How I Made $250K To Pay For College (With A Little Help From Oprah)
My micro business taught me the value of believing in my dreams and having the guts to pursue them.
When my bracelet business took off in high school, generating $4,300 in sales in three months during my junior year, I thought: Why bother going to college?
“Can’t I just keep making bracelets?” I asked my twin brother, Jake, and parents, Tory and Peter, one night at dinner. “Why waste $250,000 on college if I can make that without a degree?”
“Dumb idea,” Jake said. “Your bracelets could be a fad, and you'll get sick of making them.”
“Surely you want to explore new things and gain skills and knowledge that’ll last a lifetime,” my mom added.
It hit me. What if I did both? “How about I continue to grow my business and use the profits to pay for college?”
“Works for me,” my dad said without hesitation. (Not sure if he was more excited about my personal challenge or keeping the college fund he and my mom had created.)
Months earlier, when my grandfather died, I asked if I could have his sizable silk tie collection. I admired the stunning florals, stripes, polka dots, geometrics — an endless assortment of colors and textures.
I cut up the fabric into thin strips and attached tiny metal and plastic charms I'd gotten at a flea market. I knotted them on my wrist like the chic twilly scarves sold by Hermes, and shared my new arm candy on an Instagram post to 200 followers.
Immediately, girls began asking if they were for sale. After initially wondering whether they were just being nice, I priced the bracelets at $10 apiece, an arbitrary number that felt like it would prompt an easy yes. That first night, I got 13 bracelet orders and made $130 in cash the next day at school.
Within weeks, a tween boutique in my Upper West Side neighborhood reached out to ask about carrying the line.
Carry the line! What line? To make my “business” sound professional, or at least something bigger than a kid cutting up ties in her bedroom, I designed a logo and found simple packaging at a paper supply shop.
Between the store order, growing popularity at school (girls regularly traded their lunch money for bracelets), and requests to make party favors for birthdays and charity events, I earned more than $4,000 in just a few months. I kept the cash in a dresser drawer.
Just as I was beginning to panic that my silk-and-charm stash was nearly gone, a customer suggested that I make summer bracelets girls could wear in the water.
Through a family friend, I found a supplier of rubber beads and lucite charms and invested $1,000 in new materials to make a fresh collection. To reach more customers, I launched @emjohnjewelry on Instagram, designed a Shopify website, and expanded into keychains and bag charms since I could charge more for them.
Fall of my senior year, I applied early decision to Boston University, my dream school, and was overjoyed when I was accepted. (I’m guessing my essay about the success of Em John didn’t hurt.)
With college admission off my plate, the reality of my goal — actually making $250,000 to pay for BU as I boasted I could — loomed large.
Friends were playing soccer, practicing modern dance, or just partying during the senior slump. Meanwhile, I was designing, assembling, packaging and shipping orders daily, updating my website and Instagram, and corresponding with customers. My singular obsession took a toll: I had no social life.
Yet, I took pride in what I was doing, and when the Beacon High School Class of 2015 graduated, I gifted nearly 100 girls an Em John bracelet in the colors of their future alma maters.
For years I had watched up close as my mom made it her life's work to champion small business owners, especially women, by giving their products national exposure in her weekly Deals & Steals segment on ABC's Good Morning America. Each time she'd tell me about a specific success, she'd add, "This could be you, too."
That summer before college, with mom's reminder front and center, I learned that July is when the editors who are responsible for curating popular magazine holiday gift guides are hunting for new products.
On a whim, I sent a few oversized initial charms with brightly colored faux fur poms to my favorite publication, O The Oprah Magazine, hoping that, at best, an editor might snap an Instagram story of my submission. But at the end of August, I got an email from Adam Glassman, the creative director at O, saying he loved the on-trend keychains and wanted them for Oprah’s Favorite Things 2015.
My jaw dropped. Landing on Oprah's Favorite Things is the product maker’s equivalent of winning Powerball.
For the next few months, it was all hands on deck. Everyone in my family pitched in. On weekends, I’d return home from BU and join the assembly line in our living room, putting together thousands of key chains in preparation of the big day.
Fast-forward to early November, when O's holiday issue hit stands: I cried when I held the magazine and saw my products popping off the page. Em John sold more than 5,000 key chains in the first week, at $15 apiece.
The orders came in faster than our teeny team could handle, so I arranged for backup. I flew in my grandmother from Miami Beach and hired friends in shifts to pick, pack, and ship orders in New York, while I handled customer service from Boston.
We survived the holiday season, and Adam asked me to intern for him the next summer. Not only did I get a firsthand look at the magic making of Oprah’s Favorite Things, but I struck gold again: O featured my new line of tassel keychains in the 2016 holiday issue.
The fall of my sophomore year began to look a lot like my freshman year, with me spending more weekends in NYC than in Boston. I was on track to be able to pay for my entire college tuition from Em John sales, but at what cost?
At that point, I made the decision to focus a bit less on business and more on myself, as my social life was non-existent, which bugged me. Why was I paying all this money to be at college, if I didn’t have time to embrace the experience?
I joined a sorority, ventured off campus often to explore Boston, and met girls who would later become roommates and best friends. I spent a semester in Los Angeles working and taking classes, landed two great summer internships (BaubleBar and Converse), and immersed myself in all-things college.
Em John will always be a huge part of my DNA, but this passion project was never intended to turn full-time post-graduation.
Beyond the financial rewards, running this micro business taught me the value of believing in my dreams and having the guts to pursue them. It’s also given me the chance to share that message with other young women like me.
As college comes to a close, I’m excited to shift from entrepreneur to employee and launch my big girl career. I want to leverage all that I’ve learned to benefit my next boss. No doubt, I’ll walk proudly into my place of employment each day with an Em John keychain hanging from my bag as a reminder to give it my best.