By Janet Elizabeth Herman
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rithvik Venna, one of this year’s 18 of the Last 9 nominees. According to Miami University, “The 18 of the Last 9 Award yearly recognizes 18 outstanding alumni who have graduated in the last nine years, brings them back to campus, and connects them with students, staff, and faculty.” During the interview, I could certainly see why Venna was selected as a recipient of this award.
Venna is the COO of OROS, a clothing/outerwear company he started with his friend Michael Markesbery here at Miami. According to Venna, Markesbery was hiking in Europe and realized how bulky his outerwear was. After returning to the United States, he did some research and heard about Aerogel, the material that NASA uses to insulate space suits. Obviously, space is freezing cold, and he wanted to harness the technology used in space suits for every-day clothing. Venna said Markesbery pitched OROS to him at the Starbucks in King Library, from there, the business began.
The problem with Aerogel is that it’s very brittle and partially resembles styrofoam. To combat this problem, Venna and Markesbery repurposed aerogel into a flexible, durable composite material that they named SolarCore. SolarCore is what allows them to produce thin, fashionable outerwear that’s incredibly warm and insulated.
Of course, I wanted to know how a start-up company like OROS planned to compete against other big-name brands, such as the outerwear behemoths like Patagonia and North Face. Venna explained that being college students, they didn’t really have experience in branding a company. OROS partnered with a branding agency, Gin Lane, that has contributed significantly to the building of their brand. Venna said that what differentiates Gin Lane, and therefore OROS, is their core values. He explained that Gin Lane helped OROS establish a core set of values and articulate them throughout the company. He emphasized expressing these values in their visual identity – everything from photography and video – to help convey the message of the brand. This is then a guideline for stylists to tie together the whole package.
I also wanted to know how they have been so successful only three years out of college. Venna explained that they have a diverse and accomplished advisory board which has assisted in the growth of the business. Venna said the whole concept of the advisory board came about because they didn’t have any experience running a company, and they had two options – hire a CEO or find an advisory board. Current Miami professor Tim Holcomb and former Miami professor Pat O’Brien sit on the advisory board, as does Joe Flannery, Global President of Marmot, one of the biggest outerwear companies in the world. Venna claims Flannery is “a marketing and branding genius,” and his knowledge has immensely impacted the company. Additionally, there are several other key players on their advisory board who combined with the others have been instrumental to OROS’ success thus far.
In the past, technology wouldn’t have been a key player in the success of an outerwear company. However, today it’s what differentiates OROS from their competitors. I asked Venna how he saw technology influencing traditionally non-tech related industries, such as food or retail. He further discussed this topic, emphasizing that the current market landscape is very competitive, saying, “You can differentiate with a brand or marketing, but the moment a tangible benefit to a consumer is introduced, you get a strong competitive advantage on everyone in the industry.” Competition forces innovation, especially technological innovations, and any way to improve or automate the business processes that support these functions is necessary for keeping up in today’s fast-paced, competitive environment.
As far as sustainability is concerned, I was curious about Venna’s views on sustainable fashion. He thinks it’s going to be increasingly difficult to actually have sustainable fashion because of the transformation of the fashion industry toward fast-fashion. There’s also no environmentally friendly way to dispose of fashion, so it goes to landfills. Additionally, the production of apparel is very wasteful, one of the most wasteful industries in the world. This is why companies like Nike and Patagonia have drawn attention – through their attempts at creating less waste from the production of their apparel.
I also asked Venna about his time here at Miami, and what classes stood out to him. He said that his favorite class was ESP 351 taught by Jim Friedman because it wasn’t a typical class. He explained to me that the whole class was focused on teaching kids to think differently and more creatively and preparing them for the real world. He said, for example, that if a student couldn’t make the deadline, they needed to tell him in advance and tell him when they were going to turn in an assignment. Venna said that by teaching a class in this way, it made the students demand ownership, and prepared them for the real business environment.
Besides working for OROS, Venna has an active social life as well. He travels a lot – partially for work, but since he works with one of his best friends, he enjoys it. Being from Cleveland, he’s a sports fan, and spends time “watching the Browns lose, watching the Cavs lose a lot,” and he’s recently taken up boxing. He told me that one of the implications of having a super stressful job is that it was important to him to find an outlet that distracted him from work.
He did have some words of advice for me at the end of our interview as well. He told me to surround myself with good friends because your friends make or break how well you turn out. His core group of friends during his time here at Miami are also very successful; 2 will most likely be orthopedic surgeons, another is in law school in the top of his class, and another is working in Germany after getting a Masters Degree in Finance. He also gave me some advice for young entrepreneurs who are thinking about starting their own business – just go for it! He said even if you do fail, you just learn a way not to do things. When you’re young, you’re naive, so use that to your advantage to learn anything and everything you can!