What drew this duo together? A shared love of all things crafted, and a soft spot for a great story. What they created with those mutual passions is a one-of-a-kind offering.
BY CARRIE FISCHER
PHOTOGRAPHY CELINE KIM
Meet Jennifer Lee Koss and Kena Paranjape, retail professionals with an eye for elevated, modern crafts and a soft spot for inspirational stories. It’s no surprise that they co-founded an online store of unique, hand-made items that also celebrates their makers. Jen is “Builder of Business” and Kena is “Crafter of Brand.”
Kena was working in retail merchandising and marketing while maintaining her blog, In Life and In Fashion, as a creative outlet, when she received an email from Jen, who was a fan of her writing and wanted to meet.
Jen, a Juilliard-trained cellist and a Harvard Business School graduate, had always envisioned herself combining art and business in her career and thought Kena would be a helpful contact. A friendship formed and they discovered they had the same goal: entrepreneurship. After brainstorming and months of market research, the ladies had an idea and knew if they combined their individual strengths and retail experience, they could each achieve their goal. In November 2012, brika.com (from the Spanish word “fabrica” meaning “factory”) officially launched. That was then, here’s a typical day now for these online craft and storytelling enthusiasts.
Brika products are also available in a pop-up shop in Hudson’s Bay in downtown Toronto. You can catch Kena and Jen several times a week staying hands-on with customers and merchandising new products. When developing Brika, their vision was to have a pop-up shop to bring the makers to life. “We wanted people to see, and touch and read about these makers,” says Jen. Although both ladies share the same vision, their roles are very defined. As Crafter of Brand, Kena fosters relations with the makers and leads the look and overall feel of the website and shop. Jen, as the Builder of Business, concentrates on business development and customer acquisitions by driving traffic to the site. “I love transactional things,” says Jen, “maybe that’s why I love business.”
Kena and Jen sit down with their team in their downtown Toronto office for their Monday morning meeting. Their team started out as interns, but once Jen and Kena had the funds, they hired all four as full-time employees. Besides celebrating the little wins, it’s the team’s loyalty, dedication, and “on the fly” brainstorming that keeps the co-owners raving about them. “They really inspire us,” says Kena. After the meeting, Kena and Jen talk strategy over lunch, often sharing grilled veggie paninis or vegetarian salads.
Jen and Kena are selective about which artisans will have a place on brika.com. The ladies only meet with makers whose products they like, and who have inspiring stories to tell. When they decide to meet a maker, Jen and Kena will either venture out to the maker’s workshop to see their collections or, as in this case, host the meeting at the Brika office. “We like to get to know them. It’s very much about relationship building,” explains Kena. To date brika.com has an online community of more than 300 makers with profiles covering what each believe about life and art, how they started crafting, and what inspires them. Today, the ladies are meeting with Corrine Anestopoulos (who crafts her “modern nostalgic” jewelry line, Biko, in Toronto).
Kena and her Assistant Merchandising Manager curate images for the online store. Today the ladies are using a craft box to put together a gift package for babies, including Sleepy Owl’s “boo boo stick” (how adorable is that?). The goal is to offer consumers “a box that feels rich and affordable,” and that is crafted as much as the products within it, using materials like leather, twine, rope and silk. “It’s all about ‘elevating craft,’” says Kena.
Jen and Kena end their workday by heading to an e-commerce dinner where invitees are other co-founders and CEOs in Canada. Running a business, meeting fellow entrepreneurs and creating brand awareness at events is exciting for Jen, who says, “I am in my element.” In retail especially, she says, it can feel like you’re not moving fast enough to compete; there are new players everyday. But to stay in the game, the ladies never let Brika stray far from their mind. It’s one of the challenging aspects of running your own business, admits Kena. “It becomes part of who you are.”