Miranda Ekern (’22 biochemistry) never imagined her desire to find a creative outlet while hunkered down with her family during the COVID-19 pandemic would develop into a thriving business. But two years after creating handmade designs on coffee mugs to give as gifts to friends and family, Ekern’s hobby has morphed into her own company, Ekern Designs.
With a mother who has an art degree and grandparents who have launched several businesses, Ekern’s creative spirit and can-do attitude is part of her DNA. Once she started creating fun coffee mugs for herself and others, she just couldn’t stop.
“I kept buying supplies, and all of a sudden I had like 50 mugs. My mom said, ‘You need to do something with these. I can’t have these in my house anymore.’ So, I started selling them through Etsy, and my sister helped with the marketing,” Ekern said.
With the help of her sister, Mackenzie, a recent Drake University graduate with a degree in marketing and communications, Ekern has diversified her offerings to include a plethora of designs and phrases on wine glasses, beer can glasses, coasters and, of course, coffee mugs.
As a biochemistry major, Ekern has no business or entrepreneurial background. To boost her business acumen, she applied to be part of the summer 2022 cohort of CYstarters, an 11-week accelerator for Iowa State students and recent graduates sponsored by Iowa State’s Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship. Much to her surprise, she was accepted into the program.
“The support team here is amazing,” she said. “All the people here are cheering you on. They want to be here to help you. It’s been a huge honor to be here and to get that support system because they really advocate for you.”
Ekern poured herself into Ekern Designs this summer. With the help of her CYstarters community, she created a website, developed strategies to increase sales and brainstormed ways get her products in front of more people, including at craft shows and farmers’ markets.Currently, Ekern’s drinkware is available at the Innovate 1858 retail store in the Student Innovation Center on campus. She hopes to expand into additional retail outlets in the future.
Ekern is selling more than drinkware. For her, Ekern Designs is about embracing those moments with friends and family where you get together and share a cup of coffee to catch up or reminisce. Her goal is to design drinkware that reconnects people.
“I hope my drinkware business can help create community in the world, and that people can use my products as vessels to start conversations and make connections with each other,” Ekern said. “I hope when they look back at that cup they use, they remember those good times.”
While Ekern has learned several things this summer, her biggest take away from the CYstarters experience is that it’s OK to fail.
“Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Going through this has helped me realize that I might not know all the answers now, but somebody will help me through it,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to try something and don’t be afraid to fail is the big thing I’ve learned. If you do fail, you can grow from that. You will learn so much from this experience that’s going to relate to everything in life.”