How did you come up with the name AKIRA?
Eric [Hsueh], Erikka [Wang] and myself are all friends from college, we went to the University of Illinois in Champaign. When Erikka brought up the idea of opening a store, the first name that came to mind was Akira from Eric. Akira is a common name in Japan, kind of like John in the U.S. After that we went through a couple of months of trying to figure out different names but something about that one just stuck with us. Graphic designers always love it because it’s very symmetrical. At that time it was before the iPhone and the iPad so everyone still used directories and if you pulled up Akira it was one of the first names to come up. I was a huge Oprah fan and during that time Oprah’s studio was Harpo. We were just kidding around and I said, “I’m gonna call the store Noj because it’s backwards for Jon,” and Erikka was like, “When you flip Erikka, it was like Akira!”
What initially sparked the interest for you and your friends to team up and create a retail store?
It was definitely Erikka’s idea. During that time we were all in different fields. I got my bachelor’s degree in nursing so I was doing nursing and real estate. Eric was an MIS major so he was a consultant and Erikka was also a consultant. It was like an itch where when she said, “Let’s open a store,” I said, “Sure, why not?” It was something that I had never done myself.
Was it intimidating as young entrepreneurs to launch in a competitive market like Chicago?
If I look back now, and if I had actually done more research, I would have freaked out but we were all so naïve and just excited to do something and have a good time. It wasn’t about the numbers. It wasn’t about doing it the right way, we just wanted to have fun with it. This office was our first store so we did all of the stuff ourselves starting with asking, “Who knows how to paint?” I love interior design and we just picked some random colors. When the color red came about it wasn’t our first choice, it was just like, “I like that color of red,” so everything was red and black.
You live right next door. What do you do when you’re not working?
I am always working! For me, socializing is a fun job. I’m always on social media no matter what but at the same time I love just changing my routine around so it’s never the same thing. My interests are all over the place. I love small business so I’m always at someone’s small business. My buddy owns a grocery store down the street so if I get bored sometimes I’ll go there and sit behind him at the register just to see what’s going on.
I don’t think there is a perfect restaurant but every single restaurant has something great. For me, Joy Yee’s smoothies! Every Asian person knows that on the planet. For salads, I go to Roots. It’s amazing. It’s $8 and you can pick whatever you want to put in there. It’s all about their green salad dressing.
Is your closet stocked with Akira apparel?
Not so much because for me it’s kind of like a test. I believe if I want it and no one buys it that means it’s destiny. It’s really weird.
Who influences you?
That’s a tough one. I can say this, I’ve never been influenced by just one person. I’ve been influenced by someone’s decision. I love reading the history of companies and I always love to see what they did in a certain situation and how they handled it. But even when I read about a company it’s usually a company decision so it’s not just one person. It’s really more about the beliefs than the person because no one is perfect. We found out Tiger Woods isn’t perfect! You think “Twilight” is the perfect love story but we found out it’s not. Everyone is human so everyone will have a fallout but it’s all about what they did at that time.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Kris Jenner. I think she is one of the best marketing people out there and she’s not afraid to really say what she thinks, I’m all about bluntness. With everything she does, she turns an ailment into a marketing skew. And honestly when I watch that show and the way their lifestyle is, sometimes I feel like I’m a really small version of that lifestyle. People don’t understand that if you’re running a business, you’re not perfect. I tell my employees you can never get fired at Akira for having an opinion or an idea, say what you think because I want to hear it.
Photography by Neal Agustin
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