At our most recent CMO Club dinner in Miami, the Miami Chapter was lucky enough to hear from Ema Koja, the owner of luxury women’s wear brand, Ema Savahl. Unlike most of our speakers, Ema didn’t talk about how to effectively market a luxury brand – in fact, she doesn’t do any marketing at all. Instead, Ema spoke to our CMOs about embracing passion, facing fears, building and supporting a team, and running a successful business. We spoke with Ema after the dinner to learn more about her unique story:

Your story is one of a kind! Can you tell us how you journeyed from a childhood in Albania to member of the Italian professional women’s volleyball team to become a celebrated fashion designer in Miami? 

I was born in Albania during Communism. Competition and sports were part of my life from a very young age because both of my parents were coaches. Reputation is everything in a communist country and there was tremendous pressure to be very good especially since my father worked as a professor in the University and was the coach of the National Volleyball Team. When I was 19, Communism collapsed in Europe and my family moved to Italy. I started playing volleyball in South Italy. I have found that there is a very deep honesty in sports and that stayed with me till today. You cannot hide anything. If you are good you are good and your effort sooner or later will show. In the process of my growth this will be my guideline #1. Be truthful to yourself and others.

Over the years, through guidance from my parents and from other great teachers, I created a guideline structure to help me during hardship that I would love to share.

When we moved to Italy, the cultural difference was incredible – Italy was far more evolved socially and industrially. My personal evolution began when I was faced with a choice – embrace the change or hide. I decided to face my fears and GROW. #2. Do what you fear the most first. The reality fast mirrored my decision one day while I was playing beach volleyball by sending my way a couple that approached me to model. Soon I became a fitting model for Blue Marine, Parah and off Limit brands. This was a big scary decision coming from my country and it opened my eyes to completely new world. The world of art and luxury which I discovered through this experience was one I truly loved. I modeled for four months and play Volleyball for eight months and life was good. #3. Do what you love

Another weakness that needed healing from the communist upbringing was my spirituality. Communism leaves you naked spiritually. Finding my own spirituality was the next step in my personal evolution. The new wave of spirituality brewing in US was the one that fit best with my persona and I started dreaming about moving to US.  After an injury in my shoulder at 25 years old, I was forced to quit playing volley ball. #4. Most bad news is a blessing in disguise.

I decided with my husband at the time to take that year to travel. This year did miracles in opening my mind and understanding the love for art and beauty I always had but never had time to explore.  We visited many EU countries and the US. At the end of our trip, we passed by Miami where I fell completely in love with the city. It was a happy, adaptive and warm environment, which was eye opening and restorative to me. In America, I was never judged or noticed and this allowed me to become a person all on my own. I was able to completely shed my communism herd mentality. Then the true a-ha! happened. With the new space I had created I could see that the world was mirroring ME, was mirroring my moods. #5 The way you feel about an event is much more important than the event itself. I took full responsibility for my life. No one to blame and no one to look up to. This new mentality I adapted attracted a completely different reality in my life that kept unfolding.

Once I decided that I wanted to live in Miami, I start working at a vintage store where I was redesigning vintage dresses. Beautiful fabrics, but old styles. I began to rework some of the clothes and the sales really took off! My confidence grew so I was ready to face another fear: To go the best store in South Beach and asked if they wished to see my designs. The buyer placed a small order which I went and produce as fast as I could. They sold out fast and the demand grew some more. I couldn’t use vintage fabric any longer. The demand for my product was way above the vintage fabric I could find, so it was a natural evolution thinking of creating my own fabric. This way the hand painting designs were born out of necessity. #6 The best creations come out of necessity. Embrace insecurity and change.

How has your personal story impacted the Ema Savahl business you’ve created? 

My father was a legend in Albania and had a huge impact on my life. He had the drive to constantly improve the players he coached. He would transform them into champions. So this ability to support the growth of other people is in my DNA. Holding the bar high for my people and inspiring them to achieve their personal success excites me more than anything else and that translates into the way I run my business. #7. Create empowering, loving environment where you love to go every day. Employees come and go but no one leaves Ema Savahl without experiencing growth. The business is self-aware and honest. Everyone knows their value and how to improve and grow. I don’t believe I would be able to do what I do if I didn’t have such a great team that looks at the business as if it is their own.

What are the three most important qualities a business owner must possess in order to be successful?

  1. Be truthful with your word
  2. Think for the best of the whole.
  3. Clarity in all the processes.

Your business is a very personal one. How do you create dresses that capture the essence of the individuals you’re designing for? How do you translate that emotional connection with your customers into a profitable business?

As I experience, heal, and empower parts of me, so do my designs capture and express that growth. For example, When I first arrived in Miami, I was very impressed with Miami’s sensuality. The first and second collections I was exploring and embracing my own femininity. This coincided with my transformation from an athlete to a woman and an artist. My clothing was more revealing and more feminine. That feeling must have coincided with the perfect mood around because my designs became very popular soon. My clothes made women feel pretty, confident, and special. There is an emotional code inside every painted piece like in all arts. When a woman selects to wear what I create that energy is experienced and transferred. I connect with the individuals I design for through sharing experience and growth. I think growth is reason for our existence. #8 When you are growing, life treats you gently. When reality treats me rough, I start checking where am I stagnating.

Do you have any advice for anyone who is considering starting their own business or following their passion?

Yes, know thyself. Create guidelines that mirror the person you wish to be and follow them blindly so you can be balanced at any time. Until then: Start it. Do what you fear the most! Do not compare yourself to anyone else. #9 Focus on the process and on giving the best of you, the goal has the tendency to accomplish itself when you stop stressing out about it. Don’t stagnate, keep growing and learn to love growth pains.