“My mother says being successful in business is all about luck. I tell her, no, it’s about hard work.” Krystle Penza is disarming. She sits in her office, with her dog beside her, as we conduct this interview. Notes are pinned on the wall behind her, testament to the passion and drive required to build a business from the ground-up, a business whose growth shows no sign of stopping, despite the difficulties of the past 18 months, with the pandemic hitting the retail sector hard.
For Krystle knows a thing or two about sheer determination. Brought up in a single-parent family, the young entrepreneur never had things handed to her. “I come from a normal family, brought up by a single mother, and we barely had money to put food on the table. But my mother pushed me to get a good education, to stand on my own two feet and to figure out how to solve every issue.”
This formative experience was offset by the typical gender discrimination experienced – at times, surreptitiously, and at times not – by women on the island. “As women, we’re not typically brought up to be leaders. We are usually assigned the role of a shadow,” Krystle says, adding that, while this is changing, it’s essential for young girls to be able to look up to women as role models and see the change they can become, to see how their potential could be realised, because “if you haven’t seen it before, you cannot imagine it,” she says.
This was the philosophy behind the launch of Mvintage in 2012, precipitated by a life-changing event: the birth of her daughter, Francesca. “The company is all about female empowerment. And, my daughter was, and remains, my motivation for what I do,” she affirms, explaining how, after spending many years working in retail – starting her career working in the perfumes and fragrance industry before moving on to the watch and jewellery business – she decided to “move on” when she became pregnant.
“Over those years of experience, I developed a passion for branding, and I had recognised a niche in the market, in that there were retailers who specialised in high-end jewellery, or those who were on the lower-end of the market, but there was nothing much, locally, which was in-between: offering a good quality product, using expensive materials – so, no nickel, for instance – but also reasonably priced. So, I decided to try to open that door.”
She left with an initial plan, she explains, saying that the business evolved through trial and error. “On the back of every business plan, we would analyse the results and the performance of the company, and always improve, catering more to what customers want. I feel that, as a Maltese brand, we’re very much geared towards the Maltese customer, and we are always seeking feedback.”
However, those early years for the new mother and entrepreneur were tough. Krystle admits she “didn’t make money for the first six years”, which left her perpetually broke. “When I started, I was the salesperson, the accountant, the cleaner, the person responsible for operations and product development – I did absolutely everything,” she laughs, adding that, despite the hard work, it was an immensely invigorating period, particularly when it came to shaping the product line, which was inspired by local designs, iconography and colours.
“Since the beginning, our jewellery pieces have been inspired by everything around us. When we launched Munita, we got a good response. Now, it’s traditional to launch a Maltese collection every once in a while,” she explains. Krystle is, indeed, still heavily involved in product development – many of the other aspects of the business have now been delegated. “I manage the product development team myself; there’s a lot of passion for it, and a lot of heart and love in it,” she says.
Indeed, it’s that passion which has seen Mvintage move from strength to strength over the past nine years, from a small kiosk at Tigné Point, to five outlets, in Valletta, Paola, Gozo, the Mvintage Concept Store in Iklin – the company’s flagship outlet – as well as, today, an expanded Tigné kiosk. “We launched the business in July 2012,” Krystle recalls, “and, since my husband is very much involved in e-commerce, we tried and tested a digital shop first.
“Nowadays, many people starting off don’t need a store,” she says. Is this due to the pandemic, I ask? “Well, COVID has changed things substantially. However, on our end, we were always also working on our digital presence, so we were prepared both the first time, when the pandemic first hit, and, later, when stores had to close again. It was heart-breaking seeing all the stores closed [during COVID], since we love being on the shop floor and understanding what our customers want.”
That ‘we’ is peppered throughout our conversation for, as Krystle stresses, the key to Mvintage’s durability has been the team. “We’re like a family, and I’m so proud of the entire team. When COVID hit, we really saw staff stepping up, pulling up their sleeves and just getting on with things to make sure we kept going. We also all get on very well – I spend more time here than I do at home, so I’ve always felt that had to be important,” she continues, adding that the team is a tightknit community, always pushing each other to go above and beyond what they think could be achieved. “I think it’s essential not to remain passive, but to continue growing and challenging yourself,” she says.
Is it an all-female team? Krystle laughs and admits that, for many years, it was. “Up until a couple of years ago we were all women, and, when we employed the first man, I was a bit sceptical, but I’ve seen how healthy it is to have a mix of genders,” she explains, saying that the balance has been productive for the business and all the staff.
“The past two years have been very tough, but I have been lucky to have a solid team, and I’ve worked a lot on moulding the team. Handling human resources is still, in fact, a function I’m very much involved in, since it’s important to understand who your employees are, and to create that sense of community,” she affirms. Indeed, the team go to Pilates – “it’s quite funny when the boys join us since they’re not as flexible as we are,” Krystle laughs – and celebrate personal milestones together.
Investing time and energy in choosing the right people has paid Krystle in dividends: she is now able to leave many aspects of the company in her team’s capable hands, with last year being the first since the business was launched in which she was able to enjoy Mother’s Day and Christmas Day with her family. Today, Krystle – while still tied to her strong work ethic – makes sure to leave time for herself and her family.
“To retain a work-life balance, I have to be very disciplined with time management. My week is all organised. I don’t stop for chitchats – I don’t have time to – although I make sure to speak to the team every Monday morning and in the evenings,” she says, explaining how she never takes her laptop home with her, and stating her insistence that staff take their leave. “They need to rest, otherwise they cannot help me. I need them to be fresh. Then, when we need to work hard on a launch, for instance, I don’t need to tell them anything: everyone will be here early and will stay on as late as needed,” she says.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2021, Krystle stresses that her priority will be to keep developing the team. This must be a priority for all entrepreneurs, particularly those just starting out, she says. “No man (or woman) is an island, so build a good team which can help you and whom you’d like to have with you on this journey. Because this is a journey, and you must dream big; you must never be discouraged,” she smiles.
This interview originally appeared in the first edition of BusinessNow magazine.
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