One Enterprising Lily
The biz whiz behind Serena & Lily on design, retail and her philanthropic venture, Boon Supply
Lily Kanter’s mom still brags that her daughter was the No. 1 Girl Scout cookie salesperson in her Kansas City troop. But that badge is only the first on a long list of achievements the 53-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist has earned.
Prior to co-founding the coastal-chic home brand Serena & Lily, Kanter held executive positions at IBM, Deloitte & Touche, and Microsoft in the late ’80s and ’90s, all before age 35. When she got pregnant with her first child in 2000, she pivoted into a market that allowed her to apply her newfound expertise as a mom: baby bedding and nursery decor.
A cover of the wildly successful Serena & Lily catalog
Yearning for nursery options with more sophistication than “your typical Pooh Bear and bunnies,” she opened an upscale baby boutique in her hometown of Mill Valley, California. “And that’s when I met Serena,” she says. Serena Dugan became the creative counterpart to Kanter’s business-savvy brains, and the two began their eponymous baby-bedding company in 2004. Serena & Lily has since expanded to classic furnishings, textiles and accessories for the whole home, with 11 national retail stores, as well as a thriving online marketplace.
Now, with her latest retail endeavor, Boon Supply, Kanter is fulfilling a lifelong dream of combining business with philanthropy. The online shop offers a variety of stylish, everyday goods—from reusable totes to kitchen tools to storage bins—and half of each purchase goes toward a charitable cause of the customer’s choice.
Tucker Counter Stools in White; $398 each, serenaandlily.com
Beyond Girl Scout cookies, what were the childhood signs you’d be an entrepreneur?
I had a roller rink in my basement, and I’d charge the neighborhood kids to come over and skate. I had a snack bar with candy and cookies and juice. And then in high school, I loved accounting. It completely made sense to me. It’s somehow in my blood.
How did you meet Serena?
She was a freelance designer and decorative painter, as well as a custom-textile designer. She dropped her portfolio off at my baby boutique because she heard I had a lot of high-end clients who were doing their nurseries and children’s rooms. I was literally giving birth to my second child the day she walked in, 15 years ago. I came into the store the next day to show the new baby to my employees, and my store manager handed me Serena’s portfolio. It was so gorgeous. I called her and said, “When are we going to meet?” And she was like, “Um, didn’t you have a baby yesterday?”
Carpinteria Pouf, $598, serenaandlily.com
When did you know Serena & Lily had made it?
A year after we started the company, we were shipping our baby bedding into about 400 independent specialty stores. And then we started getting some Hollywood nursery projects,
which put us on the map. Jennifer Garner got us a two-page article in People. And then we had Jessica Alba, Katie Holmes and Reese Witherspoon as clients. We became the nursery designers to the stars and thought, “Wow, we might just pull this off.”
Bodega Bay Wing Chair, natural rattan and tan leather cushion, $998, serenaandlily.com
Why did you transition from baby bedding into full-home furnishings?
A friend of mine in the shoe business said, “If you stay in baby bedding, you’re going to be known as the baby brand.” I remember his metaphor was: “Keds can’t sell adult shoes.” He put the idea in our head. So in 2007, we introduced kids-room twin bedding; by 2009, we entered the adult bedding market; and by 2011, we rounded out the assortment. The last four to five years is when we really started to hit our stride in the whole home.
Alsworth Pillow Cover, $58, serenaandlily.com
What's your style?
I’m a home-decor enthusiast. I’m not the designer for Serena & Lily, but I’m definitely the customer. So my style resonates with the brand—classic and timeless and new traditionalist, with a bit of coastal.
Planter Pouches, $25 for set of five, boonsupply.com
Tell us about Boon Supply.
The definition of “boon” is something that benefits or is beneficial. It’s a fundraising company that gives back 50 percent of our revenue to the cause of your choice. Everything we sell is essentials—from pencils and notebooks to waste-free lunch products, tote bags and home-storage goods.
Compost Bin, $28, boonsupply.com
What inspired you to mix philanthropy and business?
I love the idea of figuring out how to use capitalism as a force for good. I’m interested in many causes; I don’t think there’s ever a shortage of organizations in need. I felt like the entire fundraising industry needed a refresh. It was very old school—gift wrap, cookie dough. The merchandise fundraising space needed innovation, and we thought, “Why not have products that people actually really love and want?” The give-back is just the extra bonus.
Multi Pocket Zip Tote in Navy Plaid, $19, boonsupply.com
What is your hope for Boon Supply?
My hope is to give away $500 million a year through our platform, but I would love even to reach the day where we’re giving away $100 [million]. We have given away $11 million since we bought the company in May of last year, so we’re on our way.