The students taking part in Wharton Global Youth Program’s many summer programs are often aspiring innovators, if not already established entrepreneurs. When we got to know Cornellius Suhartono on Wharton’s campus in recent months, first during Leadership in the Business World in Philadelphia and later in the 2022 Essentials of Innovation program in San Francisco, we wanted to learn more about his fashion label Kine (@kinejkt). Turns out, Cornel is curious about many things, including the technologies fueling Web3. Before he flew home to Jakarta, Indonesia, Cornel sat down for a conversation about Kine, NFTs, a hard lesson about trusting adults in business, and some of his most memorable moments learning with Global Youth this summer.
An edited version of our conversation appears below. Be sure to click on the arrow above to listen to this month’s podcast.
Wharton Global Youth: Welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast featuring youth innovators from around the world. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
This summer, Wharton Global Youth has welcomed hundreds of high school students back to the Wharton School to participate in our dynamic business and finance programs. Today’s guest has had the unique experience of studying on both coasts with us in recent weeks, as a student in our Leadership in the Business World program on Wharton’s Philadelphia campus, as well as in our new Essentials of Innovation program on Wharton’s campus in San Francisco.
Cornellius “Cornel” Suhartono is a 17-year-old from Jakarta, Indonesia. He is going to dazzle us with details of his clothing line, the metaverse, his coast-to-coast adventures, and more.
Cornel, thank you for joining us on Future of the Business World!
Cornel Suhartono: Hi Ms. Drake. I’m happy to be here. I just finished my lecture with Professor [Tyler] Wry here in San Francisco, so I’m happy to talk.
Wharton Global Youth Program: You describe yourself as a young Indonesian fashion enthusiast. What captivates you about fashion?
Cornel: Something that I really like about fashion is that it’s a way for people to express themselves. I view fashion as an art. I think it’s an art you can wear, a statement piece you can express to your friends and family.
Wharton Global Youth: Tell me all about your clothing line, Kine? When did you start it? You say it is about helping teenagers become the best versions of themselves. What do you mean by that?
Cornel: Kine is a fashion line that I run and I’ve been working on it since late November 2020. We officially launch on the June 4. When I talk about helping teenagers become the best versions of themselves it’s because with Kine every collection is different. We don’t have a specific genre of fashion like other brands that are specific to streetwear or Y2K. For Kine, every single collection is always a different theme. It caters to not just a specific segment of teenagers, it’s for literally everyone. Even if you’re not a teen, a lot of my customers are 30 or 40-year-olds who want to embrace their versions of their youth with Kine.
I first started because I’m from an international school in Indonesia. International students weren’t proud [about] local Indonesian products. It was very rare to see Indonesians that come from international schools wearing local products. They think that if it’s a local Indonesian product that it’s probably fake or copying another brand. But that’s absolutely not true. People think that just because a product’s from Indonesia that the quality is bad. Little do they know that big fashion brands actually have manufacturers in Indonesia. So, when I first started Kine that was my mission. I wanted to get people in my school to wear my brand. It’s the first step for international students to wear Indonesian products. I took a lot of time designing and finally, now we’re here. A lot of people wear the brand in my school and now other brands are starting to follow. It’s a good trend to see.
Wharton Global Youth: How do you sell it? Do you sell it through Instagram? Online?
Cornel: Most of our sales are on Instagram. We also have a website. In Indonesia, most people love Instagram so most of our sales are from direct messages. We also had a pop-up in one of Indonesia’s most prominent fashion exhibitions called Urban Sneaker Society. I managed to get a booth there. We were the youngest brand to be there. All the other brands had been in business for four or five years, even decades. We were very happy to be the newest fashion brand in the exhibition and we actually sold out. We sold out of all of our stuff there.
Wharton Global Youth: You mentioned your affinity for art. Do you design your clothing?
Cornel: I love art. I love James Turrell and all the modern artists. I’m also a photographer. Something about me is that I can’t draw. I’m a really bad drawer. I can’t paint. I appreciate it, but I just can’t do it. I designed my first few designs in notability. It’s an app to take notes from lectures, but I use it to draw sketches. I have a lot of mood boards in my iPad, so I just sketch, sketch, sketch. They’re very, very bad. I outsource my designs to freelancers. I would have an idea and a draft for what I want in a specific piece and they would professionally finalize it digitally.
Wharton Global Youth: You are currently in California participating in Wharton Global Youth’s first ever Essentials of Innovation program on Wharton’s San Francisco campus. What have you been learning about innovation and how will you apply some of this new intel to your own entrepreneurial ventures?
Cornel: By the way, I love this program. It’s very fun and very different. You get to know a lot about the city, your peers, faculty. Two main points about innovation that are very valuable for everyone who is interested in business. The first thing is that Professor Wry said to not let your emotions go over your logic. [That resonates with me]. Even with my fashion brand, there were times when I would be too emotionally connected to a product or design. I remember that there was one sweater that I loved so much and I put so much effort in. It took eight months of manufacturing it because there were [trials and errors] and the process took so long. In my brain, I knew it was out of season and not the trend anymore, but because I was emotionally connected to it I wanted to sell it so badly. And I did sell it and not surprisingly we did not sell out. It was pretty hard to sell it. Now, we sold that piece. But back then it took so much effort and time. That was a great lesson I learned for myself and from Professor Wry. Don’t let your emotions go over your logic.
Second thing he mentioned was that people that are beginning to create their own startups should focus on their knowledge and expertise, or find people with knowledge and expertise. A lot of times people create a product and a business because they’re passionate about it, which is crucial. But what they sometimes overlook is knowledge and expertise. You need to have knowledge and expertise on the certain business you’re developing for it to succeed. Without that, it gets tricky and oftentimes it will fail. Professor Wry deeply explored that in class.
Wharton Global Youth: You also participated in our Leadership in the Business World program this summer on Philadelphia’s Wharton campus. What were your greatest takeaways about leadership?
Cornel: Yeah, I miss LBW. Our professor was Flavio [Serapiao]. For the entire three weeks, there was one thing that was very important, not just in business but in life. That one thing he always talks about is empathy. He explained that even in business, empathy is very crucial. And he also demonstrated research and evidence that with more empathy, shareholders will benefit from that. You will get more sales with empathy. Treat people [well]. Be nice. Especially in business and your team; you have to care for your employees, your team, your partners, your boss. Empathy is important and something you should focus on.
Wharton Global Youth: I’m a huge proponent of talking about emotional intelligence, as well as IQ. I’m glad you brought that up. I’m going to pivot here and go away from empathy and more toward the future of finance. I’ve heard you are an NFT enthusiast. Have you invested in one or more Non-fungible tokens? Tell us about that?
Cornel: Around the end of 2020, my uncle who was really into physical art sent me this article about NFTs. He was talking about it. I thought it was kind of stupid. Why would people invest in pictures when anyone could screenshot them? So, then that led me to deep research about the technology. It’s about blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. It’s very fun.
The first NFT I bought was this gif of a person swinging. Back then, the NFT craze was actual art. Not those profile pictures of those apes that you see on Twitter, but actual art but digitalized. I was focusing on that. I bought my first NFT, but the next week I lost my money from that. So, I guess it was a lesson for me. Then, I had a break because I [thought] NFTs were a scam.
Wharton Global Youth: Back up a minute. How did you end up losing your money in a week?
Cornel: I used my own money and it was $900. I thought it was such a steal because the NFT went for $1,000 the day before and I thought I was going to make so much money because I was buying it cheaper than the secondary market. Then I bought it and the next day it went to $980. Then I checked the price each day and it went down, down and down. I guess that connects to Professor Wry’s lesson to not get emotional. I learned to not get emotional over an NFT and just think logically. I learned the hard way that it’s better to lose a bit of money than a lot of money.
Wharton Global Youth: Did that turn you off of NFTs or did you get smarter about it?
Cornel: I took a break for about eight months and I saw a huge NFT craze of bored apes. I thought, ‘Oh my God. This again?’ When I first started my NFT journey, it was mainly digital pictures of actual art. This time it was profile pictures of apes and pixelated people. I thought it was interesting because it was all about marketing. I did a lot of research, especially because I was traumatized by my past NFTs. I started to purchase another NFT. What I learned is that NFTs don’t just give you value of money, it gave me a value of community. I got one NFT and then because I had knowledge on the field, I was able to access a broader community of NFT enthusiasts in Indonesia. I was able to connect with people. As time moved on, my friends in the NFT space started to make their own NFTs. I used to be able to purchase them before anyone else. That gave me a huge advantage. One of my friends, who is in his late 20s, made this NFT that a lot of people in this podcast might know. It’s called Karafuru. When he told me about it, I thought it was an amazing NFT. I talked to him and I invested in one before everyone else did. I purchased it for $200 or $300, then it went up to a spike of $15,000. I had a picture of an orangutan [bored apes] and you’re telling me that [this other NFT] is worth $15,000? I was shocked. Because I had that NFT, I was able to connect with other people in the community. My priority with NFTs now is not to buy and NFT and flip it to make money, but rather getting NFTs to create a network. Right now, NFTs are still in the early stage. I think it’s vital to use this as an advantage to connect with who I think might be the leaders of the NFT market in the future.
Wharton Global Youth: You are already involved in what has come to be called Web3. The broader vision for Web3 is that blockchains and digital assets like NFTs can create more open and decentralized foundations for online activity. What excites you about this new reality and the opportunities it provides?
Cornel: There are a lot of opportunities in the Web3 space. The problem is that when people think of Web3, they just think of those apes. It’s always the NFT apes. It’s way deeper than that. For example, I’m interested in the blockchain technology and the NFT technology. With NFTs and blockchain, you are able to transfer a certain amount of money in a matter of seconds. It’s way faster than a bank and it’s decentralized. There’s also this thing with royalties. NFT owners make money by selling the NFT to the secondary market. Each time that person resells that NFT, the [owner] gets a royalty. That’s what I’m interested in and it can be achieved with blockchain technology. It’s called a smart contract, where you can transfer money in a matter of seconds and you can split it into royalties in a matter of seconds. It’s very efficient.
Wharton Global Youth: What are your future plans for Kine?
Cornel: My future plans for Kine right now are that I’m trying to go national. Right now I’m focusing locally on just Indonesia, my hometown. We’re trying to expand to Southeast Asia, Singaporte, Malaysia and get the market there. And potentially we also want to expand in the U.S. because the culture here is that there are a lot of teenagers that are into fashion and exploring their sense of fashion. One of my priorities is to go worldwide and international.
The second thing with Kine is that I just wanted to be an example for other teenagers that, hey, age is just a number. Just because I was 16 or 15 when I started my line, it shows an example that people my age or even younger than me can make their own ventures and businesses. A lot of times I talk to people and they say they have an amazing idea, but they’re still in school and just 16. I don’t have time for that and I don’t think people will look up to me or respect me. I want Kine to be an example that it is possible for other teenagers to follow through with their passions and make ventures out of it.
Wharton Global Youth: What has been your biggest challenge with Kine?
Cornel: My biggest challenge was definitely finding adults that you could trust. When Kine first started, my first collection went so well and everything sold out. The quality was good. And then, [for my second collection] I had this one manufacturer in Jakarta. She was an adult. I talked to her and said, ‘Hey, I love your products. I want to make more.’ I ordered about $8,000 worth of products that I wanted to manufacture. She sent me a sample. It was perfect. I said, ‘Okay, let’s manufacture all of this.’ Then, when I received the finished products, every single piece had an error. The printing was not professionally done. The tags were everywhere. The quality control was so bad. Keep in mind that I paid a bit more money for them to do quality control. Even then, so very bad. Obviously, I couldn’t launch all these products. One thing I learned here was building trust with your manufacturers is something you should not overlook. At that time, I thought everyone was a professional in the business space. But in reality, not everyone is as professional as you may think. When I talked to the manufacturer [and asked her] if I could return [the clothes] and have her fix them, she said no. They can do that and they have the right to do that because I didn’t sign an agreement. That’s another lesson I learned. Make agreements with your partners before you do anything.
I was so sad. We broke even with our first collection, but considering the fact that I had to cover about $8,000 worth of goods that I could not sell, we went way back down [for our second collection]. Those two months I was really sad and did not know what to do. I even considered quitting. I thought about it and [realized] I had to make money back to break even or to get close to breaking even. I worked and worked. I didn’t plan to give up. That’s my thing, I’m never going to give up because I’m a competitive person. That’s when I reached out to Urban Sneaker Society, the fashion exhibition in Indonesia. I said, ‘Hey, I’m 16 but I can provide you products that are way better than your expectations.’ They gave me a shot. From that, I invested a bit more to make more goods. Obviously not as much as I had planned to do because I lost a lot of money from there. And thankfully, we sold out! We sold out in two days.
Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask all our guests on Future of the Business World is if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Cornel: People’s mindset would be one thing I’d want to change. The world would be much more efficient, better if everyone’s mindset is to be more what LBW taught me – to be empathetic. A lot of people overlook that. Everyone knows being nice is good, but they don’t take that seriously, especially in the business space.
Wharton Global Youth: Let’s wrap up with our lightning round:
One of the best new technologies to emerge during the pandemic?
Cornel: I still think the NFT and blockchain technology.
Wharton Global Youth: Something about Indonesia that you want everyone to know?
Cornel: Personally I think that Indonesia has the best food ever. We have thousands of islands in Indonesia. It’s an archipelago. So, each island has its own food. You can imagine how many different kinds of food they provide.
Wharton Global Youth: Your favorite Wharton San Francisco memory so far?
Cornel: Definitely visiting Salesforce Tower. It was really fun. We had the opportunity to go there, talk to the people who are part of Salesforce, and we even went to the top of the tower, which I believe is the tallest tower in San Francisco. We had an amazing view of the city.
Wharton Global Youth: Define entrepreneurship in five words or less?
Cornel: Making life easier and happier.
Wharton Global Youth: You are starting your own talk show. Who is your first guest and why?
Cornel: Definitely Robert Greene. Robert Greene is an author and if you haven’t read him, you definitely should. He’s amazing. He wrote The 48 Laws of Power and Laws of Human Nature. His books helped me throughout the different pathways in life, from relationships with family, friends and even in business. He’s very helpful and he inspired me. I would ask him what triggered his epiphany of tricks, which he wrote in his books. How did he come up with these tips and laws? To me, they are actual laws. They work every single time. I feel like he has the laws for life. [I would also ask him] something about his personal life. That’s something I’m always interested in.
Wharton Global Youth: Cornel, thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World. It’s been great getting to know you a little better.
Cornel: Thank you so much, Ms. Drake. I’m happy to be here.