Recent UVA Darden Alum Grows Jewelry Business as Consulting Career Awaits
By Dave Hendrick
Like an increasing number of MBA students and recent graduates, Liana Lei (MBA ’22) has flexed her entrepreneurial muscles while earning a University of Virginia Darden School of Business MBA and focusing on a traditional post-business school career path.
A serial entrepreneur, Lei spent a significant amount of her Darden free working on LA FOI, an “impact-driven” line of jewelry focused on female empowerment, affordability and sustainability.
LA FOI, which developed a following among Darden students in the Class of 2022, was Lei’s third venture in recent years, following a beauty product recommendation service that relied on artificial intelligence and machine learning to pair people with the perfect product, and a second venture combining lab grown diamonds and NFTs. The first venture was not a success, Lei said, with a scope beyond its founders. The second seemed well ahead of its time, trying to get off the ground before NFTs had entered popular consciousness.
As an undergraduate at UC-San Diego with a STEM focus, Lei said she always assumed any venture she was a part of would be tech focused. It was surprising, then, that she has found the most traction selling jewelry following an unsatisfactory experience purchasing a simple gold chain.
Lei said a longtime friend who dabbled in jewelry design told her the likely total cost of the necklace Lei had recently purchased — significantly less than she had paid — and a jewelry business was born.
“A retail business is definitely not something I expected,” said Lei. “But there’s beauty in being able to test small, getting my first order, then the first 10 orders and 20 orders — it’s just been a really humbling experience.”
While making a small profit was important for the business to be sustainable, Lei said she and her two co-founders, one based in Shanghai and one in the Bay Area, knew the brand needed to stand for something purposeful in order to stand out in the marketplace.
“I did a lot of research on retail brands and brand awareness, and what brands matter to people,” said Lei. “We knew that if we started a brand, it needed to be impact-driven and mission driven if people were going to care. Luckily, LA FOI, which means faith, in French, aligns with our values, as well.”
In practice, that meant implementing “empowerment for women throughout the value chain” by sourcing design from female jewelry designers in Southeast Asia, trying to minimize packaging material and waste, and donating 10 percent of profits to charitable causes focused on women, including STEM for Her and the Global Fund for Women, among others.
Lei said the brand’s clear point of view, as well as attractive designs, helped it hit the ground running, as did a significant number of supportive Darden students, who proved to be the company’s enthusiastic first customers.
LA FOI now offers rings, earrings and necklaces, available in six distinct collections.
Lei, who interned at The Boston Consulting Group in Dallas between first and second year and plans to return to the consulting firm this fall, said she was aided in her venture launch by the Darden community, including the “KPI Club” — the group of female entrepreneurs who meet regularly to help push each other’s ventures forward, faculty members like Damon DeVito and the Batten Institute.
Although she graduated in May, Lei is spending a few additional months in Charlottesville in the i.Lab incubator, considering options to scale LA FOI even as she looks ahead to starting at BCG.
“Liana is an entrepreneur with determination and zeal,” said Jason Brewster, director of ventures at Darden. “I’ve gotten to know her through the incubator, and I look forward to continuing to support this and other ventures she pursues.”
Whether or not she continues her life as a serial entrepreneur as she settles into a busy consulting, Lei said she’s amazed at how prepared she feels for the road ahead.
“I think coming to Darden has been the best decision I’ve made in my life so far,” said Lei, who left a public accounting job with Deloitte with the hope of pivoting to a consulting career. “The confidence that I’ve gotten from this program has been unbelievable. I credit this to my fellow classmates at Darden and mentors who took me under their wings.”
Lei said three things ultimately drove her to Darden: the clear path to a pivot to a consulting career, a cohort of peers who were more interested in empowering each other than competing, and professors who clearly cared about the classroom experience and student development. The number of times professors took time out of their day to coach her through difficult problems — even during summer breaks — has been incredible, Lei said.
“I have just felt like I had a whole support team behind me,” Lei said.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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