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With multiple businesses under his belt, Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Adeel Shams has far exceeded his life plans.

Shams is thriving among the palm trees and sunny weather of Los Angeles with his own restaurants; CoolKicks, a buy, sell and trade sneaker shop; and a new app called MynaSwap, a platform for digitizing physical collectibles. But his entrepreneurial journey began in high school.

“I had gone to a yard sale and noticed a box full of used Jordans,” Shams said. “It was pretty cheap, it was like $20 or $30. I ended up buying a pair and took them home, cleaned them up and listed them on eBay.”

The used Jordans he listed sold fast, motivating him to continue buying and selling.

“The next day I went to the house again, and I knocked on the door,” Shams said. “I asked them if I could buy the rest of the Jordans. He ended up saying yes, and I did the same cycle again. I was like, ‘Oh, this could potentially be a business.’”

But rather than pursue business when he came to VCU, he settled for a pre-dental track.

“Being in a Muslim family or a Middle Eastern household, your parents always expect you to take the path of … some sort of specialty program,” Shams said. “Both of my older brothers were in the medical field. … I had a lot of pressure to follow in their footsteps.”

Yet his heart wasn’t in it.

“I felt like being in a room in people’s mouths for the rest of my life wasn’t my destiny,” Shams said. “I ended up changing my major to marketing. That was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

As an undergrad, he and his friends were very into fashion and streetwear.

“We all had our own small collections, but we always stood out when we were walking around on campus,” Shams said.

By the time he graduated from the VCU School of Business in 2014, “We ended up having so much of our own personal collection in our closets that we decided to open a buy, sell and trade sneaker shop,” Shams said.

That shop, Wavy Kickz, opened the same day classes started at Brandcenter, where Shams studied creative brand management. The shop was one of the few of its kind in the city, making it a popular spot for sneakerheads both on and off campus.

Shams graduated from Brandcenter in 2016 and relocated to Los Angeles soon after. Today, he runs CoolKicks with fellow VCU alumni Davon “Mook” Artis and Bereket “BK” Abraham.

The store is frequented by athletes, actors, comedians and rappers searching for the latest pair of sneakers, most of which is documented on their YouTube channel. These aren’t vlogs where customers just shop. They can be seen playing basketball near the registers or chatting in the stockroom by sneaker boxes stacked high toward the ceiling.

Shams sat down to discuss his beginnings and his latest pursuits.

After completing undergrad, you enrolled at the Brandcenter to study creative brand management. What drew you to the program?

Advertising is similar to marketing. It’s trying to figure out how to blow up a brand. … The reason I studied creative brand management was the way I view things. Any time I watch commercials and advertisements, I can always see how they’re targeting a certain demographic or the creative aspect behind it. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into doing an advertisement, either digitally or through social media or through traditional commercials. Having those types of insights, I just wanted to learn more.

Students are usually discouraged from holding a job while studying at Brandcenter because it’s such an intense program. Yet you opened your first sneaker shop, Wavy Kickz, here in Richmond the same day you started at Brandcenter. What was that like?

I just went with the flow. Those two years at the Brandcenter were probably two of the hardest years I’ve ever gone through. Undergrad, I flew through it. It wasn’t too difficult, but grad school was very intense. I remember the first day of orientation, they made a reference: “Imagine med school crammed into two years.” That’s really how it was. It was a lot of work, but I met great people that I still keep in touch with today. It’s the same thing with starting a business. You’re more likely to fail in starting a business than succeed. I’m glad I did both of those paths because I would not be the person I am today if I never made that decision back in 2014 – grad school and starting a business – because they both work hand in hand. I learned so much at the Brandcenter that I used to get to where I am a decade later.

The interior of CoolKicks. (Courtesy Adeel Shams)

What were some things that you learned during your time at Brandcenter that you continue to use today?

One was presentations. Being able to stand in front of people and have the right word choices and being able to communicate your ideas and concepts. Regarding CoolKicks and where we are today, our social media presence is massive. We have over 1.6 million YouTube subscribers. We have over a quarter of a billion views on our YouTube channel. We have hundreds of millions of impressions a month on our social media outlets. In order to create a brand, there’s so many different sectors – brand awareness, brand loyalty, targeting the right demographic, learning these types of insights. It helped me out when I was creating my own brand because I was using those insights.

After opening two stores in Virginia, you headed out to LA. What drew you there versus staying in Virginia or moving elsewhere to continue your business?

I felt like we had conquered Richmond enough to where I felt … we couldn’t grow anymore. The end decision was mainly due to weather and an opportunity to be around Hollywood and all the celebrities. We knew we could take our brands to the next level because our personalities would allow us to get in those rooms. Another reason we chose LA was because I was on the East Coast my entire life. I wanted to switch up the scenery, change up the weather.

CoolKicks is a brick-and-mortar store. What led to that decision versus selling online?

Typically, people try to have an online presence then work backwards into a brick-and-mortar. It’s harder to succeed in a brick-and-mortar because you’re reaching less of an audience versus a national audience. Physical infrastructure is very important in order to create a brand where people are able to actually meet you guys to try on new products. If we had not done that and just went strictly online, we would just be another website that sells the same product that everyone has. The reason people shop with CoolKicks is because of that experience. You never know who you’re going to run into. I might be in there. You might be in one of our social media videos. That experience is priceless.

Is there anything you’re going to be venturing into online?

Recently I just closed our seed round for my new startup that I’m launching, MynaSwap. It’s a buy, sell and trade marketplace where we’re turning physical collectibles and tokenizing them with a digital twin. You’ll be able to buy, sell and trade your items without having physical custody of the assets. Down the road, we’re offering collateralized loans. We’re giving people more utility. A lot of these sneaker collectors are the same collectors for watches or sports cards. Sometimes the owners don’t want the product in their house because the majority of them are using it for investment purposes. Imagine being able to just have it in a safe, secured facility where you can literally buy, sell and trade any second you want. A lot of these collectible items are like the stock market. The price for shoes goes up and down daily.

What else do you have going on? Where do you see yourself 10, 15 years from now?

I also own a Japanese restaurant. I’m opening up a Mexican cantina restaurant. Outside of that, I do a bunch of tech investments. I love investing in founders and startup people, so I’ve invested in a bunch of tech companies, social media companies and premium products like Lemon Perfect [hydrating lemon water] and Moon Ultra [a mobile lighting accessory]. Eventually I want to create my own fund and invest in people that were just like me, a minority that came out of nothing.

What advice would you give to VCU students wanting to enter the world of entrepreneurship?

I would never say it’s easy. Those individuals that are successful in becoming entrepreneurs, they took a risk. They’ve been denied. I’ve heard “no” so many times, but I never got discouraged by it. I took the risk. I kept going. The day you stop is the day that that road to entrepreneurship ends. It’s a roller coaster journey, but the other side of the mountain is going to be bright. Get out of your comfort zone. I was so comfortable in Virginia, but if I never moved cross country to L.A., I wouldn’t be where I am today. Sometimes you have to leave your friends and family behind to get to where you really want to be.

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