By Hailey Eisen
Luan Tolosa’s entrepreneurial journey was set in motion during the first few weeks of her MBA at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. Standing in the halls before their next class, Luan and her female classmates, all of whom were preparing for the next phase of their careers as the next generation of business leaders, lamented that corporate clothing had not changed much since their undergraduate degrees. What would begin as a school project would go on to reignite an old passion and prove to meet a real need in women’s fashion.
“I had always assumed that as we progressed in our careers, we would have more corporate clothing options,” says Luan Tolosa, CEO and Founder of SEWT — Suits Especially for Women Tailored — a women-led business based out of Vancouver and Toronto. “But as I started to have more conversations with women that I admired, I realized that we were still all struggling with the same lack of choices and lack of well-fitting, accessible, tailored clothing.”
Having started her career in commercial real estate straight out of undergrad, Luan hadn’t had much time to explore entrepreneurial ventures, but always had an entrepreneurial desire. Born and raised in Winnipeg to first generation immigrants, Luan often had thoughts about creating her own clothing, having grown up around sewing machines and even having visited a garment factory during Take Our Kids to Work Day.
When she enrolled in the Accelerated MBA program at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business in 2018, she had the opportunity to put her ideas on paper and have her peers vet her business idea. While Luan had gone into the program with the intent of continuing her career in the corporate world, she fell in love with entrepreneurship and finally got the courage to pursue something of her very own – a tailored suiting business especially for women.
“It was in January 2018 that the idea popped into my head, it was May when we started the Entrepreneurship and Innovation class, and by October I had a full business plan with the vetting and input of my classmates. The hardest part is always getting started and my MBA put my idea on a rocket ship,” she recalls.
By the time Luan finished her MBA classes in December 2018, she had a business plan, funding, and the support to launch.
“I gave myself a goal to launch the business before convocation, which was in May 2019,” she says. “I knew if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it.”
Over the course of five months between finishing classes and convocation, she followed almost exactly the business plan she’d created in school. Ten days before graduation, Luan launched SEWT. She went to Kingston to walk across the stage as an MBA grad and a business founder.
“Everything from my MBA was strategic, and the last piece to launch was the practical, nitty-gritty stuff that I had to figure out,” she says, recalling that first part of the journey. “There were the many moving pieces all the way from legal, bookkeeping, tax structure and shares to how to setup an e-commerce store. It was literally a five-month crash course in taking theory and strategy and executing.”
Establishing and maintaining corporate values was of the utmost importance to Luan, who also completed her Certificate in Social Impact while at Smith. “My mission is bigger than suiting; it’s about how I can help and what impact I can have when it comes to building women up to the next level of their careers.”
She’s also woven sustainability into all of her practices, from the overall belief in “slow fashion” to sourcing materials, producing products on a made-to-order basis to avoid waste, and committing to donating or reusing all returns.
Collaboration and support are a big part of Luan’s success. While she started SEWT on her own, she credits the people who have helped along the way. “There were classmates, professors, fashion industry heavy-weights, among others, that were so giving of their time and expertise in helping me. What I learned was that everyone wants to help if you are willing to share your idea and vision,” Luan says.
With COVID hitting Canada in March, things have changed a bit for Luan, but she says the pandemic has given her the opportunity to look at her company in more creative ways.
“We moved our head office to Toronto and I’m excited to have two new partners in Toronto, which will allow us to serve the market more broadly.” With a ready-to-wear line of suits launching soon, pop-up locations in cities across the country and a new e-commerce strategy that will open SEWT’s platform to support other women entrepreneurs, Luan hopes to scale her business while remaining true to her core values.
Luan’s personal mission is to also inspire others to explore entrepreneurship. “I didn’t grow up in an entrepreneurial family – it was the get a good education and get a good job story – but I want others to have the courage to explore entrepreneurship and take risks. I think everyone should try becoming an entrepreneur at least once – it’s the most difficult, scary and rewarding thing I have ever done.”
To support other entrepreneurs, Luan also works as a consultant in the entrepreneurial ecosystem with Spring Activator, a global incubator, accelerator and advisory firm in B.C., sharing the knowledge she’s gained along the way. “I love helping others launch and scale their businesses, and it’s always a symbiotic relationship because I’m still growing and learning too.”
Her advice for women looking to start their own business? Take the first step. “So many people have great ideas and ambitions but are scared to get started,” she says. “For me, if a goal or vision seems unattainable, I do the smallest most achievable things first. Small actions turn into big moves. And I’m always reminding myself that it’s a marathon not a race.”