Student-run small businesses flourish in Tufts community and beyond

The logos of Earrings by GK, Conscious by M and StudioYK.RY are pictured. Courtesy GK Kay, Melody Khounchanh, Ryan Hernandez-Almonte

College is more than just a time for academics: It’s about exploring passions and trying new things. For some, that means trying their hand at starting a business. A number of students have found the Tufts community to be a great place to build their businesses.

Senior Melody Khounchanh started a sustainable womenswear brand called Conscious by M in March 2020. She had made clothing for herself before, but used the time during quarantine to practice making garments for other people. 

Conscious by M is currently selling standard clothing sizes, but Khounchanh is hoping to do custom measurements in the future. 

During her time at Tufts, Khounchanh has taken several classes on the impacts of the fashion industry, largely focusing on the environmental impacts and “greenwashing.” Conscious by M is her effort to create a sustainable clothing brand, with everything from the clothing to the packaging to the shipping. 

“With Conscious by M, I try to do sustainability in the best way I can,” Khounchanh said. “One hundred percent sustainability is impossible, but everything I make is from secondhand clothing, and through garments that wouldn’t have been sold otherwise… Everything is made in house so it’s only me working on the things.” 

Khounchanh isn’t just creating sustainable clothing, she’s also sharing information about the fashion industry and steps that individuals can take to reduce their environmental impact. 

“I [try] to put out knowledge and information that’s accessible to people,” she said. “If they aren’t able to buy the tops, at least they can visit the website and then read on how they can properly take care of the clothing, because a lot of it’s just … societal habits that we don’t know are harmful.”

Instagram has been a large part of how Conscious by M has grown since it started. Support from both Tufts friends and home friends has also helped Khounchanh expand her brand’s reach.

“My high school friends and my family — they were there from the start, and honestly a bunch of Tufts people … Then because there’s so many students from everywhere at Tufts it’s kind of spread to their hometowns,” Khounchanh said. “But it’s all been word of mouth, Instagram, stuff like that.” 

The furthest package Khounchanh has shipped went to the U.K. from California. She also had the chance to sell on Newbury Street last semester, expanding the reach of her brand further into Boston. 

Senior Ryan Hernandez-Almonte is another student who started a business during the pandemic. StudioYK.RY is Hernandez-Almonte’s graphic design business, which he started last summer after doing graphic design activism and civic engagement posts. Prior to that, Hernandez-Almonte designed the logo for the Tufts Latinx Center during a graphic design course at Tufts. 

In addition to designing logos for different organizations, Hernandez-Almonte produced Peep!, an urban life magazine. He got the idea for the magazine after an assignment in his graphic design class to design a magazine layout for any article. Hernandez-Almonte had also written a couple of articles for his journalism class that he wanted to share. 

“I had all these articles by the end of the semester that I was super proud of, and even the people in my class were very interested and I didn’t just want to hold them to myself,” Hernandez-Almonte said. “I felt like what I wrote was important and stories that needed to be told.” 

The first edition of Peep! Magazine featured articles on sustainable fashion and placemaking. 

“All of it was connected through urban life. What is urban life? What does it look like, especially for young people?” Hernandez-Almonte said. 

Hernandez-Almonte printed the magazine and sold it in Washington Square Park in New York City, where he got to interact with the community and passersby. He wanted to make a physical magazine to create a tangible experience for people. 

Hernandez-Almonte’s ultimate goal is to one day have a physical studio in New York City that could be a place for creatives and young people. 

Earrings by GK is another student-run business that started small but has since expanded. Senior GK Kay founded the business in October 2019 as a side hustle.

“I started selling the earrings that I was making at the Crafts Center just casually to friends and then more and more people, and increasingly people I didn’t know started asking about them,” Kay said.

Since starting Earrings by GK, Kay has changed the structure of their business a bit, from taking orders through DMs and payment through Venmo to creating an order form and a website. 

Kay initially thought Earrings by GK would be temporary, but they have found working for themself to be enjoyable. 

“Working for myself, and making earrings for myself, has been way more fun than working for a boss,” Kay said. “And getting to set my own amount of hours, it’s just been really incredible,” Kay said. 

The idea of running their own business didn’t seem too far-fetched for Kay, whose parents run a small business. 

“I’ve always known you could be an adult and run a small business and can support you and your family … So it didn’t seem that crazy for me to keep going with it once it seemed pretty sustainable,” Kay said. 

Kay has sold jewelry in the past to classmates and teachers in elementary school. Jewelry and wire have always been the mediums toward which they have gravitated. 

“I’ve always been inclined towards wire and jewelry and stuff like that,” Kay said. “It just makes sense to me how to use it, and as an art form it just is very intuitive.”

Since elementary school, Kay took a break from making jewelry before returning to it in the Crafts Center their sophomore year when they were able to repurpose old materials they had at home. 

“I did, actually, this whole copper collection and it was made from all beads and wires that I had when I was a child,” Kay said. “Just totally repurposing all the supplies, which was a really cool full-circle moment.” 

Kay mostly does custom orders but will occasionally make a collection of a bunch of earrings in a similar style when they have a creative rush.

Earrings by GK has a queer person of color discount on their website to try to increase the accessibility of their earrings. Kay also tries to incorporate reparations into their business as much as possible, including donating some of the money to mutual aid requests, bail funds and others in need. 

“Bottom line is that I want my earrings to be accessible to everyone and having that discount for people that are often discriminated against in the employment market, specifically people who live at the intersection of being queer and POC,” Kay said. “It feels important to me to make it accessible for everyone.”

While Kay is unsure about whether Earrings by GK will remain a side hustle or whether they will try to expand the brand more post-graduation, they are clear about wanting to keep creating. 

“I really like making earrings and it makes me super happy so I feel like I’ll definitely keep doing it, as long as people are interested in buying them,” Kay said. 

For all of these students running small businesses, time management is crucial to balancing their business, academics and everything else. 

Hernandez-Almonte said he schedules time for graphic design, just like he does for classes and homework. 

Khounchanh uses Google Calendar to balance her time and keep on track for business goals. She also highlighted how important it was to give herself breaks and make time for things she enjoys outside of school and her business to prevent burnout. 

Kay has been figuring out how to manage their time for the business now that they can’t make earrings during Zoom classes. They have also been trying to balance their physical space, which is used for business, academics and leisure.

“It’s kind of weird to balance my physical space, especially doing so much work in my room; it’s also where I take my classes, make earrings and sleep and hang out,” Kay said. 

The Tufts community has been an important space for these students to experiment and grow their businesses. 

For Earrings by GK, their business started in the Tufts community but it has spread much beyond that. According to Kay, the vast majority of sales for Earrings by GK now comes from people Kay has never met. They have sold earrings to every state in the U.S. besides Alaska. 

Similarly, students at Tufts have been very supportive of Conscious by M and have helped Khounchanh spread her business beyond the Tufts community by sharing her clothing in their home communities. 

Hernandez-Almonte said he too feels very supported on campus, especially when organizations reach out asking him to design logos for them. So far he has done the logo for the Latinx Center, the Association for Latin American Students and Roti and Rum, the Caribbean dance group at Tufts,as well as for Conscious by M. 

For these students, and others who have started businesses on campus, their businesses are an integral part of their Tufts experience and their lives. 

“It’s become a really big part of my life and it’s more than a craft,” Kay said. “It’s my job and something I’m really passionate about.”