While many popular jewelry brands focus primarily on aesthetics, second-year Darden student Liana Lei had a larger scope in mind when she co-founded feminist jewelry brand LA FOI Jewelry alongside fellow co-founders Eko Liu and Annie Shen. In the short time that has passed since its creation in August of 2021, the brand has already grown to feature and successfully sell six different jewelry collections, all with the aim of promoting affordable fashion, sustainability and female empowerment.
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Lei explained that the idea for the jewelry brand originated from a casual conversation between Lei and her friend Liu, who would later also become a co-founder of LA FOI.
Lei was showing Liu a new necklace she had bought when Liu brought up that Vivian Zhang — one of their mutual friends growing up who they now knew to be a jewelry designer — would probably be able to make similar pieces for a much smaller price.
After reconnecting with Zhang, who confirmed that she would be able to provide designs for more affordable jewelry, collaboration amongst the friends for the business venture began. They built the website, took photos and tested products through surveys and focus groups within the span of five months — all while trying to minimize costs.
Zhang said in an email to The Cavalier Daily that sustainability was always on her mind when creating designs.
“I mainly focus on two aspects in my jewelry-making process — avoiding material waste and limiting order size,” Zhang said. “After locking down the concept, I draw some sketches and adjust them based on variation in property of the material … next, I pick a few materials available in the market to experiment on and once I find the appropriate material best suited for the design, I make the jewelry based on the sketches.”
Zhang also said that she works closely with the business end of LA FOI to predict which collection or pieces will be most popular, then makes more of those products after the testing phase which determines if they are true.
Any scrapped items or leftover metals from pieces are recycled or used to experiment with new designs, and less popular products are donated to charities and foundations, or sold at a reduced price.
In addition to sustainability, female empowerment is also very important to LA FOI. For Lei, being a female founder is important due to the difficulty, discouragement and unequal chances of success that women face in the business world.
“I’ve heard and witnessed stories around me where women who were just young girls were deprived of their access to higher education, let alone create their own business,” Lei said.
After establishing their brand, Lei and her team also expanded their jewelry offerings to six different collections — all sourced from Zhang and other female jewelry designers in Southeast Asia and in support of designated foundations such as the Global Fund for Women, Fund for Homeless Women and the African Women’s Development Fund that support women in various ways to which the brand donates 10 percent of its profit.
Each collection draws inspiration from different occasions or themes — the Rainbow collection, for example, represents vibrance and youth with its use of colorful jewels while the Grande collection features chunky statement pieces that provide a sense of safety. Rather than focusing on seasonal trends, the brand makes self-expression the main theme of its jewelry.
“From the survey points we received, I think our consumers want to feel confident when they’re wearing our jewelry pieces,” Lei said. “They want to bring out their authenticity, personality and how they view the world.”
The brand has gained sales since its founding through advertising on social media and selling its products in local markets. For Lei, a memorable moment happened when she was selling LA FOI’s jewelry at the University Women’s Center’s 2021 Holiday Market.
“People were carrying the packages [for the jewelry] that we designed — everyone was walking around with a pink box and being asked ‘Where did you get that pink box?’” Lei said. “Then people would come to our booth to buy more… That moment really hit me like, ‘oh my God, we did this thing and created this from scratch.’”
In August, LA FOI began as a minimally viable product being tested to see if it was even a reasonable venture. Now, it is already seeing continually growing sales within the local community through support and events such as the Holiday Market. Lei explained that before the jewelry brand, she had begun two other business ventures — an algorithm for cosmetic products and a more ethical, lab-grown sourcing for diamonds — that had both hit roadblocks in scaling up due to their large scope.
Despite her ideas being unsuccessful in their first attempt, Lei said that she grew to learn from these experiences rather than be discouraged by them. She most wants her business journey and LA FOI to inspire other female entrepreneurs to continue their effort in their ventures, whatever that may be.
“I did not let my failed ventures wear me down in any way — it only helped me be more humble and be able to pivot and launch LA FOI in such a short time,” Lei said. “I really want to send a message to any female entrepreneurs to have the courage and empowerment to try.”