Editor’s note: KCultivators is a lighthearted profile series to highlight people who are meaningfully enriching Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Check out our features on Plexpod founder Gerald Smith, innovation coach Diana Kander, Victor & Penny’s Erin McGrane, SEED Law’s Adrienne Haynes, Code Koalas’ Robert Manigold, Prep-KC CEO Susan Wally and community builder Donald Carter.
Jordan Williams began his entrepreneurial journey without a dime nor a business plan, he said. The Keefe Cravat founder did, however, have his mom’s sewing kit.
“I was in my mom’s basement — my first office — about to watch a video on YouTube,” Williams said. “I was like ‘OK, cool. I’m about to figure out this needle and thread.’ Never sewn a day in my life. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
Now widely known in the Kansas City fashion community for his necktie lines, then-20-year-old Williams had just returned from Columbia College in Chicago, making the difficult decision to come home because he couldn’t afford another semester, he said.
“I was in a position of confusion, depression,” Williams said. “I didn’t have any money.”
Ultimately, he found a way to smile again.
The experience of moving home offered him the time and opportunity to design some of his first bow ties in Kansas City. With $10 in hand, he bought a box of traditional neckties from a local thrift store, and got to work in his mother’s basement.
He posted a photo of the first redesigned bow tie to Instagram — and people liked it, Williams said. The affirmation gave him the confidence to keep pushing forward with his company, Keefe Cravat, eventually leading the young designer to industry connections, fashion shows and boutiques.
“‘Keefe’ means noble, gentle, lovable and handsome, and then ‘Cravat’ means neckwear. It’s about a man tying all of that together,” he said.
As Williams established his brand, he found his business strategy dominated by a rat race mentality, he said. He decided this summer to streamline his focus, shifting his attention to wedding wear.
“I’m in a place of simplicity,” Williams said. “My No. 1 client throughout the year is weddings. It’s the easiest market. They know what they want. They tell me what they want. They tell me when they need it. And they buy it in bulk.”
Keefe Cravat has moved from the startup-incubator stage to an adolescent phase of business, he said. The company now has a partnership with Sharon Miller at the Gown Gallery, with plans for a Keefe Cravat pilot starting in January at the store, Williams said.
“She’s introducing me into her world,” he said. “I can leverage what she’s done. And she’s going to show me the ins and outs of brides and grooms.”
Having received help along the way since developing his first designs, Williams said he feels a calling to help others who face the same early stage struggles he encountered. He’s moderating a “For The Fashionpreneur” panel Thursday at the Gown Gallery, as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week.
“For the past three years, when I would attend Global Entrepreneurship Week, I never felt like it was a place for me, as far as fashion business — not having that voice or representation of the fashion community, which I know is thriving,” Williams said. “But we’re slept on. We’re overlooked.”
Tired of just wondering why he was the only fashion enthusiast at the GEW events, Williams decided he wanted to help arm his peers with the tools to better strategize for their businesses, he said.
“You hear our mayor saying Kansas City is on the move. OK. That is so true, however, we’re more than just a ‘smart city.’ We’re more than just tech. There are so many mediums that are being used to push our ecosystem forward,” Williams said.
Startland News sat down with the designer for an at-times tongue-in-cheek look at what inspires and drives him.
Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri. Not Kansas.
A historical figure you’d like to have coffee with and why: Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. They are the epitome of simplicity, pursuit of happiness, understanding, guidance. The way they view things, their perspectives — I just really admire them. I would love to sit down with them for coffee and just breathe their air.
Weirdest thing you’ve eaten: The little stuff in the shells? Caviar! That’s the weirdest thing. The little fish eggs. Weird.
You’re up to bat for the Royals, what’s your walk-up song: It’s a Kanye song. “Monster.”
KC’s biggest area for improvement: The social scene for black Kansas City. But more than that. Being a black man — coming from that background and storyline — I’ve seen this city develop and grow, and what I’ve noticed is that it’s not developing and growing for black people. Not to say that anything is wrong with that growth, but black Kansas City is left out.
Favorite food joint in KC: Cafe Trio. I love their mac and cheese.
An influential book in your life: Michael Gerber, a distant mentor, wrote “The Entrepreneur Myth” — “The E Myth.” It talks about why small businesses do not work. Excellent book.
What keeps you in Kansas City: Family is so important to me. My little brother, my grandmother, sister, all these key people that I serve. I know I’m leading the next generation. It’s my legacy.
New technology that you’re most excited about: The app “BAND.” It kind of like a hub for groups that streamlines communication.
Word or phrase do you hate the most: “Can you donate a bowtie?” … No. Who are you? You don’t even know me. You’ve never bought my product. You don’t even know if it’s good. You want me to donate my — No! Go buy it, test it out, and if you like it, then come and holler at me, and I may help you out. Some people just hit me up with the most ridiculous requests.
What you hope you’re remembered for: That’s such a beautiful question. I’m just going to say my ability to make someone laugh.
Biggest failure: Starting my business! Failure to me is a win. I’ve learned to turn losses into victories. So I would say Keefe Cravat is my biggest failure. But it’s awesome.
An inspiration in your life: Now, this is the ratchet side of Jordan — the side I try to keep penned up: Cardi B. She’s a rapper and the most authentic. She says everything that I wish I could say. And that’s inspirational because now I’m finding ways to say things … maybe that I shouldn’t say, but I’m having the confidence to say it. Now, on the other side, a big inspiration is Solange’s album, “A Seat At The Table.”
You can’t save it — how would you spend $1 million: I wouldn’t buy anything. I’d come up with a top 100 list of aspiring entrepreneurs with a vision for creativity, changing lives, the world, creating culture. And I would give that money to them. They’d have to be between the ages of 16 and 25.
You have a time machine and can travel anywhere in the past or future. Where and when do you go? I would love to travel back to the year I was born. 1992 was a lit year. Bill Clinton had just come into office. It was an incredible year in music, sports and fashion. So, instead of being at home with Mom, I would be out in the city, just exploring everything that was happening in the culture.
Favorite travel locale: I haven’t been there yet! When I was a child, I used to travel to Memphis and spend two weeks there every summer. I would get this hospitality that I never experienced. Now that I’m older, I have this desire to travel to Africa. I want to explore this motherland, nature, these things that I’ve heard about for years. But I haven’t been there yet.
Hidden talent or ability: I think I can rap, but I don’t talk about that.