KNWRZN? What could that possibly mean?
For Erik Ceja, a business administration student at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) who graduates May 15 with his bachelor’s degree, it is a growing streetwear apparel business and brand, an investment in his future, and a tribute to a lost friend.
“My best friend Omar ‘Reazn’ Valdez passed away in 2007 at the age of 24. He was a local graffiti artist who greatly influenced me when I was growing up,” said Ceja, whose degree concentration is in marketing and advertising. “After he passed away, I wanted to keep his spirit alive and created the first incarnation of KNWRZN.”
He shelved the name after a couple of years to focus on work and his education.
He earned a paralegal degree at 21 and began working full-time in the field and was doing well. As he got older, he decided to return to college to earn a law degree, but he wanted to first study business to follow his growing passion and to better secure his financial future.
“I chose marketing over the traditional pre-law majors like political science and criminal justice. I chose entrepreneurship as my initial major at CSUDH, but changed it to marketing because I thought it might be more appealing to potential employers,” said Ceja, a 32-year-old Bellflower resident who was inducted into the Delta Mu Delta Honor Society at CSUDH in May 2015.
An entrepreneur at heart, Ceja decided he wanted to revive and grow his KNWRZN brand at the end of his junior year. He had always been interested in streetwear and enjoys the casual look of T-shirts, jeans and a baseball cap, and just “grew tired of wearing other people’s brands.”
“CSUDH’s business program taught me the solid cornerstones of conducting business and how to start and maintain a quality brand,” he said. “I wanted to offer an ethical alternative and put a positive spin on streetwear. Currently, my regular hats are purchased and embroidered in downtown Los Angeles. Our premium hats are cut-and-sewn locally and in the United States. We want people to know the reason behind their actions instead of merely acting for ‘no reason.’”
While he grew his brand, Ceja didn’t slouch in his studies. He was placed on the Dean’s List three times, including the last two semesters. This semester he presented KNWRZN at CSUDH’s Community Engagement Symposium and at the CSU Symposium on University Teaching at CSU Los Angeles.
Ceja also found time to be an active member of the Pre-Law Society, and the Latino Student Business Association on campus. He is also a member of the new Entrepreneurial Institute @ CSUDH, where he presented his KNWRZN brand, first at its business incubator program, followed by competing in the institute’s inaugural “Toro Tank” in fall 2014, for which he took 2nd place.
Since Ceja’s success at Toro Tank he has continued to work with CSUDH business professors Michael Grimshaw and Gary Polk at the South Bay Entrepreneurial Center, which partners with the institute to help its student members grow their businesses.
“We [KNWRZN] are still less than a year old but sales have been steadily increasing,” said Ceja. “People really get behind our brand. After purchasing a hat they become instant brand ambassadors. Most of our sales come from word-of-mouth and repeat customers.”
Ceja also enjoys including his fellow students in his entrepreneurial projects.
“I have had the opportunity to work with students and have used KNWRZN as the focus for many school projects, such as conducting marketing research on campus and to create digital marketing plans, consumer behavior reports, and in other activities,” he said.
Ceja has been accepted by the Los Angeles-based Southwestern School of Law’s two-year accelerated JD-option (juris doctor) degree program, also known as SCALE.
“While I’m in law school, one main objective will be to keep KNWRZN relevant and growing,” he said. “I plan on continuing with snapbacks, beanies, and premium hats, and adding T-shirts, jackets, tank tops and other articles of clothing. The ultimate goal is to market a completely made-in-the-USA or ethically made–sweatshop free–brand of clothing that supports people and organizations that are passionate about their own ‘reasons.’”
Ceja already has his sights set beyond law school.
“In five years I see myself practicing law (civil litigation) at a respected Los Angeles firm, or managing the day-to-day operations of KNWRZN, or starting and growing a new entrepreneurial venture, or helping entrepreneurs start and run their own business–or any combination of those,” he said. “I like to keep my options open.”