While she may be best known for cofounding the home accessories and furniture brand Serena & Lily, Mill Valley-based Lily Kanter has had many successes in her career — and has faced challenges along the way. Now, the entrepreneur, who is still based in Mill Valley but also spends time in Hawaii, has cofounded Averylily Studio, a Hawaii-based interior design studio and home collection. Here, Kanter shares the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, what she loves about Marin and how she gives back.
Taking it back to an earlier stage in your career, tell what you learned during your time in the corporate world, and what made you decide to leave it?
I learned that success takes hard work, how to work collaboratively in a team and how to compromise. I also learned a lot about how to manage and navigate corporate politics. I decided to leave the corporate world because I got pregnant with my first child. I was on a flight two to three times per week all over the Western United States overseeing the retail vertical for Microsoft.
What brought you to Marin, and when did you move there?
We came to Marin when I got transferred by Microsoft 25 years ago. I wrote the business plan to open the first Microsoft retail store, and the project was funded by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer as a special project. The flagship store was built at the Metreon in San Francisco and opened in 1999.
Why did you choose Mill Valley to start and raise a family?
We immediately found Mill Valley to be such a charming town! When we first drove through, we noticed that every car had a dog sitting shotgun. Given that we had three dogs, we were in love at first sight. With such close proximity to San Francisco, we felt like we were living in the country — the best of both worlds. We moved here 25 years ago and have continued to love this town.
What do you like best about living in Marin?
We love the outdoor lifestyle — endless choices for a beautiful hike in the redwoods, and being able to hike to the beach. It’s a magical, beautiful place in a very special part of the world. It has been a wonderful place to raise our family.
What motivated you to open Mill Valley Baby & Kids?
After deciding not to go back to corporate America at Microsoft in 2001, I felt there was a void in the marketplace for a high-end baby and kids home decor store, so I opened one! I had a brand-new baby, I put him in a stroller, and we rolled down to my store. I was able to pop him in a crib and be a mom and a business owner at the same time. My background in the corporate world was retail accounting and technology, and combining that with my love for home interiors and decorating gave me the combined background to open Mill Valley Baby & Kids.
How did you meet Serena Dugan, and how did Serena & Lily come about?
Serena walked into Mill Valley Baby & Kids on October 2, 2003, to leave her portfolio in decorative painting and textile design. Serena was looking to partner with a high-end baby and kids store. The reason why we know this date so clearly is because I was at the hospital giving birth to my second baby that day. We literally met a week later and in a two-hour meeting decided to join hands and start a baby bedding company. Serena & Lily started as a crib bedding business in 2003 and evolved to kids in 2007 and then to adult bedding in 2009. The furniture and decorative accessories began to roll out after 2010.
To what do you credit the success of Serena & Lily?
I credit the success to the fact that Serena was the design talent, and I was the business talent, and it was the combination of those skills that made us successful. I also credit our resilience and the incredible team with a deep background in the home products industry that we were able to hire. We were also able to self-fund for multiple years. Because we had no background in the home business, we were able to develop an extremely different design point of view without being influenced by a prior company aesthetic.
When and why did you decide to move on?
We both moved on in 2016. We ran a marathon for 13 years, raised young children, and it was time to bring in a leadership team that could really scale the vision that we created. We were quite exhausted, and it felt like it was time to pass the baton to a different type of management. We are admittedly entrepreneurs, and it’s a completely different skill set than scaling a business.
What did you do next?
After leaving Serena & Lily in 2016, I took a year off to decompress and think about what I wanted to do next. I’ve always been intrigued by using commerce as a force for good. When I learned that the RED Movement raised $250 million for the Global Fund for Aids in the first two years, I was interested in figuring out a similar model but democratizing the cause/give back to allow the user to choose the cause. My legacy goal in the retail industry became, how can I use my consumer brand know-how and raise hundreds of millions of dollars for causes using commerce?
Boon Supply was launched by acquiring the assets of an existing school fundraising company. That company was on paper order forms. We bought the assets in mid-2017 and relaunched as a fully digitized platform in 2018, basically Go Fund Me on top of ecommerce. We introduced zero-waste lunches and kitchens into K–12 as a fundraising platform. We were a $20 million company annually out of the gate, and with the combined give-back of the company we acquired, we proudly gave back $104 million to schools and other causes.
Sadly, the Covid-19 shutdown of schools and team sports completely destroyed our company. Our business went to nearly zero for a few years. We have been able to relaunch and pivot the technology platform to the college audience, however, and we relaunched as GoodMvmt. I remain committed to using commerce as a source of give back to causes.
Now you’ve launched Averylily with partner Avery Solmssen. How have your previous professional experiences prepared you for this new era of your career?
My family had the great privilege to move to Hawaii during the pandemic and attend Hawaii Prep Academy. I met Avery in Hawaii 2021. Avery was the interior designer who designed the home we bought there. I was so impressed with her work that I wanted to meet her and collaborate on other projects. I realized she wanted to start her own firm, and I also realized that Hawaii did not have many design studio options. Many home buyers and builders were using design studios from the mainland. I also realized that many of the students that leave Hawaii to get a design degree did not have many places to come back to and find a job in the design industry.
My background in home and running companies prepared me to assist Avery in launching the design studio and the new home collection. Our mission with Averylily is to give Hawaii an international stage in the home collection and design world. We’ll showcase local artwork and craftsmanship and most importantly, establish a successful company that can employ the local population.
You’ve often partnered with other women in your entrepreneurial efforts; is that merely a coincidence or a purposeful strategy?
It’s a purposeful strategy to lift women up and empower them to create their own destiny. I enjoy mentorship and working with synergistic highly talented individuals. I also love manifesting new innovations where I see opportunities to use business as a force for good in the community.
Philanthropy has long been a priority for you. How have you incorporated giving back into your approach to entrepreneurship?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had some amazing financial successes in my career at Microsoft and Serena & Lily, which has afforded our family the ability to give to some very meaningful causes. At the present time, the 25% give back of every sale is built into GoodMvmt. At Averylily, we’ve designated 10% of our annual profits back to the community and our aim is to realize that goal by the end of 2024.
You’ve had so many successes in your career. Have you ever had any failures or challenges, and if so, how have you learned from them and rebounded?
I’ve had so many failures! I could write a 500-page book on all the challenges and failures. I think what makes an entrepreneur succeed instead is being a survivor — picking yourself up, brushing yourself off and continuing onward. Making businesses successful is very hard and takes perseverance more than anything else.
What are your professional and personal goals for the future?
- Build successful and respected companies that give back to Hawaii and our local community in a meaningful way.
- Mentor and nurture talent and leadership in my business innovations.
- Always treat people well along my path.
- Create meaningful impact with our nonprofit giving.
Any advice you can share for up-and-coming female entrepreneurs?
- Trust your gut.
- Use your gift of female leadership to be an enlightened effective leader and lead with your heart and soul.
- If you are a mom, be sure to employ someone who becomes part of your family to help with kids; it takes a village. Never forget to appreciate your partner.
- Don’t go out on your own and try to build something without adequate startup capital; that’s a recipe for burnout.
- Surround yourself with people who are better and smarter than you in the areas that you need to be successful, and be loyal to those people.
- Treat your employees, partners and customers with respect, transparency and integrity.
Lotus Abrams has covered everything from beauty to business to tech in her editorial career, but it might be writing about her native Bay Area that inspires her most. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Peninsula, where they enjoy spending time outdoors at the area’s many open spaces protected and preserved by her favorite local nonprofit, the Peninsula Open Space Trust.