Sometimes, there comes a time in you life when you want to do something wholly more meaningful and this is certainly true of Cemeli’s Christina Mahjouri. Her brand not only showcases a great selection of hand-picked fashon accessories sourced from around the globe, but her business also helps empower women and funds vital educational initiatives for young people and children. #TeamCoco were so inspired, they spoke to Christina to find out more about her business and what inspired her to quit the corporate world to run her own business and educational programme.
Please tell our readers a bit more about yourself and how your brand Cemeli came about?
I have a corporate background in governance for global corporations. I performed project-based work and used to travel to different parts of the world to do supply chain and finance reviews. I love connecting with different people from different countries and understanding the different perspectives for a same business subject. On a personal level I came to understand that we all have the same desire to live happy lives surrounded by our loved ones.
At some point after my second child I think I went through a strong desire for change. I realized I wanted to do something more meaningful and not necessarily work for the stockholders bottom line. I quit my job and started a new journey. I wanted to detox from the corporate world and started taking courses at FIT for image consulting, I became a certified scrum master for agile project management, with my dear friend Maria we travelled to Montreal to meet an app developer to develop an app. I tried many things and was nervous because it was the first time I didn’t have a clear path. I wanted something new but I did not know what exactly to do. All I knew is that it would have to be something inspiring and fun and meaningful. I think experimentation with new ideas led me to Cemeli.
What does Cemeli mean? Is there a meaning behind the name?
Yes, there is! It is an acronym for my name and my daughters’ names Melina and Lily.
What was the inspiration and vision behind Cemeli?
It started during a period I was trying to motivate myself. One night in early 2017 I couldn’t sleep because I was worried because I felt I had lost my self-motivation. I used to be so self-motivated. What happened? I started writing down quotes that I could pull from my memory from my past. There were over fifty. Before I knew it, I created a notebook with my quotes and published it on Blurb. I wanted to inspire others. I decided that I would try to sell the notebooks and the proceeds would go towards the refugees in Greece who needed help. Later that year I travelled to Greece and loved the creativity of the local artisans and designers and decided I wanted to help them be exposed to a larger market like the US. It has evolved into an initiative to inspire.
Cemeli empowers women by supporting emerging talent drives education initiatives through the support of displaced youth.
Your business gives back and supports young people through educational initiatives – can you tell us a bit more about the Education Unites: From Camp to Campus program – are there any success stories pertaining to this that stand out to you?
I became very sensitive to the refugee youth education crisis in the fall of 2016. That was the year of a great influx of refugees crossing the Greek borders. I was upset when reading articles about local Greek parents booing elementary Syrian students attending first day at school. Education is a human right and I became very upset. I am on the alumni advisory board at the American College of Greece. I started speaking up about the issue to push for education initiatives that the institution can offer through its resources.
Furthermore, the college is a non-profit which is impartial to religious and political affiliations and therefore neutral to things goings on. There were many support efforts and the Camp to Campus program is a collaboration of several American education entities in Greece banding together to provide education for these displaced youth. The College itself is a refugee. It fled from the Ottoman occupation in Smyrna early last century. The US government funded the first year of the program. The next year it no longer had a budget for this great initiative. I decided to create the bracelets with some of the quotes for success from my first campaign for refugees and donate towards these scholarships. I collaborated with an alumnae of the college to create the bracelets. We are pushing to finalize the campaign of selling approximately 1,000 bracelets. Spread the word!
I love the messaging on the #OneCauseOneBracelet designs – how did you come up with the wording for this?
The quotes on the bracelet were from the first Cemeli campaign. I created a notebook, with inspirational mantras for success. The goal of the initiative was to donate school notebooks to a refugee shelter for the 2017-2018 school year with the proceeds. It was a great experience to meet with the kids at the shelter and give them the school supplies. I tried to source also the notebooks responsibly by sourcing from in country and not from overseas mass-produced factories. The quotes from the notebook were used to create the bracelets of motivational quotes. The design of the bracelet is a collaboration of a company called IMISI. We chose some colours and quotes and put it all together.
Sustainability and responsible sourcing are also a strong priority to you (which is wonderful) what steps do you think that the world of fashion need to take to become more sustainable?
Fashion and all industries need to be thoughtful of upstream and downstream processes. For many decades the bottom line is measured in currency. Sourcing decisions can have a great impact on the environment, it can provide opportunities of scale for designers and artisans that never had the opportunity before. I believe there is a great opening to provide tools to artisans and emerging designers that may help them scale up and learn to maintain a consistent quality. For example, an artisan on the island of Crete may not have the perspective of a US consumer. However, if they had the tools to photograph, write print and utilize social media in an effective way they could blossom into something quite profitable. There is definitely an opportunity to expand local artisans into larger markets in a responsible way.
Was Cemeli a ‘lightbulb’ moment or was it more of a slow burning process?
Good question. It was a slow burning process of creating my own personal dream job. Connecting people and initiatives I believe in into something inspiring and meaningful.
Can you tell us how the brand has evolved and elaborate more on your journey so far?
The brand’s evolution is something we are extremely proud of every single day. Cemeli has been active for two years. Today, I would say our identity has crystallized, our brand values have been well- established. Within the past year alone, we have expanded, favouring numerous synergies with other brands, sponsoring events, supporting emerging women’s entrepreneurship initiatives. Along the way, our social media presence has strengthened (IG: @inspireatcemeli), and we also revamped our website, so it is user-friendly, minimal and emphasizing our mission. Finally, our team has also expanded, welcoming Elisabeth, who works as Cemeli’s Brand Manager. To put it simply, we are impatient to see what the future holds.
How do you decide what designers and brands to work with? I assume that you have very specific criteria when selecting whom to collaborate with that adheres to Cemeli’s own brand values?
The first criteria is that the product is designed or produced by a woman-owned business. Next, I try to assess whether the product is marketable in the US market and whether there is scalability of the vendor business.
Did you have any fears or worries when launching your business and how did you overcome them?
Absolutely! I had always worked in bigger global corporations that were diverse in nature (produce imports, consumer packaged goods and industrial gas industries). With Cemeli I had to get into the details of everything. I did not have hands on experience in marketing, creating websites and social media or fashion! Many things were new. However, I knew that I am a good problem solver and had international experience reviewing business operations in 20 countries. I decided that I need to believe in myself and overcome my fears of failure. It was hard! Every person comes to a tipping point of taking charge of her own destiny. Cemeli is was my tipping point. ( I used my inspirational quotes for success to help me though…haha)
How would you describe your brand personality?
Dynamic, conscious and with a modern and sustainable vision that sees fashion being in a harmonial symbiosis with “idea of giving back”.
Looking back to when you were first coming up with the initial business concept, what advice would you give to yourself (knowing what you know now) and would you change anything?
Number one – do not be afraid. Number two – invest in packaging earlier in the process.
Do you have any people that you personally look up to in business and have you been able to use this within your own business?
My friend Maria – she started her own company in her mid-twenties and now has a very successful brand and business. When I was starting up I would think what would she do? I also think back to my uncle who is a CEO of a fruit import business and my cousin who also went into business by himself at a young age. I think before I started Cemeli I took for granted the effort it takes to build something from scratch with only a concept. I try to keep it fun and motivating.
What has been the most surprising thing that you have learnt about running your own business?
Running my own business gives you a 360-degree review from your customers, your vendors and your followers. You need to identify your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I knew early on that branding and social media is a necessity however I could not offer it the focus and expertise I wished to due to my own weaknesses. This is why I engaged with Elisabeth. We complement each other in many ways and make a great team. She is so creative and resourceful and has really helped pull together not only the consistency but also exposure across different markets. I have learned so much about myself.
What do you feel has been the defining moment so far?
I think there have been many moments of experimenting and acting on ideas that have defined the Cemeli of today. I believe there will be many more defining moments in the future as well!
If you could describe your brand in five words – what would they be?
Authentic, compassionate, conscious, strong and above all CHIC!
How would you describe the Cemeli customer and who would be your dream celebrity customer?
Cemeli is for the modern woman who pursues her own passions and loves unique sophisticated fashion items. She loves quality but avoids big brick and mortar. Cemeli gives access to the modern busy woman high quality items at an affordable price. Our leather sandals are soft leather produced with great care and design and priced under $100. Similar brands sell for about $300. Cemeli believe high quality fashion does not have to be out of reach. My dream customer would be someone like Emma Watson who uses her popularity to endorse good causes that support sustainable development goals. I love that. The future customer will put their money into good causes.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs, particularly to those wanting to launch a fashion-focussed business?
There is never a right time to start something. Just start the brainstorming process and write things down. Make your dream a reality. Start small and nurture it.
What are your plans for Cemeli in the months/years ahead?
My first priority is to fulfil the Camp-to-Campus Campaign. I hope your readers can be inspired and buy some bracelets. They do not profit Cemeli at all. All sales will go to scholarships. Next steps will include to expand sourcing to other countries. We are finally coming up with some cool packaging that will offer a good experience