UI helps Georgian immigrant learn to create art, start a business to sell it
Tuesday, July 24, 2018

For Vako, “Made in the U.S.A.” means more than just something was made in the U.S.A.

Growing up in the economic devastation of post-Soviet Georgia, most consumer products he got his hands on were cheap junk made in the antiquated factories of the communist era. But there was always a way to tell when something was of higher quality.

“In Georgia, if something said ‘Made in the USA’ on it, that meant it was something that had value,” says Vako, who grew up in the capital of Tbilisi.

Now living in the U.S. and going by “Vako” (because Vakhtangi seemed like it might require too much tongue twisting for most Americans), he owns his own business, Vako Designs, and designs furniture and home accessories that he sells on his website and at a handful of local stores. He’s a member of the Founder’s Club, a group of UI student entrepreneurs whose startups are headquartered in the university’s startup business incubator, the Bedell Entrepreneurial Learning Laboratory (BELL).

Going into business was a complete accident for Vako. He moved to the Iowa City area when he was 13, his family fleeing the civil war and violence that wracked Georgia after the Soviet collapse. They arrived with nothing but a local family willing to help them start their life over again. Vako soon learned English, acclimated to the culture, became a citizen, and graduated from Iowa City West High School, then earned his bachelor’s degree in art and international relations from the UI in 2014.

His career goals were still uncertain when he graduated, but he thought it would have something to do with global affairs, given his own background as a global citizen. But something kept pushing him toward art.

“Even as a kid I was always artistic, painting, making crafts, anything that was hands-on,” he says. “I always had to be making something with my hands.

He decided to enroll in the MFA program in the School of Art and Art History to study design, focusing on his sleek, minimalist designs for lamps and planters. Then he caught his break. During his first year, photos of his work were featured on Design Milk, a prestigious curated blog read by top international designers. Within days, he’d received emails from people around the world asking to buy what they’d seen on Design Milk. He hadn’t thought much about selling his designs—he was still focused on the artistry of it—but as he worked to fill the orders, he realized there was obviously a market for this and maybe he should think about going into business.

“They wanted to buy my work, participate in shows and exhibits, talk to me for magazine stories,” he says. “That got the entrepreneurial side of me going.”

Not long after that, his advisor, Monica Correia, professor of 3-D design in the School of Art and Art History, connected him with the Founder’s Club. Vako decided to join, thinking he could benefit from being part of an entrepreneurial community in the BELL and from the counsel and advice from experienced entrepreneurs in the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC).

“Vako is always trying to produce designs that are functional and useful, so I thought he would be a perfect fit for what they do,” says Correia. “Most students are looking for a job at a company. Vako has that side of his personality that he wanted to start his own business.”

Vako says he’s learned much so far about things he knew nothing about before, such as strategies, missions, venture capital, business plans, and elevator pitches.

“It’s not easy to get a business going when you don’t know what to do,” he says. “I’ve realized it’s one thing to make something people like, it’s another to sell it to people in the world and have a successful business.”

Correia says Vako’s work is enough to support a successful business. His designs feature clean lines and minimal ornamentation that the market loves.

“They’re beautiful and have minimal use of materials,” she says. “He also has an eye for color and puts colors together very nicely. His pieces are very modern in look.”

This summer, the recent UI MFA graduate is participating in JPEC’s Summer Accelerator, an eight-week business development program for 12 student-owned businesses that are ready to take the next step. The entrepreneurs—38 of them this summer, all of whom are participating in the Founder’s Club—attend work sessions with experienced mentors, learn business model concepts, attend lectures with industry leaders and coaches, and meet weekly to discuss their progress. They receive a stipend to help pay living costs during the summer, and the program ends July 24 in Kinnick Stadium with a pitch competition for potential investors.

Vako says his JPEC experience has shown him the paradox of being both an artist and being a business owner. He’s spent so much time on his business recently that he hasn’t been able to design as much as he’d like. He’s exhibited at leading design shows in New York City and twice at the Salone del Mobile Milano in Milan, Italy, considered the industry’s most prestigious exhibit, all of which are generating international word of mouth for his business. (He often gets orders from Europe, but he has to decline those sales because of the high cost and hassle of overseas shipping.) But if he spends more time designing, then he doesn’t have enough time to get his business going.

“It’s one of the challenges I’m having, how do I balance both?” he says. “Am I a business person or am I a designer? That’s a question I have to figure out.”

Vako received his MFA in design from the School of Art and Art History in May 2018, so he has more time to think about it. He sells a few dozen pieces a year and is talking with manufacturers to start mass production so he can increase sales. His designs are all made with sustainable materials, and it’s important that manufacturers be able to continue that strategy. He also wants to keep as much of his business in Iowa as possible because he wants to give something back to the place that gave him hope and help as he grew up. He wants “Made in the U.S.A.” to mean something.

“I want to make a good product that is meaningful and important to a person,” he says. “I don’t want my product to wind up in a landfill in a year.”