnered with restaurateur Eddie Huang, who stood in front of the camera in just his MeUndies and talked about body insecurity among Asian men. In August 2019, the brand launched Feel Free, a range of larger sizes -- and then, “because maybe even they won’t fit, and someone will be left out,” Shokrian says, they added a button for people who need more room. The button makes no financial sense, but it’s a show of commitment to inclusion. 

The formula seems to be working. In January 2019, Shokrian took back his role as CEO and has grown the company to 250 employees. It anticipates $100 million in sales for 2020. 

MeUndies’ model also seems to be paying off. The underwear-and-socks category overall hasn’t grown in the past year, but the shift to online purchases is profound -- an increase in the U.S. of 9 percent, to $5.2 billion, during the year ending September 2019, according to The NPD Group. And MeUndies is moving offline, too. In November, it opened its second brick-and-mortar store -- this one in the Del Amo Fashion Center, which is owned by Simon Property Group, the real estate giant whose venture arm invested in MeUndies. (It has raised almost $11 million.) “So there is definitely a very big strategic partnership there as we look to expand and open more stores,” says Shokrian.      

 

GREASE / On the Outside 

When Shokrian left Terminal Island, he gave Nickson a note that said: Always stay positive and evolve, learn, and grow. “That shit was so profound,” says Nickson now. The two men talked often in the years that followed.

Then, on July 15, 2019, after 17 years in prison, Nickson was released. He breathed in the fresh air, and a lady friend picked him up from the facility. A job was waiting for him at MeUndies. He’d learn the product in the warehouse and then move into a marketing role.

But it’s not so easy, both men say, to walk away from a criminal past. For Shokrian, having a record as a convicted felon has meant often explaining the case to new acquaintances or potential partners. “That has definitely impacted me and our business,” he says. And for Nickson, it’s meant that every part of his new life is an adjustment -- and the structured environment at MeUndies, it turned out, just wasn’t an easy fit. Less than five months after Nickson joined the company, they parted ways. No hard feelings. “That’s my friend forever,” explains Nickson. “I’ve got a lot of love for him,” says Shokrian.

Both, in fact, look forward to the next chapter of the story that is still unfolding. “From the Jonathans to the -- I mean, the way we met and the friendship that spun from it,” says Nickson. “They have a saying that we make plans and God laughs. This is my destiny.” Another friend of his from Terminal Island, Vincent Bragg, had seen how Nickson’s ideas helped MeUndies -- so when Bragg got out in 2016, he cofounded ConCreates, a marketing agency that crowdsources ideas from people currently incarcerated or affected by the system. To whatever extent good marketing is essentially a con job, there’s a voracious thirst for erupting originality, and ConCreates has already secured a partnership with global agency 72andSunny. Now Nickson works with them, too.

Shokrian, meanwhile, is grateful for the perspective he found in prison -- one that, he believes, will continue to shape his company in the future. “Although I wish it didn’t happen,” he says, “it’s not something I would want to take back. Considering no one got hurt, I’m grateful for the tough lessons it gave me. There’s still an opportunity, no matter who you are, to turn a negative into a positive.” 

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