On Being a USC Student and Running a New Business
A graduate from 2018, Ysabella Delgado embarked on a very different type of university experience when she enrolled in the Iovine and Young Academy Bachelor of Science in Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation degree program at the University of Southern California (USC). This four-year study program provides students with in-depth learning in the arts, design, engineering, computer science, business and venture management. Bella’s enthusiasm and passion for her studies shines through as we connect over Zoom about her university experience and how the past few years have evolved.
“I am part of a really weird program,” she says. “It has definitely been a very not-expected university experience. The way my school works is there are 26 of us and we go to all our classes together. In first year, we had classes in Disruptive Innovation, Digital Toolbox in illustration, audio production, Photoshop; a lot of different courses. I also had to take seminars as part of USC general education classes and one in particular was on vampires and monsters in Art and Fiction. That was a very cool experience”.
When Bella left York House, little did she think she’d be going from a small school to a smaller school. She says her Disruptive Innovation class was taught by a professor who basically detailed why businesses have failed throughout history and also analyzed how businesses succeed. At the end of the class, they were put in a group and given $200 to create a business/product. As Bella recalls, “Our little group had to come up with a business, sell it on campus, and try to make as much as we could. In the end, we created custom-fit filters for the USC dorms to help with dust and other pollutants. In my program, it’s not one person who does everything. There will always be someone in your group who can do something you can’t do.”
The importance of being bored
Summer after freshman year was over, Bella and her boyfriend Quinn drove up to Vancouver and stayed for part of the summer. When Quinn went back down to LA to be with his family, Bella says she got really bored and was sitting around doing nothing. She decided it was time to get creative again. She took a trip to Michael’s and decided she’d make earrings to go with her makeup looks and then did some shoots with her earrings on. Quinn is a coder and when he saw the earrings, he was really encouraging. He suggested they start a website to sell her creations and he offered to code it. Kikay was born!
She recounts, “I started posting images on Instagram stories and a girl I had met at an event saw me on Instagram. She contacted me and said that she ran these backyard indie rock concerts and her earring vendor had dropped out. The show would be in San Diego in two weeks and she asked me if I might possibly want to sell the earrings I was making. I made some more earrings, packed up our car and got ourselves to San Diego. In the meantime, Quinn had the website up and running. We sold out at that first show. After that, we did another show and that also sold out too. I stress-made another 100 pairs of earrings and spent the rest of the summer making and vending earrings in the California area”.
Bella noticed that when they started, a lot of other earring brands were charging $50-60 for earrings, and she says she was sitting there thinking to herself, “I have some acrylic, I have earring parts, and I have my own time; that’s a really big mark up. When we were selling at these shows, a lot of people were my age or younger. People got very excited when they came to our booth and discovered that our earrings were so cheap. People’s faces lit up when they realized they could afford them.”
Instagram influencers can be anyone
Kikay is a two-person operation and her and Quinn run the company together. For the business, Bella focuses on the earring design, production, outreach, and Instagram marketing, while Quinn does the laser cutting, the coding, the customer service and accounting. When Bella did her research, she realized she wanted to create a brand modelled after the makeup industry, tap into that industry, but not sell makeup. Rather, she wanted to create something to accompany makeup looks. They started marketing using this model and built a following.
“Earrings and makeup on a profile photo work really well as they go perfectly together,” she says. “We spoke with makeup artists and created a community around ourselves which we are super thankful for. We’ve been working a lot with influencers so much so that we don’t create any of our own content anymore. It’s created by other artists. Initially we would create these looks and encourage people to post them and do their own makeup looks. Being in quarantine, people are really exploring fun makeup and fun fashion. In the past you’d only see looks by influencers but now people have started to realize that they can be influencers too. We wanted to create something that people can feel super comfortable in; a gateway statement into doing fun big things with your looks and making it accessible to everyone, not just influencers. We are really young and engage people.”
Kikay and growing social activism
Bella has always wanted to have a social activism aspect to their business. As they have grown bigger, it has taken Bella a while to get her head around the fact they are actually a fully fledged business and have established a growing community of people they can outreach to.
Bella reflects, “We have this chance to make a change and difference in the world. I wanted to work towards hiring as production gets bigger and I thought about what kind of community would benefit. One idea we had was hiring retired Filipino childcare workers. I grew up around this community. They come here with not very much education and after they finish up working for a family and they retire, they don’t have many options open to them. This was going to be our first social activism project but then everything took off with the US protests and we veered quickly in another direction”.
In the first week of June, when commentary regarding the Black Lives Matter movement exploded on Instagram they decided to use their platform to post, repost, and create opportunities to make a change. Kikay made a decision to donate 100% of their profits to the Black Owned Business Relief Fund for that week.
“Our business supports the black community and we will be here for them and that was the decision making behind that,” says Bella. “We had no idea how it would go but it was one of our best selling weeks. We had a lot of messages of support. USC is in a predominantly black neighbourhood. It was a culture shock coming out of Vancouver when I moved there and I realized I had to step up my game and get on top of educating myself. I needed to be educated on black history and culture.”
Bella credits her social activism to her high school days. She adds, “I do think that a huge part of my social activism came from monthly civvies days at York House. For us, you wore your civvies and donated money and that happened every month. It made you think about who you were giving to and why you were giving back. We are going to continue doing social activism projects. It’s Pride Month and we will dedicate a week where all proceeds go to LGBTQ+ Youth and continue with that one model every month.”
The “new normal” in the fall
In the fall, Bella is excited to return to LA. “I’m very lucky that our school is not online. USC put out a statement that there’d be a mixed curriculum depending on which school you attended. My school got special permission to run. As we only have 26 per class, we got permission to do it in person.”
With focus also on their growing business, Quinn and Bella are converting a bedroom in their house and setting up a whole new workshop for Kikay down there.
A life-changing moment last year for Bella was also getting diagnosed with ADHD. “Two-hour lectures made me really anxious and I couldn’t focus for that long. Earrings have been a big part of my strategy in coping and managing ADHD as I realized I had to be doing something while I was in class. Each class, I bring a kit of earrings to make as I listen to the lectures. It’s really helpful. I can absorb information while doing something else that is productive. My professors allow me to do it and it has completely changed my life. It’s been transformative.”
When Bella reflects on the past year, she says starting Kikay has given her a lot of confidence. “I think if I want to go out there and do something, I have the chance, ability, and foundation to step up and try to do it. I did have some doubts and in the early days I wanted to quit, but Quinn kept me going. We definitely help each other out. Looking ahead, we want to be able to set up a system and work in an environmentally responsible way, a financially responsible way and a socially responsible way.”
(Kikay has since announced a new microgrant project for LGBTQ+ artists and creatives for Pride Month. See below).