Thursday, 20 April 2017 09:53

Track athlete Leon Powell makes strides in entrepreneurship

Leon Powell wears many different hats. It just so happens that he sells them, too.

The junior sprinter has been juggling the responsibilities of a full-time student and business owner for more than a year now, all while heading up the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4×100-meter relay for the No. 20 UCLA men’s track and field team.

“As my top sprinter and just personality-wise he’s always trying to lead, trying to set a good example for everybody on the team,” said sprints coach Darrell Smith. “Leon is very serious. He jokes and plays but he’s a focused person. He has a plan of what he wants to do and an idea of how to get there.”

According to Smith, Powell has become one of the most integral members of the team over the last three years.

In his time as a Bruin, Powell has been named a Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention as a psychology student and currently has the second-fastest indoor 60-meter dash time and eighth-fastest indoor 200-meter dash time in UCLA history.

But his interests don’t stop at the finish line. Despite the numerous responsibilities his academics and athletics present, Powell is also the creator and sole proprietor of a hat company called Cozy Caps LA.

“My dad told me that I should start a business in college, no matter if it’s successful or unsuccessful, just to get experience,” Powell said. “I’m kind of interested in the fashion industry, like hypebeast fashion. Basically sneakers and shirts.”

The term “hypebeast” was coined in late 1990s New York as the internet gave rise to anyone being able to share the latest street fashion trends among their peers.

Since then, the term has come to mean many things, but in general, “hypebeast” fashion is centered around streetwear that has gained mass attention via word of mouth, over the web, or from celebrities.

Powell’s father, Leon Powell Sr., said he first came to Powell Jr. with the idea of a business early in his college career. Though, the elder Powell says the seeds had been planted long before his son started at UCLA.

“We had been talking business for a long time. It just happened to be one of the things he was interested in,” Powell Sr. said. “We had talked about it in high school. But in college it became a reality.”

With no knowledge of just what it meant to run a business, Powell Jr. ran with his father’s advice and set out to build something of his own. Since he has no brick and mortar stores to do the selling, Powell Jr. decided to run the company entirely online.

One of the largest roadblocks in Powell Jr.’s way took the form of the NCAA’s rules and regulations regarding athletes and product promotion. If he were to demonstrate a product on behalf of a company, even if it is his own, he would risk jeopardizing his eligibility.

Cue Assistant Director of Compliance Justin DiTolla.

It was DiTolla’s job to separate Powell Jr. the businessman and Powell Jr. the athlete in the eyes of the NCAA.

“We submitted a legislative release waver to allow Leon to be able to use his name, image and likeness in order to promote his own company,” DiTolla said. “They said as long as you promote it as Leon Powell the individual and not Leon Powell the athlete, the waiver will be approved.”

The two had to pitch the business as a completely separate interest of Powell Jr.’s. According to DiTolla, Powell Jr. had to explain the background of his business, the business plan itself, the mission statement and give all the details as to why he wanted to start Cozy Caps LA.

In addition to that, DiTolla and Powell Jr. spent a lot of time together going over the website and social media accounts to make sure any promotion of the business had nothing to do with Powell Jr.’s athletics. After they were able to prove the two entities were separate, Powell Jr. was given the green light and Cozy Caps LA was born.

Powell Jr. said he took the inspiration for his hat business from a popular streetwear brand called Supreme. According to him, a class mate wearing a Supreme branded hat is what captured his imagination.

“As soon as I got back to my dorm, I went on Google and typed in ‘Supreme hat’ and I didn’t find it online, mainly because Supreme is so exclusive,” Powell Jr. said. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, what if I make hats?’ And that’s kind of how Cozy Caps came along.”

Supreme makes limited production runs of all its items, only restocking or “dropping“ new items occasionally, and this served as the template for what would become Cozy Caps LA.

Powell Jr. creates limited runs of all of his hats, selling them in seasons.

Everything from the design to the distribution of the final product goes through Powell Jr., which is the biggest thing that sets him apart from the big name brand. He keeps all the unsold hats in his dorm and uses the university’s mailing center to ship his merchandise.

“I think I ordered probably 25 for the first (season) just to see how it would sell, and it sold out immediately,” Powell Jr. said. “Season two, all of them sold out, and that was 75 hats in total.”

Powell Jr. has sold nearly every hat Cozy Caps LA has ever put up for sale. He does all the promoting for his brand, and has taken advantage of social media to help him spread the word.

The @CozyCapsLA Instagram account has amassed nearly 1,000 followers since Powell Jr. first started posting to it in February of 2016. Since it is not Powell Jr.’s personal account, and rather a business one, that too falls in compliance with the NCAA’s rules.

“I (promote) mostly through Instagram and also word of mouth. A lot of my friends would wear my hats and a lot of people would ask them, ‘Oh where’d you get the hat?’” Powell Jr. said. “I also do a little bit of photography. … I take basically all the shots on the Instagram page and on the website.”

Even though Powell Sr. is the one who initially suggested the idea of a business to Powell Jr., he takes no credit away from his son.

“He has that determination. … He has a can-do trait, and the energy to go out there and get it done and he has discipline. I think a lot of that may have come from athletics,” Powell Sr. said. “He got firsthand experience as to what it takes to run a business. … He’s been able to take a dream and turn it into reality.”

A reality that Powell Jr. has been living for over a year, and he says that more than anything, he is thankful for the experience and wisdom he gained throughout his venture.

“I think to some extent all of us are entrepreneurs. Just walking around, you see new things every day,” Powell Jr. said. “I have a small notebook that I write in every day. Even if I think of something ridiculous I write it down just because it may connect to something else in the future.”

Powell Jr. plans to add the entrepreneurship minor at UCLA. He has said he doesn’t want to do clothing forever and acknowledges it is time for him to focus his business efforts in new ventures.

As a result, season four of the cozy-branded headgear will likely be its very last, and despite the difficulties that managing his own company poses, Powell Jr. will stay dedicated to business.

“A lot of people have asked if I was going to make shirts or socks or anything like that. … I’ve thought about it, but I actually want to do something else,” Powell Jr. said. “I want to get my MBA. … I definitely want to make something on my own in the future just because I love just walking around seeing people wearing the hat. I love seeing my work.”

Powell Jr.’s widened focus over the last year has greatly affected where he sees himself in the future. This, and his newfound experience, has enabled him to consider the greater range of possibilities afforded to him by his successful yearlong entrepreneurial experiment.

“I was scared at first … but I had a lot of support from my peers and family,” Powell Jr. said. “Anything you want to do when it comes to entrepreneurship or starting something, I’d say just pull the trigger and go for it. Nine times out of 10 … you’re going to be proud you took the opportunity.”