Esin Akan had a wealth of experience in the fashion industry but had never ventured into running her own business before arriving at LBS for the Executive MBA London programme. However, by the time she graduated, she was already running a successful brand, with many of her creations stocked in some of the world’s biggest retailers. Read on to find out how the programme helped the entrepreneur to launch her own brand and to acquire skills that she’s still drawing on today.
I was born and raised in Turkey and completed my bachelor’s degree in International Trade at Bogazici University, in Istanbul, in 2002. My career started in the retail industry, focusing on fashion marketing, business development and building brands, which led me to work in the world’s fashion capitals, including London, Paris, Milan, and Florence. I was attracted to the creative and design side of the fashion industry and ended up in Milan, where I studied accessories design for two years, before studying at the prestigious Central St. Martins Art School in London.
In 2006, I moved to London permanently and secured a role in fashion buying. I went on to work for well-known brands such as Jaeger, Burberry, Anya Hindmarch and the luxury menswear company Duchamp, leading buying, product development and global sourcing practices. Having been exposed to all aspects of fashion, I knew I wanted to establish my own brand. It struck me that an MBA would help me to advance my capabilities and knowledge as I ventured into entrepreneurship. It was important that I build up my confidence, my knowledge and my network. With its strong reputation in the business world, LBS seemed like the ideal place to do that.
The diversity in the EMBA made conversations so much more interesting. I always appreciated working in teams as I learnt so much from others’ experiences and values. These interactions give you a great foundation to work from and to accelerate in diverse teams when you graduate. I am a firm believer that everyone deserves an equal chance, regardless of their race, colour and gender. LBS certainly acts as an equaliser in that sense. If you want to work as a leader on a global scale, it is very important to understand your peers who might be coming from different backgrounds, as we learned to do during our studies.
The EMBA really stretched me – in a positive way. It helped me to influence other areas of the business back at Duchamp – where I was still working in my first year – such as marketing, business development and e-commerce. Starting my own business was still in the back of my mind during that first year; entrepreneurship compels you to stay alert and open-minded, with its constant problem-solving, the need to establish a successful supply chain and the importance of maintaining quality. Needless to say, I kept very busy during my time on the programme.
Many parts of the EMBA helped me when I was thinking about my future business, and I learned something new each day. The Entrepreneurship Summer School helped me get my brand off the ground; it taught me the foundations of a good business idea and gave me the confidence to pursue my own. This is when I tested and formed the business idea: a timeless, versatile and designer-quality handbag at an affordable price. Later – during the LBS Incubator Programme 2012, I set up the company, made my first sale, registered the trademark, and designed our first collection; it was an exciting time.
Along the way, the professors at LBS helped me to shape my entrepreneurial idea in a way that would tick all the right boxes. Being on campus meant I felt supported every day, and by the time I reached my second year, I already had the business set up and was generating revenue, even before we had incurred costs. My first sale happened through pre-orders to the LBS entrepreneurship community – it has been extremely supportive in every sense. This helped me get to a place where I received opportunities for sponsorship from companies such as Landor and Fitch – the leading brand design and consultancy firm – and Deloitte, whom we worked with on our accounting practices.
Our foundations in business were very advanced from the beginning of our studies. I use the sales and negotiations tactics I learned from Niro Sivanathan, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, to resolve the most complex problems with major retailers in a matter of seconds, or to improve cash flow during supplier management. For my Global Experience, I went to China. It was eye-opening and amazing to hear from the leaders of top companies like McKinsey and Cargill, the agricultural services firm, on their experiences of building a business in the Chinese market, and the knowledge I have taken on board even though I am yet to go into that market myself. Even simple anecdotes and case studies we learned in classes stay with you forever.
I’ve been working intensively on building my brand over the last couple of years. We’ve gained quite a following and a decent client base in the UK and US, and are stocked in retailers such as Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Hudson Bay in Canada. Our bags are made in small runs to avoid excess waste, and we plant a tree for every purchase to keep the company focused on sustainability. However, I realise that brand-building – especially in the handbag business – is key to success and is extremely capital-intensive. You need to invest in stock and marketing and most of that is paid upfront, so growth is challenging without the funds. I aspire to grow the business to its full potential with strategic investors.
It is great to know that, in the LBS alumni network, we have a community that can help when we need it. I have found team members and suppliers through our network, and I get advice from alumni friends, some of which have saved me years of trial and error. Some opportunities get unlocked in a day, all because you know someone through your network in a certain company or industry. Sometimes it is all about who you know and what they know about you. It has opened many doors and opportunities for me, and I remain excited for the future.