When Jordana Schrager was a sophomore in high school, something typical happened to her. She was grounded. But what came of the grounding was very atypical. Whiling way the time in her room, Schrager doodled on a pair of Vans shoes. When she donned her work at school the next day, her friends wanted to know where they could get their own. Soon after, Schrager was creating custom shoes for friends and family, and then people around town, and then around the country — and then Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, P!NK, and Selena Gomez. Now, Schrager’s custom shoe company, Sneakers by Jordana, is the first to receive an investment from the $10 million Zell Founders Fund at the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute.
The Founders Fund is a portion of a $60 million endowment gifted in the summer of 2015 from Sam Zell, University of Michigan alum and chairman of Chicago-based Equity Group Investments. All told, the Zell Family Foundation has gifted $150 million to University of Michigan entrepreneurial efforts. Joining a suite of investment funds, the Zell Founders Fund is the most robust and elite at the Ann Arbor school. It is managed by Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Zell Lurie Institute, and a four-member student advisory committee. Members of the committee must be nominated by faculty and then selected by Thornhill. So far, three MBAs at Michigan’s Ross School of Business have been selected. And all three are women.
“It was never designed to be a fund led by women investors,” Thornhill tells Poets&Quants. “I think the fact that it is, is something we want to celebrate, because I don’t think there are nearly enough success stories. And my experience working with this group of students is extraordinary.”
FIRST INVESTMENT IS $100K TO CUSTOM SHOE COMPANY
Thornhill says the idea of the fund is to be the first investors in recent graduates. To qualify for a portion of the funding, which Stewart says will be in amounts like the $100,000 invested in Schrager’s company, ventures must be founded and run by people graduating from the University of Michigan within 12 months of the investment. Schrager graduated last spring with a degree in art and design and minor in business administration. To be sure, she was no stranger around the Zell Lurie Institute.
“She was well known to us at ZLI, which is how she knew to apply for funding,” Thornhill says, mentioning Schrager’s involvement in business plan competitions and mentorship from the entrepreneurs-in-residence program. “People like Jordana, who has been around the ZLI, we knew of her,” Thornhill continues. “We knew she was looking for capital to grow her company — she was a real ideal first candidate because it wasn’t someone walking in off the street. We had all been working with her for some time.”
LAUNCHING A BUSINESS WITH A WEBSITE AND INSTAGRAM
Applications are reviewed on a rolling cycle, and Sneakers by Jordana was one of the first ventures to come through. For the three advisory team members, this particular investment was a no-brainer. “This is a proven business woman,” team member Christine Priori says of Schrager. “She came in with a proven and strong track record.”
At just 22, Schrager already has six years of experience running her business. She also serves as creative director and produces shoes for SKICKS, a university team apparel shoe business she runs with her mother.
“She had a buzz in the community beforehand,” Founders Fund team member Florence Noel agrees, noting both student interest and celebrity endorsements.
Schrager’s success is a classic example of social media-driven millennial ingenuity. As soon as friends and family showed significant interest, she built a website and created an Instagram account. “I’ve pretty much documented every shoe I’ve made since the beginning,” she says. By posting every shoe and hashtagging like crazy, she was able to catch the attention of celebrities and businesses while building a community of followers to more than 15,600. The first organization to inquire about Schrager’s shoes was the massive Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They wanted her to make custom shoes for performers.
FIRST BATCH OF CAPITAL WILL GO TOWARDS NEW PRODUCT LINE
At $200 to $450 for a pair of shoes, Schrager’s product certainly hits distinct customers in the market. But that hasn’t deterred or dampened expectations from investors. After a lengthy due diligence process that involved deep research and hours of phone conversations, all members of the investment team say they are excited about the first batch of capital to be dispersed through the fund.
“She’s got a great product. She’s got customers that love what she’s doing,” Thornhill explains. “She’s got a business model that has everything you look for — great margins, a clear differentiation in the marketplace, a really skilled entrepreneur who’s ready to hustle and grow her product. All of the things we look for in a good investment, Jordana brought.” The team ran Schrager’s financials through a stress test multiple times, Noel adds, and everything held up.
The majority of the investment will go toward the rollout of a new shoe and product line. “Even if she doesn’t sell as much as she hopes to sell during the first batch of mass production, she can still be on track to stay positive and make it up in the next batch,” Noel explains. “It wasn’t just that she had an existing group of customers, but you could see evidence of interest with the month-long waitlist, social media presence, and celebrity endorsements.”