Column: The Imaginary Zebra

As the academic year nears its close, seniors will have difficult choices to make. Many of us in the humanities and arts, for instance, will have to weigh pursuing our passions in creative fields like painting, film, theater, or writing against the financial stability of a desk job or graduate school. Some days it can feel like an impossible choice that elicits constant anxiety. Instead of giving you generic advice about how to go about this decision (as if I know what the hell I’m talking about), advice that would be as insincere as it would be disingenuous, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Benson.

Benson Chou graduated from UC Davis in 2010 with a degree in managerial economics. This put him in an advantageous position to apply for a Master’s in Business Administration, to find a job in market analytics, personal finance or business management, to become an investor in commercial real estate or commodity futures, etc. With so many options, his decision to enter the work force seemed like a no-brainer.

But in 2006, when Benson was a first-year, his roommate signed him up for screen printing classes at the Craft Center. “I learned the techniques of screen printing, and I started using my spare time to pump out designs and put them on shirts,” he recalls. When his friends expressed interest in wearing his original designs, he started selling t-shirts through his Facebook account. “I didn’t sell too many, but it felt way more fulfilling than compiling codes in Kemper Hall. Yeah, I started as an electrical engineer.”

Soon Benson realized his sales could be a college job. “I had a tutoring job back in high school,” he told me. “It sucked. The work wasn’t innovative; I was essentially told to achieve another person’s favorite career path. My shirts were different. I felt like I could follow in the footsteps of people like Marc Ecko and Shepard Fairy who are living proof that it’s possible to pursue a career in one’s passion.”

It was at this point that Benson compiled his first “series” of shirts and branded his designs The Imaginary Zebra (TIZ). “Most see TIZ as a clothing brand where I push out series-based apparel whenever I come up with a handful of satisfied designs. Some see it as a bridge for collaborations, where passionate folks and I work on fun projects under the TIZ heading that have little to do with the clothing. Personally, I see it as a dream come true, a career that merges both my passion for design and interest in business.”

When Benson was still here at UC Davis, his designs became a staple of an emerging community. “When I go to my Asian American studies class,” said senior engineering student Trevor Freimanis, “there is always someone wearing one. You can pick out that zebra logo anywhere.” Benson told me that TIZ was never intended to be an Asian thing. “Most of my friends are Asian, and most of their friends are Asian, too. As we spread the TIZ name amongst our closest peers, it sort of just turned out that way. I’m still working on diversifying the brand and eliminating the cultural gap people may perceive.”

Cultural associations or not, Benson’s brand has become a huge success both here and abroad. “I have designed around 160 shirts and sold around 4,000 of them during my college career. I’ve sold shirts to Singapore, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Spain, Norway, Germany and France, and I have collaborated with more than 50 campus organizations at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Merced and various high schools to create unique shirt designs that fit their organizations. I’ve also worked with bands like Afterschoolspecial and businesses like Cups full of Cake in Ariz., Krizzy Cakes from Texas and UglieTV from Oakland.”

Benson graduated in 2010. With his degree in managerial economics in his pocket, he now operates The Imaginary Zebra full time. His brand’s website receives more than 10,000 unique hits per month, and he employs a sales rep in the Bay Area and five TIZ interns in Davis.

“Graduate school and looking for a job certainly crossed my mind. However, I had one little problem – my mind was on neither of those. I wanted to continue TIZ. To be successful in creative fields, you have to be prepared to multi-task and create exposure for yourself. I’m passionate about design, but design is not the only thing I have to do to run TIZ. I’ve had to market, manage a team, pack and ship products, and network exhaustively. The difficulty of creative fields can be daunting, but it can also be lots of fun. For many start ups, passion seems to be the most important ingredient, but to really be successful, it’s really about your execution of that passion.”

JOSH ROTTMAN encourages you to check out theimaginaryzebra.com and support a business that started right here at UC Davis. He can be reached at jjrottman@ucdavis.edu.

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