Moving back to the US from Greece in midlife forced Lena to rethink her career plans. She launched LAMOU, a unique online store featuring custom-printed furniture.
Tell us a little about your background…
My background is full of dynamic forces that have given form to my life and shaped who I am. I was born in Providence, R.I., to two Greek physicians who came to the United States for post-graduate studies in the mid-1950s. I am a post-war child, in the full sense of the word, especially considering that my parents witnessed World War II in Greece—the Nazi occupation and the ensuing civil war. I was schooled in New England, attending a Quaker school for girls from kindergarten through high school. It was a rigorous and empowered environment and a true prep school for life and learning.
I grew up in a bi-cultural environment—Greek and American, rather than Greek-American. My parents embraced Greek culture and exposed me and my two siblings to Greece from the time we were very young. Beginning in the early 1960s, we would travel to Greece in the summer and my memories of summers in Greece are strong, poignant, and part of who I am.
I received my Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature from Brown University in 1981, and worked at several jobs, before deciding to go back to school and get a Masters in Architecture. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 with a mission: architecture and design.
As women, we have to balance our professional goals with family, and that is one of the biggest challenges we all face. I ended up living and working in Greece, and married in Athens soon after graduating from Penn. It was quite an adventure being a woman architect, educator, and designer in Athens, and a constant struggle to balance professional aspirations with marriage.
I have a daughter, Artemis, who is just shy of 22 and a senior at Bard College. I divorced her father when she was quite young, but decided to stay in Athens until she finished high school so that she could have two parents influencing her life. I call myself a single parent, however, as the joys and responsibilities of parenting mainly fell on me.
Although I am sometimes nostalgic for the nuclear and close family model I experienced as a child, I nevertheless feel that parenting alone is a huge accomplishment and delivers a message of strength, especially in current times where family models are becoming more and more flexible. I did, however, have the love and support of my own family to see me through the many challenges I faced as a single mother and a professional.
In my professional life, I did many different “jobs”: I designed houses and gardens, entered plenty of competitions, taught at the graduate and undergraduate level, set up a non-profit with funding from the EU with two other women architects, started a furniture design company with production in Istanbul, and continued to pursue my love of visual arts through painting and drawing.
I must admit that I would not have been able to do all of the above without the help of several women whom I employed while in Greece to help with childcare when my daughter was young. I felt these young women were very understanding of my need to create and were excellent co-parents for my daughter’s upbringing. I could not have done everything I did without the advantage of having help with childcare.
When did you start to think about making a change?
This is an interesting question in my case, as sometimes historical events influence a person’s choices, versus decisions that come about as a result of deep reflection. I knew that I wanted my daughter to go to college in the United States and enrolled her in an IB (International Baccalaureate) program in a private school in Athens. I had cultivated this with her from a very young age, knowing full well that her exposure to schooling in the US would be a determining factor in her life and would broaden her horizons.
When the financial crisis hit Greece in 2010, jobs dried up and I lost my salaried position as professor of architecture in a private university in Athens that was forced to close. In addition, we lost my mother to cancer at the end of 2010, and it seemed to me like the earth was shifting. I was bereaved, far from my siblings and my father, without a steady income, and witnessing the political turmoil that was happening on a daily basis in Athens as a result of the financial crisis.
With the help of my father, I was able to see out the last two years of Artemis’ IB program in Greece, and help her navigate the college application process. I also had lots of time on my hands, and turned to painting and the visual arts full time.
My daughter’s hard work paid off: She was offered a terrific scholarship at Bard and there was no reason for me to stay in Greece anymore. My father was still alive but heartbroken (my parents had been together since medical school in Athens). With Artemis enrolled at Bard and Greece falling apart at the seams, I moved to the US, into the house where I grew up in Providence, which my father has maintained to this day. It is odd to return to one’s childhood home at 56, but my father is alive and well at 91, and having a home to return to definitely made it easier for me to take the risk of re-invention.
The first few months were excruciatingly hard. What was I to do? How could I possibly translate all those years of working in Greece into something here in the States? How could I enter the workforce in my 50s and compete with all the accomplished young? How could I give up friends, familiarity, my support group, and my routines?
Life sometimes is strange and very serendipitous. Things seem to happen for a reason and the universe conspires just when we despair. The summer before I was leaving Greece, in 2013, an old and dear classmate from Penn, Ann Clark, contacted me to say she was coming to Greece, accompanying her new life partner to a medical convention, and that she was moving to Providence. I too, was about to move, and this was a huge source of comfort for me. Maybe Ann and I could figure something out together.What is your next act?
I am the co-founder of LAMOU, which I launched with Ann Clark in 2015, at age 56. It is a new concept in furniture that offers the opportunity for customers to engage in the process of design through technology. Our initial product offering is wood tables that are custom printed. Our website hosts LAMOU’s proprietary collection of designs as well as guest artist collections. In addition, we have a toolkit builder on the site: Anyone can upload a photograph, print, painting, or design and purchase their own table, flat-packed and delivered to their door.
The name is a combination of our initials “L” for Lena, “A” for Ann and the word “mou” which in Greek means “mine.” We thought it was a fitting name for a company that is involved with personalization!
I love the idea of slowly building a community centered around participation in design. It has been wonderful to see the personalized pieces that customers are ordering and how enthusiastic they are with the process and the product. I also love the process of building LAMOU and turning it into a robust business; every day is a challenge and there are new issues to be solved and problems to address. Building a business is like solving an ever-evolving puzzle, and as such, I see it as one more design project.
Why did you choose this next act?
This next act, came about after many, many, brainstorming sessions and explorations, together with Ann and on my own.
When I first returned, I was lucky enough to be offered a stint teaching as an adjunct at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and that helped keep me balanced through a very challenging transition. I soon realized, however, that trying to enter the academic world at my age, with all the political intrigue and insecurity that accompanies an adjunct position, would not be possible. I reached out to builders and contractors and got a few jobs—an addition here, an interior there—but again was confronted with the reality that building a reputation from scratch in the already-established architecture scene here would be close to impossible.
I joined an artist’s collaborative, which I enjoyed, and I reached out to the community here in Providence, where I did manage to win recognition for my work in juried competitions.
Ann and I started meeting more and more frequently and spoke often about the trials and tribulations of being uprooted in your 50s. Ann had a successful practice in Chicago and was going back and forth the first year, trying to keep the balance between her old life and a new beginning in Providence, so she was feeling similar frustrations.
We both shared an interest in furniture design: Ann had done several pieces for private clients, and I had a design company in Athens that had received considerable attention. We also both shared a love of art and painting. We were aware of new technologies in the design industry, and we each had myriad experiences with clients wanting to participate in the design process.
All of our talks and iterations of what to do next somehow naturally evolved into the idea for LAMOU: a platform that would introduce a new concept in furniture. By combining printing technology with furniture, we would open the door for people to engage with us in a community setting. We would start with one product and slowly build the company into a new platform for participating in design.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was hard. Becoming an entrepreneur in your 50s is not an easy task, especially as a woman, and in a start-up culture dominated by youth. It takes determination and a lot of hard work. You have to relinquish your role as an “expert” and become a novice all over again. It also involves a lot of patience and flexibility: You have to listen and learn, ride out the frustrations and the insecurity, believe in your idea, and persist.
I think you prepare as best you can, but it is really in doing that you learn. Starting a business is a risk; you can have an MBA and still fail. There really is no way to prepare when you do something for the first time: You just build stone by stone and nurture your wounds along the way!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My daughter, my father, my sister and my brother were extremely supportive and still are.
I really did not share much of what I was doing with many friends. I think you have to be careful when you start something new. People become risk averse as they age, and you can be talked out of ideas or aspirations if you are not careful. Sometimes it is better to discuss things once you are on the way and not before.
There is an advantage to starting something new in your 50s: You are wiser and more self-confident than in your 20s, and you do not need the approval that you sought in your youth. My few dearest friends were and are extremely supportive, but I still do not discuss with them in detail about LAMOU. I sometimes feel that talking replaces action, so I am a little guarded when it comes to sharing.
What challenges did you encounter?
There are so many I do not know where to begin. Learning how to set up an e-commerce company, how to write a business plan, how to market in a digital age, the design of the website, designing the products, sourcing and manufacturing, accounting, presenting and networking constantly, choosing the right co-workers, raising money… The list goes on and on. The most important thing is having the right partner when you start something as challenging as LAMOU. That is where a true sense of teamwork comes into play.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Yes of course, I thought about giving up, on many occasions. There were times when I just wanted my old life back: painting from morning till night like a hermit or lecturing to students, or designing a structure. There were—and are—plenty of sleepless nights where I woke up startled and thinking about failure.
Again, I have to state here that having a strong partnership makes a huge difference when becoming an entrepreneur. Ann picks me up when I am down, and vice versa. There are times when we are both down, and those are hard, but somehow we are both equally persistent, both experienced in life’s struggles, and both stubborn. When times are rough, you have to have a fierce sense of commitment and belief to see you through.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That life is an adventure and you have to embrace it. That nothing is written in stone, and one can make changes even though change is hard. That I have stamina and have much more to learn. That the past has a way of resurfacing and influencing everything you do and who you are, and that will, perseverance, and belief can help you achieve.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I really do not believe in regrets or revisions, so no, there is not anything I would have done differently. Life is a process, and a learning one at that. So, as long as my conscience is clear, I feel I can take on many challenges.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Be true to yourself and believe in yourself. Do not be scared of re-inventing yourself and do not let others sabotage you. Life is precious and we have no time to waste. Failure is just a perception: Turn your defeats into victories and let them inform you. There are many amazing women around us; trust them, seek their advice, and depend on them!
Keep an open mind and be a lifelong student. Learn to pivot, to compromise, to give things up for the sake of an idea, a goal or a dream. Rely on your own process which will constantly guide you in evolving.
What advice do you have for those interested in launching a new product-based business?
You need to define your market and delve into the statistics of that market. It is important to figure out the competition and decide what your advantage is—your value proposition. It’s a good idea to conduct focus groups and get “early adopters” on board who can champion your product from the get go. You also need to figure out your business model: will you sell to consumers, to businesses, or both, and what are your distribution channels? How are you solving a problem in a more competitive way than others? What is your main message and how can you capitalize on it and stick to it?
You really have to take the process step by step and learn as you go along. One thing that is important is to hire experts who can help and guide you. Professionals who care enough about clients to listen and to educate them. We have been very lucky with our team: our web developers, our design team, our attorney, and our production team. However, we did a great deal of research and vetting before deciding on whom to work with, and we cultivate these relationships.
Another piece of advice I can offer is to constantly research and find resources when you do not know how to do something. Ann and I participated in a business plan seminar, in a digital marketing seminar, and we entered the RI business plan competition. We also took—and continue to take—advantage of the budding startup community here and various networking organizations.
We had plenty of hiccups along the way and had to let certain collaborators go, either because they were not pulling their own weight or because it was not the right fit. One thing we were told by a wise businessman: “Be slow to hire and quick to fire.” I think it is important to remember this in any venture: Take the time to really interview your collaborators, and cut the relationship quickly if things are not moving forward or the relationship is creating conflict.
What resources do you recommend?
For those wishing to become entrepreneurs, I suggest reaching out to the Small Business Administration in your city or state to find out what programs they offer. We were very lucky in Rhode Island. The University of RI has a Small Business Development Center and, through their program, Ann and I were assigned an excellent business advisor who meets with us regularly with no fee. He has been very influential in helping us through thick and thin.
I would also suggest finding non-profits that specifically deal with women in business. In Rhode Island, the Center for Women in Enterprise is one resource. (SITES)
Seth Godin is an excellent resource for anyone considering starting a business, and his book The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)is a great read and one that anyone taking on a new challenge can relate and refer to.
Present your ideas at every opportunity to talented and knowledgeable people. We attended a meet and greet that Golden Seeds held in Boston. Golden Seeds is an angel investment company that funds women entrepreneurs. We met the Managing Director, who has continued to follow our progress and act as an unofficial advisor.
Our wonderful, brilliant, web developers and advisors are located in Athens, Greece. They have generously given us their time, their insights and their expertise. The company is called Greymatter and I highly recommend them. The beauty of living in a connected world is that you can source partners from anywhere.
Our web designers are James and Nina Lavine, two very talented RISD graduates, who helped us formulate the “look” and essence of LAMOU from the first meeting. They are incredibly talented, professional, and a joy to work with.
The experience we have had with Ted Howell, our attorney, has been so rewarding. Ted’s expertise is working with start -ups, and he has all the knowledge, patience and flexibility to execute anything an entrepreneur needs. Ted agreed to be on our board of advisors in addition to being our attorney.
Another Ted, but equally as important has been Ted Peffer at IOLabs in Providence. Ted runs an amazing print shop that caters to a demanding clientele. He was with us from day one offering all of his knowledge and guiding us through the development process.
What’s next for you and for LAMOU? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
LAMOU is still an early-stage company so the next steps are growing and scaling the company so that we can achieve our vision of a robust online community for those who share our vision in design participation. We are hoping to add new products and are considering the idea of including actual surface treatments for the home, which can be personalized through printing technology. We want to open the design process to customers and give people as many choices as possible in designing their environments.
I definitely have another next act, and I believe it will be in the visual arts and design, as well as in community service or volunteering. I have had an adventurous life, and it is time to give back and really become active in the “political” sense by engaging with underserved communities either as an architect, a teacher, or a volunteer.
Contact Lena Georas at firstname.lastname@example.org
Personal Instagram: #lenamoumou
Linked In: Lena Georas