From Artist To Entrepreneur, Devin Lay Grows Model Industry On UTC Campus

Devin Lay carried boxes upon boxes of high-end sneakers into Johnson Obear Apartments on campus during the first half of his freshman year at UTC.

An interior architecture and design major at the time, Mr. Lay worked round the clock on the shoes when he wasn’t in class, embellishing them with intricate and colorful hand-drawn art, characters, logos and monograms for clients who paid top- dollar for wearable art.

Mr. Lay started customizing sneakers as a high school sophomore in Memphis—selling both online and in-person—and was growing his fledgling business at UTC when his business coach (yes, he had a business coach as a college freshman) pointed something out .

He told Mr. Lay that his merchandise, while popular and expensive, wasn’t providing optimal return on investment.

Selling luxury sneakers was a good market to target—Mr. Lay could fetch $500 for a pair of his one-of-a-kinds—but the cost-per-hour on the artwork alone was preventing him from scaling, Mr. Lay said.

The advice clicked and Mr. Lay moved quickly and with meteoric success.

He changed majors, moved over to the Gary W. Rollins College of Business (where his business coach worked) and plugged in to its Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Mr. Lay gravitated to the center’s Hatch It! Lab and spent every moment outside class learning to operate the high-tech industrial sewing and embroidery machines.

That’s when and where his brand Since Birth took off, he said. He even got hired to work in the Hatch It! Lab, his first job since attending college.

He was making enough money to pay for school but took the job as an investment in his future, a way to further entrench himself in his new work and the ready-made network of students and faculty at UTC.

“You can learn anything on YouTube,” said Mr. Lay. “Technical things you can learn, the key to success is networking.”

Mr. Lay expanded his artistic vision and moved into making clothes, developing his “African Since Birth” niche line and marketing it with renewed zeal (“One Shirt, One Dream”) and a personal cultural connection. Plus, he said, “No matter what the market, people want something personalized. People like to show their individuality.”

Now only 20, Mr. Lay’s business college connections now include close, personal relationships with the dean of the college, the director of the college’s Joseph F. Decosimo Success Center and the director of the entrepreneurship center, all of whom are working to help Lay continue building his business while in school. He plans to graduate in 2024.

“They’re so accepting. The way I see it, they’ve always wanted me there. They’ll always find a way to help me,” he said. “They’re forward-thinking. There’s a ball of energy and they’re like, ‘Let’s create something else.’ Stagnate is not something you hear in the Rollins College of Business.”

Mr. Lay landed a major networking win this spring, about two years after switching majors to business management. That’s when he met Gary W. Rollins, the college’s namesake, at the swanky Read House hotel in downtown Chattanooga and earned the 2022 Collegiate Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award.

Mr. Lay had dinner with and shared the same stage as Rollins and Olan Mills Jr., both of whom accepted posthumous awards on behalf of their famously entrepreneurial fathers at the annual UTC Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame induction ceremony where Mr. Lay was also recognized.

Mr. Lay, too, said his father, Cornelius Lay, has been among his greatest influences and the one who instilled “an extraordinary work ethic” in him and his older brother, Kendall, from a young age. Kendall, now deceased, was an artist and inspired Mr. Lay to become one, too, he said.

Right now, Mr. Lay said he’s focusing on keeping his momentum going and has also started working with other artists and companies on branding projects.

“I make time for people,” he said, “because you never know what might happen, even if it’s a great conversation.”

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: