Kena Paranjape

Kena Paranjape_Brika

Jen Lee Koss was yet another fabulous person that I was able to meet at the Alt Summit in New York City back in June. She gave a presentation during the ‘Nine by Five’ session and it had me instantly with its focus on the power of storytelling. During the talk she spoke about the fact that she had left her corporate job in order to do something creative, which was create the e-commerce site, Brika, with her partner Kena Paranjape. Then when she mentioned Significant Objects – the literary and anthropological project that auctioned off thrift-store objects via eBay with their item descriptions substituted with short stories written by over 200 contributing writers (the objects, purchased for $1.25 apiece on average, sold for nearly $8,000.00 in total) – I knew she was a kindred soul. I was equally excited to both meet her and check out Brika.

Jen was as approachable and lovely as I expected. I was delighted to then be able to do an official interview with Kena to learn more about how Brika came to be since both of its founders left established careers in order to birth it into being. The love for their company is genuine and real, and that reads when you visit the site and see the immense amount of heart that they put into it. The site launched at the end of November 2012, and this past holiday season they did a few pop-up stores both in their hometown of Toronto and New York City. I was lucky enough to attend the one that was held at Story in New York and see how they were working to share their makers’ stories far-and-wide. I’m very happy to be able to share a bit of theirs…

You and Jen have such a great story about how you met – can you share it?

We remind ourselves from time to time that all of this is happening because of the way we met! My background is in merchandising and retail, and I was working at Joe Fresh when I started to write a fashion and lifestyle blog in my spare time. I was doing it on the side, and I wasn’t really a frequent poster, but I really cared about the voice of my blog and the products that I picked. Jen had moved from the US to Canada to be with her husband and was on maternity leave at the time. She was also looking for creative outlets. For me, even though I worked in really creative industries, my blog was my creative outlet. She was looking for that, too, so was reading a lot of blogs at the time and came across mine. The way Jen tells it, she really loved my voice, she thought it was uplifting, and she loved the products that I picked – so it was a blog that she kept coming back to. When she realized that I was in Toronto, as well, she emailed me cold and said, ” I love your blog and am in this place in my life right now where my background has all be in finance, strategy and consulting, but I have been thinking about making a move into something more creative. I’d love to meet you for coffee!” She always jokes that she stressed that it be in “broad daylight” – by this she actually meant that I wanted to meet her in broad daylight because I had no idea who she was! So, we did meet and it was one of those meetings where you just make an instant connection with someone. We walked away asking if we were friends in a past life!

Kena_Jen_Brika_HappinessWe kept in touch over the next 9 months and every few months we would reconnect. On about our 3rd coffee date we started talking about what we really wanted to do – what we were passionate about, what we would find really fulfilling and what we wanted for our lives. When we left that meeting we both wrote to each other and said, “We should do something together!” Our skill sets are so complementary and so different – we both bring different strengths to the table. So from that point on we started meeting for coffee every week before work, like on a Friday morning, where we brainstormed ideas and started giving each other research assignments. Within two months of doing all of this, the timing worked out where I was wrapping something up at one job and I had another job offer on the table and I said, “Jen, I think we should do this! I don’t want to take this other job, I want to do this.” She agreed, so we did it!

What was the time span from when you first met to when you made the decision to move forward with this endeavor together?

I believe we met in January 2011 and in November 2011 we started to question if we should do this and it was in May 2012 that we both started doing it full time – so a little less then 1 ½ years.

That all came together pretty quickly!

I think that is what is amazing about all of this, because I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and felt that there were three things that I needed for that to work out. The first thing was that the timing had to be right. It couldn’t be right when I got out of school and had all kinds of student debt. Secondly it needed to be an idea that I couldn’t not do – an idea that you were so passionate about that I just HAD to do it. And the third was finding a great partner who is in the same mind space as you. If one of us was only willing to do it part time or just looked at it as a hobby then it probably wouldn’t have worked, but we were both ready to commit to something. So that’s how I think the magic happened.

Can you talk a little bit about the benefit of having a partner? I’ve heard some entrepreneurs say they would never have a partner while others have said they never could imagine not having a partner. It seems like it was very serendipitous for the two of you to meet and that you think very similarly – so how do you work together?

Brika_Story_US MakersI think we are definitely on the side where we couldn’t do this without a partner. One of the important things in working with a partner is having a sound understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your partner – and respecting that. We don’t agree on everything, but we respect each other’s opinion; therefore we can say, “You know, I trust you on this – you decide. I’ve given my input, now you decide.” We both do that for each other, but the biggest thing is that we motivate each other, cheer each other on, and when one person is down or stressed, the other one cheers that person up. We can build momentum together that is hard to build on your own.

How do you think the time you spent talking and brainstorming and motivating one another before Brika was even in the picture plays a part in your partnership and working relationship?

The bottom line is that we have a common vision. We might not always agree on how to get there, but we have a common vision so it makes everything a lot easier. The other thing is that Jen and I were not friends before doing this – the relationship truly built off of a shared passion. It is almost like we are making a friendship happen in reverse. We spend an immense amount of time together, so it wouldn’t work if we didn’t like each other!

Out of everything that you could create – why this type of site? One of the reasons why I gravitated to it was because of my own love for stories. It reminds me a lot of what I hope to do with Chapter Be, which is share people’s stories that you might not hear otherwise.  I’d love to hear more about how and why you decided to create Brika.

I’d say there are two things – The first is that Jen and I always said that if there was a site like this that existed we’d be on it every day. We spent months looking to see if somebody else was doing it the way that we wanted to experience it and they weren’t. That’s the easy answer, but the way we actually came to it was through my experience. I was a retail buyer and merchandiser, and in my most recent job I had this great opportunity to basically run this little startup store that was a part of a much bigger brand here in Canada. I literally did everything from merchandising, visual merchandising, PR, marketing – it was a high-end eco-friendly concept, so I got to work with a ton of talented, under-the-radar artisans and designers. They would come to the store, we’d go to the back, they’d show me their product lines, and I would just get so mesmerized by how talented they were or how high-quality their products were, but also their stories of how they got to where they were.  For me, I could just sit there listening to their stories for hours.

So, in that small store – we’d buy their product and put it on the shelf and the staff really loved the products and were super engaged, so they would share the stories with the customers. We saw the difference and the increased value of that product to the customer when they understood a little bit more about where it came from. That is when the light bulb went off for me – wondering how we could we do this online? How can we make it not about ‘stuff’ but about the person who was making this beautiful product?

How did you decide to name it Brika?

Brika_LogoWe actually had a different name before Brika and we were hitting up against trademark issues – I mean it is really hard to name something these days! We wanted something short and snappy, and we wanted a dot com and nothing that was too long. I actually put my mom to the task – my mom is a linguist, so I said to her – “Mom, we need a really cool name that people will remember that will mean something” – because we didn’t want to make something up entirely. She came up with a whole bunch of names and one of them was fábrica, which means factory in Spanish. The idea behind that is that it is an ironic name because all of the products that we sell are not mass made or generic. We shortened it to Brika because it was easy and pretty!

What was the catalyst for you to move from working in a corporate environment to opening your own company and being your own boss?

You know what, I feel that entrepreneurs are born, not made. I really think that it is something in you. My dad was an oceanographer – he was a research person- and my mom was a linguist, so I do not have entrepreneurship in my family at all. Yet, from a really young age I always wanted to run my own business, be my own boss, create something valuable – create an atmosphere that people wanted to come and work with you and build excitement around something.

It does seem like it was something that was always in you even when you were doing your other work, but maybe was just a matter of timing, meeting the right people and having it come together when it was supposed to come together.

I think that is exactly it. Both Jen and I have wondered if we should have done all of this earlier, but I think now we are in our mid-30s and we have so much great experience. So, even if I knew that the corporate world wasn’t for me, I don’t regret a second of it because I learned so much. And I think Jen would say the same thing, and if anything it’s only contributing to what we are doing today.

It is like the Steve Jobs quote that it isn’t until we look backwards that we can start connecting the dots and understand how everything that we have done leads to where we are today.

Absolutely! It’s so true. Connecting the dots after the fact is the most fun part! When I think about it – I was frustrated in my job at the time, so I started this blog on a whim. You start a blog and you think, “Well, it’s my mom and my ten closest friends reading it!” But – that’s how you start, right? I’ve talked to a lot of bloggers about this – you really don’t know, but you feel like you have something to offer, so you do it! I think I got a lot out of blogging, but I wouldn’t have ever met Jen and none of this would have ever happened if I never started that blog!

What was the name of that blog and are you still writing on it?

In Life & In Fashion – It was about interweaving life and style. Now, my blogging is for Brika, but I do miss that blog.

What have been some of the struggles that you and Jen have met while creating and starting Brika?

One big one, I think, is that it is impossible to be an entrepreneur without having a bit of blind faith. Sometimes you don’t know where your next investment is coming from, so that you can pay the bills. You just don’t always know, so you have to take a lot of leaps of faith. For me – that was a big learning. We make a lot of plans and if you have a big vision then you do have to make plans to reach that vision. Sometimes all the pieces are not in place while you are making those plans, and you just have to have faith that those pieces will fall into place. That for me was a big thing. Otherwise you will just feel stagnate – you won’t move forward. If you are like, “I need X, Y, and Z to move forward,” but sometimes you only have X and you still need to move forward and just know that Y and Z are going to come through.

Brika Maker_Featured at StoryAnother struggle would be just the fact that when you are starting a business you need to know SO many different things. I think that you just have to be willing to be a sponge. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Don’t be afraid to ask a TON of questions. All that information is out there for you to learn. Just because you don’t know it today, doesn’t mean that a week from now you can’t have everything you need to move forward and make decisions. It’s getting over that fear of not knowing and wondering where to start. Just start. And then just keep pushing and pushing, and follow that lead and follow the next lead and you’ll get what you need.

What were some of the lessons learned through that process and through the homework you gave each other?

One of the lessons learned for us, is having a healthy balance between watching what other people are doing and focusing on what you are doing. Obviously with the Internet and all the new sites and emails that get delivered to your inbox, you get overwhelmed by what’s happening out there. Like – what is this competitor doing and what is that person doing? Or they thought of that and we were going to do that. You can kind of get overwhelmed by all of that, but at the same time it is important to know what is happening out there. So, I think for us a lesson learned is to keep an eye on what is going on but focus on what our value proposition is  – what are we about. We are not going to just react to what people are doing out there, because we want to stay true to what our values are, the brand we are trying to build and the relationships we have with our customers and makers.

Yes – while the Internet is integral to research, it can also be an endless pit that can take you further away from your own vision. At some point you have to step away from the computer and just go for it!

And once you do – once you actually take that step forward, you do find your own voice. After awhile you figure out your niche and you have the chance to see what people respond to and want.

What have some of the personal benefits of being your own boss and owning your own business been?

Ken_Jen_Founders of BrikaThe biggest thing is the sense of fulfillment. For a lot of my corporate life, not all of it because I had some really great corporate roles as well, but for a lot of it I felt as though I was just going through the motions in a way and really having to push myself. I had to give myself pep talks all the time! Where as now it has all been a crazy internal drive well beyond what I even thought I was capable of and a really amazing sense of fulfillment. There is still so much to do and so far for us to go, yet we still feel that – which I think is amazing.

The downside, though, is that you can’t ever turn it off. So, I think that you have to know yourself and know when things are going just a bit too far for you. If I have a couple of sleepless nights in a row because I am just up thinking, then I’m like, “Ok – you need to just chill out a little bit!” You have to know the warning signs so that you can manage it yourself.

How do you find balance?

I think the balance is to once in awhile just trying to switch off. You just have to – especially if you want to be creative. I do tend to be glued to my laptop and with what we are doing right now, we need to be able to be creative. We need to keep thinking of new ways of approaching things, and you can’t do that if you are just sitting in front of your laptop all the time. I use it as an excuse in the sense that, “Ok – I know should sit here and write those 15 emails, but you know what- I need to step away in order to recharge.”

What is your ultimate vision and goal for Brika?

Brika_Story Write UpOur ultimate vision is to tap into the creative movement that is currently happening with everyone, but especially among women who are realizing that they have a creative thread in them that they haven’t maybe tapped into in awhile and they want to again. We want to be a business that inspires creativity. Whether that is through our makers who are actually making the products and collaborating with other makers on our site or creating products specifically for Brika or it’s through our customers who are sick of buying things that everyone else has and came off of a factory line of millions. Who want something that has a story to tell and want to be creative through my purchases.

One of the things we say is that we really think about bridging the gap between those who live creatively, who are our makers, and those who aspire to. So, for us it is a much bigger movement then just thinking about products. To that end, we would love to have a TV show. We’d love to have a magazine that tells the stories of creative people. We have big-big visions for Brika!

How do you find your makers and do you have a favorite that you would want to highlight?

We started with a database of makers that I had worked with in the past – so that was the base that we started with, and so I knew many of them really well. Beyond that we source from everywhere! Literally everywhere- through blogs, through other websites, through shopping in any city that you ever go to and contacting the makers of products you find. The other way is through makers themselves – we ask them as they are often in communities and working with other creative people, so we ask them to recommend somebody who would be great for Brika. The fantastic thing is that now that we have been up for awhile we are making a dent in the maker community and we are getting tons of applications. As far as picking a favorite maker – that is like picking a favorite child!

What would your advice be to someone who wants to start their own business or be their own boss? What do you think a good first step would be?

I would say the biggest thing is that you have to act on those feelings, because you won’t move forward an inch if you are only thinking about it. So, if you are sitting at your desk right now and you have the feelings that you want to do something, you want to possibly start your own business, then make a list of three things that you could do RIGHT now. For example – email this person that you want to meet with or go check out a location that would be perfect for your store. I don’t know what the three things are, but they should be three action-oriented things that you can do within 24 hours.


Since launching a little over a year ago, Brika has created a community of more than 200 artisans, designers & authentic Makers, promoting their original, beautiful & well-crafted goods. Along the way, they talked with every Maker, learning more about their work & creative process, and hearing about what motivates them, where they find inspiration, and how they push themselves through every new project. Lucky for you, they are sharing their creative tips—or life hacks, if you will—in the exclusive downloadable handbook: 33 Habits of Highly Creative People. Check it out!

NOTES of Reflection:

  1. Put yourself out there. I love the fact that Kena and Jen met because Jen took the chance of reaching out to someone that she had never met and asked her to meet-up. We never know how the small risks we take in life can lead to big gains. Jen had no idea how Kena would respond, but she listened to her instincts and went for it. Likewise, Kena took the chance of meeting up with a stranger not knowing at all what the results would be – there was no known gain in it for her, yet she did it. So, the moral of this story is be open to connecting with people and be kind to strangers!
  2. I believe that entrepreneurs are idea people. They have idea after idea and sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t. Some people listen to this and take the person to be flighty or not focused, but in the end, I believe, it is this endless stream of ideas that will make them ultimately successful. It only takes one – and the one that sticks, the one that you can’t seem to drop, will be the one that you will carry out and make into a reality. I agree with Kena that entrepreneurs are born and not made. It is something in them that has always been there – it is just a combination of timing and the right idea to bring it all to fruition.
  3. There will be competitors. It’s inevitable. If you focus too much on what these people/companies are doing then you can scare yourself into non-movement. Instead what is important is to have a very clear idea of what your company and brand represents. The clearer your mission and vision is for what you are trying to do, the less you have to worry about what else is happening out there. Your company is unique because you are unique. If you remain true to that then it keeps you focused not on what others are doing, but on what you are setting out to do.
  4. If you want to spur your creativity, then you have to step away from the computer. In this day in age when so much information comes from our electronic brains, we need to remember that our real brains need to be energized and stimulated in ways that an electronic device just isn’t going to do. As Garance Doré said, “It is important to observe, not only react.” Make it a conscious decision to step away from your computer and finds ways to get your creative juices flowing – whatever that might mean for you. It will help spark ideas and place you in situations where you might just meet someone new. Maybe even a future business partner?!


  1. By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop by Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson – Always inspiring to read about entrepreneurs who turned an idea into a big business.
  2. Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion by Gary Vaynerchuk – The takeaway from this book is that despite the fact that so many of our interactions are moving online, building authentic relationships with audiences/customers has become even MORE important.
  3. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson – Likely will be on everyone’s top 5 most influential books for a very long time.

*Images taken by Chapter Be

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