JUNE 18, 2016


            I am honored to be with you today for your commencement. It is a privilege to be among the first people to congratulate you on completing your time at the Art Institute of Indianapolis. Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility and I had wracked my mind and heart of what I ought to say to you today. I asked myself what I wished I had heard at my own graduation and what important lessons I have learned in the years since. After a lot of thought and reflection on my experiences, I've narrowed it down to three important life lessons.

            The first is about, "Making Your Own Opportunities". Born in Russia, growing up in Germany, then immigrating to the United States at age 10, my interest in fashion was very limited but I had a vast appreciation for other art forms like dance, music, and theatre. I didn't know anybody growing up that worked in the fashion industry but my mother and grandmother were seamstresses so fashion was clearly in my DNA. I channeled my love for the arts and went to Columbia in Chicago to study Business and Fashion Design.

            It was during a semester-long project in one of my Entrepreneurship courses, that I began developing the concept for my company. That same class project, would allow me to win a grant at a business competition a year later. It all started when I couldn't find vegan clothing that was high-quality and high-fashion. I noticed a void for beautifully designed, investment pieces that were ethically made, eco-friendly, and cruelty free. It wasn't just a void for me; it turned out to be a white space for fashion-forward women everywhere that appreciated luxury and were conscious consumers. When I was in school, the green-movement was not as mainstream as it is today.

            After graduation, I decided to stay in Chicago for a while but there were no design jobs available. In fact, my senior thesis professor even stated that if I don't move to New York, I will end up wasting my talent in Chicago. Unlike New York, Chicago is not a fashion focused city. Not wanting to waste my degree, I  started working out of my dad's old home-office to turn my business concept into a reality. Like most start ups, my capital was small. I used a portion of the grants I won from design competitions to finance my first commercial ready to wear collection. To save money, I did everything on my own - from sourcing, pattern-making, model fittings, sewing runway samples, and costing. In addition to researching retailers, my customer, and my competition. It was during this time, I really got to experience the life of an entrepreneur first hand. The hours were long and the stress was constant. I did not have a lot of contacts or resources so whenever I didn't know something, I would simply Google it. I guess you could say that Google was my main business partner during my first season.

             A couple months into development, a fashion show producer discovered me through my website and invited me to present my collection at Chicago Fashion Week. It just so happened that a buyer was present at the show and afterwards she approached me to set up an appointment at her upscale boutique. At the meeting, I discussed everything from my fabrication to the fit of my designs while she reviewed my line sheets. After a careful and long inspection, she wound up so impressed with the construction, she ended up placing a big order, despite the fact that I was so fresh out of school and in some areas, still inexperienced. A couple months later, I was notified that I was also the recipient of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Certificate - an award that recognizes emerging designers that display the most promise based on their senior thesis collection. To me, these two little victories made me feel like I meant to do this.   

            I've always wanted to work for myself - mostly because I am not very good at following other people's instructions and I am not very good at accepting things just because "that's the way they've always been." From the beginning, one of the reasons I wanted to start a company was to contribute in raising awareness and spark action for animal welfare in the fashion industry. Sustainability and social responsibility was always part of the business plan. This was not always viewed as a positive—some people told me to never mention the words sustainability and luxury in the same sentence. That only made me more determined.  There were a lot of naysayers who told me to stop mentioning that my label is rooted in animal welfare as it could deter the traditional luxury client. In fact, sometimes journalists would edit out my sustainability practices out of the interview. But the traditional luxury client was never my target customer. I had found my own niche and I referred to her as the "new luxury".

            Entrepreneurship (and life for that matter) can be full of roadblocks and rejection. If all of us followed what's traditionally done then there would be anti-progress in the world. Like many of you, I was concerned going out into the world and accomplishing something bigger than myself. However, sometimes ignorance to your own limitations can be your greatest tool in taking on challenging tasks with confidence. I'm a big believer in "It doesn't matter where you come from or where you start, if you are resourceful and do the best that you can, with what you have, and where you are at, you will eventually get to where you are trying to go."  

            The second lesson is about "Not Assigning an Expiration Date to Your Dreams". We may live in an age of instant messaging, instant gratification, and Instagram, but there is no straight path from your seat today to where you are going.  Sometimes things aren't happening fast enough and it's easy to get discouraged. When we start comparing our journey to people that we admire, we start to view our success as unsuccessful.  But there is no such thing as an overnight success. It’s a myth that glosses over what being an entrepreneur and an artist is all about.

            Sometimes the novel is not ready to be written because you haven’t met the inspiration for your main character. Sometimes you need two more years of life experience before you can make your masterpiece into something that will feel true and real to other people. Sometimes you’re not falling in love because whatever you need to know about yourself is only knowable through solitude. Sometimes you haven’t met your next collaborator. Sometimes your sadness encircles you because, one day, it will be the inspiration upon which you build your art. We all know this: Our experience cannot always be manipulated. Yet, we don’t act as though we know this truth. We try so hard to control our lives, to make creativity into a game to win, to shortcut success because others say they have. Whatever strong belief you hold today about what it means to be successful; I hope you will stay open to the possibility that you’ve got it all wrong and graciously accept your new awareness when it comes.

             I recently read an article on the Huffington Post that really made an impact on me. It was written by, Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, Mad Men, and the title was "Reassuring Life Advice for Struggling Artists". You see, Mr. Weiner was 30 when he finally got his first paying job in show business. Until then, he faced rejection every step of the way, even in college, when professors rejected him from every single writing class because his writing was deemed "awkward and childish". While being battered always hurts, this taught Mr. Weiner an important survival mechanism to thrive on rejection and hold on to compliments. There was a part in the article that I found particularly interesting and I quote "Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them."

            Everybody has a dream. At times, your industry may seem impenetrable and over-saturated, but I do believe that if you are truly talented, keep getting your material out there, put up with the rejection, and don’t set a time limit for yourself, the world will notice you. You have to commit for the long haul. There’s no shame in being a starving artist. Get a day job, but don’t get too comfortable at it. Work is going to fill up a large part of your life and the only way to be satisfied in life is to believe you are doing great work. If you haven't found it yet - keep looking. Remember, little successes add up. If you have a really big dream, then it will take you most of your life to achieve.

            The third and final lesson, is about "The Importance of Failure". A couple months ago, a big opportunity presented itself to me. I got an appointment with the buyers of Saks Fifth Avenue and I flew to New York to pitch my label for their emerging designer showcase.  There were 300 of us and we were only allowed 10 minutes each. As I hung up my collection awaiting my time slot, I tried to calm my nerves but my mind and pulse were racing as I went over my presentation in my head. I knew my business inside out. I had all the costing memorized and had prepped an answer for any possible question the buyers may ask  me. I thought to myself, "This is it. Everything I have sacrificed, all those moments of hard work and self-conquered doubt will finally come together in this pivotal moment."

            I was the first to get called into the room. I set up my rack, walked over to the buyers to introduce myself, handed them my line sheets, and begun my presentation. Nobody said a single word except the occasional nod or occasional question. Sometimes I thought I saw a smile. Everyone was busy taking notes. When I was finished, they said "Thank you. We will be in touch." and I was escorted out of the room to pack up my things. I was not the only one confused on how I did, as other designers were also trying to gage their results based on the buyer's limited interactions. Later that day, Saks announced the two designers whose label they were going to pick up. Unfortunately, I did not make the cut. My heart sank and I returned to Chicago defeated. I didn't really know what to do for a couple days. To build a luxury label had been my goal from the beginning but being rejected by one of the top luxury department stores in the nation, it made me doubt my skills as an entrepreneur and my abilities as a designer.

            Today, as a survivor of failure, I am here to tell you failure should not be the end of your efforts or your optimism. Don't allow failure to influence your goals. Failure is unavoidable and it will happen to everyone - even if you are the best at what you do. If you love what you do, and believe that you are doing great work, you have to find a way and the will, to keep going. Don't lose faith. At times, failure can actually be an asset. The rejection I received made me re-assess my business plan and address problems that I did not see before. It is impossible to live without failing at something and nobody I know has ever been spared from experiencing it. Jim Carrey once stated,  "You can fail at what you don't want to do, so you might as well fail at what you love." So when the challenges and rejection come, I hope that you remember that anchored deep within you is the strength of the human spirit. Like a muscle, you can build it up over your life and draw on it when you need it. In that process, you will learn who you really are in the face of adversary.

           I hope these lessons will be of value to you as you move forward. There are many people around you today who have great hopes for your future - me being one of them. It takes a tremendous amount of character and knowing who you are, to not allow other people's opinions drown out your inner voice. Fear and self-doubt are going to be constant playersin your life - you get to decide how much every morning. Our human need for acceptance makes our choices based on fear, disguised as practicality. However, personal happiness does not live in a resume. It means living an authentic life and making choices with integrity. The only way to be happy in life is to be yourself and the only way to like yourself is to do things that make you proud.  

            After you leave here today, look inwards and ask yourself, how will you influence the world? What does the world need that your talent can provide? I'd like to end my speech with a quote by J.K. Rowling, who I know has touched many people across the world with her story of a boy wizard.

            "We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better."

Thank you very much.

Elena BobyshevaComment