Today’s Notable Young Entrepreneurs are Rami Helali, Benjamin Sehl and Mackenzie Yeates, who founded Kotn to offer a line of high-end basics that you can afford to wear everyday while simultaneously revitalizing the Egyptian cotton industry. So far, so good…
Elevator Pitch: Describe your job in a nutshell.
MY: As founders of both Kotn and Ordinary Studios, we wear many hats. Generally, Ben leads digital and product design, Rami handles business strategy and logistics, while I head up creative and fashion direction.
Why did you start working at your company? What was the inspiration for this career route?
We wanted an opportunity to do work that helped bring a little joy and beauty into the every day lives of our clients and customers. After learning the ropes from some amazing mentors over the years, we decided that now was the time in life to take a risk and do something ourselves. We quit our jobs in New York and founded Kotn to revitalize the Egyptian cotton industry and create a line of high-end basics that you can afford to wear everyday. Through Kotn we also decided to launch Ordinary Studios to help other small businesses build their brands.
What is the best part of what you do on a day-to-day basis? The most challenging part?
We started with the challenge of creating the perfect t-shirt and will soon be expanding our brand into a world of essentials and lifestyle products. We are passionate about working towards revitalizing one of the most important industries in Egypt and affecting change through trade, not aid. Being founders and bootstrapping means we can do what we want and be creative with solutions for our brand. It is also the challenge because there are only so many hours in our day and only so much money in the bank.
What is one sign that you’ve seen over the years to suggest that your work/life balance is off?
Working with your fiancee and one of your best friends is the best thing in the world, but it’s sometimes hard to separate life and work. Ben and I sometimes realize that all we’ve talked about that entire day is work, but we make a conscious effort to enjoy each other’s company as a couple as well as business partners. Our ethos is about finding joy in the ordinary so sometimes you need to take a moment for yourself to have a bath or take a walk and usually that’s when the best ideas will come to you.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
RH: Hopefully in five years we will have made an obvious impact in the Egyptian villages where we are subsidizing farms, stepping towards revitalizing this industry. By that point we would like to have a complete line of everyday products; basics, home and beauty. In five years it would also be great to have not necessarily a traditional store, but a physical space where we can interact with our customers.
What is one major challenge that you’ve had to overcome in your career? How did you overcome it?
MY: I had limitations in terms of where I could work in a creative/fashion field in Toronto. I overcame it by moving to New York to learn from an agency there and moving back home to start my own creative business.
What does success look like to you? Does Money = Happiness?
BS: If in five years I can look to my left and right and see my wife and best friend, create some beautiful things that our customers enjoy everyday, and help the lives of people in a country less fortunate than ours, I would be a happy man.
What is the most memorable milestone in your career?
RH: Quitting what I thought was my dream job to build something from the ground up for myself.
Do you have any advice for other young professionals?
RH: Find out what the worst case scenario is for your failure; if that’s something that you could live with, then the risk is worth it.
MY: Indecision is worse than a bad decision – just go for it.
Where is your favourite place to wine/ dine in your city and why?
BS: Bhima’s in my hometown of Waterloo is my favourite place to get together with family.
RH: Rhum Corner because it reminds me of one of my favourite restaurants in New York, Miss Lily’s.
MY: The Harbord Room because of the incredible food and relaxed atmosphere.
When you’re not working how do you love to spend your “Me” time?
BS: Watching rom-coms on Netflix.
RH: Reading, which I rarely get to do anymore.
MY: Playing ping-pong or chatting with family and friends on the beach at the cottage.
Where is your favourite place to travel? Why?
RH: Santa Teresa in Costa Rica, because it’s pretty untouched and has beautiful beaches, surfing and good food.
BS: Aswan in Egypt. After 10 years of Rami telling me how beautiful the Nile is, I finally got to see it for myself. Aswan is full of generous people, incredible history, and stunning landscapes.
MY: Paris because every moment and every sight is full of romance.
If you had to choose a theme song, what would it be?
RH: Desert Rose – haha kidding, I don’t know…
BS: On & On by Erykah Badu.
MY: Dance with Somebody by Whitney Houston.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
BS: R&B singer.
MY: News anchor.
Do you support any charities? If so, which one(s) and why is that important to you?
We support our own; through Kotn helping to subsidize family-owned independent farmers and also work towards building a scholarship fund to send students to Cairo’s agricultural technology program to bring modern knowledge to family-owned businesses.
What to you is notable?
RH: Taking risks.
MY: Finding joy in the work you do every day.
BS: Finding a way to contribute to helping the world or the people in it.
Blackberry, iPhone, Android, or Other?
RH: iPhone on silent, no vibrate.
MY: iPhone, but I might as well not have one because I suck at phones.